When Elizabeth Vargas exposed the underbelly of some of her life’s darkest hours in a sobering best-seller about the often under-discussed issues of anxiety and addiction, it wasn’t news at 11.
Vargas had been in rehab when she was outed for alcohol addiction more than three years ago, long before the book, Between Breaths: A Memoir of Panic and Addiction, was ever announced. But the outing sparked a surprising turning point in her life, and the positive ripple effects of sharing her tale are still being felt.
The former ABC 20/20 anchor and A&E Investigates host headlines the final event of the popular Rancho Mirage Speaker Series this season on March 26. Vargas will discuss her book and the issue of anxiety, which she says has “reached pretty epic proportions” in adults, adolescents, and children in America.
She shares more with Palm Springs Life.
What more can you tell us about your discussion?
It’s really important that people talk honestly and openly about mental health issues because too many suffer alone and in silence.
What do you feel is the most misunderstood component about anxiety and grief?
Around all of these issues, whether it’s around anxiety or depression or addition, there’s an enormous amount of shame talking about it openly. That’s what leads people to self-medicate and keep secrets. There are so many programs that help people, groups who share the same issue. It’s a powerful, therapeutic tool because it sends a very graphic message that you are not alone. And when anybody suffers from anxiety or depression or grappling with addiction, I promise you, the one thing they’ve said is, and surely the thing that I felt, was, “That was the lowest part of my life but the loneliest part of my life.”
There’s a tendency to isolate, isn’t there?
A profound isolation. Most of it is because we are keeping secrets or not telling people we are upset or depressed. Or anxious. Especially anxious. I always felt embarrassed that I felt so anxious. I always thought, “Why am I so anxious? Other people aren’t.” Unfortunately, if people are dealing with alcoholism and drug addiction, which, unfortunately, is a huge issue we are grappling with in our country right now, there are secrets around them. By its very nature, it isolates you. You can feel pretty much alone and feeling as if you are unable to deal with anything in your life.
“There is great beauty and relief and reward of the sharing your human experience.”
– Elizabeth Vargas
What do you feel helped you get through your darkest moments?
Probably the love of my parents, and my brother and sister, and my few close friends. At some point, you have reach down inside and do whatever you have to do to get through what you are going through and understand you are not the only one going through something like this. It’s putting one foot in front of the other and sometimes, not just doing it one day at a time, but sometimes one hour at a time. I’m not talking about not drinking but living life in search of some inner peace.
You wanted to address these issues because …
Initially, I was outed and it wasn’t my decision to go public with my alcohol addiction. Somebody leaked it to the press when I was in rehab and it was absolutely devastating. I had to issue a statement — from rehab. It was terrible. Everybody should have the opportunity to go through the darkest time of their life without having it splashed all over the pages of newspapers. Once I got out of rehab and started recovery from the disease — and it is a disease — I realized that the whole time I was suffering, I thought I was alone. I thought, “Maybe if I tell my story, maybe they’ll realize they are not alone.” And honestly, I wrote the book and there’s a six-month gap between the time you turn it in and it’s published and I’d wake up and think, “Oh my God, I’m calling the publisher and telling them to stop the presses. I’m grateful I didn’t do that.”
Do you feel you have a lot of courage?
That’s funny. I feel I have courage at times and at times, I need more of it. I’m just another human being in the slog of life trying to make the best decisions and trust all will be well. We are all in that boat together. And you know, I don’t know if I would have written my book if I hadn’t been outed in rehab. I guess the lesson there is that what seems like a terrible, horrible, awful, dark thing, can be a blessing in disguise. I turned that betrayal of being outed into something good.
If there is one thing you could leave people with here, what would it be?
That even in your darkest moments, when you really feel like you need to hunker down and hide, that’s when you need to reach out. There is great beauty and relief and reward of the sharing your human experience.
Rancho Mirage Speaker Series presents Elizabeth Vargas at 7 p.m. March 26 at Helene Galen Auditorium at the Annenberg Center in Rancho Mirage, 39000 Bob Hope Drive, Rancho Mirage. There will be a VIP reception from 8:30-10 p.m. catered by Acqua California Bistro (additional $100). Learn more at rmrspeakerseries.com.