Elizabeth Vargas didn’t seek to become a prominent voice for the recovery community. But the longtime ABC News anchor was put on that path nearly a decade ago when her treatment for alcohol addiction and anxiety became tabloid fodder. Once the news was out, Vargas decided she’d better be the one to tell her story. She wrote a much-praised book, “Between Breaths: A Memoir of Panic and Addiction,” in 2016. Last year she launched a podcast, “Heart of the Matter,” with the Partnership to End Addiction nonprofit advocacy group. The series is devoted to candid conversations about addiction and mental health crises. Vargas was also just tapped by Fox to host the revival of “America’s Most Wanted,” scheduled to premiere in March.
You’ve been vocal about the need for better mental health and substance abuse treatment options, especially with the conditions of the pandemic. What have you learned from your recent reporting?
The last year has been extraordinarily difficult for so many people in this country. We know the statistics: anxiety, depression and substance abuse are up. There is a mental health crisis in this country.
What has kept you talking about these issues publicly?
Having my anonymity stripped from me while I was in the middle of the process of trying to get sober was one of the most devastating things to happen. It was very difficult. There’s a huge amount of stigma around this disease. That’s why fewer than 20% of the people who need help get it. It was so difficult to have something so private made public against my will. I’m not sure I would have written my book or spoken out if I hadn’t been outed. It’s risky to reveal it all. But I figured the story is already out there — I might as well tell it.
How much does that enduring sense of stigma get in the way of people seeking treatment for the disease of addiction?
People don’t get help. They’re afraid to ask, afraid to admit they need help or they can’t afford it. Insurance companies haggle with people: “Can’t you try an outpatient program?” We know there are good, science-based treatment centers out there. We need more of those and fewer of the ones that are trying to cash in on a crisis killing thousands of people every year and costing our country billions.
Do you think the change in the White House will make a big difference?
We will see what the Biden administration is willing to do. What needs to be done takes money. But it costs our country so much more not to treat the people suffering from disease of addiction than it would to invest the money that is needed to get people into good, science-based treatments that they can afford. I hope this will be a priority for the Biden administration.
Your podcast “Matters of the Heart” has featured guests such as former NBA star Chris Herren, chef-raconteur Andrew Zimmern and shoe magnate Steve Madden. Have you found similarities in their stories?
We’ve talked to a variety of people about their experiences. The common thread for everybody is that they were using that substance to numb something — to not feel anxious, to not feel insecure, to not feel something. So that’s why I’m doing the podcast. I want people to hear the stories of people who go on to do extraordinary things with their lives.
What have you learned from embracing the recovery community?
There isn’t a day that goes by I’m not profoundly grateful for my sobriety. I never take it for granted. I remember being told you have to hold it like a delicate egg in your hands.
Things you didn’t know about Elizabeth Vargas:
Hometown: “I’m an Army brat. Manhattan is my adopted hometown.”
First job in TV: Reporter and anchor for CBS affiliate KTVN-TV in Reno
If she hadn’t gone into journalism she would be: A lawyer
Currently reading: “Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland” by Patrick Radden Keefe
Just finished bingeing: “The Queen’s Gambit”
Biggest takeaway from living in pandemic conditions: “There are so many people who are sick and suffering. I’m very grateful for all that I have.