Ahead of the conference, Vargas spoke about the hidden blessings of being forced to face her alcoholism in the public eye.
This August, Elizabeth Vargas will give the keynote address at NCAD East, the National Conference on Addiction Disorders, in Baltimore, Maryland.
The Emmy-award winning journalist, a former host of 20/20 and World News Tonight, will address the regional gathering of “clinical professionals and executives” as someone who struggled in the public eye with alcohol use disorder, a symptom of severe anxiety stemming from her childhood.
Since she was outed in 2013 for undergoing treatment for alcoholism, Vargas has been on a long and intense journey of discovering that her pain, which she once struggled to keep private, could change the lives of others.
Ahead of the NCAD conference, Vargas spoke to Behavioral Healthcare Executive about the hidden blessings of being forced to face her alcohol problem in the public eye.
Writing The Memoir
Vargas, who is now the lead investigative reporter and documentary anchor for A&E Networks, said that if her time in treatment had remained private, she probably would not have written her book Between Breaths: A Memoir of Panic and Addiction.
“I’m not sure, honestly, if I would have written a book if it hadn’t been made public already,” she said. But years later, Vargas acknowledged the impact that her book has had. “Many say it helped them seek help. I think, gosh, if I can take the darkest chapter of my life and make something good out of it, that’s a huge gift for me.”
Being open about her problem also affected her work as a journalist in an unexpected way. Through knowing her struggle, Vargas says people are more comfortable to “open up to me.”
“In many ways, I feel like it has made my work easier, but deeper,” said Vargas. “When you’ve walked through a really dark time yourself, I have a great deal of empathy for people who are going through a dark time themselves.”
Ultimately, she says, it’s important to treat people dealing with substance use disorder with dignity and respect, and not to shame them on top of the shame they are already feeling.
“I think we need to keep in mind that getting sober or clean from drugs is very difficult. If it was easy enough to do on the first try, we wouldn’t have a problem in this country where half a million people have died of opioid overdoses in this century,” she said.
“The more we can remember to treat them as human beings who are in pain and might have deep shame, the more successful we’ll be in helping them get clean and sober.”
Vargas detailed her battles with alcohol abuse and anxiety in a 2016 interview with The Fix. Her anxiety stemmed from being “bullied mercilessly” as a child. Later in life, she developed a problem with alcohol that was new to her. “I drank moderately for 20 years,” she told The Fix. “It wasn’t until my 40s that I fell off a cliff.”
Vargas has been sober for about four years now. She manages her anxiety through meditation, introduced to her by fellow ABC anchor George Stephanopoulos in 2014 upon returning from treatment.
“If you can slow down long enough to think clearly, you can start to not only manage that panic, but understand that what you’re so terrified of isn’t really that terrifying.”