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LEARNING TO BE LIKE HUCK FINN
The psychiatric institution in which suspended Baltimore Colt Quarterback Art Schlichter is being treated for compulsive gambling. South Oaks Hospital in Amityville, N.Y., was founded in 1882 but didn't begin dealing with people who suffer from Schlichter's affliction until a year ago. It wasn't until 1980, in fact, that the American Psychiatric Association classified compulsive gambling as a mental disorder. Despite this belated recognition, there's no question among authorities today that pathological gambling is both a serious illness and a major social problem.
The psychiatrist responsible for referring Schlichter to South Oaks, Dr. Robert L. Custer, chief of treatment services and mental health for the Veterans Administration in Washington, D.C., is a pioneer in the diagnosis and treatment of compulsive gambling. Custer's research indicates that most problem gamblers become involved in betting before the age of 21, that they may have initial gambling successes that give them an almost magical sense of omnipotence and that the condition is more common among men than women. In past statements on the subject, Custer has provided a composite description of compulsive gamblers that sounds strikingly similar to a profile of Schlichter.
Noting that many of his patients were "highly competitive, bright, energetic guys" who nevertheless had low self-esteem, Custer said that they were inclined to use gambling "to show off." Once they began losing, "they tried to chase that money, and eventually they reached the point where they needed financial assistance to get them out of a situation that would ruin their reputations or cost them their jobs or their freedom. We found that once somebody paid off the bill for them, then they were really hooked, and they would start gambling even more heavily, because that was like having another big win."
Custer said that putting down bets gave compulsive gamblers the same rush drug addicts might receive from a stimulant, a tranquilizer and a pain-killer rolled into one, adding, "Nobody's invented a drug that effective." Underscoring the similarities between the two types of addiction, Custer and other authorities say that compulsive gamblers are subject to withdrawal symptoms similar to those experienced by drug addicts, including sweating, nausea and the "shakes." The experts further say that the two addictions are often difficult to tell apart and that some people suffer from both.
South Oaks is a 280-bed facility with long experience in treating alcoholics and drug addicts. The privately owned hospital, which charges patients $310 a day plus doctors' fees that run another $40 or so, occupies a cluster of white-brick buildings on attractive, well-shaded grounds on Long Island. The hospital has admitted its share of celebrities (among them: entertainer Donald O'Connor, who was treated for alcoholism), and Robert Cahill, director of patient services, says that the staff goes to considerable lengths to treat them like anybody else. "We try to separate their celebrity status," Cahill told SI's Brooks Clark last week. "Some of them can try to use that status to resist treatment."
Patients in South Oaks' compulsive gambling program typically spend four weeks or more in the hospital, after which they undergo out-patient treatment and attend Gamblers Anonymous meetings. Upon admission they quit gambling cold turkey, receive medication if necessary—the doctors refer to these steps in the process as "detoxification," the same term used for drug or alcohol abusers—and go through an orientation regimen that includes films and lectures detailing the nature of their illness and dealing with such topics as "How to Sabotage your Treatment." They subsequently undergo group and individual therapy and are encouraged to maintain a log in which they discuss their illness.
South Oaks' patients aren't allowed to play cards, which the doctors consider to be a gambling "tool," and they can watch television only in a central room, from 9 to 11 p.m. Thus, while Schlichter may have caught some of the NBA playoffs, he presumably missed the Preakness. Patients are allowed to make calls from a public phone, and Dr. Richard Zoppa, the medical director of the compulsive gambling program, concedes that they could call bookies. "They might then come to us and say, 'I had a slip,' " Zoppa says. "We'll say, 'Let's talk about it, what happened?' " The hospital tries to provide patients with neither too little activity nor too much. "Gamblers get bored easily," says Zoppa. "They need to be constantly stimulated. But we don't like to keep them too busy because that's what they do [with their gambling]. We want them to learn a little boredom, because that's real life. They have to relax. They have to learn to be like Huck Finn and watch the river flow by."
THE VARSITY DRAG
The NCAA Men's Basketball Rules Committee has decided to reduce the number of time-outs each team can take during televised games from five to three. The purpose is to speed up play at the end of games. Coaches tend to hoard their allotted time-outs for the final moments of play, and because extra official time-outs are allocated for commercials, the action at the end of televised games can be painfully drawn out.