My father had a gambling addiction, and it made me who I am today

By Clara How, Nov 07, 2019

Jasmine Teo grew up in a loving family, until her father succumbed to the temptations of gambling. At 16, she took on several jobs to boost her family’s income, and became a caretaker to her younger sister to hold the family together. At 18, her father gambled away her $20,000 endowment fund at the height of his addiction. 

It took her years to come to terms with the anger and frustration she felt as a teenager, but Jasmine now has a thriving career as a private wealth management specialist, and has been awarded Court of the Table at the Million Dollar Round Table (a global association for financial service professionals) for six consecutive years. She is also happily married with two children, and has rebuilt a relationship with her father.

Now 28 years old, she looks back on her childhood with new eyes. This is her story. 

* * * *

The lowest point of my relationship with my father was when he threatened to jump off the building if we didn’t give him money for his gambling habit. He had asked my mother for the remaining thousands of their savings so he could repay his debtors, but my mother refused. My dad said he would jump, and my mum responded, “If you really want to, then just go jump!”

My dad ran out of the house, removed the flower pots by the parapet and started to climb. I ran after him, held on to his legs and begged him to stop. I kept crying, “Dad, please don’t jump.” The whole family was in tears. I was 18 at the time.

In my teenage years, I hated my father and what gambling did to him. We didn’t see much of him, and when we did, he was always drunk. I remember we would have to drag him from the lift and pull him into the house, and my mum would splash water on him to try and wake him up. My younger sister and I were constantly in the middle of my parents’ fights, and I would try and break them up while my sister cried. The gambling, fights, and drunken behaviour went on for years. I kept thinking, why must my father do this to us, to our family? 

It didn’t used to be this way. Growing up, my parents were self-employed hawkers who ran a successful noodle stall. They worked hard, waking up from 4am and working till 2pm, and the rest of the day would be devoted to my sister and I. My maternal grandmother lived with us, and she took care of us during the day. My parents brought us up well: they always taught us the concept of cause and consequence. In primary school, I flunked most of my exams. Instead of beating or scolding me, they told me that in the future, I would struggle if my grades did not pick up. They encouraged me to keep trying. That was what made me pull my socks up, and on my own, managed to go from failing my exams to scoring 238 points for my Primary School Leaving Examinations. 

When I was 10 and my sister was eight, we would help out at the noodle stall. She would wash the bowls, while I served customers. Back then, there were no table numbers, so I had to remember customers’ orders by their faces. I also had to learn to deal with angry customers if I got their order wrong. But I loved the challenge. I learnt how to apologise, to offer extra noodles or more fishballs. I learnt that if you want to retain customers, service recovery is the most important thing. That was what my parents taught me: don’t be upset if you make a mistake. Apologise, and people will come back. They would also offer free noodles to elderly in need. These were all lessons that would eventually shape me as an adult. 

My relatives were always envious of my mother, and would comment on how my dad was a good man who loved his wife and children. But everything changed when I was 15, when my paternal grandfather passed away. Before my dad got married, he used to mix with the wrong company. These gangsters got back in contact with him during the funeral, and my dad started to join them for gambling sessions. 

It only took a few months for him to be addicted, and it was like a demon had possessed him.

My mother had to shoulder running the noodle stall on her own because my dad couldn’t wake up for work. Our family income fell, and during the 2008 financial crisis, things only got worse. By then, my dad was a full-time gambler and alcoholic. I knew that I had to step up to keep the family going, so at 16, I started working as a cashier in a deli at a luxury hotel. I handled angry tourists who told me that service was too slow, and their time was money. But like working at the noodle stall, I just saw them as challenges. I thrived on finding ways to appease them.

I threw myself into working and studying, and packed my day from 6am to 11pm. I was the captain of the basketball team in my secondary school, and when I wasn’t training, I would work in the hotel or give tuition to primary school kids. My teammates knew that I had troubles at home, and thought I was superwoman for going all out in training. But I knew I had to lead by example, because I was the captain. What they didn’t see was that whenever I reached home, I would crash in my bed.

I had no time for myself. But I knew that because of my father, this was what I had to do. I knew that once I opened my eyes every morning, I had to work because my family needed the money, and I had to study because I needed the grades for my future.

I also had to look out for my sister, who was two years younger than me. Because of all the unhappiness at home, she fell into bad company, and became very rude to our parents. At one point, I went to her school to find out which boy she was dating, and told him to leave my sister alone. My sister hated me, but I told her, “You need to wake up. There are already so many things happening at home.” Eventually, she turned things around and started scoring good grades, following in my footsteps and attending the same junior college as I did.

Not long after my dad threatened suicide, my mother received a letter from an insurance company, informing her that an endowment plan she purchased for me when I was born had matured. Since I had reached the maturity age of 18, we could cash out $20,000. We were stunned, and thought the letter was sent to the wrong person. My mother had completely forgotten about the plan, and didn’t know how to claim the money. 

So I went out, and started looking for financial advisors to find out what we could do. I met a nerdy looking insurance agent, explained my circumstances and asked for help. He guided my mum to open an account, deposited the $20,000 for us and in time, did up medical plans for my family. I saw him as godsent. Knowing our financial situation, he asked if I wanted to work for him and earn additional income. Thrilled, I said yes. I was then hired by his company to assist him. 

At first, I tried to manage his paperwork on days where I didn’t have to attend university. But I wasn’t great at administration, so he asked if I wanted to try sales. We came up with a system where he would sit at McDonalds, and I would try to pull people from the streets to talk to him. To me, everything was new and a challenge. I found it fun to approach people, explain what we were doing, and ask if they had time to talk to my boss. Back then, we were permitted to pull people from the streets, as long as we did not harass them or talk to them about products as I was not a licensed agent. 

For the next few years until I turned 21, I learnt from him. It was a marvellous job, and everyday I would think, this is what I want to do. I aspired to be a financial consultant because I knew how much the $20,000 meant to my family. I wanted to be the person who would help other people and their families as well. But the $20,000 did not last long — my dad found out about the money, and gambled it all away within months behind our backs. 

When we found out, we were so disappointed in him. That was the last straw, and my mother filed for divorce. I went with her to the lawyer’s office, and because she is illiterate, I read the documents to her. 

It was painful, but I knew that it was the right thing to do. This was the only way out of this toxic relationship for my mum, and I knew that would free her. I had to be strong to deal with it, for her.

By the time I turned 21, I had accumulated a long list of contacts of people I had made connections with from the streets. I told them, “I’m going to be a consultant in a few months. Please wait for me.” They saw how passionate I was, and that I was sincere in wanting to help them. Thanks to their support, I managed to hit one of the higher tier targets within a few months of getting my official license. 

I threw myself into work. It became my mission to be the top consultant in the company, so every day I would work from 10am to 10pm, doing roadshow after roadshow, and clinching deals daily. Within a year, I was ranked within the top ten. I was getting achievements year after year, but my personal life was a mess. 

Looking back, I see now that I did not love myself. I never acknowledged the trauma of my childhood, and just buried it in work. It was reflected in my dating life — because of my father, I had the belief that men would always disappoint.

I believed men did not care about women’s feelings, and they were egoistic. I would date casually, but I never had a serious relationship. Men were for companionship, but never for love. 

This mentality meant I was trapped in a vicious cycle where I would just keep attracting men who were not good for me. There are so many men out there — men who are caring and loving and sensitive, but I just did not see them. After a particularly bad disappointment, I realised that the reason why I was not meeting good men was because I hadn’t let go of all my grudges. 

I started doing exercise and yoga, and there was an instructor who kept telling us to smile as we stretched, and to thank the body. He said to tell ourselves, “I am my own best friend.” It hit me: people come and go, and even our spouses and children may leave us one day.

But in our lifetime, the people we can truly count on are ourselves. We need to know that we are worthy.

One day, I went into a bank to open an account. The staff attending to me turned out to be an old university school mate, Marcus, whom I had lost contact with. As we reconnected, he confessed that he had a crush on me back in school, but never had the courage to say it. He said that since meeting me again, he realised that his feelings had not changed. This man would become my husband.

Marcus was not like any other man that I had dated, who never listened and dismissed what I had to say. We would sit at Starbucks and talk about our problems, and have a dialogue on how to solve them. But even when conversations between us got heated, we would pray together, and talk again. It wasn’t that he didn’t have an ego. We are both ambitious and excel in our careers, but Marcus was able to put his ego aside and find a solution. Even though he is a vocal person, when it comes to something deeply personal, he shares it only with me. We might have differences, but I feel that we are in sync. 

As for my father, we did not speak for six months after the divorce (which was finalised when I was 22). But over time, I would call to ask if he has eaten, and how he was doing. He continued gambling for five more years after the divorce, and only finally kicked the habit two years ago. It took a long time to forgive him, and I went through Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) therapy to help me. I know it sounds gimmicky, but I didn’t see any harm in trying. 

During the therapy, I had to write down all the good things and bad things that my father did. I looked at the long list of the bad, and thought, “This is so awful. How am I supposed to forgive?”

During therapy, they taught us how to revisit memories, and see ourselves as a third person. I saw teenage Jasmine crying and screaming. The therapist guided me to keep revisiting the memory until I acknowledged the hurt that I had gone through, and all the brokenness that I did not mend. When it was time to look at the list of good things about my father, I started to recall better times. He taught me how to love animals, and bought me rabbits because I said I wanted them. When my mum complained that they smelt, he said, “My daughter wants them.” I remembered how he took us to the reservoir to feed the monkeys, and to the zoo for weekend trips. I remembered how he brought me to the old folks’ home, and taught me to respect the elderly and be kind.

I’m an empathetic person now because of what my dad taught me. He always told me, look into someone’s eyes, and imagine how they are feeling. Be sensitive to others. Who I am today, the good and the bad, is shaped by my childhood.

It was my dad who taught me about cause and consequence, and I believe he stopped gambling after realising that he had lost everything. He is now employed as a hawker, and works from 9am to 11pm everyday, even though I keep telling him to take care of his health. 

A few years ago, we had our Chinese New Year reunion dinner with my mother. I called my dad to ask after him, thinking he was having dinner with my aunt, whom he is living with now. He said no, he was in his room eating cup noodles. The next day, my sister and I went to visit him. It was then I saw that he has realised the consequences of his actions, which is loneliness and a loss of kinship. I now see him once a month, and bring his grandchildren to see him.

With Marcus, our children, my sister and father.

With Marcus, our children, my sister and father.

My father is not a bad person. It was the gambling that had changed him, and ultimately he had to realise himself that he had hit rock-bottom, and change. 

Today, I am one of the top ranking employees in my company. I own a car, and I bought two properties for my children’s future. Since I started working, I strictly set aside 50 per cent of my income for savings, and the balance goes to expenses and investments in areas such as endowments, annuities, and high sum assured on life and illnesses coverage. I still spend on areas that improve my well-being, like yoga, massage and restaurants. To achieve all this at 28, I know that I am blessed.

But now that I am a mother to adorable twins, I am no longer driven by numbers like I used to be. When I started working, my goal was to be on the cover of Forbes as one of the richest women in Asia. But now, I feel like I would want to be remembered as someone who loves family rather than seen as a multimillionaire.

Will my grandchildren say, “My grandma is rich,” or will they say, “My grandma changed lives”?

My dream for my children is that they live a life with purpose. What are their goals, and is what they are doing in line with what they want to achieve? As a parent, I have provided a roof over their heads when they become adults. I believe it is better for them to inherit property than a lump sum of money, and it is up to them to earn their money in their bank accounts. I believe that the greatest legacy one can pass to one’s children and grandchildren isn’t money or material goods, but a legacy of character and faith.

I will teach them that the value of money is what it brings to you: is it joy, which is long-lasting, or instant gratification? You may spend all your money on a supercar, but will that bring you joy? I grew up knowing that money is difficult to earn. At the noodle stall, every bowl cost $2. To earn back our $4,000 stall rental, that was a lot of bowls that we had to sell. I want my children to learn that money is not being earned to be splurged.

My sister and I have recently returned from a vacation with our mother to Melbourne, just the three of us. My mother has remarried, my sister is about to get married, and it has been awhile since we had time alone together. We went on day tours, and at night the three of us huddled together in one king-sized bed because we were scared to be alone! We spoke a lot about the past and how embracing the difficulties made us better people — and how we are all now surrounded by love.

My mum is a woman of few words, and doesn’t often express her feelings. When times were hard in my childhood, she would hide in the kitchen because she didn’t want us to see her cry. That memory has pushed me to change my family’s life, and I never want her to get hurt again. This trip was one way where we were able to thank her for everything she has done for the family. Till today, the love for my mother and sister remains the main driving force in my life.

Photos provided by Jasmine Teo. Follow her on Dayre at @jasminegreenteo. 

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