An interview with ABC News anchor Elizabeth Vargas about her struggles with alcoholism aired on ABC’s “20/20” on Sept. 9, days before the release of her memoir, “Between Breaths.”
Diane Sawyer spoke with Vargas about how her alcohol addiction developed, anxiety issues and how alcohol affected her family life.
“I miss that time when it felt so innocent and romantic,” Vargas told Sawyer at the beginning of the program. “That’s just me romanticizing something that turned out to be real monstrous for me.”
Vargas described how a few drinks turned into an alcohol use disorder. As a local news anchor, she said she started drinking with colleagues after work. Suddenly, the anxiety she felt since childhood eased and everything seemed happier.
Despite a calm on-camera demeanor, Vargas said she experienced anxiety attacks during the nightly countdown to the evening news. She eventually began to drink in secret after work.
“I would stop on my way home from work and have a glass of wine or two at a bar, alone, feeling really pathetic,” Vargas told Sawyer.
Alone and embarrassed each night at the bar, Vargas said she would pretend to talk to someone on her phone. Her drinking issues eventually contributed to her divorce from singer Marc Cohn, whom she’d been married to for 12 years.
“It made all of the real problems we needed to discuss and work though frivolous in comparison,” Vargas said of her marriage.
In her memoir, “Between Breaths: A Memoir of Panic and Addiction,” Vargas describes how she grew up with anxiety issues and turned to alcohol to ease her anxiety. The book, set to be released Sept. 13, recounts her denial and how she strove to keep her drinking a secret for years.
Vargas also talks about rehab, maintaining sobriety and striving to pursue career goals and be a good mother to her children.
Vargas publicly revealed her struggles with alcohol on “Good Morning America” in January of 2014, about two months after attending rehab.
“I am an alcoholic,” Vargas told George Stephanopoulos. “It took me a long time to admit that to myself. It took me a long time to admit it to my family, but I am.”
She described the shame and guilt she felt when she would cover stories about alcoholism while she was hiding her own struggles. At the time, she appeared to be gaining control of her life.
Two years later, the “20/20” episode shows a different side of the story. Vargas was forced to talk about her disease publicly after media reports revealed multiple stints at rehab. She would continue to struggle with addiction before achieving sobriety.
Throughout the program, Vargas’s accomplishments are portrayed: how she traveled the world to report breaking news, how she took over the anchor chair for Peter Jennings on 9/11 and how she lived a lavish, comfortable life. She eventually became a co-anchor of “World News Tonight,” but Vargas says things weren’t as perfect behind the scenes.
She was eventually demoted from her anchor position, and her drinking started to get out of control.
“I had on one occasion had a lethal level of alcohol in my blood system,” Vargas told Sawyer. “Even that didn’t scare me into stopping.”
Vargas doesn’t believe she ever physically endangered her children because she never drove under the influence or behaved recklessly around them. But she said her drinking may have damaged them emotionally.
“Because I didn’t physically endanger my children, doesn’t mean I didn’t devastate them or put them in danger emotionally or psychologically,” Vargas said.
Vargas eventually attended a rehab facility that specialized in treating trauma patients, but she said she left after 28 days, against the advice of doctors. When she returned home, she realized she still needed help. Vargas returned to rehab and completed treatment.
Investigating Anxiety’s Link to Alcoholism
During the episode, Vargas interviews people in recovery from alcoholism and experts in the field of addiction. Sawyer describes the prevalence of women who experience anxiety and develop alcohol use disorders.
About 23 million Americans, 11 percent of the U.S. population, have an anxiety disorder. More than 17 percent of individuals with an anxiety disorder also have an alcohol use disorder, according to a 2004 study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry.
A 2012 review published in Alcohol Research identified multiple studies that found anxiety disorders were more prevalent among women, and a 1997 study found 60 percent of women who were alcohol dependent also experienced an anxiety disorder. Comparatively, 35 percent of men who were alcohol dependent had an anxiety disorder.
Vargas said anxiety and stigma can prevent people from seeking help.
“Because I [was] so insecure and anxious and afraid, I never in my life learned to reach out for help,” she said.Today, she’s using her platform to shed light on the prevalence of alcohol addiction in the United States with the hopes that she’ll inspire others to seek treatment.