Hungover on 9/11: ABC News' Elizabeth Vargas talks about coming clean in tell-all memoir
On the morning of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks ABC newswoman Elizabeth Vargas woke up hung over after a night of social drinking.
"Really hungover. Dry mouth, swollen eyes, shaky hands hungover," the 20/20 co-anchor recalls in her new book, Between Breaths: A Memoir of Panic and Addiction.
It wouldn't be the last time.
Between Breaths is the story of an anxious child who became a seemingly successful adult, one who learned to tamp down her fears with alcohol, which would eventually contribute to the end of her marriage and very nearly cost her her life.
In a phone interview Tuesday, Vargas, who'll appear at the Free Library of Philadelphia at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, spoke about taking her once-private life very public.
Q: I think it's widely known that you were treated for a drinking problem, but not, perhaps, how close it came to killing you. What made you decide to write this book and reveal so much?
A: Because I knew enough people knew those stories and I didn't want to live in fear of those stories coming out. You know, there's a saying in recovery that you're only as sick as your secrets. And honestly, I just thought, I don't want to live with these secrets and this worry and this stress of wondering who knows, and what do they know, and will more people know. I think me telling these stories is very different from having somebody else tell the story.
I'm able to own it, and there's part of me that feels very liberated by just getting it out there. And by sort of, a little bit, closing [it], being able to turn away and move on.
Q: This is as much a book about living with anxiety as it is about alcoholism. Isn't writing and talking about these things anxiety-provoking?
A: I've been living with anxiety much, much, much longer than I've been with living with alcoholism, that's for sure. I already knew from the sheer numbers and all the data that I'm not alone. I mean the biggest mistake I did was spending most of my life thinking I was the only person who felt this way. Because I never told anybody I felt this way and therefore nobody had the chance to say, "Um, no. There are lots of people who feel this way." There are lots of people, women especially, who self-medicate to not feel this way.
In actuality, talking about it is connecting me to all these other people. I've been inundated with messages, from people on Twitter, on email, on Facebook, on Instagram, reaching out to say they, too, have the same struggles. They, too, feel so anxious. They, too, drink too much, to alleviate the anxiety. They need help. Where do they go for help? I mean, it's been an incredibly connecting experience. And honest to goodness, if I can help one other person, it would be a gift. The fact that I can reach a lot of people is amazing.
Q: "It terrified me and I loved it," you wrote about anchoring breaking news. Is the flip side of your anxiety the need for the adrenaline rush that performing well under pressure provides?
A: No, I don't think that is. Listen, I absolutely love my job. And that's just another example of a particularly exciting aspect of my job that I happen to be very good at and is amazing and wonderful to be able to do.
There are plenty of other things that I could be doing to have an adrenaline rush that I would never do. Like my 10-year-old loves roller-coasters and going upside down and backwards. I don't need that, thank you very much.
Q: After all these years as a reporter, is it hard to be the news story?
A: Definitely. It's an uncomfortable feeling. Sitting down and being interviewed by Diane Sawyer, for our [20/20] special on Friday night. And even yesterday on [Good Morning America] to be interviewed by George [Stephanopoulos] and to be interviewed by you, right now, is difficult.
It's not easy to talk about myself at all. I'm used to being the one who asks the questions instead of answers them. But I just try and remember to be as honest as possible, because that's how you connect with people. And part of the problem with the disease of alcoholism and the terrible syndrome of anxiety is that people suffer in silence and alone for way too much of the time. And you can never get better unless you can turn outward, and reach outward, and get help. And you can only do that if you talk about it.
Q: Is there anything in the book that your sons [aged 13 and 10] didn't know already?
A: No, I would never speak publicly about something that I hadn't told my children. So they knew everything. We all watched the special on 20/20 together. It was interesting. For them, in their lives, this is ancient history.
So when I sat down and I told my oldest son that I was writing a book, I was very, very worried, because he's in junior high and junior high is tough, let's be honest. ... At first he said, "Oh, Mom, I'm so proud of you," and I said, "Well, I don't want you to be embarrassed."
And he said, "Why would I be embarrassed?"
And I said, "Because it's about when I was drinking."
And he said, "Mom, I'd be embarrassed if you were still drinking." So leave it to my 13-year-old to put everything in perspective.
Q: Could your story offer some hope for people frustrated that they – or their loved ones – relapse after being in rehab once or twice?
A: Statistics show that most people relapse four to seven times before they get sober. The unicorn in the room is the person who gets sober the first time they try. So that's exactly what I'm hoping this book does for people — helps them understand that relapse is, sadly, a normal part of recovery. You don't just take a pill and get better.
But also there's a part of my book where I'm very honest about the fact that I love my children more than my own life. I would die for my children, that's how much I love my children. But I couldn't stop drinking for my children. And if that makes somebody out there who feels the pain of having an alcoholic in their family and wonders why they won't stop drinking, and [think] don't they love me enough to do this for me — they can't. This is a disease. It's like saying, "Don't you love me enough not to get cancer?" At a certain point, your brain chemistry has changed. It is a disease, and it doesn't have anything to do with how much they love you.
Q: Do you have a sense of what kind of treatment works best, or just about what's working for you?
A: Recovery is not one-size-fits-all. There are many different reasons why people turn to certain substances and abuse them. Rehabs have become a big business in this country. There are good ones and not-good ones, just like anything else. There was an article recently in the New York Times that said people spend more time picking a restaurant for dinner than they do picking a rehab for 30 days. ... Different people need different kinds of environments and settings in which to be able to strip away all your defenses, and get honest with yourself and the people around you.
I had two experiences. I had a wonderful experience in rehab and I had a terrible experience in rehab. But, to be honest, in the end it wasn't rehab that got me sober. It was just finally surrendering and saying, "I don't want to do this anymore. I can't do this anymore. Somebody help me."