When Richard Wenmouth, a primary school teacher from Coventry, was diagnosed with Parkinson's at just 26, he knew he had a battle ahead. What he didn't expect was that the medication he was given to ease his symptoms would pose the biggest challenge of all, leading him to gamble away all his life savings and almost destroy his marriage.
It isn't known exactly how many of the 127,000 people in the UK with Parkinson's are on the class of drugs known as dopamine agonists, but it is estimated that nearly a fifth of them suffer with some degree of impulsive and compulsive behaviours that can include gambling and sex addictions. While the problem has been known to doctors for at least 10 years, the charity Parkinson's UK says that medications are still being prescribed without enough warnings and pre-screening of the risk factors, which include being young, male, a smoker and having a personal and family history of addictive behaviour.
"One woman told us her husband started bringing prostitutes back to the home. Another man went from earning a six-figure sum to living on the streets," says Suma Surendranath, the spokeswoman for Parkinson's UK. "It's essential not to scare people off this medication, since for most people who take it, it is successful in controlling their symptoms without any problems, but for others, it can lead to potentially dreadful consequences."
Prior to his diagnosis in 2008, fitness was a passion for Richard, now 32. "I studied sports science and physiology at university and had run two marathons. I used to be a personal trainer, as well as a regular rugby player," he says.
But by his mid-20s, Richard noticed he was getting slower, as well as losing dexterity. "My muscles became so rigid that even making a cup of tea became very controlled. But Parkinson's was the last thing on my mind. To me, it was an old person's disease, so when the doctor mentioned it, I shrugged it off."
It was Christmas Eve when the Parkinson's was confirmed. "I can barely remember that Christmas, I was so low. I assumed I'd have to go back to living with my parents, give up my job as a teacher and have people take care of me." Come Spring, though, things looked up, not least because Richard met his wife-to-be, Karen. "She was a classroom assistant at the school where I work, so she knew my situation. But she still couldn't resist me," he says with a laugh. "We moved in together and at around the same time, I was put on the medication, which helped make my movements more fluid. For the first time, I felt uplifted and hopeful."
Karen, 46, remembers the Parkinson's nurse briefly mentioning a small risk of compulsive behaviour. "But we didn't take it seriously," she says. "It's not as if Richard had a compulsive past. The most gambling he'd done was the occasional lottery ticket." Within a few weeks, however, Karen noticed Richard obsessively checking eBay. "He'd get up at 6am to see how his bids and sales were going."
After a few weeks Richard started using online bingo sites. "There were lots of offers such as 'Get £5 to play with £20', which he went for, so I didn't think he was spending much," says Karen. "And, naively, I didn't associate bingo with gambling."
Richard certainly didn't see his new habit as a problem. "I convinced myself the free bets were really worthwhile, and anyway, I won £5,000 quite quickly," he explains.
But a fortnight later, Richard had lost £3,000 of their savings – money that was meant for their wedding. "I'd had one big win, though, so I assumed I could get another," he says. "That's when I progressed to visiting betting shops, where I lost another £20,000."
Because they had separate bank accounts, Karen didn't suspect a thing. Until, that is, she woke up early one morning to find Richard on a bingo site. "I asked him if he'd used the credit card and he said no, but a quick check showed he'd been fibbing," she says. "That's when the penny dropped about the medication. But Richard promised to stop and even took the gambling software out of the computer."
But later that same week, Richard reinstalled the software. In a last-ditch attempt to enable him to stay on the medication, Karen contacted Gamblers Anonymous. "It was awful," she says. "When I tried to explain that it was Richard's medication, [everyone] just shook their heads and said, 'He'll never stop now. This is for life.' I remember bursting into tears, saying, 'But I'm marrying him in a fortnight!'"
Reluctantly, and with the help of his doctor, Richard agreed to come off the drug. The medication took time to flush out of Richard's system, however, leading him to have one final gambling spree, using the £600 Karen gave him for his wedding suit. "I was furious. I told him that was it, in front of his parents, and that I couldn't go through with the marriage, although they managed to calm me down," says Karen.
Within days, Richard says he could hardly believe what he'd been doing. "It was like someone flicked a switch and I was back to normal."
But the new drug caused Richard sickness. "It wasn't possible to function with that level of nausea, so I talked to Karen and the nurse about going back on the dopamine agonists," says Richard. "I honestly believed I wouldn't return to gambling. In any case, I pointed out that I had web blocks in place and told Karen she could be in control of all the cash and cards."
Within weeks, Richard had gambled away £4,000, a fact that Karen discovered when she found just £3 in their bank account. "He'd memorised the credit card details and used his mobile phone to gamble. He'd also got a payday loan," says Karen. "I was pregnant at the time, with a baby I subsequently lost, and marched home and gave him an ultimatum that either he stopped gambling or the marriage was over."
Richard knew the only medication left to try was Levadopa. "It's the one Michael J Fox is on – the one that causes his sudden, jerky movements. I really didn't want that," he says. But after a week of not being able to look Richard in the eye, Karen called the Parkinson's nurse herself. Richard was furious, but he did agree to the new drug, having just one relapse a week later, going into a bookies with £2. "That's the last I've ever gambled," he says.
Three years on, Richard and Karen have a different focus – their two-year-old daughter, Amelia. "She's given me a new lease of life and the jerky movements are a small price to pay for the life I have," he says.
Looking back, it all feels a bit like a dream, says Karen. "Richard's entire personality changed from being kind and honest to devious and dishonest. And although I know the gambling compulsion stopped almost as suddenly as it arrived, I still manage our money and I lock away his passport and driving licence."