Elizabeth Vargas: Hard-won sobriety has made life 'so much better'

Elizabeth Vargas: Hard-won sobriety has made life 'so much better'

(Novus writes inspirational stories of people in the news who have overcome addiction. This is not to imply that these people are connected to Novus Medical Detox Center but simply to provide hope and encouragement to those fighting addiction.)

Television journalist Elizabeth Vargas talks candidly about the anxiety she has lived with ever since she was a child, and how deeply it affected her behavior throughout her life, both personally and professionally.

In the introduction to her bestselling 2016 memoir, "Between Breaths: A Memoir of Panic and Addiction," Vargas describes in painful detail how anxiety led her to alcohol.

"I don't know if I was born an alcoholic, but I was definitely born anxious," she writes. "The alcoholism came to me later in life, after years of drinking to ease stress and worry, and to fend off panic. But the anxiety? It was there from the start."

Vargas, who co-hosted ABC Television's "20/20" for 14 years and was a co-anchor on ABC's World News Tonight, says her anxiety was so deeply pervasive that it manifested every time she did a show. Suffering through the stage manager's count-down to air-time: '10, 9, 8...3, 2, 1 - you're on the air!', was a nightmare.

Vargas describes a maelstrom of mental, emotional and physical symptoms:

"I draw in a deep breath, grip the desk hard with my right hand, and press the sharp edge of my engagement ring into my left thumb. I need these physical reminders to stay focused, to stop worrying that I might vomit on live TV or have a panic attack and hyperventilate. I then look directly into the camera and say, 'Good evening. We begin tonight...' - and 30 minutes later, it is done."

Appear normal and relaxed

Vargas explains how "going live" suddenly snaps her enough into present time, so to speak. She can get on with the show appearing normal, even relaxed.

"I rarely stumble over the words in the script and I am usually able to focus intensely on the stories in the newscast," she says. "Once I get past the first block, I can relax and, some nights, even enjoy this job I love so much."

But she reveals the dark side of the years of panic.

"There is always, for me, a certain giddiness when it's over, and a sense of being wrung out from the effort it takes not just to manage my anxiety, but to conceal it. And then an overwhelming feeling: Dear God, I need a drink."

Going public about treatment

Vargas' memoir, published by Grand Central Publishing in September, 2016, became an instant New York Times and USA Today best seller. However, three years earlier in November, 2013, the New York Daily News broke the news that Vargas was in "a well-respected rehab center for alcohol abuse."

Vargas released a statement:

"Like so many people, I am dealing with addiction. I realized I was becoming increasingly dependent on alcohol. And feel fortunate to have recognized it for the problem it was becoming. I am in treatment and am so thankful for the love and support of my family, friends and colleagues at ABC News. Like so many others, I will deal with this challenge one day at a time. If coming forward today gives one other person the courage to seek help, I'm grateful."

A relapse in 2014, which she says was her last, led to another stint in treatment. Soon Vargas was back on the air and looking brighter and more "there" than ever.

After her book came out in 2016, a special edition of "20/20" featured a brutally honest interview with colleague Diane Sawyer.

The Sawyer interview

"Some days you wake up and feel so-ooo-ooo horrible that the only thing that will make you feel better is more alcohol. And that's when you're in the death spin. That's when people die..." and she pauses, gives a small, affirmative nod, and then repeats "...that's when people die!"

Without missing a beat, Sawyer asks, "How close did you come to dying?"

Vargas holds nothing back.

"On one occasion I had what I know to be a lethal level of alcohol in my blood. And...even that didn't scare me into stopping!" And again the little nod, as if to say "That's how bad addiction can be."

Vargas says that alcoholism affects more than 5 million American women. What's missing in those numbers is the personal reality, the sheer horror of watching your life spiral out of control no matter what the consequences appear to be.

The mother of two young sons tells Sawyer about a moment when her youngest wakes her in the middle of the day to ask, "Mommy when are you going to get up?"

"I would die for my children, Diane. I wouldn't give it a nanosecond's worth of thought...But I couldn't stop drinking for my children," she says. "I don't know if I will ever forgive myself...for hurting them with my drinking. Ever."

Reaching for help

In an essay for ABC News, Vargas said she's "slowly learned to reach out to other people" when help is needed. She also said meditation provides needed calm.

"Meditating has taught me to sit with my thoughts, my feelings, and just observe them. You cannot turn your brain off, or stop your thoughts, but you can try while meditating not to become too invested in them. This is called transcendental meditation, which is the kind I practice. But any kind of meditation will do."

She explains that it's about,

"being present and being grateful, noticing everything going on around you (when you are anxious, or drinking to avoid anxiety, you are never truly present. You are always trying to escape) and being grateful for what is happening that is good."

She told People magazine that drinking to numb her anxiety had a terrible flip side.

"You're removing the capacity to be present, not just in the bad moments. You're numbing the good feelings. You're numbing everything. It's profoundly selfish. You can't make excuses. You have to own what you did. Rehab isn't what finally got me sober. It was nearly losing everything and finally seeing that whatever benefit I thought alcohol gave me was outweighed by what it would cost me."

Vargas has left ABC News to present investigative documentaries forA&E Investigates on A+E Networks.

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