Published Thursday, April 12, 2012 | 5:51 p.m.
Updated Friday, April 13, 2012 | 1:54 p.m.
Paula Chung hit rock bottom when she lost her last nickel to a slot machine and became homeless.
She tried to kill herself with a knife, but it was too dull to do the job.
That may have been the luckiest thing to happen to her on May 24, 1996 — the last day she ever gambled.
Chung and her daughter, an actress who was a high school senior during her mother’s darkest days of gambling addiction, were speakers Thursday on the first day of the two-day Nevada State Conference on Problem Gambling.
About 75 clinicians and counselors from gambling addiction treatment facilities from across the state are attending the conference.
Chung and her daughter, Jacquie Dunlop, delivered the riveting story of their journey through addiction and recovery, identifying coping strategies and survival tactics and illustrating why entire families need treatment for gambling addiction even when only one person is sitting in front of a slot machine or at a blackjack table.
“I was really scared and embarrassed about this crazy person who had taken over my mom’s body and was not really my mom,” Dunlop said of her mother.
“I was totally out of my personality when I started gambling,” said Chung, who said she was trying to win money so that she could put her daughter through college.
Dunlop said that for the longest time, she never knew her mother had a gambling problem. She knew about addiction because her father and stepfather were alcoholics. But when her mother brought her and her brother to Las Vegas for weekends from their San Diego home, she just had fun and enjoyed getting away.
“We would just run around and play in the arcade,” she said. “It never occurred to me that gambling was an issue.”
When her mother remarried and the family moved to Reno, she never saw the amount of time her mother spent in the casino, but she was a little surprised when cases and cases of soft drinks began piling up in the house. It turned out the cases of Pepsi were casino giveaways to players hitting four of a kind on video poker — and Chung must have hit a bunch of them.
Because her stepfather’s alcoholism was such a visible problem, Dunlop never suspected her mother had a gambling addiction, even when she would drop a few quarters in slot machines at supermarkets and convenience stores.
Some of the first indications of trouble occurred during Dunlop’s junior year in high school when her mother didn’t show up for work one day. Then, one morning, her mother began pacing in her bedroom, complaining that bugs were crawling all over her. Chung asked to be taken to a hospital to be treated for a mental problem.
“She treated it like a weeklong vacation to get it together,” Dunlop said of the October 1995 admittance.
In December, she was readmitted. In the next month, Dunlop got a phone call that her brother had been arrested and was in jail.
“I lost my whole family within a short period of time,” she said. “I was just 16 years old.”
The day that Dunlop confronted her mother in front of a slot machine in a Reno casino was a turning point.
“She was surprised and angry when I found her,” she said, adding that Chung cursed at her and told her to leave. “That was the moment I knew she wasn’t coming with me.”
But the happy ending for Chung and Dunlop was that the mother was shocked into receiving treatment at a mental health facility after her failed suicide attempt, and the daughter graduated from high school and went to college in St. Louis.
Chung remarried and began her recovery, while Dunlop worked her way through school, once holding three jobs at one time. Dunlop enhanced her performance skills by working for awhile as a stand-up comedian. Eventually, she reconciled with her mother and now recognizes that being in recovery is a key part of her life.
But fallout remains. Dunlop is still bitter about never getting credit from her mother for being a responsible child. She says she still has a hard time spending money after seeing her mother squander so much of it.
“I could have had parties, gotten drunk and had sex when my mother was in rehab or wasn’t around,” she said.