The following story is true. However, names have been changed to protect the anonymity of the people involved. This is the first in an occasional series on addiction in Ventura County.

Greg Walton struggled to keep his eyes open as he drove out of Orange County, back toward his home in Thousand Oaks. It was the day after Christmas 2002, and Walton was $43,000 in debt, under threat of criminal prosecution and, in all likelihood, facing another divorce. For a few weeks, he thought he was off the hook, as if he had been granted a divine reprieve. Then his phone rang, and it all came rushing back.

One month earlier, Walton had been in Las Vegas. He went there often. So often, in fact, that he got comped rooms at the Stardust and even had his own casino host, a sort of personal concierge to take care of him whenever he was in town. For this trip, the host scored him tickets to see the Rolling Stones. It was a perfect opportunity for Walton to show his family how much of a big shot he was out there.

Not that he needed any extra incentive to go to Vegas. Over the last two decades, during his three or four visits per year, Walton had gambled away about $1 million, almost all at the roulette tables. Normally, it didn’t matter how much he lost on a given stay. As an independent contractor making close to six figures, he could usually out-earn his losses, at least enough to justify another weekend on the Strip.

This time, the circumstances were different. He had just lost his job and had no prospects for getting another one. Still, when he arrived at the Golden Nugget the Friday after Thanksgiving, with his wife and his mother and his sister and her boyfriend along with him, Walton went straight for the wheel. By Saturday, he was down $36,000. And by the time they returned to California on Sunday, he was bankrupt.

He couldn’t tell his wife what he had done. He never could tell her, or anyone, how much of a hold gambling had on him. Up to that point, he never really had to. He always managed to pull himself out of the financial hole before anybody noticed. Now he was in too deep. He kept writing checks while in Vegas, believing, half-heartedly, that he could win his money back and deposit it into his bank account before the checks cleared so everything would be ok. But when he pulled into his driveway that Sunday, all Walton had was the debilitating pressure of 20 years of denial finally catching up to him.

Nothing happened for almost a month. In the back of his mind, Walton thought God was giving him a second chance. On Christmas Eve, however, the bank called. If he couldn’t pay off his debts immediately after the holiday, they told him, they would take him to court, and he would almost certainly go to jail.

Two days later, Walton woke up early. He wrote a note to his wife, then got in his car and left for Anaheim, hoping to convince a friend to loan him some money. When he got there, though, his friend wasn’t home. He sat outside the house for four hours trying to reach him. Eventually he got him on the phone: He was at Disneyland with his kids. Walton acted as if he just wanted to say hello. He got back into his car, mentally and physically exhausted, and headed back to Ventura County.

As he fought to stay awake, Walton knew he should pull over and rest. Then a thought flashed in his mind: Why don’t I just fall asleep right here on the freeway? he asked himself. I’m worth more dead right now than I am alive. I’ve made such a mess, how terrible would it be to just end it all now?

Walton was never sure what drew him to the roulette table that first time, but he thought it may have been the suit. He never had a chance to wear one growing up. Now he was in Las Vegas, 24 years old and dressed like a high roller. He, his wife and their two friends had gone to a comedy show, so Walton put on the nicest outfit he could pull together: multicolored tweed sport coat, black slacks and shoes, white dress shirt and no tie.

It was Walton’s third time in Vegas. Before, he only played the slots, and without much enthusiasm. Drop a coin in, pull the lever, win a little, lose a little, go to dinner. But as a young man looking the part of an adult for the first time in his life, Walton figured he should finally play an adult game. Cards intimidated him. Craps wasn’t his thing. That left roulette. It made sense: He had always felt it was a setup to bet against the house in blackjack or poker. They would never allow a player to come out ahead. With roulette, the outcome is left entirely to chance. The odds would still not be in his favor, but in a strange way, Walton felt he could control where that ball landed on that wheel.

He seated himself at the table, surrounded by anonymous faces, all older than he. The dealer explained the betting options: you could place an outside bet on either black or red and win as much as you wager, or you could go directly to the numbers, where the odds of winning are less but the payout is much more.

Why do I need to waste my time on these even-money bets? Walton thought. The real money is in playing those numbers.

He pulled a dollar chip from his jacket pocket. A number jumped out at him: 32. He had no idea why. He put the chip down, not knowing exactly what he was doing. The dealer spun the wheel. The ball bounced around for a few seconds, then settled into a slot: 32. A $36 win.

When Walton left the table two hours later, he came away with a couple of hundred more dollars than he sat down with. There was a buzz in the car the next day as he and his wife and their friends drove home, that maybe next time he would win even more.

Walton did not become a gambling addict at that instant. But the door had been kicked open. It was ironic: Given his genes, he seemed predisposed to becoming an alcoholic. His father was, and so were all his aunts and uncles and one of his grandfathers. Walton was never a big drinker; he could count the number of times he had been drunk in his life on one hand. But he still inherited his relatives’ compulsive behavior — it just manifested itself in different ways.

Walton was born in Wisconsin, but he didn’t spend much time there. During his childhood, he didn’t spend much time anywhere. His dad was a journeyman laborer, changing jobs at the rate most people change the oil in their car, forcing his family to live a nomadic existence. Walton went to 11 elementary schools in five different states, usually entering in the middle of the year. As a result, he developed a near-crippling shyness that lasted into his teens. Even after his family settled in West Los Angeles, Walton was a loner.

Walton moved out and got married at 18. At 21, his son was born. And at 22, he went to Las Vegas for the first time since reaching legal gambling age.

Back then, the shows interested Walton far more than the casinos. His saw his wife as the one who exhibited the traits of a compulsive gambler: refusing to leave the slot machine to go to dinner, borrowing money to keep playing, always thinking it was on the verge of giving up a jackpot. On that third trip, however, Walton felt she was strangely subdued. It was almost as if he had absorbed his wife’s obsession.

After a few years, Walton’s excursions to Vegas grew more and more frequent. He met a guy who would go there and meet up with his old college buddies every four months, and Walton soon started tagging along. In the back of his mind, Walton thought that if he just played intelligently, parlayed his bets and made the right moves, he could get rich, buy a summer home for his mom and never have to work again. It was a delusion that kept him throwing down chips all night. Sometimes he’d come away from the trips in the black, sometimes in the red, but no matter what, as they sped northward on Interstate 15, Walton would always be planning the next trip in his head.

Walton and his first wife divorced in 1984. A year later, he remarried. His second wife knew he enjoyed gambling when they met, but she never regarded it as a problem, even when he snuck off to play $25-a-hand blackjack on their wedding night. On vacations Walton would be the last person in the cruise ship casino and when they went to Vegas together, they would barely see each other. She saw it as his hobby, a reward for his hard work. At least, that’s what she told him.

Of course, Walton didn’t think he had problem, either. One time in Las Vegas, a man who was clearly down and out, stumbled into the Stardust at two in the morning. Walton watched him as he entered. He sat down next to Walton at the roulette table.

“Hey, man,” he said, “can you lend me $50? I’m waiting on a comp check.” In the pre-ATM days, a comp check was a way for gamblers to receive more cash against their credit cards.

Walton shook his head. He saw the guy come in. He knew he hadn’t gone to the comp check machine. The guy was trying to con him, just to be able to gamble more. What a degenerate, Walton thought.

Years later, Walton found himself in Vegas again, in a hotel room, out of money and staring at a barstool. He was between contracts and had a limited amount of funds. He had already maxed out his markers, which is essentially an IOU to the casino allowing gamblers to continue playing on credit. He needed more cash. How can I hurt myself such that the casino would pay me off not to file a lawsuit against them? he thought.

He looked more closely at the barstool. He noticed there were a series of screws connecting the legs to the seat. He could go to a local K-Mart, buy a screwdriver and loosen the screws. He was 40 pounds overweight at time; all he’d have to do then was sit on the stool and allow it to collapse underneath him. The hotel would have to give him money to keep him from suing. Then he could go to another casino and continue gambling.

In that moment of contemplation, Walton came to a realization: He was just like that guy at the Stardust. He was the degenerate now, willing to cheat and lie just to keep gambling. He was addicted. And he couldn’t stop.

The thought of falling asleep at the wheel continued to ring in Walton’s head as he drove closer to Thousand Oaks. The life insurance would pay off his debts and provide for his wife. He’d never have to worry about money again. It certainly sounded better than the second option: go home; get divorced; go to prison. His eyes shut a little bit more.

But he couldn’t do it. He pulled off into a residential area, slept for 30 minutes, then started driving again.

When he arrived at his house, he wife talked to him about what they were going to do about the money he owed, not divorce or his gambling problem. As it turned out, Walton had a good enough relationship with his bank from his years as an independent contractor to dissuade them from prosecuting him. The case was moved to the corporate office, which put him on a payment plan. He picked up a new job and gradually chipped away at the debt.

But Walton was still a compulsive gambler. And that was a problem he wasn’t quite sure how to solve. He knew his father had gone to Alcoholics Anonymous, so he assumed there must be something similar for his affliction. He looked up Gamblers Anonymous online and found a meeting in Ventura.

On Dec. 29, 2002, Walton and his wife walked into a small room with nine other people. When they sat down, a man turned to him.

“I probably know you better than she knows you,” he said.

Walton found the comment a bit odd. He had always thought of himself as someone who figured out things on his own and who never let anyone know who he really was. How could this complete stranger say that he knew him at all, let alone better than his wife?

It proved to be true. Walton’s wife left him two months later. But he stayed with the program. He learned to open up, to look people in the eye and talk about emotions and experiences he would otherwise have kept vaulted inside. He is now a trustee for Gamblers Anonymous, answering phones and sponsoring new members who walk through the door. He has a girlfriend, whom he has lived with in Thousand Oaks for two years. And he hasn’t placed a bet in four years.

Walton hasn’t been back to Las Vegas since entering the program. He has no plans ever to ever go back. He does, however, go on cruises with his girlfriend, whom he has lived with in Thousand Oaks for two years. He’ll check to see if there’s a casino on the ship, so he’ll know where to avoid. Once, they stepped off an elevator and found themselves standing right in front of one. For Walton, the scene was all too familiar: the flashing lights, the sound of quarters spilling from a slot machine, the spinning roulette wheel, the dealer, the chips. He paused momentarily. Then he turned around and walked in the other direction.