Gambling Addiction Spreading to Women

April 1, 2006 — -- Ten years ago, Donna Zaharevitz was a successful sales executive and an active public figure in the Hartford, Conn., suburb of Windsor Locks. She and her husband had been married for 36 years, with four children and several grandchildren. She describes them as "the Beaver Cleaver family."

But winning $27,000 from a slot machine changed all that. She got hooked on gambling, and her habit led to losses in the tens of thousands of dollars.

Shows like "Celebrity Poker" feature well-known actresses scoring big, but when former model Janet Jones, the wife of Hockey Hall of Famer Wayne Gretsky, lost tens of thousands of dollars betting on sports, it made headlines across the country.

"It was just a fun thing to do and you'd win a little bit and then lose a little bit and then all of the sudden I was going to the casino more and more," she said. "You just chase after the losses."

Women who gamble heavily are still a new phenomenon. But according to recent research, women are fast surpassing men as casino customers and make up a growing number of problem gamblers.

At one point, Zaharevitz began to steal checks from a friend she had known for 30 years. Things got so desperate that she contemplated suicide.

"Life wasn't worth living anymore," she said. "I was tired of the lies. I was tired of being deceitful. It was a pretty tough place to be."

Zaharevitz, who has now recovered from her gambling addiction, counsels other gambling addicts. Now divorced, she also works on trying to rebuild the broken relationships with her children.

"Women are by far the fastest at-risk group of problem gamblers, and it's eye-opening to me to see it's you, it's me, it's your neighbor," said Barbara Proto of the Connecticut State Lottery.

There are even gambling Web sites now that cater to women, but women don't have to go online to gamble -- they can gamble at work. This weekend's Final Four NCAA championships highlights the appetite for gambling in this country. The office pool is a spring ritual. But it's also one way a woman can get hooked on gambling.

"Office pools are a great way of entry into gambling for women," said Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council of Problem Gambling. "So perhaps the woman at the office who enters the pool has no knowledge of gambling whatsoever winds up winning the pool and a couple of hundred dollars. That could be the start of some very unrealistic expectations about gambling."

Zaharevitz still remembers how great her $27,000 win felt.

"All these lights went off and they counted all this money out and I saw all of it going through this machine," she said. "I never, never would have thought I could have won this kind of money."

But she can also vividly recall the dark throes of addiction.

"All of the sudden you're in this dark hole and you don't know how to get out it," she said. "You don't know where to turn."