Despite steering clear of the allure of the pokies machines that almost took everything from her for 15 years, Lynda still considers herself to be a gambler.
This Gambling Harm Awareness Week the Victorian Central Highlands resident shared her story in an effort to raise awareness of how devastating gambling can be to individuals and families and to give hope to those in the throes of an addiction that help is available.
But with data from the Victorian Commission for Gambling and Liquor Regulation revealing players have lost more than $33,531,696 on electronic gaming machines in the City of Ballarat so far this year, she thinks more help programs are required to help people overcome gambling addictions.
Lynda Genser is almost 80 years old. She is a productive part of a community she loves and lives her life enveloped by supportive friends and family. But for over a decade she had a secret that almost destroyed her - she was addicted to gambling at the pokies.
Ms Genser was exposed to gambling at a young age when her dad taught her how to play cards. Though it was always for money, it was something her family would do together and she continued to play with friends as she grew older. But she did not find it addictive.
After migrating to Australia 54 years ago, she, her husband and children would take holidays to New South Wales and it was there she first played the pokies machines.
"I was very happy we didn't have them in Victoria as I started to realise right away that they could become addictive," she explained.
Ms Genser clearly recalls when the machines arrived in Victoria in 1992. Living in Melbourne at the time, she was out with some friends and enjoyed dinner and a night at the theatre when one friend proposed the idea to visit a venue to try out the new machines.
She remembers putting five cents in and the rush she felt when she won $100 - from that moment she was "hooked".
The adrenaline of a win became addictive and it quickly became a habit she funded with her business.
As the years passed, a marriage breakdown and the associated heartbreak fuelled her gambling - the amount she played at the pokies increased and it became all-consuming.
I would get up at 5am, if I went to bed at all the night before, then go as soon as the pokies opened at 6 or 7am. I went all over, anywhere. Then I would be at work on time, work from 9am to 5pm, and then be back at the pokies until closing.Lynda Genser
"I would get up at 5am, if I went to bed at all the night before, then go as soon as the pokies opened at 6 or 7am. I went all over, anywhere.
"Then I would be at work on time, work from 9am to 5pm, and then be back at the pokies until closing."
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Living on her own at the time, it was a way to pass the time and she said not many people knew about her addiction. Her children were aware gambling was a problem for her, but Ms Genser became more secretive to hide the true extent of her addiction.
"I felt as though I was nobody and had nothing and nobody to talk to," she said.
"My children would have understood and helped me to stop but shame stopped me. Instead of talking to them at the beginning I waited until I was too far down the rabbit hole."
Around this time she was appointed an executive director of a charity, though her salary was not enough to fund her gambling as well as paying for rent and other living expenses.
Starting off "borrowing" small amounts of cash from the charity, it escalated to her adding hundreds or thousands of dollars to cheques for office supplies or other business transactions and pocketing the difference.
In less than a year she embezzled $84,000 from the charity.
"I was someone who had always been very honest and conscientious but became someone I didn't know," she said.
I was someone who had always been very honest and conscientious but became someone I didn't knowLynda Genser
She recalls feeling intense anxiety and dislike for herself at this time, though also terrified she would be caught.
"You feel like everybody is looking at you and can see you're really not a good person," she said.
It got to the point of feeling so much guilt, embarrassment and shame that she planned her suicide.
On the day she planned to take her life, a surprise visit from her son stopped her in her tracks and she broke down and confided what she had done.
Her son sat with her and held her hand as she called her colleagues, including her best friend, to tell them about what she had done.
"I have not spoken to them since. I lost a lot of friends. Some have stuck by me, but not many."
That day she also called the police, prompting a case to be built against her. While she was later charged and faced court, she was extraordinarily lucky in receiving a suspended sentence and good behaviour bond.
But even after being exposed, losing her job and most of her friends she was still not able to stop gambling.
At this point she gambled with the money she received through her pension, and had nothing left to live on.
"I didn't seem to be able to control myself at all. I couldn't pay my rent. I did without food, I did without cigarettes - I did without a lot".
But it wasn't for lack of trying to stop. She tried many times over the years, with her children and young grandchildren as an incentive.
During her years spent at the pokies, Ms Genser would spend days at a time amid the hypnotising lights and music and lost tens of thousands of dollars.
Often playing with her entire salary for the week, it was when she would win a little bit back on the last few cents that would encourage her to take more chances. She described the pull towards the pokies as "like a drug".
One night her car broke down near a pokies venue as she was driving home from babysitting. Yet instead of going inside to call a taxi, she sat in front of the machines until she spent the $20 in her pocket and then walked more than three-kilometres home in the dark.
Ms Genser sought help a few times during her journey, including through Gambler's Help.
"When I was having counselling one-one-one with a counsellor I was fine, until I would be moved into group therapy."
She said the group would describe their wins and losses and it would trigger her desire to gamble. She sporadically attended counselling sessions for several years as a result of this.
When her youngest grandchild was born in 2006 she was given an ultimatum: that she could only be part of his life if she gave up gambling.
It was that day that she quit on the spot, with the realisation that she could either continue gambling or lose her family.
She celebrated being free from gambling for 15 years last month.
Ms Genser moved to the Ballarat region about eight years ago and is a proud member of the community.
It is a place she loves "very much" and tries to help others in the community through her roles as a lived experience member with both the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation and the All-In project to raise awareness of gambling harm in Ballarat.
She hopes that sharing her story helps to break down the stigma around gambling and how hard it is for people to stop, with the only real solution being to be able to talk to somebody, but that life can be better afterwards.
"If I could ask for one thing to disappear in this world it is hatred. The most important thing is to be kind because you never know what someone else is going through. You're not in their shoes.
"I was very good at putting on a smile and doing everything I could but at the same time I was in the throes of something that I hope doesn't happen to anybody else."
She is a strong advocate for projects such as 'Libraries After Dark' at the Sebastopol Library and wants to see more projects like it to give gamblers an alternative place to go.
She also wants other people to know there is help available if struggling to fight a gambling addiction.
About six years ago she started experiencing terrifying nightmares about gambling and decided to seek help again, through Child and Family Services Ballarat (Cafs).
"I won't gamble again, I know that, but the nightmares were so horrendous.
"The stress was almost as bad as the gambling, if not worse in some cases. I would wake up shaking with my heart beating too fast and couldn't go back to sleep. Then I would be tired all day."
Ms Genser said her counsellors there were "absolutely marvellous" and she still talks to them regularly - sometimes each week, sometimes each month, depending on what is going on in her life.
Calling on community
This Gambling Harm Awareness Week, which runs from October 18-24, Cafs is calling on the community to help break down the stigma associated with gambling addiction.
With stigma resulting in many people feeling too embarrassed to reach out for help, this week is the ideal time to spark a conversation about the impact of gambling and find ways to support people experiencing harm as a result of their own or someone else's gambling behaviour.
Cafs' Gambler's Help Community Engagement Officer, John Bradshaw, said people who experienced gambling harm were not only stigmatised by community attitudes but by their own negative thoughts.
"Low self-esteem and feelings of failure are magnified and perpetuated through societal judgements about character flaws that are inaccurately assigned to the person who experiences gambling harm, and the language used to describe them.
Low self-esteem and feelings of failure are magnified and perpetuated through societal judgements about character flaws that are inaccurately assigned to the person who experiences gambling harm, and the language used to describe them.John Bradshaw
"Overcoming this stigma is critical to recovery."
It comes as a new series of videos, created by the VRGF, explain how gambling affects brain function.
"The videos cover why some people become addicted to gambling - for example, products like pokies and roulette are designed to trick a person's brain so that they feel like they're winning even when they're not," Mr Bradshaw said.
The videos, available on the Gamblers Help website, also provide information about how an addiction can be reversed.
"The good news is that it is never too late to retrain the brain, which changes constantly as we learn and take in new experiences," he added.
The Ballarat community is encouraged to join Cafs and Ballarat North Neighbourhood House for a social afternoon on Tuesday, October 19. Register through the BNNH Facebook page.
If you or someone you know is in need of crisis support, phone Lifeline 13 11 14. Anyone negatively affected by their own or someone else's gambling is encouraged to call Cafs on 1800 692 237 or the 24/7 Gambler's Helpline on 1800 858 858 for free, confidential advice, support and referral.