Can a drug be responsible for heart-breaking gambling compulsion?

Denise Miley appeared to have a perfect life, a loving husband, four sons, a job as a CPA and a beautiful home in a northwest suburb of the Twin Cities.

But she had a secret life--and it all started with a bike ride.

"At first I just tried to tell myself the kids are at school, it's my escape," she said. "I think I thought if I was doing exercise at the same time that it was okay to be going there."

She'd pedal 35 miles from Maple Grove to Prior Lake--until she found the instant gratification she was craving.

She'd been an occasional gambler in the past, but in the fall of 2014 something changed.


Miley was like a moth, the casino a brilliant light.

"I can't explain it besides I just felt the compulsion that I have to go," she said. "I would be dressed for work, right? And I would find myself heading to the casino instead of going to work."

The long bike rides gave way to more frequent car rides. She'd stay there until late at night or into the next day, telling her family she was at the office working.

Then she switched from slots to high stakes black jack.

Miley used cash from her kids' college fund to wager up to $4,000 a hand. At one point she even took out a secret loan for $50,000.

All in all, she believes she lost a total of $156,000.

Her husband pleaded with her to get help, even took her car away--forcing Miley to ride the bus to work, though she wouldn't stay there for long. 

"I would get on the light rail, take the light rail to the Mall of America, take a bus from the Mall of America to the casino," Miley said.

One night she was up $50,000--enough to pay off that secret loan.

"I couldn't stop myself till it was all gone," she said. It only took an hour.


But the breaking point didn't come until the night Miley's kids FaceTimed her at the casino, pleading for her to come home.

"Being there for my kids and setting a good example for my kids is probably one of the most important things for me," she said. The next day she was finally on her way to treatment.

She revealed her secret to close friend Kim Swatosch.

“It’s something I couldn't fathom," Swatosch said. "I couldn't reconcile that person with the person that I've known for over ten years." 

Before starting her six-month long casino run, Denise had been suffering from depression.

Her doctor put her on Abilify, also known as Aripiprazole, a drug that affects the dopamine system in the brain--which controls a person’s desires to seek reward.

When she entered gambling treatment, a counselor recommended she stop taking Abilify.

"The urges, these overwhelming urges, started to go away," Miley said. "I would say probably a week after I was there." 


"What that woman described is very eerily similar to a lot of the other patients that we see, where they just wake up and they just have this urge or hunger and desire to do a behavior," said Dr. Timothy Fong, Co-director of the UCLA Gambling Studies Program.

Reports of a possible connection between Abilify and compulsive behaviors, such as gambling, got the attention of European regulators back in 2012.

Drug makers Bristol-Myers Squibb and Otsuka Pharmaceuticals were required to put a warning on the Abilify label that "pathological gambling" was a possible side effect.

"That is the tragedy here," said Gary Wilson, from Robins Kaplan Law in Minneapolis. "The American patients did not learn about the connection with gambling and compulsivity until almost 4 years after the European patients did."

Not until last summer--more than a year after Miley's bizarre gambling binge--did the FDA require a similar label warning in the United States.

She's now suing the makers of Abilify, who declined to comment or respond to questions from the Fox 9 Investigators.

Miley said she has not gambled since she has been off Abilify. According to the FDA, the condition is rare.

In most cases, patients had no prior history of compulsive behavior until they started taking the drug.

"In the five or six cases that I've seen that are specific to Abilify, every single one of those cases when they stop Abilify, they've been able to achieve meaningful, almost essential sobriety or abstinence to gambling," Fong said.

That's also been the case for Miley.

"Now, I don't feel that compulsion," she said.


She's spent the past two years trying to rebuild trust with her family, friends and co-workers.

The notes her kids sent while she was in treatment serve as a reminder of that dark chapter in her life. One read, "Mom, we all love you. Please can you just not lie and spend more time with us."
"I'm thankful I was able to get help before I lost my family," she said.

More than 200 people nationwide have joined the lawsuit against the makers of Abilify--all of them claiming the drug turned them into gambling addicts.

According to the FDA it may also cause compulsive shopping, eating and sexual activity.

There’s no good way to know who is most susceptible to having these side effects.  It can happen to men, women or children.

For help with compulsive gambling, visit Get Gambling Help or call 1-800-333-HOPE.