It started with little games as kids.
Little bets, a dollar here and there, at the feet of his mother and aunties.
The women would play cards around the kitchen table in their homes at Alice Springs - poker or "coon can" (a rummy-style game) as it was called back then.
The adult bets were bigger, $20, $50 ... sometimes more.
But it was a welcome gathering of kin and sometimes the card games would last well into the early hours of the morning.
The little kids watched, big-eyed and hungry to learn.
Gambling was an acceptable part of Indigenous culture, reflects Aaron Perkins-Kemp-Berger, who grew up in the Northern Territory town (Arrente country).
"We didn't see the harm in it," he says.
"We knew alcohol was 'poison water'; it wasn't a part of our culture but unfortunately we got addicted to that as well."
The arrival of a casino in Alice Springs in 1981 was to prove a catastrophic curse on their lives.
"The focus shifted to legal gambling," explains Aaron, who moved to the Border in 2013.
"Before, everyone could chuck down a blanket and get a card game happening in an aunty's house.
"The women in my culture were shrewd enough; they could make a meal out of breadcrumbs ...
"But as soon as the pokies arrived, oh my God!"
We didn't see the harm in gambling. We knew alcohol was 'poison water'; it wasn't a part of our culture but unfortunately we got addicted to that as well.Aaron Perkins-Kemp-Berger
The casino's poker machines, "with their twinkling lights, all their bells and whistles and special tunes" got to Aaron's mother - as it did to so many of his cousins, sisters and aunties.
"I swear half the town was there," he recalls in the early days of the casino's opening.
"Mum developed a devastating habit.
"I think she thought the machines were just like playing poker at home (except) you pull the lever down.
"But the one-armed bandits took all our money."
Aaron's journey to gambling addiction is being explored in a new lived experience theatre project, PRESS PRESSure.
The project, which includes three performances in December, supports sustainable awareness, reduction and prevention activities for gambling related harm.
Funded by the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation, the project involves artistic director Catherine Simmonds, Gateway Health Gambler's Help co-ordinator Jody Riordan and Denise Ezzy, from Mungabareena Aboriginal Corporation.
Jody says research validates the role of lived experience in providing support and reducing stigma.
"There is no better way to learn about something than elevating the voices of lived experience," she says.
"Storytelling and the sharing of lived experience through theatre can help play a powerful role in recovery."
Jody says theatre can connect people and increase understanding - "whether (gambling harm) is something you have gone through yourself, or you are trying to understand the experience of a loved one, or as public health issue".
"At Gambler's Help, we take a public health approach to gambling harm reduction and prevention with shared responsibility from individuals, community groups, businesses, organisations and governments at all levels," she explains.
"Locally our prevention activities have combined awareness and education with initiatives to support health and wellbeing, including participation in alternate activities to gambling."
Jody says it's important those activities are "self-determined by individuals, groups, and communities.
"This approach helps reduce stigma, increase people's protective factors and enables all to connect and talk, share and support," she adds.
Jody says it's a privilege to be partnering with a local artist, activist and advocate.
"Aaron is leading the way by sharing his story of gambling harm to support others," she says.
"Developing his own lived experience monologue and theatre performance is helping with local gambling harm awareness, reduction and prevention initiatives."
"Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change," says US author Brene Brown.
As it was Aaron didn't develop a gambling habit until he moved to Adelaide for further schooling.
In his twenties, as pubs and clubs began introducing pokies, Aaron found himself increasingly drawn to the machines parked in the corner.
"Where I lived, my housemates all got into it," he recalls.
"We'd go and play pool, have a meal ... and given we all got paid on different days, we'd shout each other, so we went nearly every day.
"I got a job at a pub; my work-mates were addicted.
"I should have said no, but it's part of Indigenous culture to share your money with friends and family."
By 24, Aaron was addicted.
"As part of my job, I lived rent-free and only needed to buy food if I wanted," he says.
"Gambling took up 80 per cent of my money. I was serving the pokies."
Rock bottom came with an "embarrassing" incident.
Aaron was unable to scrape together $1.50 needed for his bus fare to work.
The memory of grovelling for those few meagre cents still fills him with shame "but it's part of my story".
That story has been entrusted to artistic director Catherine Simmonds, who has worked in the community theatre space for 30 years.
The founder of Brunswick Women's Theatre says she has learnt to think of her role as "the listening, editing and distilling of a story".
In Aaron, Catherine sees a courageous individual stepping forward and being willing to share his story.
"It is in this space we can bring change because ordinary people are standing up and saying 'this is my truth'," she explains.
"It's about the human heart.
"Aaron is enabling the conversation to start in this community."
Catherine says gambling is a public health issue.
The acclaimed theatre-maker has previously produced Three Sides of the Coin, a project involvingstorytelling workshops and theatrical scenes with people affected by the harms of gambling.
"It is such a hidden, shamed, stigmatised addiction," she says.
"In the courts gambling is seen as a behaviour not an addiction; I've done work with magistrates on how sentencing is different to drug and alcohol (related crimes).
"Through theatre, people tell their stories - they become accidental performers and strong authorities of true lived experience."
The last time Aaron played the pokies was before COVID-19 struck.
"It's a weaning process; the addiction is still there," he says.
"But I have seen the harm - my journey has allowed me to see not just my own personal harm but the community harm."
In taking on this role, Aaron wants to encourage others to talk to someone and to seek help but above all, he says, "do not be ashamed".
"When you take that first step, you are one first step to a better you - physically, emotionally, financially and mentally," he urges.
- December 7, 1pm-3pm: Burraja Art Gallery, Albury with Q&A (bookings 0427481571)
- December 8, 6.30pm-8.30pm: Fell Timber Community Centre, Wodonga plus 'Where's the Exit' performances and Q&A (bookings 0407615263)
- December 9, 1pm-3pm: CWA Hall, Wangaratta plus 'Where's the Exit' performances and Q&A (bookings 0407615263)
- Book online at www.uppermurraynhn.org/network-events
DO YOU NEED HELP?
- Self Help Addiction Resource Centre: www.sharc.org.au/sharc-programs/family-drug-gambling-help/
- 'Peer Connect' program: bchs.org.au/services/gambling-support/peer-connection/what-is-peer-connection/ or call (03) 9450 2000
- Gambler's Help, Gateway Health: 1800 858 858