— -- An excerpt from ABC News "20/20" co-anchor Elizabeth Vargas' new book, "Between Breaths: A Memoir of Panic and Addiction," which will be out in stores this month. Elizabeth shares her story in a Diane Sawyer special edition of "20/20" airing this Friday, Sept. 9 at 10 p.m. ET on ABC.
Spring 2002—New York City
I’m sitting at the anchor desk in the large studio we call TV3, illuminated by more than two thousand watts of lights hanging above me, in front of me, even behind me. I’m tethered to the desk by a small microphone pinned to my dress; a tiny device in my ear, called an IFB, allowed the producers and director in the control room to speak to me. Four huge robotic television cameras point at me from different angles. It’s 6:25—five minutes to air. I, along with the staff at ABC’s World News Tonight, have worked together that whole day to prepare the live broadcast that is about to start. As a team, we have spent hours meticulously selecting the stories we would tell, those that were most important, or most searing, to be included in that night’s show. But now, even though we have worked as a group, I feel very alone. It was up to me and me alone to deliver the scripts we’d carefully crafted, and I was freaking out.
The studio is frigid. I like it that way; it makes me anxious to feel too warm. I had only allowed myself to nibble on some pretzels and fruit all afternoon because it unnerves me to feel food in my stomach when I anchor a live show. I try deep yoga breathing to calm my hammering heart in my chest. I’ve taken half of a beta blocker to help with that. Did I take enough? Why is my heart still beating so hard? If I take too much my mouth will get dry and I won’t be able to talk. I think I feel queasy. Should I swig some Pepto-Bismol or is it too late for that to help? I reach for the mug of hot water with lemon next to me. I grip it with both hands because I’m trembling. Could anyone in the control room looking at all those images of me through all those cameras see me shaking? The stage manager, Michelle, hollers, “One minute to air.” The studio begins to swim slightly around the edges. “Thirty seconds!” she shouts. I take another tiny sip of water and another deep breath. “Ten, nine, eight, seven...” Dammit, I really wish she wouldn’t count down like that. “...two, one, we’re on the air.”
The show’s opener rolls: “This is World News Tonight, reported tonight by Elizabeth Vargas.” I draw in a deep breath, grip the desk hard with my right hand, and press the sharp edge of my engagement ring into my left thumb. I need these physical reminders to stay focused, to stop worrying that I might vomit on live TV or have a panic attack and hyperventilate. I then look directly into the camera and say, “Good evening. We begin tonight...”— and thirty minutes later, it is done. I rarely stumble over the words in the script, and I am usually able to focus intensely on the stories in the newscast. Once I get past the first block, I can relax and, some nights, even enjoy this job I love so much. Afterward, we all troop downstairs to the news rim; there, we sit at desks in a circle and discuss what worked, what didn’t, what the competition led with, and how the order of our stories compared. There is always, for me, a certain giddiness when it’s over, and a sense of being wrung out from the effort it takes not just to manage my anxiety, but to conceal it. And then an overwhelming feeling: Dear God, I need a drink.
Excerpted from the book BETWEEN BREATHS by Elizabeth Vargas. Copyright (c) 2016 by Elizabeth Vargas. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. New York, NY. All rights reserved.