- Associated Press - Sunday, April 10, 2016

MCMINNVILLE, Ore. (AP) - Meth busts rarely make national news.

But when Alex Rudine was arrested for manufacturing and selling the drug two years ago in McMinnville, the police report noted he was a former chemistry instructor at Mount Hood Community College, leading papers across the country to run stories comparing him to Walter White, the fictional high school chemistry teacher-turned meth dealer from the television series “Breaking Bad.”

Such notoriety, extending all the way to The Washington Post, only deepened the shame he already felt, the Yamhill Valley News-Register reported (https://bit.ly/208aI5c).

The 39-year-old had been turning to meth to escape his problems. Burned there, he next turned to another addiction for escape - gambling.

“It was a struggle,” Rudine said. “I had quite a lot of things going wrong in my life. Nothing was working out.

“I was in AA, but I never really did the 12 steps. I didn’t have the tools when things got hard again.”

Carolyn Simeone, who runs the Yamhill County Health Department’s problem gambling program, is now trying to equip Rudine with some of those tools.

“This is not a 12-step program,” Simeone said. What she and fellow mental health specialist Brandy Lyday try to do, she said, is show gambling addicts of the fallacy behind their “magical thinking.”

“They live in what we call the fantasy world where all their problems will be solved with that one big win,” Simeone said. But she noted it either never happens or produces a payoff that is quickly spent.

Rudine said he doesn’t quite fit that profile.

“I’m a little different from a lot of gambling addicts in that I also have a long history of meth addiction,” he said. “The two things are kind of related.

“I made lots of money from selling drugs, then blew it all on video poker. I didn’t really like where I was getting the money.”

He said, “For a lot of guys, it’s about getting a big win. For me, it was always an escape and a form of self-punishment.”

But Rudine agrees he was living in a fantasy world. In his delusional state, he thought he could escape one addiction with another, which he now realizes isn’t possible.

He once considered himself a workaholic. “When I stopped being able to get my job done, I didn’t have that crutch to fall back on,” he said.

Rudine said he had a hardscrabble childhood.

Lyday said that’s not uncommon for gambling addicts. They tend to be survivors of some sort of trauma.

They often stumble from crisis to crisis, she said.

They decide a big score is all they need to bounce back from the latest such crisis. All they have to do is figure out a way to outwit a machine.

“Gambling can warp your mind so much that you feel you are this unique and special person with a unique and special power to break the system,” Lyday said. “Of course, that’s not logical at all. Machines are really totally random.”

Poker players and casino gamblers play against other people, introducing human factors capable of influencing outcomes. A nervous twitch or other “tell” can alert a card sharp to what an opponent may be holding.

But most gambling addicts play video poker, slot machines or other mechanical devices, Simeone said. The machines are cold and lifeless, she said, and the odds are always stacked dramatically against players.

“They will say things like, ‘I know this machine is ready to pay out,’” she said, which is patently impossible.

Faced with a losing streak, one slot player “actually thought the casino was out to get her,” Simeone said.

Casinos are, indeed, out to get people, she said, but there is nothing personal about it. They are on the lookout for suckers, and are happy to ply them with freebies.

“The more people gamble, the more ‘comps’ they get,” she noted.

Problem gambling has traditionally been viewed as a moral weakness, Simeone said. But it is increasingly considered a disease, much like drug and alcohol addiction. Viewed as disease, she said, some gambling addicts’ delusions can be viewed with a greater degree of understanding and compassion.

“When people gamble, they often lose their frontal cortex’s ability to reason and think critically,” Simeone said. “This provides a fertile ground for problem gambling.”

That doesn’t mean that gambling addicts should not be held accountable. Failure to hold them accountable only exacerbates the problem, she said.

“Gamblers don’t want to be held accountable,” she said. “They gather people around them who will pay their gambling debts.”

Rudine said he has what might once have been termed an “addictive personality.”

But Lyday is uncomfortable with that terminology, calling it “kind of old school.” She said, “Addictions don’t really discriminate as to who gets addicted.”

Lyday said it’s hard to avoid gambling in modern society. “There’s a video gambling machine practically on every corner,” she said.

Senior citizens are particularly vulnerable, according to Simeone.

They are often bored and sometimes desperate for money. Knowing that, she said, casinos offer to bus them directly to the door.

“Gambling releases a stimulant in the brain that is sometimes hard to get elsewhere,” Simeone said. “Seniors are susceptible to that feeling of energy.

“It’s a physical experience. The brain charges up for that big win.”

Retired couples can slip into it gradually, she said.

“They gamble together for fun, but then one becomes addicted,” she said. “It becomes a hobby, a lifestyle, for them.”

Seniors must be treated carefully, Simeone said. They deserve the dignity of their years and should not be regarded as children.

“We try to respond to seniors within that hierarchy of respect,” she said. “We too often see seniors as naive and innocent. ‘Oh, Grandma would never do that. She’s so sweet.’ The reality can be quite different.”

Simeone stressed she is not opposed to gambling per se.

“Gambling is fun,” she said. “It’s entertaining. People think, ‘I’ve worked hard all week. I’ve earned it.’ Maybe they have, but the point is to gamble responsibly.

“Go with a set amount of money and never gamble more than you can afford to lose. Most of the time, it’s about harm reduction, not abstinence.”

Gambling was never fun for him, Rudine said. It was always an addiction. Even though bitter experience taught him the odds were stacked against him, it never discouraged him.

“The first time I was gambling, I was 5,” he said. “I bet my brother I could jump from a parking strip to an adjacent lawn. I didn’t make it. All I got was some bruises.”

He started seriously gambling when he was 19. Between 19 to 22, years spent as a street kid, he was a hard-core addict.

Then he quit for 14 years. He married and began working toward a Ph.D. in chemistry at Portland State University.

Before his life fell apart, the McMinnville High grad got a part-time teaching job at Mount Hood Community College.

Rudine was sitting on his porch in Portland when he was placed under arrest in October, 2014. He had $1,500 in his pocket and 16 grams of meth in a wristband at the time.

He could never keep that kind of money for long, he said. He would lose it playing machines as fast as he made it selling meth.

“I could literally blow $1,000 in a couple of hours,” he said.

Rudine never had to worry about breaking his losing streak with a big win. He never had one.

“I could put $20 in and occasionally get $40 out,” he said, “but I’d go through it quickly. I never won more than $600 at a time.”

Rudine said he’s steered clear of all his addictions for a full year now. “Things are going pretty well, but I’ve lost a lot,” he said.

He used to see his children three nights a week. Now, he sees his son every weekend and his daughter every other weekend.

“Addiction has affected a lot,” Rudine said. “You have to rebuild trust with your family.

“I miss my children on a daily basis. You can love your family and love your children until the cows come home, but addiction is a very powerful situation.”

It always will be, he noted.

“That underlying addiction problem is always there,” he said. “Addiction is one of those things waiting for the right moment to pop back up.”

There is no minimizing the collateral damage that addiction wreaks on a family, Lyday said. Families are devastated by addicts gambling away their financial support, she said.

Gamblers also try to hide their losses, making the situation much worse when it comes to light. “When the family does find out, it’s absolutely devastating,” she said.

Simeone said, “It can be especially devastating when you are the spouse of an addicted gambler, because, obviously, when you’re married, you’re tied together. The other person’s losses are your losses. The other person’s credit is your credit.”

A third of the gamblers she sees come in due to an ultimatum from a spouse or other family member, Simeone said. The others are either gamblers admitting they have a problem or people trying to deal with a loved one’s addiction.

There is one common denominator. “They feel like they’re in a corner,” Simeone said, “and they are.”

Rudine knows that feeling.

“I’ve been there, throwing my entire mortgage payment into a video poker machine while my kids were waiting for me,” he said. “I would only get to see them every other weekend, but I was just plugged into that machine.”

However, programs like the one Yamhill County provides do offer hope, he said.

“Gambling addiction, at least, is an addiction that can be cured,” he said. “I’d like to help spread the word that help is available.”

Rudine said one of the worst things about his situation is contemplating all the lost opportunities.

When he taught at Mount Hood Community College, his students gave him a rating of 4.1 on a 5-point scale, and he scored a perfect 5 for helpfulness.

“Very good teacher,” wrote one student on the popular Rate My Professor site. “He is passionate about this subject and it shows. He is always willing to help and re-explain things.”

Wrote another, “Alex is a goofball. He has a great sense of humor, shows great passion in the subject and encourages students to meet with him. He is relatively new to teaching, but he is hard on himself and grows from his mistakes.”

Rudine said he can only hope he is growing from his mistakes, especially his really major mistakes.

He can’t help being haunted by guilt, he said. “It’s hard to look at the past and think, ‘This is where I could have been.’”


Information from: Yamhill Valley News-Register, https://www.newsregister.com

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