HUNTINGTON - It was a joke on her college field hockey team that Lesa Densmore liked to play bingo.
On the weekends, that's where you would find her. At one point, she was playing bingo up to three times a day.
It was just the beginning of her gambling addiction.
"Eventually, I needed more," Densmore told Marshall University student-athletes Monday evening. "My bingo got boring. You could only play so many cards. You could only win so much money. It wasn't doing it for me anymore. It also happens to people with alcohol and drugs."
Densmore, now 10 years into recovery for her addiction, came to Marshall to share her experience to try and prevent what happened to her from happening to other athletes, who are more prone to problem gambling than other less competitive people.
In the United States, 1 in 50 people have a gambling addiction but college students are even more prone with 1 in 25 students having a problem. Statistically, at least one person listening to Densmore on Monday is currently struggling with problem gambling.
With sports betting now legal in West Virginia, student-athletes have a bigger burden than ever before. The Marshall Athletic Department must protect them from gamblers who may try to influence the game, but the university, Densmore and First Choice Services, which runs the gambling addiction hotline in West Virginia and brought Densmore to Marshall, also want to help protect them from problem gambling. Though student-athletes are prohibited from gambling on sports by the NCAA, Densmore said gambling is still more prevalent today than ever.
"This expansion in gambling ultimately going to lead to more problems," Densmore said. "It's so early right now, we just have to do what we can do to give as much information about this as we can."
Densmore said she showed signs of gambling addiction as a child. She loved to play penny poker and was most excited for scratch-off tickets in her Christmas stocking. As soon as she turned 16 and could legally play bingo, she did.
"Many people don't realize bingo is gambling but it is," she said.
After her sports career wrapped up upon graduating college, Densmore said she then used gambling to fill the void.
"Addiction is emotional cancer," Densmore said. "People that develop addiction typically have some sort of emotional dagger or daggers to the heart from childhood wounds, adulthood wounds things that hurt. It's not physical stuff. When you guys get a physical injury, you are on it But we don't tend to take care of those emotional injuries and as athletes we carry a load on our shoulders. We tend to be leaders. Champions don't quit. Suck it up. That doesn't mean we don't have things going on in our lives that we should be addressing emotionally."
At 25, she entered a casino for the first time and was hooked. She began arranging her schedule so she could gamble. She became a VIP.
Then, after an emotional breakup, she lost any control she had. Her life revolved around gambling. She stole from clients, eventually lost her business and her home. She lived in a tent for half a year and would sleep in casino parking lots in her car. She self-excluded from casinos but would go in disguise so she could bet more.
It took a failed suicide attempt, she said, for her to realize she needed help and at 37 she entered a residential treatment program.
Densmore said her advice is to not gamble in the first place, but if the athletes choose to, to watch themselves closely and ask for help if they think a problem has developed. She added those with family histories of addiction are much more likely to have problems.
First Choice Services' hotline, 1-800-GAMBLER and 1800Gambler.net, can connect those in need of help with a local counselor. First Choice pays for the first session, and if insurance won't cover more or it is too expensive, up to 20 sessions a year.
Follow reporter Taylor Stuck on Twitter and Facebook @TaylorStuckHD.
Signs of a gambling addiction
If you have any of the symptoms below, you may have a gambling problem. If you have five or more, odds are you are addicted:
N You've tried unsuccessfully to cut back or quit
N After losing money, you return as soon as possible to get even.
N You lie to family members or friends about your gambling.
N You need to bet more and more money each time you gamble.
N Gambling helps you escape your problems.
N Others have provided you with a bailout.
N You think about gambling often.
N Gambling has jeopardized relationships/opportunities
N You feel restless or irritable when you quit