Elizabeth Vargas says she spent 'years apologizing' to her sons for her alcoholism — but that sobriety has taught her the power of 'living amends'

Elizabeth Vargas
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For three decades, television journalist Elizabeth Vargas has been delivering Americans the most important news, from political upsets and immigration standoffs to unsolved crimes and natural disasters. But perhaps the most challenging headlines were those the newswoman made herself, back when the now-sober mother-of-two did a stint in rehab to address her alcohol addiction, and it was leaked to the press.

"Still, a decade later, it shocks me that somebody would do that," Vargas, 60, tells Yahoo Life about the still-unknown informant of those 2013 stories. "Everybody deserves to go through that painful process of putting their life back together in private."

But while that time still haunts her, Vargas's response — to write her 2016 memoir, Between Breaths: A Memoir of Panic and Addiction, so she could "finally control the narrative" — has more than made up for it, she says.

"I wrote it also because I read so many other people's books about their struggles with alcoholism and anxiety and sobriety, and those books helped me so much that I thought: Maybe my story can help somebody else," she says, adding that just the day before this interview, she got email from a man thanking her for her book, which helped him better understand what his wife is going through in rehab.

"I get messages like that almost every day — and this is seven years after I wrote my book," she adds. "So, it turned out to be a gift, you know?"

Her sobriety — particularly as it relates to being a divorced New York City mom of two boys, 17 and 20 — is also something she's ever-grateful for, as well as how her credentialed career continues to soar, currently with the April 3 premiere of Elizabeth Vargas Reports on NewsNation.

The interview-format news show is something the New Jersey-native is "really excited" about, especially considering the pressure put on women — often by fellow women, she notes — to look amazing and stay forever young or move along, as recent comments by Don Lemon about Nikki Haley being past her "prime" (which Vargas told People "made most women cringe") and the firing of CTV new anchor Lisa LaFlamme for letting her hair go gray were stark reminders of.

"The fact that so many women, in the very prime of their journalism careers, are being ushered to the exits because they're getting gray or have wrinkles is something that really needs to change, and I hope can change," Vargas says. "I hope that now we can start to, you know, celebrate women who have the age and experience and look like they do." She, for one, says she enjoys getting older for one main reason: "I like that I know a lot more."

That includes what she knows about her own alcoholism, which she has continued to be vocal about because she believes it's important to end the stigma around addiction and seeking help.

"When you're caught in that loop of anxiety or addiction, the world shrinks and you become very isolated and very alone," Vargas explains of how sobriety has changed her life, including as a mom to her sons. "And then, once you learn to deal with your anxiety, and you can put down whatever that substance is that you're using to self-medicate, the lens opens back up. That's the thing that's been most amazing to me — and how you can meet crises with aplomb."

Elizabeth Vargas returns to national TV news with Elizabeth Vargas Reports on NewsNation.
Elizabeth Vargas returns to national TV news this week with Elizabeth Vargas Reports on NewsNation. (Photo: NewsNation)

At no time was that more apparent than when she had to get her sons through the pandemic. "We never left New York City when it shut down and we didn't know how it was spreading. And all you could hear were ambulance sirens everywhere," she recalls of those scary early COVID days. "But I kept those kids going and healthy. I could never have done that if I were self-medicating my own worries."

Self-medicating is just what Vargas says she was doing — specifically, for the anxiety she felt, despite being such a successful, seemingly cool, calm and collected human. That anxiety, she says, is something that plagued her, secretly, since childhood. It's why she's so relieved to see people talking openly about the issue today, and raising awareness, particularly when it comes to children and teens.

"I think mental health is one of the real under-covered crises in America," Vargas says, noting that while the pandemic has certainly made it worse, the plight of anxious and depressed adolescents predates COVID. Her own struggle with panic attacks began when she was a kid living with her family on a military base in Okinawa, Japan, watching her father, a U.S. army captain, get sent to fight in the Vietnam War and not knowing if he'd ever return (he did).

"I just know that when I was a child and I was a teenager, nobody was talking to me about my anxiety," she says. "I mean, my parents were ill-equipped to deal with it. I was on an army base where they weren't even dealing with the vets coming out of Vietnam and their PTSD. So, nobody was paying attention to the soldiers' children. The fact that we're talking about it now is a good thing. We need to talk about it."

As far as wisdom she has for parents watching their own kids struggle with anxiety today, she urges being open about it.

"All I know is, when I was a kid, I thought I was the only one who felt this way, and that made me very ashamed of my own anxiety," she shares. "The most important thing a parent or an adult can tell a child or a teenager is: 'You're not alone. You're not alone, and it's going to be OK.' If somebody had told me those two things, it would have been incredible."

Now, as a parent to her boys, she makes it her priority to do whatever she can to keep them feeling safe — including from drugs and alcohol.

"I'll talk to them all the time — I'm really, really anti-drug, like this fentanyl crisis has me terrified, and I will tell them all the time. But it's not going to work for me to go, 'Oh my God! Chicken Little! Anything you touch is going to kill you!'"

She continues, "I'm very careful, and I know because of all my work on the Partnership [to End Addiction and the Heart of the Matter podcast she does with the organization] to tell them about what we're learning, statistically, and what can be in these drugs. And I'll point out to them, ‘You know, you are young men … your brains are still forming, so you know, if you vape, that's a couple brain cells. You're not going to be as smart. Do you really want that?"

As far as talking to her sons about her own addiction, Vargas says she's spent "years apologizing." And for them, "it's, like, ancient history."

But "me forgiving myself? I'm not sure that'll ever happen," she says. Still, it's something she's working on, one day at a time.

"One of the great parts of recovery is that you learn to make living amends to people, too — that it goes beyond saying, 'I'm sorry I hurt you,'" Vargas says. “We’ll be in the kitchen, cooking dinner, and we'll all be talking and laughing about something, and I'm very aware in that moment that this is an amazing memory they will have for the rest of their lives, and that I have, and I thank God that I'm fully present in it.”

She continues, "I feel it's very important for anybody who's struggling with that kind of guilt in their lives [to know] that there are two kinds of amends you can make — one, a verbal apology … but also just the living amends of day in and day out, doing the right thing."

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, contact Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Treatment Referral Helpline at 800-662-HELP (4357)

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