ABC News Anchor Elizabeth Vargas on Her Long Battle With Alcohol and Her Road to Recovery

ABC News anchor shared her story with Diane Sawyer and in her new memoir.

ByABC News
September 9, 2016, 10:59 PM

— -- Today, when Elizabeth Vargas walks down the streets of New York City on a warm evening, passing wine bars filled with people enjoying glasses of wine, it’s a very different experience for her than it once was.

“I don’t look at them and think, ‘I want one,’” Vargas said. “But I look at them and I think, ‘I miss that.’ I miss that time when, you know, it felt so innocent and romantic. But that’s just me romanticizing something that turned out to be really monstrous for me.”

The veteran ABC News network anchor sat down with Diane Sawyer for a special edition of ABC News “20/20” to talk for the first time about her long struggle with alcoholism and anxiety, and her recovery process.

In the interview and in her new book, “Between Breaths: A Memoir of Panic and Addiction,” to be released on Tuesday, Vargas shares that she suffered repeated relapses, was almost fired from ABC News and that her marriage to singer-songwriter, Marc Cohn, ended in no small part because of her drinking.

Vargas, 54, who says she hit rock bottom two years ago, knows it’s an act of grace that she’s alive today. There was one occasion, she said, when her blood alcohol level was at .4 – a lethal amount.

“And even that didn’t scare me into stopping,” Vargas said.

“When you’re in the cycle of this disease though, it doesn’t matter how much you have or how little you have, I—it didn’t matter,” she continued. “It leveled me. It knocked me flat on my butt. I lost sight of everything.”

Throughout her 30-year career, Vargas has been known for her strong reporting around the world, her tough interviews and her steadiness during breaking news live coverage. On Sept. 11, 2001, it was Vargas who took over the breaking news coverage from ABC News anchor Peter Jennings.

In addition to “20/20,” Vargas has also been a frequent co-host on “Good Morning America.”

In 2016 alone, Vargas anchored breaking news coverage of the Orlando nightclub shooting, the shooting ambush in Dallas, the death of pop star Prince and the passing of boxing icon Muhammad Ali.

For years, Vargas says she drank socially, like anyone else, and was able to control it until she hit rock bottom.

“There are days when you wake up and you feel so horrible that the only thing that will make you feel better is more alcohol,” she said. “That’s when you’re in the death spin.”

This year, more than 30 million Americans are locked into a battle with alcohol, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), an arm of the National Institutes of Health.

The hardest part, Vargas said, was knowing that her alcoholism affected her two sons, Zachary, 13, and Sam, 10.

“I don’t know if I will ever forgive myself for hurting them with my drinking, ever,” she said.

Vargas says she never physically endangered her kids with her drinking and never drove under the influence.

“But let me just say something,” she said. “Because I didn’t physically endanger my children doesn’t mean I didn’t devastate them or put them in danger emotionally or psychologically.”

Vargas grew up in a military family and moved to 14 homes, nine Army bases and eight schools as a child. When she was little, she said she suffered from anxiety daily, even panic attacks, but she learned to hide them. Her struggle with that crushing insecurity continued when she started out as a local reporter out West.

“Because I am basically so insecure and anxious and afraid I never, ever, in my life learned to reach out for help, ever,” Vargas said.

Studies show that nearly 63 percent of women in trouble with alcohol say they are also fighting anxiety. But when she was starting out, Vargas said she didn’t understand then that the disease of alcoholism could slowly take over and threaten her life.

“There’s a real temptation… to whitewash what you did, ‘It wasn’t as bad as everybody says,’ or ‘it wasn’t as bad as I remember,’” Vargas said. “And for better or for worse, I have recordings of myself on TV and audio recordings that remind me how bad it was.”

Vargas said her drinking began after she got her first job and the news team would head out to the local bar after work.

“It was like, ‘I finally feel relaxed,’” Vargas said. “All my insecurities would sort of fade back.”

She finally found someone to confide in about her insecurities when she married Marc Cohn, best known for his song, “Walking in Memphis,” in 2002. She said he used to calm her by singing her to sleep. But even before they were married, Vargas said he noticed her drinking at night.

“He thought I drank too much,” she said. “I remember he was angry when he said it, and grabbing my arm and saying, ‘You have a problem with alcohol,’ and that just made me really mad.”

She said his words got her attention and for several years, she did control her drinking. She gave birth to their two sons and was caring for them while continuing to work – once even through a miscarriage.

After Peter Jennings died from complications of lung cancer on Aug. 7, 2005, Vargas and ABC’s Bob Woodruff were named co-anchors of “World News Tonight.” But 27 days later, Woodruff was severely wounded by an IED in Iraq.

“It was devastating. Devastating to everybody who worked there,” Vargas said. “I felt like I was in a hurricane of life.”

Four months later, she was replaced by senior anchor Charlie Gibson.

“I was demoted,” she said. “No sugarcoating it.” The self-doubt mixed with anger and fear came roaring in.

By 2009, Vargas said she felt her husband pulling away. She grew resentful, the exhaustion of all that travel while she was still trying to be a good mom and being the big financial responsibility for the family, and she said wine became her consolation. Eventually, she said she began keeping the amount she was drinking a secret.

“I would stop on my way home work, you know, and have a glass of wine or two at a bar,” Vargas said. “Alone, feeling really pathetic, you know I would actually pretend to talk to someone on my phone.”

When she would head home, she said she would pop a couple of Altoids and hope that she wasn’t “breathing white wine fumes” when she greeted the kids.

But like millions of other people, Vargas said she didn’t think she had a drinking problem because she didn’t drink all the time and she had no family history of alcoholism. As time went on, she said her glasses of wine at night became entire bottles and her husband noticed.

“It made all the real problems we needed to discuss and work through frivolous in comparison,” Vargas said. “You know, ’What do you want to talk about? Why don’t you ask me about how my day is?’ Or ‘Why don’t you support me more?’ when ‘why are you drinking two bottles of chardonnay every night?’ You know? I’ve just gone and changed the narrative in a pretty dramatic and destructive way.”

At one point Vargas said she even hid bottles of wine under her bathroom sink.

“Looking at myself in the mirror thinking, ‘This is who I am, sneaking into my own bathroom to gulp down from my toothpaste cup a half cup of wine so I can get through another hour feeling good,’” she said.

She said she fell into a pattern of secret drinking and then rewarding herself by binging on vacation. Her sister Aimie Vargas had no idea how much she was drinking until they took a trip together with their kids in summer 2011.

“It was in the middle of the afternoon and she was drunk,” Aimie Vargas said. “She told me that she drank too much because she was so unhappy.”

When Aimie tried to intervene, Elizabeth said she wasn’t an alcoholic, just having a rough time. Then a year later, in 2012, she was on another family vacation with Marc and the boys in Florida.

“That was our big vacation and my idea of a vacation was to empty the minibar by drinking everything in it,” Vargas said.

Marc was so worried about her, he arranged for a nurse to secretly come to the hotel room and give her IV re-hydration fluids. At one point, she said her son Sam came in to the room.

“I was drinking and sleeping and I do vividly remember one afternoon Sam standing by my head in the bed saying, ‘Mommy, when are you going to get up,’” Vargas said. “And I remember I could smell the sunscreen and I could feel the heat from his little body because he had just come in from the beach.”

“I wouldn’t give a nanosecond’s worth of thought to die for my children, to kill for my children,” she continued. “But I couldn’t stop drinking for my children.”

After that 2012 Florida vacation, Vargas decided to make a secret visit to her first rehab facility, telling her ABC News bosses she had a medical issue. The minimum stay at these facilities is usually 30 days, but Vargas said she was “so deluded and in denial” that she convinced the rehab facility to let her come for just two weeks.

Doctors say heavy drinking over time can change the structure of the brain and the cells in your body. The chemical receptors start to demand more alcohol to feel normal and that the first three months of attempted sobriety are the most dangerous for relapse.

A few weeks after she left rehab, Vargas said she started drinking again. She was never drinking on live TV at ABC News, but there were rare occasions when she would drink before interviews and it affected her performance. Vargas said she drank to calm her nerves, but one instance led to a terrifying blackout.

“There was one occasion on a Saturday,” she said. “I woke up that morning and I was feeling horrible, that shaky, horrible, fluttery heart… and I was on my way to the shoot on Columbus Avenue [in New York City] and I saw a liquor store.”

On her way to the interview, Vargas said she had the car stop, she bought wine and drank some of the bottle before she started taping. Afterwards, Vargas said she slipped into a nearby room and drank again. When she got in the car to be driven home, she said she the last thing she remembers is fastening her seatbelt. Her next memory was waking up in the emergency room.

“I don’t know where I went. I don’t know what I did. I don’t know what I drank,” Vargas said. “I drank enough to be at a lethal blood alcohol level.”

Since that day, Vargas has pieced together what happened. She now knows she wandered by Riverside Park in New York City and a stranger driving by saw her and stopped to help.

“I was able to tell her my address,” Vargas said. “She said she saw some men nearby that she didn’t like the look of who might have been, at that point, probably seeing me as a vulnerable person and she brought back here [home]. And at that point I was apparently unconscious.”

Her husband called 911 while their kids remained upstairs unaware that their mother was unconscious in the lobby of their apartment building.

After her near-lethal blackout in 2012, Vargas told the president of ABC News that she needed time off to confront her addiction.

“I was too embarrassed to him that it was just alcohol because I thought it was so unfeminine, like, to be a drunk,” she said. “Even now I have a hard time saying that word so I told him alcohol and Ambien.”

With the support of ABC, Vargas went to rehab for a full month.

At least 2,300 Americans die every year from alcohol poisoning, according to the Centers for Disease Control, though some experts believe that number is underreported.

On average, an alcoholic will take three to four attempts to get sober for good. After spending that full month in rehab it was not long before Vargas was drinking again.

“It only took me six months, seven months later before I was back to looking at myself in that bathroom mirror wondering, 'how did I get here,'” she said.

Vargas said her parents, her sister and her brother all took time to try to help her.

“You sort of are standing by watching a train wreck. It was awful,” her sister Aimie Vargas said. “You just want to shake her and say, ‘Why are you doing this to yourself?’”

After this, Elizabeth went to a different rehab facility for a month, but after a few days at home, she went back again after her brother Chris Vargas flew in from California to take her.

“I walked into her apartment and she was completely out it,” Chris Vargas said. “It had been 7:30 in the morning, a couple of empty wine bottles beside her bed… I remember wanting to tell her, ‘Look, you can walk into a room and you can light up that room, but don’t show up drunk.’”

In 2014, Vargas was forced to go public with her alcoholism after it was leaked to press. She sat down for an interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos. That same year, her husband came to her and said he wanted a divorce. ABC also put her on notice to stay sober or lose her job.

That summer Vargas decided to take the kids on a vacation and rented a beach house in California, taking someone to help with the kids full-time.

“I drank again and I ruined it,” she said.

While in California, Vargas said she started with wine and then a bottle of tequila. But she got word that ABC needed to record her voice for a report to air the next day. When a crew arrived at 8am to tape her, Vargas said she was still drunk.

“I remember that day, sitting there, and I could read the words and I couldn’t make my mouth work to say the words,” she said.

Vargas said she feels sick to her stomach when she listens to that tape and other recordings of her where she had been drinking.

"But I'm glad I listened to it, because I never want to be there again," she said.

Her bosses at ABC were alerted that she was drinking again, and she called her sister to say she was in trouble.

“It was the first time that she called and said, ‘I need help,’ and I’ll never forget that,” Aimie Vargas said. “It’s still really hard to talk about because I think I instantly knew, ‘This is bad.’”

Aimie said she dropped everything and flew to California to be with her sister. Elizabeth also called an ABC colleague who knew an actor/director in the area who was also a recovering alcoholic. He raced over, along with Vargas’ siblings, to comfort her two sons as she went into detox.

“I honestly, I thought it was all over,” Aimie Vargas said. “I thought she was going to lose the boys, and I thought she was going to lose her job. We all did.”

Embarrassed, ashamed and deeply humbled, Elizabeth Vargas said she decided to get help and fight to stay sober. A counselor flew with her back to New York. The first thing the counselor had her do was make a calendar of all the days she was drunk and what it did to those around her. Vargas said that’s what forced her to stop living in denial.

Vargas told her ABC bosses that she had finally grasped how important it was to surround herself with constant, daily help.

Vargas went to a sober house where they tested her blood for alcohol and ABC News agreed to give her unpaid time off to deal with the addiction and its underlying causes, and one more chance to prove she could stay sober.

“Thank God they gave me one more chance,” Vargas said. “Thank God, because, you know, many other employers wouldn’t have.”

She went back to work again, sober and grateful, and apologized to the colleagues who had to redo her work because of her drinking.

“I’m also really grateful to my colleagues in the “20/20” offices,” Vargas said.

The hardest of all, Vargas said, was she forced herself to confront what she had done to her children and apologized to them for the pain she caused them.

“You can’t just say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry I hurt you,’ and then, you know, leave it at that,” she said. “’I’m sorry I drank. I’m sorry I scared you. I’m sorry that I wasn’t there for you. I’m sorry I fell asleep and missed your recital. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.’”

After their divorce, Vargas and her husband Marc Cohn agreed to joint custody of their sons.

In a statement, Cohn told “20/20,” “Elizabeth has always had, and will always have my support, especially in regards to her recovery. I have tried my best to protect our family during the course of this very complex and challenging journey, and that has included honoring Elizabeth’s privacy.

Now I applaud her efforts to shed some light on the link between anxiety and alcoholism, which I imagine will help countless numbers of people and families. As for our own family, we continue to be loving parents to our two incredible boys and I’m extremely grateful that we work well together in putting their needs front and center.”

Vargas has hope for the future. She has learned that if she ever feels tempted to drink, she has to leave and she makes time for meditation. She said anger is still a trigger for her to want to drink, but now she reaches for the phone and calls someone immediately if she feels those feelings coming on.

Most of all she said she hopes her children know she fought to pull herself out of the abyss for them.

In addition to sitting down with Diane Sawyer, Elizabeth Vargas also spoke to ABC's Dan Harris for his "10% Happier" podcast about her struggle and her new book. Listen to her full interview with Dan on iTunes, Google Play Music and TuneIn.