“Magic. Medicine. Misery.”
That was how veteran journalist Elizabeth Vargas described her relationship with alcohol during her keynote address at the National Conference on Addiction Disorders East on Thursday in Baltimore.
Vargas said anxiety has been a lifelong challenge, dating back to her earliest memories being terrified of hiccups as a 3-year-old. While she didn’t drink much as a teenager—her solution to anxiety was control, and drinking alcohol left her feeling out of control—the pressures of being a network news anchor and a parent led her to begin drinking a glass of wine each night as an adult. Wine helped her relax, and “the world seemed rosier and gentler,” she said.
Years later, however, Vargas said her nightly glass of white wine became a nightly bottle, with her drinking escalating after the birth of her second child. Wine went from being “magic” to “medicine,” as she started needing more and more to unwind. “Medicine” became “misery” for Vargas when she found herself frequently sneaking extra glasses at home and at social functions, frequently plotting her next opportunity to secretly have her next glass, she said. Her ability to continuing functioning and maintain secrecy fueled her denial.
A blackout episode changed her view. Vargas said she once ducked into a wine store while traveling with her television crew, purchased a bottle of wine, and then drank the entire bottle in her dressing room after a shoot.
“And that was the last thing I remember,” she said.
Waking up with a hangover, she decided to enter treatment. Vargas said she was “flustered and embarrassed” to say her addiction was to alcohol when asked, and it would eventually take a second, longer trip into treatment and “two rocky years” before she became able to maintain sobriety. Along the way, Vargas said she learned that the mix of anxiety and alcohol is a more common combination than she initially realized: 60% of women with an alcohol addiction have anxiety compared to 30% of men, and people with anxiety are four times as likely to relapse, she said.
Vargas said she “can’t pinpoint how or why I was able to turn the corner, but before I did, I nearly lost everything—my children, my job, my life. What I’ve won in recovery is so much more.”
Today, Vargas said she meditates daily and makes a gratitude list every night. She attends regular meetings, and said that remembering that she is not alone in her battle is reassuring.
“To be able to sit in a room and talk about it is an enormous gift and incredibly helpful,” she said.
She closed her remarks by showing appreciation for attendees’ efforts to combat addiction.
“Thank you,” she said, “for the work that you do.”
Preliminary data shows decline in Maryland overdose deaths
Prior to Vargas taking the stage, Steve Schuh, executive director of the Maryland Opioid Operational Command Center, shared some encouraging news: Preliminary data for the first quarter of 2018 and 2019 suggests overdose-related deaths in the state are on the decline.
Deaths linked to opioids, fentanyl, cocaine, heroin and prescription opioids each have fallen in the first quarter of 2019 compared to the same period the prior year.
“The numbers give us hope the worst has passed, but we recognize one quarter doesn’t make a trend,” Schuh said.
In 2015, a Heroin and Opioid Emergency Task Force, commissioned by Maryland Governor Larry Hogan and led by Lt. Governor Boyd Rutherford, delivered a list of 33 recommendations for combating the epidemic, most of which have since been implemented. In 2017, Opioid Intervention Teams were stationed in every count in the state after Hogan declared a state of emergency. The OITs have been “incredibly important to our response” to the epidemic, Schuh said.
This summer, Schuh said his staff has visited with 22 of 24 local jurisdictions, evaluating programs and meeting with local officials. The process has been useful both for establishing best practices and identifying gaps, he said.
Photo by Avi Gerver Photography.