Insecurity, Anxiety Were Constant Companions, ABC News' Vargas Says

Sep 12, 2016
Originally published on September 12, 2016 5:41 am
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ABC News anchor Elizabeth Vargas made news two years ago, when she revealed she was an alcoholic. In her new memoir, "Between Breaths," Vargas writes it was much worse than anyone knew. NPR's David Folkenflik has that story.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Let's pick up the tale in 2011. Elizabeth Vargas had traveled thousands of miles for a story about forced abortions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELIZABETH VARGAS: India has a deadly secret. It isn't hard to find. Walk down any street, as I did, throughout India, and you notice something startling. In every direction, you see men and very few women.

VARGAS: I look back at that story often, and I see - I'm very proud of the work we did.

FOLKENFLIK: I want you to tell me what you see and hear in yourself as you watch this.

VARGAS: When I look at that, I see - I see how tired I felt. And I see the fact that I was going back to that hotel every night and having a few too many drinks.

FOLKENFLIK: Drunk and jet-lagged, she entered a cycle of fatigue and stress and drinking. A television news anchor is presumed to be in total control. Executives considered Vargas authoritative in delivering a newscast.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VARGAS: This is, as Peter just said, ABC News continuing coverage of that terrorist attack on the United States. I am Elizabeth Vargas.

FOLKENFLIK: And human interest stories were a strength, such as the young American vindicated of murder in Italy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VARGAS: You've said, Amanda, that you still suffer from panic attacks. What sets them off for you?

FOLKENFLIK: Out of public view, Vargas says, she was the one who was a mess.

VARGAS: Oh, my ex-husband said to me that once, on one of our very first dates, I told him, you will never meet a person more insecure than me. And that's probably true.

FOLKENFLIK: Insecurity and anxiety were constant companions.

VARGAS: People aren't ordering martinis or drinking a beer or a glass of wine or a cosmo because - just because they like the taste. They're in the bars and in the restaurants drinking 'cause they like the way it makes them feel.

FOLKENFLIK: Vargas says she drank to manage her anxieties.

VARGAS: The difference was it wasn't just that I liked the way it made me feel. I was trying to use it to not feel something else.

FOLKENFLIK: As Vargas tells it, one night she became so inebriated that a passerby had to rescue her from possible predators in a park after she was so inebriated, her blood alcohol level was in a range that is often lethal. Vargas' current and former bosses declined to be interviewed for this story, saying Vargas' memoir could speak for itself.

Six former colleagues told me they had not known of her alcoholism. They described her as driven, ambitious, at times intemperate or inconsiderate. But above all, Vargas was considered a consummate workhorse.

VARGAS: And when you're on full steam ahead - I've got to get this done. I've got to produce. I've got to be there, meet the deadline, check the box - you're also not taking time to feel, absorb, take stock, acknowledge.

FOLKENFLIK: A string of intertwined crises and opportunities presented themselves. In 2005, the legendary ABC News anchor Peter Jennings, a heavy smoker, announced he was being treated for cancer. In August of that year, Jennings died. That same night, Vargas' then husband, the musician Marc Cohn, was shot in the head after a concert.

VARGAS: I immediately flew out to Denver to get Marc and brought him back home. And, you know, thank God he was freakishly lucky.

FOLKENFLIK: Cohn did not reply to requests for comment for this story. Vargas says Cohn withdrew - hurt by how quickly she turned her attention back to ABC. She endured a painful miscarriage, became pregnant once more, did double duty as a fill-in anchor, and then became ABC's permanent choice to replace Jennings, along with colleague Bob Woodruff. Just weeks later, Woodruff was gravely wounded in Iraq.

VARGAS: Oh, my God, that's too much. I knew the sequence. I never stop to consider how heavily it lands on a person.

FOLKENFLIK: By 2008, she says, she plunged into new depths of drinking, falling short of promises to her sons and family. In time, her marriage crumbled. She finally has completed successful treatment that helps her manage her addictions and anxiety, but Vargas says she has paid a steep price.

VARGAS: I mean, the wreckage that I caused by avoiding the bad feelings and deluding myself into thinking I could run away from them by drinking some wine was - you know, haunts me. It will always haunt me.

FOLKENFLIK: Sober now for two years, Vargas says she is sustained by the love of her sons and the knowledge that she still gets to tell stories on ABC. David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.