The first day of 2018 will be a “landmark moment” for a former gambling addict whose problems spiralled out of control and took him to some of the darkest mental places imaginable.
Antony Smith, 29, of Little Sutton, ran up debts of almost £36,000 over several years of betting – but since kicking his habit in 2015 and undergoing counselling, he has been getting his life back on track.
And on January 1, he is due to make the final repayment on a debt management plan which will mean he is finally in the clear financially.
Antony has explained how a health kick helped him when he turned his back on gambling, as taking up running gave him a far more healthy hobby to focus on. He has taken part in more than 20 organised runs over the past two years and has used the races to raise funds for the mental health charity, Mind.
The turnaround was triggered in January 2015 when – after years of heavy gambling – a bet on an obscure Mexican football match failed to come in, leaving Antony at “rock bottom” and without any way to pay off the creditors who were circling round him.
He said: “At that point, there was nowhere else to go.
“All the family had been pestered for years. They'd all said 'no more'. Every single bank, credit card, or payday loan company that I could get money from had given it to me and there was just nowhere left to go.
“It was a very scary period of time. I thought 'I don't know how I can ever fix this'.
“It seemed there was no way out. The initial thing I did was message all my family. I sent them a pretty deep text message that just said 'I've let you all down again, I've gone back on all my promises'.
“I had hit rock bottom. It was a big, massive turning point where I had to make a big decision.”
Antony, a web developer who works for 360 Systems Ltd in Ellesmere Port, had to go into work the next day and face his boss David Jolliffe to explain what a bad predicament he had got into.
A heart-to-heart between the pair ended with Antony being sent for counselling with gambling addiction charity GamCare and also signing up to a debt management plan.
“My family were always really supportive, in a helpful way. I'd always go to them and they'd bail me out,” said Antony, who was born in Chester and grew up in Bromborough and Eastham. “But my boss isn't as emotionally attached and he was much more stern with me.”
The repayment plan left Antony with about £100 of disposable income each month. Meanwhile, £900 was going towards paying off his debts which had rocketed to almost £36,000 by the time the Mexican football bet went wrong in January 2015.
Antony, who had been sporty at school but by his own admission fairly unfit since his university days, decided to get into better shape after quitting gambling, as it was a low-cost way of occupying his time.
He started by running home from work and was slow at first – clocking 12-minute miles – but signed up for his first organised race in October 2015. Since then, he has taken part in more than 20 including last year's Chester Half Marathon which he ran in aid of Mind, as his younger sister Keira, 27, has experienced issues with her own mental health.
“Because I had nothing else going on in my life, it stuck,” said Antony of his conversion to running. “I ended up running then because I was enjoying it. Something had stuck. I decided I quite liked it.”
Looking back on his descent into gambling addiction, Antony – who attended Mendell Primary School in Bromborough and Wirral Grammar – says everything started off innocently with a few bets with mates at school. But when he went to Liverpool John Moores University and got a job working part-time in a bookmakers, things become more serious and the stakes got higher and higher.
“I had an influx of money and it started me on a slippery slope,” said Antony. “I was getting a grant, bursary, a maintenance loan at start of the academic year while also at the same time working at a bookies and you see how people bet.”
Antony's problems only got worse after leaving uni and starting work, until that point in 2015 when he realised he could go no further.
“It was a dark, dark place,” he said. “I'd never been that far before. I'd always had somewhere to turn. That time, I didn't. From that day forward, not gambling has been really easy. Something flickered inside head.”
Antony, who has been a member of Ellesmere Port Running Club for a year, is now looking forward to paying off the final two installments of his repayment plan and feels it is fitting that the last one will go out on January 1.
“It's a new year and a new start for me,” he said. “As of the first of January 2018 I won't have any debt any more. It's a landmark moment.”
Antony is trying to run 1,000 miles this year in aid of Mind and donations can be made online HERE.
Further information about the work of GamCare can be found HERE.
See full story in the Chester Leader