For years, 20/20 co-anchor Elizabeth Vargas self-medicated her anxiety and panic attacks with alcohol. Now she’s sober and shining a light against stigma.
For most of her broadcast journalism career, 20/20 co-anchor Elizabeth Vargas treated her severe anxiety with intensive drinking—a story she shared in Between Breaths: A Memoir of Panic and Addiction. As a guest at This Is My Brave’s Mental Health Summit earlier this year, she spoke onstage with interviewer Colby Itkowitz:
Q: You talk in the book about your anxiety and panic starting at a very young age.
A: I came out of the womb anxious. When I was 6 years old, that was the turning point. My dad was a career Army officer and he was sent to Vietnam. We were stationed in Japan at the time. My mom had to go to work. I started having daily full-out panic attacks. The panic and anxiety just followed me for the rest of my life. I never spoke about it, and I couldn’t even put a name to it until I reached adulthood
Q: A prevailing theme throughout the book is the shame you felt.
A: The night my mom went to give birth to my little sister, I chased after her to stop her leaving—classic separation anxiety. The neighbor who had come to watch us stopped me and said, “What’s the matter with you?” In that moment, my 6-year-old self thought, “Oh. This is validation that it is very wrong to feel and to act this way.”
After that my life became literally a decades-long effort at white-knuckling my way through situations that made me anxious. On the plus side, you develop good amount of grit, but at a terrible price.
Q: What have you heard from people since you started sharing your story?
A: Not a day has gone by that I haven’t heard from somebody, whether through a letter or an email or a tweet or Facebook or on the street, who tells me, “You told my story,” or, “Because of you I got help.”
Q: And for your personal recovery, hearing those stories …
A: It’s been amazingly cathartic. “You are only as sick as your secrets”—the things that you keep secret are things you’re ashamed of. If you shine the light on it, the shame starts to dissipate and shrink. It’s like a bad fungus or mold. If you let the air and sunlight in, it begins to lose its power.
Q: Alcohol was, for you, a way to cope [with anxiety]. What are some of the coping techniques you use now?
A: I meditate every day. That helps so much with anxiety. You train your brain to sit through even the discomfort of sitting for 20 minutes and meditating. And you learn that everything is temporary. It just allows you to settle.
I also make a point of meeting with other alcoholics almost every other day. Support groups of any kind are incredibly valuable. People with anxiety, depression, addiction, really feel like they are all alone and become isolated. … To sit in a room with other people who have experienced what you have experienced is incredibly valuable and helps me enormously. I highly recommend it.
Q: Having gone through this experience and come out on the other side, what did you learn about yourself?
A: I’ve learned that I’m not, by a long shot, the only person who has ever self-medicated anxiety with alcohol. I’ve learned that I’m tougher than I thought. I’ve learned I’m more fragile than I thought. I have learned how precious life is … to stop living so much in the future and all the worry, and so much in the past with all the regret, and to try and focus on the present.
Note: This excerpt has been edited for length and clarity.
Printed as “Back Chat with Elizabeth Vargas”, Fall 2017
via Esperanza – Hope To Cope
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