Spend five minutes speaking with Jeffrey Beck, and you’ll know he’s in recovery.
“I’m 61 years old and have 78 years of recovery,” he said. “So I know about addiction.”
Those 78 years, Beck said, are the total number of years he’s spent in recovery after overcoming three different addictions; he’s spent 36 years cigarette-free, 24 years drug-free and 18 years gambling-free.
After recovering from all three of his addictions, the Lawrence resident has focused on dedicating his time to addiction and recovery services, many of which are based in Mercer County.
But on March 21, Beck stepped down from his position as Assistant Director of Clinical Services, Treatment and Research at the Council on Compulsive Gambling in New Jersey. He and his wife packed up their Lawrence home, and on March 23, Beck became a Maryland resident and began his new position as clinical director at the Maryland Center of Excellence on Problem Gambling, a division of the University of Maryland Medical School.
His new position, Beck said, will require him to coordinate all gambling efforts in the state of Maryland; he’ll oversee the process for gambling education, training, treatment and more. As casinos only opened in Maryland four years ago, Beck will be at the forefront of efforts to minimize the impact and harm of gambling addiction.
Beck describes himself as an extremist, unable to do things in moderation. And while that trait led him to excess in his addictions, Beck has, in much the same way, committed all of his efforts to his recovery.
“You’ve got to put the same effort into your recovery that you were putting into your addiction,” he said. “If you were willing to drive two hours to go to the casino, drive an hour if you have to and go see a counselor. We can’t make it easy. It’s hard work, but so is addiction.”
Keeping himself busy is an important part of Beck’s recovery. Up until his move to Maryland, Beck arrived in his office at the Council of Compulsive Gambling every day at 6 a.m. He and his wife attend music or theatrical shows five nights a week.
He would drive to a Gamblers Anonymous meeting in Paterson every Monday night, and drive to another GA meeting every Tuesday in Voorhees. Every Saturday, he drove to meet with his home group in Edison.
He’s also been involved in a host of other recovery and advocacy organizations. He served as vice president of the Association of Professionals Treating Problem Gambling and president of the American Compulsive Gambling Counselor Certification Board. He has also served as chair of the National Problem Gambling Awareness Month Campaign.
Some of his other work in New Jersey includes serving as a member of the Citizens Advisory Committee and Prevention Coalition of Mercer County. He also served as an advocacy leader with the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.
During the month of March, as people throughout the nation filled out their March Madness brackets, Beck’s primary focus was to remind people that March is Problem Gambling Awareness Month in New Jersey—and that for some people, an addiction can start with a seemingly simple trigger.
“I believe that some people are hardwired for addiction,” Beck said. “Until they have that first drink, they’ll never know they’re an alcoholic…It’s the same thing with a gambler. That first bet can get them going. It seems like it’s such a mundane little thing, like it’s not a big deal, but for some people it gets the juices flowing.”
Just talking about the issue is important, Beck said, because gambling is often seen as the “invisible stepchild” of addiction, often taking a backseat to drug and alcohol addiction.
And he can certainly speak to the different types of addiction, as he dealt with all three.
Beck first entered the world of addiction at age 15. From his teenage years on, he smoked marijuana and cigarettes, and during his law school years, also developed a cocaine habit.
At the same time, Beck had also been gambling, never even admitting to himself that his gambling was a problem.
In February 1979, Beck quit smoking cigarettes, using a five-week behavior modification program called Smokenders that helped him to change his habits and employ other behavioral tactics to slowly wean himself off the nicotine.
In 1991, Beck was forced to address his marijuana addiction. He had been smoking nearly every day for 22 years, in addition to 10 years indulging in a cocaine habit, when one night, one his way home from the race track, he was pulled over by a police officer. Beck had two joints on him, and the officer arrested him for possession.
That, Beck said, was his wake up call. He was working as a lawyer at the time, and he knew if he ran into trouble again, he wouldn’t be able to get away with it a second time. He attended an intensive outpatient program that was a combination of 12-step, group therapy, creative therapy and education that lasted more than a year.
Still, though, Beck continued to gamble. The gambling, Beck said, was the addiction that he was truly passionate about. He planned his life around his gambling: he chose friends with the same interests, chose his college based on its proximity to racetracks, and even planned his two annual vacations every year to Vegas and Saratoga. He might not attend a friend’s Halloween party, but he wouldn’t miss a chance to bet at a Super Bowl party.
“I felt that rush,” he said. “I felt that dopamine, the idea of getting something for nothing. Gambling is not about the money. It’s about the rush, the excitement, the mood, the feelings.”
In 1996, Beck sought a change from his work as an attorney and began exploring the possibility of counseling. As part of his certification process to become a drug and alcohol counselor, he attended the Recovery Assistance Training Program. One of the program requirements featured a six-hour lecture on compulsive gambling; as he sat listening to the presentation, he heard his own story being described.
After the lecture, Beck contacted the presenter, who offered to take him to a GA meeting. Two days before he attended the meeting, Beck made what would be his last bet, and has never made another bet since that day in January 1997.
GA, Beck said, saved his life, and addressing his gambling addiction forced him to address the changes he needed to make to himself.
“I have a new identity,” he said. “I’m not Jeff the addict anymore, I’m now Jeff the person in recovery.”
Recovery, he said, allowed him to find himself.
Now, as Beck likes to say, he has a lot of letters after his name. He went on to obtain a master’s in counseling and completed the necessary coursework for a doctorate in social work. He is a Licensed Professional Counselor, Certified Compulsive Gambling Counselor, Certified Anger Resolution Therapist and a Master Certified Twelve Step Consultant.
His own experience and willingness to share it has made him a valuable asset to many of the Mercer County-based organizations he served while living in Lawrence, and one that will be greatly missed.
Barbara Sprechman, Prevention Coalition Coordinator for the Prevention Coalition of Mercer County, first began working with Beck four years ago, and said the impact of Beck’s experiences helped bring additional insight to the issues the group wanted to address.
“Whenever he would speak in front of the coalition, I could see the impact he made on others, because he was so willing to share his personal story,” Sprechman said. “I think people really gravitate towards someone who tells a good story, and certainly when they’re speaking the truth it resonates with them. He was very impactful presenter.”
In addition to his presentations, Sprechman said, Beck was also willing to donate valuable time to the projects and cause of the coalition, including assembling fact sheets, compiling information and writing to legislators.
Aaron Kucharski, an advocacy trainer at the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence in New Jersey, said Beck’s willingness to share his story was one of the reasons he was so effective in his work as an advocacy leader.
“His story is obviously pretty compelling, where he has years and years of recovery time,” he said. “And a lot of stories focus on addiction, whereas he focuses on the recovery aspect.”
Kucharski also noted that Beck genuinely enjoyed the work he was doing, and though he was sad to see him go, was happy for him in his new position.
As for Beck, he hoped to continue to spread the word about gambling addiction, and encouraged those in need to seek out help.
“Our message is just to let people start talking about it,” he said.
For more information about gambling addiction and recovery services in New Jersey, go online to 800gambler.org or call 1-800-GAMBLER.