Elizabeth Vargas has been the mouthpiece for some of history’s biggest stories. She’s covered the JFK Jr. plane crash, Elian Gonzalez’s return back to Cuba, the attacks on 9/11, and the horrifying murder of Lacy Peterson, just to name a few. However, through all her travels around the world and exclusive interviews, there has been another story happening beneath the surface—one that would eventually rise and prove to be her biggest one yet.
In her latest memoir Between Breaths, Vargas is finally ready to sit down and tell it all. She gives readers an upclose look into her struggles with anxiety as well as alcoholism, the disease that led to career letdowns, unpleasant family vacations and eventually the end of her marriage. Now, with all eyes on her, Vargas delivers one of her most personal profiles yet, one that is touched with pain just as much as it is with hope.
She speaks to SoberRecovery candidly on the phone about some of the most pivotal moments in her story.
On realizing that she didn’t just have an “alcohol problem,” but that she was an alcoholic:
Well, I was massively in denial. My story is one of somebody dragged kicking and screaming to the table to finally admit that. It took me ages to admit it. As I write in the book, I had at one point a lethal amount of alcohol in my system and that didn’t scare me into stopping. I kept thinking if I could do this job and manage this career and support this family, I can’t possibly be an alcoholic; I just have an alcohol problem. And it wasn’t until, to be the honest, the very very end when I realized, there’s something wrong here.
Most people touch the hot stove once or twice—maybe even three times—and get burned. Most people learn. It took me half a dozen, if not more, times to burn myself at the stove before realizing that normal people don’t do this. This is not normal. And that’s part of what I did. I normalized a lot of behavior. I normalized the fact that waking up in the morning and feeling slightly hungover, or terribly hungover, was normal. Or that it wasn’t abnormal to have to go to the gym and work out too many glasses of wine the night before. It wasn’t abnormal to always feel so anxious—that’s all I knew. It’s only now looking back that I can realize how much I just accepted that I would just go through life constantly on the brink of a panic attack. That I would just go through life every day planning where I would stop at night to get a nice bottle of Chardonnay and, at the end, where I would I stop at night to sneak a glass of Chardonnay. It was crazy how much it took over my life. And I didn’t realize it when I was in the middle of it.
On what it took her to get into recovery:
You know, I was fighting so long against the anxiety; I eventually turned to self-medication in a destructive way. Then I was fighting so long the idea that I might have an issue or a problem. Then I was fighting to keep that a secret. I was just fighting, fighting, fighting. And finally, I only got to that place of grace, as I call it in my book when I let go.
I don’t know if you’ve ever water-skied, but when you fall, you’re supposed to let go of the rope. And every beginner doesn’t do it. Every beginner falls off the water skis and hangs onto the rope. You’re going 50 miles an hour and you’ve got four gallons of water going into every orifice in your body. You know, in your eyes, in your nose, in your ears, in your mouth. And it’s only when you let go of the rope—which initially seems scary and counterintuitive—that you all of a sudden bob there, and you’re fine. The boat will come back and get you. But it’s scary and it’s instinctive to hang on for dear life. I finally had to let go of the rope.
There isn’t one size fits all. Rehab can be great for some people, and it’s not so great for other people. I had two experiences. One very positive; one not very positive. At all. And neither of them worked ultimately.
What ultimately worked was me just finally deciding all on my own, “I can’t do this anymore. I give up. I totally give up.” And I worked with a wonderful person for many months who was a recovering alcoholic and who helped me. I started going to a lot of meetings with other alcoholics. I did a lot of work. The outpatient program I took part in was great. But different things work for different people. I think maybe for your readers and for maybe people who just have somebody in their lives who’s struggling with this issue is not to look at a relapse as the end. According to the NIAA, the average alcoholic relapses anywhere from three to seven times before they stay sober. It’s just part of recovery sometimes. So don’t give up and throw in the towel on somebody who relapses—that’s the time to pick them back up and say “You can do this!” You got to get back on the horse and give it your best shot.
On breaking the stereotype of alcoholism:
Part of the reason why I wrote this book is because I think we need to start talking about the fact that there’s this attitude out there among so many people that it’s not a disease. That we’re being selfish and undisciplined and deserve every bad thing that ever happens to you. And we should be punished.
I’ve seen people who’ve written in and say, “Oh you deserve to have your husband divorce you and cheat on you while you were in rehab.” I’ve seen that. And it’s like, “Oh how sad that you think that. About any human being. I would never say such a thing.” Because nobody deserves that. Nobody. We all deserve compassion, including my ex-husband. He went through a hard time, too. Did he handle it well? In my opinion, no. But I’m sure I will never understand what he went through, to a certain extent.
It would just be nice if everybody was a lot kinder and a lot less judgmental. And that we started to understand that nobody does this to themselves because they wake up in the morning and they decide that it will be a cool thing to do. It’s a disease. And somebody is in so much pain and suffering so much that they tragically turned to drugs or alcohol as a way to not feel that pain. We don’t punish people for getting cancer or having the cancer come back. We don’t say, “That’s it, you’re fired.” So why are we so harsh on the addict?
I think I’m better at my job now than I have been in a long time because I’m fully present and because I’m not waging all that secret battle. It’s always a privilege when somebody agrees to let me tell their story on television, and I’m certainly more sensitive to the daily struggles everybody goes through—the sometimes secret struggles. And how every single person you meet is fighting some battle of some kind. I think that’s always on my mind.