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A Muslim experience of gambling addiction

Lived experience of gambling addiction and reflection on the impact that religion the experience.
Where my current role stems from is from my own lived experience. So I ended up working at the Beacon Counselling Trust based on my own lived experience with gambling related harm. And I grew up in very, an orthodox community. My own personal friends circle and community was very conservative and I, I kind of gambled or engaged in that behaviour based on an escape, an escape. And at the time when I was engaging in that behaviour, I was, you know, I had memorised the Quran from memory.
So I knew acutely that I was doing something wrong, but I would be in and out of almost relapsing, you know, giving it up for long periods and then falling back into it even without realising what was triggering the actual relapse. And initially, in the community, people, I was doing it in secret. So as to my own knowledge, people weren’t aware. When I was married, my partner, family, weren’t aware that I was gambling. And it was definitely an escape. And as my role, I was in a quite a senior position within an Islamic school. And very quickly, as my addiction kind of progressed, I became very reckless in what I was doing becoming more desperate, becoming more, gambling more.
Maybe due to external factors you know, pressures, financial pressures, relationship issues. But I was using it as a comforter. You know in my mind, I convinced myself that I was, you know, gambling because to to solve a financial problem. Coming to learn through therapy, it was much more deeper than that. So that’s where I feel trauma, where I learnt about trauma, which was very useful. So then once I became very much involved in gambling, I became this person like a Jekyll-Hyde type of personality. Because on the one side, I wanted to be a really good Muslim.
And the job, my role involved, it was fundamental that I was in that role, which was promoting young people to be good citizens, role models, good Muslims. And I was in that environment by choice. But at the same time, I had this Addiction, which I didn’t really recognise it as an addiction at the time. It was just something I was involved in, a habit which I was unable to control, which I had a choice over, but I was lapsing, relapsing. And when people came to know of it, when I think about it, I think people didn’t really understand it, you know, they were shocked and they were astounded. You know, these are the words astounded, shocked.
And one of the person said, it’s, it’s frightening, you know, what’s happening with you. So my initial experience is people are very negative because I experienced a divorce through as a result of my gambling. So I was going through a very traumatic experience and I didn’t really have the space to talk to anybody about it. It was just about like, are you gambling? Have you stopped? Yes. No. There wasn’t really a deeply conversation about, are you okay? You know, you know about my own mental struggles. So it was all, when you’re growing up seen to be doing the right thing.
So I was in the family, You could say I was the person who, you know, people would say, he’s okay, you know, he’s all right. He’s a good kid. And I always wanted to be that person who never disrespected parents or, you know, if I couldn’t do anything positive, I wouldn’t do anything negative to my parents. So I grew up with that. So I was unable to really have someone asking about my own mental health, even though I was experiencing isolation, depression or whatever it was. So then my gambling addiction descended into chaos really because I resorted to very risky behaviour. So people were judging me.
So I had students who were aware of my gambling and it became public knowledge in the community that I was, you know, gambling. Because I, I resorted to risky behaviour by also occupying those gambling spaces, which I never used to do, I was doing it in to do in secret. So when it became in the open, I started to attempt, but in secret as far as I knew, nobody knew I was attending those places. But then once somebody took a picture of me in there and circulated it. So what I you know, somebody people say that, what did you experience? How many how much money did you lose?
I said I would have lost much more than money because I think within the community, there’s a strong emphasis on reputation. And I felt I’d built up a good reputation. I was involved in community work, going to retreats, and I felt very harshly judged by my gambling. You know, I needed help. I never cried out for help. I think my actions were cries for help. So there was a lot of missed opportunities, talking with people. So, for example, when my marriage broke down, one of my family friends, my father’s friend he came forward. He said, you’re a gambling addict, aren’t you? And I denied it because the way the message was delivered, obviously I was going to deny it.
Nobody wants to be called an addict, especially when they don’t even recognise what’s happening to them. And I think that I didn’t even have the knowledge that gambling could be so addictive and how it changes your brain, you know, the neural pathways. And I think that was quite striking when I come to think about all the opportunities that people could have had. And because what happened and I think it’s quite common in mental health that people from minority communities generally ask for help when they reach a crisis point.
And I did reach my crisis point because I either would have been homeless or in jail in prison, because once you run out of money, you start thinking, how can I, how can I access money? So I think as a Muslim, how was my experience of addiction distinct from everybody else? I think I experienced an overwhelming amount of shame based on my experience that I couldn’t even go into the area where I lived for a few years. I avoided roads, streets, I avoided my local mosque, because when you know sometimes I think somebody’s looking at me too long. You know, and I felt, why are they looking at me?
You know, there was this self-stigma also there which I was attaching, you know, being overly harsh. And in that whole journey, nobody, until I reached a crisis point, said, Have you considered talking to your GP? Have you considered therapy? You know, and because I just thought you need to pray more, you need to go out , you know, retreat, go for a retreat, And when I did stop, you know, I kind of after my divorce, I stopped for a while, but I did relapse because I was burnt out from my job. And it was all through my own willpower that I was doing. But I think the biggest failing was that our community doesn’t understand addiction.
There’s actually a lack of safe space, especially for those who have low self-esteem, who aren’t really sociable. You know, where are they supposed to get help if they don’t come to the mosque? Where are they supposed to go? So I think why I engaged in this work was because as we know that people in the journey of addiction will have thoughts, suicidal thoughts, ideation, and I think there’s also stigma around that. So you’re not allowed to think about that. Thoughts will come. I think there’s a safe space that needs to be there where people can talk about that. I really feel like I don’t want to be here today and I wish I wasn’t here.
Whereas in our families, in our communities, if we said well, I wish I was dead, astagfirullah [I seek forgiveness in God], you know, how dare you say that? We’re not allowed to say that. It’s that word of not allowed, you know, where you feel claustrophobic you know. And the first time I went to Gamblers Anonymous, because I had to go there. I was dressed in a thobe, an abaya, you know, I had the mosque cap on, I had a beard and I walked into this room. There were not one Muslim person, not one person of colour. And I was terrified of going in there. I sat down. But what I did experience from those rooms, and that space, was empathy.
And that’s something along my journey, 00:09:56.796 –> 00:10:00.566 I can’t recount feeling empathy from my community.
And I think that’s really, that’s a tragedy because the Quran is full of empathy. Allah himself describes himself as the merciful. Each surah, you know, start with in the name of God, the merciful, you know? So I felt, what’s missing? So then that’s the you could say the inspiration and motivation to kind of work in the addiction area, is to be compassionate with those who are suffering because addiction doesn’t define me. And that’s what I felt that I was, you know, gambler, you’re a drug addict. You know, these are labels that people hold on to. You know, and I think there’s a lack of empathy in that.

In this video, Suhayl shares his lived experience of gambling addiction with Asma and reflects on the impact that religion had on his experience.

Suhayl shared his knowledge and experience of mental health problems in Weeks 1 and 2 of the course. As a reminder, he is a mental health practitioner, working for the mental health charity Beacon Counselling Trust which is based in the North West of England. Suhayl uses his lived experience of addiction to develop culturally appropriate mental health promotion and interventions for ethnic minority communities.

Suhayl talks about his experience of addiction. As a teacher at an Islamic school and hafiz (someone who has memorised the Quran) Suhayl was, and is today, a respected and authoritative member of the Muslim community. His position in the community had an impact on his experience of stigma and shame. He talks about being a ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ figure when he was trying to mask his addiction.

Suhayl talks about a lack of understanding of addiction as a mental health problem in his local community. He feels that his actions were a cry for help but that they were not recognised as such, which led to missed opportunities for people to offer him much-needed support.

Based on his own experience, Suhayl thinks that it is the stigma and shame associated with mental health problems, and addiction in particular, that makes Muslim experiences of mental health distinctive. There is a lack of ‘space spaces’ for Muslims to talk about their mental health problems in Muslim families and communities.

Suhayl shares his experiences of attending Gamblers Anonymous. While he felt different in that space because of his Muslim identity and appearance, he felt empathy for his experience of addiction that he had not found in the Muslim community. Suhayl recalls verses from the Quran that emphasise the mercy and Compassion of God and says that it is this aspect of Islam that motivates him in his work.


Suhayl has spoken to ‘The Mindful Muslim Podcast’ about his experiences of gambling addiction, where you can listen to the specific episode: The Mindful Muslim Podcast 26 – Gambling addiction, escapism in the landscape of Islam.

You can also watch a video called ‘Breaking the Sharam (shame) with Gambling Harm’, produced by Beacon Counselling Trust and voiced by Suhayl.

Gamblers Anonymous website

Over to you

What aspects of ‘being Muslim’, the contextual and religious factors that have been discussed throughout the course, can you identity in Suhayl’s lived experience?

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Understanding Mental Health in Muslim Communities

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