The beloved ABC7 weatherman on battling a gambling addiction — and learning to forgive himself
Longtime television newsman Spencer Christian seamlessly adapted to sheltering in place, filming daily weather segments from his Castro Valley home, hula-hooping for his Facebook feed, playing board games with his wife, Lyn, and comparing notes at virtual wine tastings. But if it were 2010, technology aside — all bets would be off. He’d be going bonkers, itching to get to a casino.
Today, more than five years into recovery from a fierce gambling addiction, Christian faces each day with introspection, optimism and a willingness to share the stories detailed in his 2018 memoir, You Bet Your Life: How I Survived Jim Crow Racism, Hurricane Chasing, and Gambling. These days especially, Christian’s fans are concerned with more than just the weather. While they still send him quips about forecasts, wine and sports, they’re also likely to broach the deeper topics of addiction, faith and fear during this uncertain time.
Some ask questions and seek advice privately; others make their adoration for Christian public on social media with love notes and heart emoji. “You are an inspiration to me.” “You always make the day a little brighter!” “Keep on being you.”
The Bay Area knows Christian as ABC7’s energetic, ever-smiling (and seemingly, never aging) weather forecaster and a frequent emcee of local charity events. Others know him from his 13 years on Good Morning America, which led to assignments across the globe and encounters with countless celebrities, sports heroes and six presidents. No one else on the planet can boast emceeing Jimmy Carter’s 75th and 95th birthday parties — and serving as Bill Murray’s character study for his role as a weatherman in Groundhog Day. But addiction works in mysterious ways. Despite immense popularity and a disarming, everyman appeal, Christian chased a gambler’s dream for the next big win for more than three decades, one that existed in parallel with an extraordinary career path— and at one time, a seven-figure salary — and led to deep debt, two bankruptcies and what Christian refers to as “spiritual decay.”
When Christian went public with his struggles, his fans were overwhelmingly supportive and forgiving. “It was almost like I had this huge extended family that came back to comfort me,” he says.
Christian acknowledges that his addiction didn’t fit certain patterns. In fact, the first time he walked into a casino in 1978, he seemingly had it all: a lucrative and fulfilling career, a wife and two kids, healthy self-esteem, unshakable faith and solid principles instilled by his proud parents.
“I had always been the good kid, the kid who didn’t break curfew and did his homework on time. There was something about the casino environment that made me feel it was OK to be the bad boy, let my guard down, and throw caution to the wind,” Christian admits. “Initially it felt liberating, but I quickly came to realize that I was a prisoner.”
That prison brought the fleeting highs of winning, but more often, major losses — and a secretive and exhausting ritual of continually borrowing and reshuffling money to pay off debts while keeping lines of credit open at the casinos.
Luckily, the tug of temptation no longer exists. In early March, days before the country began social distancing, Christian spoke at Michigan’s annual Problem Gambling Symposium. When approached for advice on finding peace and making amends, Christian asks people if they pray. If so, the advice is easier: “From the bottom of your heart, tell God about the guilt you’re carrying and ask for God’s forgiveness. Trust that he will forgive you and in forgiving you, he’s also giving you the freedom to forgive yourself,” he says.
For years, friends and colleagues knew of Christian’s frequent trips to Las Vegas and Atlantic City and sometimes tagged along to partake in the VIP high-roller treatment, front row seats at sporting events, five-star meals and four-figure wines. Only his Good Morning America co-host Charlie Gibson could sense the severity of the problem.
When Christian first attempted to quit in 2011, his resolve buoyed by plans to write a book, he told Gibson.
Christian recalls, “Charlie said, ‘Before you put that book out there, be sure you actually know you’re quitting for good.’ He mentioned sports figures he knew who went on talk shows and then had relapses. He was absolutely right. I did have that relapse.”’
In early 2015, Christian quit for good, following a frank confrontation from his daughter, Jessica Christian. She urged her father to give up gambling before becoming a grandfather, asking: “What if you died of a heart attack while in a casino? Would you want people to remember you as the guy who achieved so much and just threw it all away?”
“It was the catalyst that drove me to find the strength and courage to quit,” acknowledges Christian. “Jessica was the messenger letting me know that forgiveness was available, which enabled me to forgive myself.”
Today, Jessica has two young sons who have their grandfather’s full attention — and fair share of his Facebook feed. Being forgiving, she says, is something her father always encouraged — and something she’s passing on.
“It is something that I am adamant about teaching my children. We talk about it out loud in our house, and that definitely came directly from lessons I learned as a child from my dad.”