20/20 Anchor Elizabeth Vargas Talks to The Fix About Anxiety, Alcoholism, and Recovery

By Dorri Olds 09/13/16

"I was nearly fired from my job. My husband left me while I was in rehab, I hurt my kids tremendously, and I nearly lost my life."

Elizabeth Vargas on Her Alcoholism and Recovery
Vargas is candid about her struggles. Photo via Facebook

“A huge part of my alcoholism was anxiety,” 20/20 anchor Elizabeth Vargas told me. “I had panic attacks since kindergarten.” During our interview and in her new book, Between Breaths: A Memoir of Panic and Addiction, the veteran newscaster was candid about almost losing everything. 

She went to her first rehab in 2012, but denial said she only needed two weeks of treatment. It’s no surprise that didn’t work and the disease progressed. In 2014, she went to a second rehab but left prematurely. She went home and drank again. Resigned and humiliated, she returned to that second rehab. Now sober for two years, Vargas is committed to sobriety but understands we only have a daily reprieve from alcohol.

“My story is different than others I’ve heard ‘in the rooms,’” she told me. “I drank moderately for 20 years. It wasn’t until my 40s that I fell off a cliff.”

Vargas described a day in 2012 when she showed up at ABC too drunk to work. “I stepped out of the car and stumbled. That’s when I knew I was in no condition to conduct an interview. My friend took one look at me and knew.” Her first rehab was that year at Cirque Lodge in Utah. “I look back on a lot of the writing that I did,” she said. “I'm struck by the lectures and therapists there. It was a very good experience.” But after leaving the Utah rehab after only two weeks, she was not able to stay sober and her alcoholism progressed. Vargas blames a combination of factors. “Stress at work, and then being diagnosed with post-partum anxiety. My drinking was suddenly on steroids and I had huge consequences.” 

“I’d had lots of brownouts,” she said, “but never a blackout.” That is until one day when she began drinking in the early afternoon after work. “The next thing I remember is waking up at four a.m. in the emergency room with zero memory of what happened. I had a blood alcohol level of .4, which is lethal. I’m told a woman saw me at Riverside Park in my work clothes and wobbling in high heels.”

Two predatory men were eyeing Vargas so the concerned passerby intervened and got the drunk newscaster home safely. But Vargas passed out in the lobby and was taken away in an ambulance. The incident scared her enough to stop drinking and she went to her second rehab.

“It was a rude awakening. I woke up in Tennessee. My husband and therapist picked that rehab. I don’t understand how anybody would’ve picked it. Even my therapist there said, ‘This is not the right place for you. I don’t know how on earth you ended up here.’ But once there, I couldn’t get out.”

In the memoir that second rehab in 2014 is referred to as The Center. But Vargas told me, “I wrote that it was in rural Tennessee so most people can figure out it’s really The Ranch. For some people I’m sure it’s a life-saving gift but it wasn’t the best place for me. Most of the patients were in their teens and twenties. We had different life experiences and different issues.”

The newscaster confided that she already suffered with guilt. “Making my shame front and center wasn’t the best way to go. I wasn’t thinking about getting better and saving my life. I was thinking, ‘How do I get home?’ I wasn’t seeing my children and was desperate to know what was going on. I feared that my husband was hiring divorce lawyers and starting to date other people.” Frantic, she left prematurely against advice and learned her suspicions were correct.

I asked if she thought drinking caused the divorce. “My husband would say it did,” she said. “It’s easy to judge him but I didn’t walk in his shoes. I don’t know what it was like to be married to an alcoholic. I’m sure it was really difficult.”

Vargas said she would die for her sons. “I love them more than anything in the world. I would do anything for my children. But I couldn’t stop drinking for them.”

I pointed out that many interviewers still don’t seem to understand alcoholism. Vargas agreed. “They don’t. Trust me. Many people have no concept that this is a disease. To tell an alcoholic to stop drinking is like telling someone born with depression to be happy. Still, many amazing people were supportive.”

In 2014, on The View, Barbara Walters said, “We all knew,” referring to Vargas’ alcoholism. Vargas said, “In that moment, I was taken aback because I knew that wasn’t true. Later, Barbara apologized profusely because it was clumsily phrased and she misspoke. When she said, ‘We all knew,’ she wasn’t saying, ‘We always knew you were an alcoholic.’ She was saying, ‘We all knew you were in rehab,’ which was true.” 

Vargas had been forced to issue a statement two and a half weeks into that stay at rehab because somebody had called the press. “That happened to me three times,” she said. “I have no idea who did it. I’m sure it was somebody at work, or at one of the other networks. The worst time was when I was in rehab and got called out of a therapy session to talk to my bosses in New York who said, ‘We have to issue a statement and you need to say that you’re an alcoholic.’ I cried, and said, ‘Can’t you please call this reporter? I have children.’”

With her memoir coming out on Tuesday, there’s more press. Vargas said, “I asked my son last night, ‘Why do you think I’m writing this book?’ He said, ‘Because you’re brave and want to help people.’ I hope people will be kind.”

She confided, “As a child, I was shy and quiet because of my tremendous anxiety.” As an “army brat,” she moved almost every year. “I was bullied mercilessly from third grade through junior high. You’d have to learn how to fit in,” she said. “A lot of times, I didn’t.”

I asked if she thinks: Yeah, well, look at me now! Vargas said, "No, you never shed those horrible feelings. My earliest memories are infused with fear."

Vargas said, “When I was 44 years old, I was astonishingly lucky to give birth to a baby I’d conceived naturally, but then found out two years later I was perimenopausal. I went through a cyclone of emotions in those two years.”

When Diane Sawyer and Vargas researched for their recent 20/20 special, they learned that 63 percent of female alcoholics suffer anxiety. Being postpartum or perimenopausal puts you at even higher risk for self-medicating with alcohol. And women with anxiety issues are twice as likely to relapse.

“Do you take medication for anxiety?” I asked. Vargas replied, “I don’t. Once I had a panic attack on an airplane that really freaked me out. I went to a doctor. He gave me a prescription for Ativan, which I carried in my purse for five years. I never took one but knowing I had it just in case, comforted me.”

So what helps her stay sober now? “I try to meditate every day,” she said. “The higher-power spirituality concept for me is important. I was raised in a religious Catholic home. Both my children have been baptized but I was a lapsed Catholic. I did a lot of praying when I was hungover: ‘Please God, help me stop.’ Now I spend more of my days trying to be conscious and present and aware of how lucky I am—grateful for what I have instead of focusing on what I don’t have, or what I want and can’t get, or how somebody wronged me. Focusing on everything that’s going right sounds so simple, but feels huge.”

Vargas said that writing this book was also for people who know an addict. “So they might better understand what’s happening and not take it personally,” she said. “I’m not saying to enable addicts, but don’t shun and shame them. Someone else’s addiction is not about you. Addicts aren’t thinking, ‘I’m going to hurt my husband. I’m going to drink so much that I hurt him.’ That’s not what happens.”

She said, “The people that saved me were my brother, sister, Mom and Dad. They visited me on family weekend in rehab and learned about the disease. They learned that shaming and blaming is destructive to the recovery process. My husband didn’t come for any of that. He wasn’t there for me.”

What are some of the most helpful things she’s learned from a sponsor? Vargas said, “When you pray, ask for something. God has three answers: Yes. Not now. I have something better. For a neurotic, anxious, control freak like me, that’s really important. I think about it constantly. Some recovery phrases I love, some I’m so tired of. But I repeat to myself, ‘Don’t compare and despair.’ I spent my whole life doing that.”

Vargas closed with, “Everyone you meet is waging war or fighting a great battle. I think we all tend to forget that. We think, ‘Her life is perfect’ or ‘His life is.’ And ‘Why are they standing in my way? Why do they step on my toes?’ But you don’t know what that person is going through. You don’t know what’s happened to them that day or what they’re struggling with or what happens when they go home at night. Every person battling addiction is going through hell. There’s still a lot of judgment. People say, ‘You chose to do that.’ But why would anybody choose to destroy themselves and the lives of everybody precious to them?”

Her last comment stayed with me: “I’m hoping we can all learn to be kinder. This is a disease.”

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Dorri Olds is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in many publications including The New York Times, Marie Claire, Woman’s Day and several book anthologies. Find Dorri on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.