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NCAD Spotlight: Elizabeth Vargas on Facing Addiction and Anxiety

July 26, 2019

From war zones to the White House, veteran journalist Elizabeth Vargas has covered intense, world-changing stories around the globe. By her own admission, she is “attracted to the struggle or the challenge” in the stories she covers.

Vargas knows a thing or two about facing adversity. Growing up with anxiety, she turned to alcohol to cope with her struggles. After initially denying she had an addiction, she eventually sought treatment. Her private battle became public when word got out that she was in rehab, but Vargas took the matter head-on, publishing Between Breaths: A Memoir of Panic and Addiction a year into her sobriety.

Vargas, now the lead investigative report/documentary anchor for A&E after a lengthy stint as a journalist for ABC News in a variety of roles and a three-year run with NBC working on "Dateline" and "Today", will deliver a keynote address to attendees at NCAD East, convening Aug. 15-18. Ahead of her appearance in Baltimore, she spoke with Behavioral Healthcare Executive about her decision to write a book chronicling her struggles with anxiety and alcohol addiction, how being a public figure made her efforts to seek treatment made recovery more challenging, and how her personal experiences have shaped the way she approaches sensitive stories and subjects going through trauma of their own.

(Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

You published your memoir in 2016 and opened up on your personal experiences. What motivated you to speak out on those experiences with anxiety and addiction, and what impact has choosing to do so had on you professionally?

Sadly, while I was seeking help in rehab, somebody leaked it to the press. I’m not sure, honestly, if I would have written a book if it hadn’t been made public already. I don’t know the answer to that. The answer probably may be that I would not have. It was really scary to write this book, to be honest, and to be this open about something most people don’t talk about. You’re seeing it change a little bit now. Having major public figures like Princes Harry and Edward, and Lady Gaga, and others talk openly about anxiety and addiction, that’s the kind of thing that needs to happen more. Because a lot of people suffer in silence and alone.

Part of the reason I didn’t seek help before I did was that I was ashamed and I fully bought into the stigma that I’m just not disciplined enough, or that it’s a character flaw or a moral failing, and that I need to keep this secret. A lot of people suffer because they don’t talk about it because they don’t realize they’re not alone in it. Without exaggeration, every single day to this day since that book came out, I hear from somebody on social media or someone who writes a letter the old fashioned way, or stops me at the airport, the gym or the supermarket, and thanks me for writing this book and tells me I helped them. 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.

Did the fact that you’re a public figure contribute to your hesitance to seek help?

Absolutely. And listen, the worst things came true. When I did go seek help, because I’m a public figure, someone picked up a phone and called the New York Post and the Daily News, and I was forced to release a statement from rehab announcing to the world that I was seeking help for alcoholism. That was deeply painful. Nobody should be forced to do that when they are trying to get help. It’s hard enough as it is to get sober. Shame on whoever picked up the phone and did that. That was really not great. It was deeply painful to me and my family. So yes, I felt like I had to run around with sunglasses and a baseball cap on.

Part of recovery is understanding you’re not unique. Many, many people suffer from anxiety, just like you. And many, many people self-medicate with alcohol, just like you. There is a great healing power in that realization, that you’re not terminally unique, that other people struggle too, and that it’s OK and they get through it without having to numb themselves. That’s a deeply powerful thing to embrace. Everyone should be allowed the chance to do that.

You’ve covered stories in extremely intense situations. How have your personal experiences with anxiety, addiction and recovery shaped the way you cover these stories and speak with subjects who are exposed to trauma?

I think being as honest as I was about my own struggle has definitely made people feel like I understand them when they are telling me about their struggles. They can be different kinds of struggles, but the fact people know I went through a dark time and came out the other side for whatever reason makes them open up to me. For the same reason when somebody admits ‘I went through something,’ you have empathy for them. In return, they can have empathy for you. So, in many ways, I feel like it has made my work easier, but deeper. When you’ve walked through a really dark time yourself, I have a great deal of empathy and sympathy for people who are going through a dark time themselves. And let’s be honest, many times when I’m interviewing somebody, unless it’s a political type of thing, I’m usually interviewing people because something has happened. Deep and dark maybe, and tragic maybe, but something has happened that has challenged them and turned their world upside down.

I’m attracted to those parts of the story anyway. I’m attracted to the struggle or the challenge. It might not be with addiction or mental health. I remember recently interviewing Mark Cuban [owner of the Dallas Mavericks NBA team], and what I was most attracted to in his story was the struggle. He was driving a car with a hole in the floorboard, like I did when I was 21, and selling garbage bags door to door. That’s what interests me. How did you get through that part, and hold on tight to the dream, and persevere despite adversity and challenges? Rather than the trappings of success, I’m attracted to the challenging part of the story.

When you speak at NCAD, you will be addressing an audience of addiction, behavioral and mental health professionals, from clinicians to executives. What is one piece of advice you would want to share with that group, based on your experiences?

I’m sure this is an audience of people who are smart, and the mere fact they are coming to this gathering shows they are interested and clearly compassionate. This may be something they already know, but every single person I have ever met who suffers from the disease of addiction—whether we are talking about the garden variety alcoholic or deeply on death’s door heroin addict—every one of them feels an enormous amount of shame about what they are doing to themselves. I hear a lot of people talk about relapse. In my book, I was very honest and open about the number of times I relapsed before I succeeded in staying sober. I think a lot of people, from family members to definitely employers and medical insurance companies, we bail on the addict. We don’t even wait on the relapse. We just bail. A lot of times, it happens after someone tries once to get sober or clean and they fail. We say ugh, forget it, and we yell at them. Why can’t you get this? And we’re firing you or kicking you out or refusing to pay anymore. 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. We are losing so many people in the disease of addiction. Every single one I’ve met who is drinking or taking drugs to numb some kind of pain deep inside feels great shame over what they’re doing. 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.

Join clinicians and executives at NCAD East, Aug. 15-18 in Baltimore, and work to improve and refine patient care as well as develop sustainable and successful treatment organizations.

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