Elizabeth Vargas has shown bravery and strength as she’s shared her battle with alcoholism and anxiety over the last seven years — most recently in a new podcast, Heart of the Matter With Elizabeth Vargas — and it seems generous, considering she was pushed into publicly revealing her addiction in the first place.
“I didn’t make that decision to make it public — somebody else did,” the Emmy Award-winning journalist tells Yahoo Entertainment. “I was at rehab getting help,” in 2013, when she was co-anchor of ABC News’s 20/20 and privately struggling, “and somebody called up the New York Post and New York Daily News and told reporters where I was and what I was dealing with. They called me in rehab. I was forced to issue a public statement from rehab. It was incredibly distressing. It was very, very upsetting.”
She continues, “It’s interesting — somebody asked me, ‘Would you have written that book? Would you have given those interviews if that story hadn’t been planted?’ And I don’t know that I would have... Because that period of getting sober for me was the hardest part of my entire life — and I wish I had the opportunity to do that in privacy. That was taken from me. But play the hand you’re dealt. It was made public. I felt so alone and so isolated and so ashamed. I thought: Maybe if I speak out, I can just let a little tiny bit of air out of that balloon of shame and isolation.”
Vargas, 58, has been letting air out ever since — including with her New York Times Best-Selling book, Between Breaths: A Memoir of Panic and Addiction in 2016, and now with this podcast with the non-profit Partnership to End Addiction, for which she sits on the board of directors. It sees the accomplished news woman, who left ABC News in 2018 after more than 20 years to host A&E Investigates, talking to people about their addiction journeys. Early guests include former NBA player Chris Herren, Beautiful Boy: A Father's Journey Through His Son's Addiction author David Sheff and former U.S. Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy.
It makes for a compelling listen because, she says, “I’ve experienced it,” and “I never felt more alone in my entire life than I did while I was struggling with alcohol. It was the most isolating and the loneliest I ever felt. The only thing that helped with that was meeting with other people who were experiencing the same thing. So I really feel like we need to puncture that isolation and loneliness that so many people suffer from in addition to the stress of whatever anxiety or depression they might be experiencing — and whatever substance abuse they may be turning to to deal with that. I’m very invested, obviously, in this topic. I feel very strongly about the need to reduce stigma and to help people get help because it’s staggering — less than 20 percent of people in this country who need help actually get it.”
The pandemic, of course, has made everything worse as far as isolation and the lack of treatment options, which are elusive to the average American even under the best of circumstances.
“A lot of people are having a tough time,” Vargas acknowledges. There are “millions of Americans experiencing mental health stress due to COVID — and that is on top of what we already have, which is an epidemic of addiction in this country. Many people are self-medicating with alcohol and drugs. We just really felt that the biggest thing you can do to counteract the mental health stresses and challenges is to share about it and talk about it and find out you’re not alone in it and that other people are feeling the same way... I just feel [that] is the best way to fight against the isolation that people feel around addiction and the hopelessness of anxiety and depression, which lead to so many of what we call ‘deaths of despair’ in the country.”
Her own addiction journey stemmed from debilitating anxiety that started as a child and followed her throughout her life.
“I learned early on, as a little girl at age 6, to keep my anxiety a secret,” she says. “I was very ashamed of it because it didn’t look like anybody else was suffering the way I was. I had massive panic attacks. It was really, really hard.”
She was an “army brat,” whose family moved every year or two, and never got the support she needed.
“My parents knew I had panic attacks, but weren’t sophisticated enough to understand. At that point, we weren’t even helping Vietnam vets,” like her dad, “coming home with PTSD. Nobody was helping the veterans’s children on army bases,” she says. “There was no [other] adult in my life long enough to notice that I was suffering. I wonder what my life had been like had there been a therapist or a doctor.”
So, she “kept it hidden.” But as she learned, “You can’t keep something like that bottled up inside yourself — it screams for an opening. What eventually happens is you turn to a substance to ease your way through that terrible screaming anxiety.”
That was what happened in her 20s when she started using alcohol to relieve her anxiety. But a glass of wine soon turned into a bottle, even as her career successes grew and she appeared, always seeming so polished and professional, on Good Morning America and World News Tonight.
“Statistics show that 60 percent of women who are alcoholics also suffer from anxiety,” Vargas says. “For decades, I used wine to soothe and ease that anxiety. That was a red flag I ignored. I wasn’t drinking alcoholically, quote, unquote. I wasn’t suffering any consequences. I wasn’t drinking to the excess that I did at the end,” when she hit rock bottom after relapsing in 2014.
“People, especially women, ask me all the time: ‘How do I know if I have a problem?’” she continues. “One of the first questions I ask them: ‘Ask yourself why you’re drinking. If you’re drinking not to feel something, that’s a red flag.’ I drank not to feel anxious. I drank not to feel stressed. I drank not to feel insecure... People who look like they have it all together can still feel great anxiety and great depression and great insecurity. If you’re drinking to remove that feeling, even before the drinking becomes an actual physical problem in your life, that’s a warning sign — and it’s a warning sign that I ignored.”
Vargas admits she wasn’t looking for signs — though eventually they became hard to miss.
“Part of the reason why it took me a while to finally get help and admit I was an alcoholic was because I had preconceived ideas about what an alcoholic was,” she says. “We tell ourselves and we assume all sorts of things. ‘Well, she’s drinking lovely Chardonnay — how could she possibly be an alcoholic?’ Yes, well, I’m drinking an entire bottle of it every night and maybe even more. That’s a problem.”
And she hadn’t done any work on her underlying issue of anxiety.
“I was so busy racing away from my fear, I never turned to confront it,” she says. “Even as an adult right now, my anxiety didn’t magically go away. It’s definitely less powerful than it was but part of dealing with anxiety is turning to face those fears and understanding that they’re just feelings and many of these fears are of things that will not happen. Just to have somebody to talk to about it,” beginning as that young, scared 6-year-old girl, “would have been an amazing gift.”
So Vargas, a mom of two sons with her ex-husband, hopes talking about addiction in her podcast helps others who are suffering and lacking connection during this crazy time. Though she also hopes it helps those who aren’t addicts.
“The disease of addiction can strike anybody just the way cancer or heart disease can,” she says. “And it’s a chronic disease, like diabetes, which needs to be managed — but we don’t as a society look at it this way. There is this impatience of: Why aren’t you better already?”
Vargas with sons Zach and Sam:
A post shared by Elizabeth Vargas (@evargastv) on
She knows well, “There isn’t this point where you go: I’m home free! I’m done! I don’t have to work on this or manage this anymore! Recovery is something you deal with on a daily basis. There is no such thing as you’re all clear and you don’t have to work on this any longer.”
So, she adds, “We need to be much more compassionate as a society about how we address this issue and the assumptions we make about the disease and the shaming and embarrassment around it.”
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