by Lisa Clausen
Every Friday, Lyn sits down to ring people she has never met but whose struggles she understands deeply.
For 10 years, the grandmother and retired nurse has been a volunteer for Peer Connection, a telephone support program run by Banyule Community Health that’s free to anyone in Victoria affected by gambling harm.
When Lyn calls her “regulars” each week, she’s there to chat or just to listen.
‘We might have a five-minute check-in or it might be a half-hour conversation,’ she says. ‘I’m just there to support them in whatever they want to achieve.’
Some are eager to celebrate a week without a punt; others need to talk about relapses and temptations. Some simply need an encouraging reminder that they’re making progress.
The voice of experience
Lyn and her clients only know each other’s first name, but the bond is a deep one.
‘It’s like they’re in a muddy swamp. We don’t go down into the swamp. We’re up on the bank holding their hand and they might climb up out of the swamp or just hold our hand,’ says Lyn. ‘We’re there to walk beside them.’
‘I’m often tempted but this call keeps me on the right road.’ – Peer Connection client
Lyn’s own gambling began after her husband died suddenly. In grief and shock, she retired from her busy career and then found herself lonely and with little to do.
When a friend arranged lunch at a pokies venue, Lyn was unimpressed. ‘I thought it was the most boring thing I had ever done,’ she says of her first pokies experience.
But she was drawn back and before long was pouring money into the machines.
Like many people experiencing gambling harm, Lyn kept her gambling secret from friends and family. It was 2008 when she realised it was spiralling out of control and she walked away from the pokies for good. By then she’d lost more than $15,000 to the machines.
Gaining insight and solace
Peer Connection coordinator Rachel Paterson says the insight and solace that people with lived experience like Lyn can offer to people who experience gambling harm can be life changing.
‘One of the greatest strengths of this program is that it really offers people a sense of hope,’ says Rachel. ‘They have often hit rock bottom when they come to us and can’t see how they’ll get out of it. To have someone say to them, “I’ve been there. I know what it’s like but I managed to find my way out,” – that’s just so valuable.’
I’ve been crying all day but you’ve made me laugh.’ – Peer Connection client
Rachel says people experiencing gambling harm often suffer intense shame and isolation and are enormously relieved to know they’re not alone.
‘Our volunteers are a friendly voice who understand what they’re going through at a deeply personal level,’ she says. ‘For many people, Peer Connection has been a really significant part of their recovery.’
The volunteers work within a professional structure in a mainstream healthcare setting, receiving formal training and then ongoing supervision and support.
Listening without judgement
Lyn says she always listens to people’s stories without any judgement.
‘After all,’ she says, ‘how could I judge anyone when I did it myself – when I used to feed $50 notes into machines like they were just bits of paper?’
With its team of trained volunteers who range in age from 30 to nearly 80, Peer Connection has helped people of all ages and backgrounds since it began 15 years ago.
It’s also available to those affected by a loved one’s gambling.
‘Without talking to you, I’d be stuck in my head.’ – Peer Connection client
With its powerful lived experience perspective, Rachel is encouraging more counsellors to suggest the program to their clients as a “different piece of the jigsaw puzzle” of their recovery.
‘It’s really important that Peer Connection is offered to clients so they can have that choice,’ she says. ‘It can be valuable at any point in a person’s recovery and works well alongside other support services like counselling. We’d love to help more people.’
For Lyn, the weekly calls she’s made for the past decade mean that what she learnt from her own painful years of gambling is being put to good use.
‘People say things to me like, “I just wait for your voice every week,” and that brings tears to my eyes.’