For decades, Elizabeth Vargas has been telling America’s stories.
As a journalist with the NBC and ABC networks, she covered hurricanes, interviewed presidents, shared the events of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the plane crash that killed John F. Kennedy Jr.
In 2016, she told her own story — her battle with anxiety and addiction and her later recovery — in the book, “Between Breaths: A Memoir of Panic and Addiction.”
She noted how certain things that made her successful through life led her through recovery and what she does today during a speech as part of the Mississippi University for Women’s Welty Gala Friday at the Trotter Convention Center.
The gala, part of the Eudora Welty Writers’ Symposium, is the W’s top scholarship fundraiser.
Besides the interview and gala, Vargas participated in a discussion with students at The W and signed copies of her book. She talked with a Commercial Dispatch reporter in an exclusive interview at the W’s Welty Hall Friday afternoon.
The speech was the first Vargas has given since the pandemic started.
“I’m thrilled to be here,” she said at the gala. “I’m just praying for life to get back to normal as I’m sure all of you are. I hope that we’ve seen the darkest days and they are all behind us.”
Addiction stemmed from anxiety
Vargas’ alcohol addiction stemmed from her anxiety. During the gala, she said her addiction was rooted in her childhood after witnessing her father, a veteran of the U.S. Army, join the Vietnam War.
“I had panic attacks every single day when my mom left work in the morning,” she said. “Nobody at that point was talking about anxiety. We weren’t even helping the vets coming home from Vietnam with their PTSD and serious mental health issues.
“Certainly nobody was paying attention to the kids of these soldiers. So nobody ever talked to me about it,” Vargas said. “I kept my enormous anxiety a secret. I was too ashamed of it. I thought I was the only person who felt this way, like millions of others.”
Alcohol worked until it didn’t
Vargas said she didn’t start self-medicating with alcohol until she was out of college.
“I was in my twenties and my first job in local news,” she said. “Chardonnay was my beverage of choice. And it worked, it worked to soothe my anxiety until it didn’t.
“Someone once described the three phases of alcoholism as magic, medicine and misery. I’ve never heard anything more accurate because it is magical. … It soothed my anxiety; it calmed my insecurity. It gave me courage,” she said. “I felt that I often needed it, but after a while, it stopped working so well.”
At a certain point during her addiction, Vargas said she drank to feel like she needed it just to feel normal.
“I did a whole prime time special after my book came out with Diane Sawyer, where I interviewed a medical expert on addiction. And she said at a certain point at the end, somebody like me needed two glasses of wine just to feel like you do when you wake up every morning,” Vargas said. “That’s how much your brain gets rewired. After that, you’re definitely sliding from medicine into misery. I was a very highly functioning alcoholic.”
During the interview and the gala, Vargas noted that while she was struggling with alcohol addiction, reading other people’s books about their situation helped her and prompted her to write her book.
“At some point I thought, ‘You know, everybody else knows so many of these details. Why don’t I actually tell the real story, and maybe in the process make somebody else feel less alone,’” Vargas continued. “Because I don’t think I ever felt more alone than I did while I was struggling during that time.”
Sharing her own story
Throughout her life, Vargas has made a living telling other people’s stories, but the hardest story to tell was her own.
“I’m not going to sugar coat that,” she said at the gala. “Then after I wrote it and turned it into the publisher, I woke up every night, about two or three o’clock in the morning in a cold sweat thinking, ‘Oh my God, this is a terrible mistake. Like, what am I doing?’”
That anxiety heightened when she recorded the audiobook over the course of two days.
“We recorded it over two days in a booth. There’s two audio engineers who could hear the whole thing,” she said in her interview. “I remember recording it and just feeling mortified that they were hearing all my darkest deepest secrets and you know, like thinking, ‘Oh my God, they must think I’m like…’” She took a deep breath and tensed up a bit before continuing. “So it was hard.”
Book still has impact
“I’ve had so many people tell me, I’ve helped them. I still get messages like that,” she said at the gala.
Vargas said that now listening to other people’s stories saves her every day.
“It teaches me how much we don’t know about the people we interact with every day,” she said. “What they might’ve been through. How much they endured. How much they might still suffer. It teaches me empathy and compassion and reminds me how much I can still learn.
“And finally, it teaches me to be grateful,” she concluded. “It’s a lesson I need to learn daily to focus on the good in my life, my health, my two amazing children, my friends, my family, and the opportunity to be here with you tonight.”
Removing addiction’s stigma
Addiction is a disease and is a crisis in our country right now during the pandemic, Vargas said during the gala.
“The numbers of people suffering from anxiety and depression have skyrocketed,” she said during the gala. “The number of people self-medicating with drugs and alcohol is off the charts. We had more people die last year of drug overdoses than any other year before that.
“It’s just getting worse. Nearly half the people in this country still believe unbelievably that addiction is a moral failing,” she continued. “We must do more to change this because people are suffering and dying needlessly because they’re too afraid to admit they have a problem and that they need help. They call these deaths of despair and I’ve never heard a more accurate term. ”
Using career to help others
Vargas currently serves as the host of FOX’s America’s Most Wanted and is lead investigative reporter/documentary anchor for the A&E Networks.
She also serves on the Partnership to End Addiction board of directors and hosts the nonprofit’s podcast “Heart of the Matter.” During the interview, Vargas said she became involved with the partnership about five or six years ago after hosting a gala for them.
Then the pandemic hit, but the partnership kept going and came up with its current campaign, “Connection is the Key.”
“That really is the key to solving addiction, whether it’s substance use disorder or mental health issues,” Vargas said during her interview. “During the pandemic, it was so hard for people to be connected.”
While looking at how people were unable to meet others or get support by attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
“So I started the podcast, and I would say like 70 to 80 percent of my guests are people who are in recovery,” Vargas said.
While interviewees include celebrities such as Dancing with the Stars dancer Cheryl Burke and actress Patricia Heaton, Vargas said the heart of the podcast is sharing stories.
“(Cheryl Burke) was very honest about why she stopped, how she stopped and the fact that for her, she really struggles with staying sober,” she said in the interview. “Unlike my last guest, Patricia Heaton, who’s been sober for three years and was able to put it down and not struggle. I think (Burke’s) honesty is amazing. Her candor’s incredible. And I think people who are in the same position. It helps them to hear her talk about it, but it also helps everybody else to understand what that’s like.”
‘Life can be so much better’
To those currently struggling to get or stay sober, Vargas said they are not alone.
“Life can be so much better,” she said in an interview. “Whatever you’re trying to numb will still be sitting there waiting for you once you sober up or clean up.
“I remember somebody saying in the program once that a drink will only make it worse,” Vargas continued. “The problem is that some people are in a lot of pain. They just don’t, they can’t figure out a way through.”
Keeping the secret of pain and addiction can be overwhelming and overtake you, Vargas said.
“I would say reach out and ask somebody for help. Tell somebody, you know, pull somebody into your confidence and let them know what’s happening and know that you’re not alone,” she said. “Millions and millions and millions of people have struggled with the exact same thing and they’ve made it out all right.”