A recovering compulsive gambler who ended up homeless with her young children after winning £127,000 playing poker is urging other women to seek help.
Lisa Walker, from Rainham in Essex, won the jackpot at a casino in Southend 20 years ago.
But what should have changed her life forever ended up fuelling her gambling until it became an uncontrollable addiction.
In all, she lost half a million pounds.
“My mortgage was £65,000 at the time,” she said.
“I should have paid that off but I didn’t because my gambling escalated.
“I’d drop the children off at school and I’d be going straight into the bookmakers as soon as it opened and writing out bets.”
Ms Walker, who first started betting for pennies as an eight-year-old, playing three card brag with her father, said: “I’d be going to the bingo halls at 12 o’clock during the day to play on the fruit machines.”
The 49-year-old re-mortgaged her home and eventually lost it, ending up homeless with her children, then aged 10 and 11.
“I got rehoused but I still continued to gamble because every single day – that’s all I could think about morning, noon and night.”
A new campaign by GambleAware aims to raise awareness of the signs that a person’s gambling is getting out of control.
It also highlights where people can get help.
Research has revealed that up to a million women are at risk of harm due to gambling and the number gambling online has risen by 54% over the past four years, compared to a 28% increase for men.
But two in every five women suffering high levels of harm may not be getting help due to stigma or shame.
Four years ago, not long after spending her wedding night gambling in a Las Vegas casino, Ms Walker decided she needed to take action and went to her first Gamblers Anonymous meeting.
She was one of just two women in a room of nearly 40 people.
“I remember looking around the room thinking there’s all these men, and I told my story and I said: ‘I need help’ and they gave me all the help I needed.”
She hasn’t gambled since and is now a peer support worker about to set up a women’s support group with the charity BetKnowMore.
“What I’m trying to do is to raise awareness and to make women feel like they can come out, and that it’s safe for them to talk about it,” she said.
Zoe Osmond, chief executive of GambleAware, said part of the problem is that it can be hard to tell when a person’s gambling is getting out of hand.
She said: “A lot of them see what they’re doing as quite an innocent social fun activity and we need to make sure that they’re aware of managing the amount of time they spend on it, the amount of money, and make sure that they don’t hide their gambling from others.”
Many adverts about betting are directed at women and Ms Walker said it doesn’t help that online gambling means “you’ve got a 24-hour casino on your phone”.
She added: “There’s so much pressure on women now, you know, with jobs and children and what with COVID and mental health, and I just think women have been sitting indoors gambling.
“And I think also a lot of women don’t want to come out. They don’t want to admit that they’ve got a gambling problem because they feel ashamed.”
But Ms Walker is proof a new start is possible.
“I was that woman,” she said. “I was homeless. I had nothing. And I’ve changed my life around completely.”
Mrs Walker married four years ago and lives with husband, Gary, in Rainham with their dog. Her children, who she continued to bring up despite the gambling, are now grown up, aged 25 and 26.
She’s now working as a support worker.