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A Memoir of Panic and Addiction
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From the moment she uttered the brave and honest words, "I am an alcoholic," to interviewer George Stephanopoulos, Elizabeth Vargas began writing her story, as her experiences were still raw. Now, in Between Breaths, Vargas discusses her accounts of growing up with anxiety–which began suddenly at the age of six when her father served in Vietnam–and how she dealt with this anxiety as she came of age, eventually turning to alcohol for a release from her painful reality. The now-A&E Network reporter reveals how she found herself living in denial about the extent of her addiction, and how she kept her dependency a secret for so long. She addresses her time in rehab, her first year of sobriety, and the guilt she felt as a working mother who could never find the right balance between a career and parenting. Honest and hopeful, Between Breaths is an inspiring read. Winner of the Books for a Better Life Award in the First Book category Instant New York Times and USA Today Bestseller
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There are people who will say I have not been sober long enough to write this book, that I should wait until I have eight years without a drink, or eighteen.
Perhaps they are right. But there is not a magic number of years of sobriety that suddenly confers authority or expertise, or even a guarantee that it will last.
I am not an expert on alcoholism. I do not claim to know all the secrets to getting better, and as you will read, I have learned painful lessons about what is important. I just know what finally worked for me, and that my sobriety, while new, is hard won and my life is so much better for it.
I am not an expert on anxiety, either. But it has been a part of my life since I can remember. In 2013 the National Institute on Mental Health estimated 40 million American adults suffered from anxiety, and that number did not include the many children growing up in its grip, as I did. I am just one of many who struggle, one of the lucky few who finally found a way to not let it run my life. That, too, is a daily battle.
What I do for a living is tell stories… on television. They can be big, sweeping tales of bravery and tragedy or smaller gems about kindness, perseverance, and quiet courage. I am always honored when people share their stories with me, when they trust me with their deepest fears and secrets.
This book is my story. It is personal and it is evolving. I don't have all the answers, and life didn't magically get better all of a sudden when I stopped drinking. My anxiety didn't vanish forever. But it is so much better than it was, and I am grateful to be able to tell the story of how I finally found a place of grace.
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.
Chasing the Glow
I don't know if I was born an alcoholic, but I was definitely born anxious. The alcoholism came to me later in life, after years of drinking to ease stress and worry, and to fend off panic. But the anxiety? It was there from the start. My earliest memories are infused with it. It was a steady theme throughout my childhood, and it is the background music of my adult life. Sometimes it was loud and intrusive; other times you could barely hear it. But it never left me. I dabbled in drinking in high school, didn't drink at all in college, and then after graduation drank moderately (or at least what I thought was moderately) for nearly two decades. But even from the start, in my early twenties, I liked alcohol. I liked the way it made me feel. There's a sweet feeling that you get from those first few glasses of wine. The world is softer, smoother, more golden; the tension drains from the tightly clenched muscles in my neck and shoulders. I could finally breathe. I would go out with my friends after work in local news. Everyone seemed smarter and prettier and more interesting, even me. We would toast our good fortune, celebrate the newscast we had just put on live TV, clink our glasses to another victory in the ferociously competitive business in which we all worked. The nervous worry and the edginess I carried with me all day would melt away, and I would bask in a chardonnay glow.
Some people chase that alcohol glow their whole life, and somehow they make it through, or they learn along the way that there are other, better ways to ease anxiety. I did not. Drinking started out to be something that felt lovely and luxurious. It was a romance of sorts. It ended with me on the brink of dying from alcohol poisoning, of losing every single thing and every single person I treasured. It sent me to a hardscrabble rehab in Tennessee, where I spent a grim Christmas alone, my two precious children nine hundred miles away, opening gifts without their mom. There is nothing remotely romantic about that.
My problem was that at some point, the alcohol stopped working. The more I chased that glow, the more elusive it became. Determined to rediscover it, I would drink more. One or two glasses a night became three or four. The relief I once enjoyed was now slipping from my greedy hands, leaving me with my anxiety tapping on the door. Drinking too much nearly always had consequences—simple hangovers at first, nothing a Gatorade and an hour at the gym couldn't fix. But the opening in the window between when alcohol made me feel better and when it extracted its heavy toll became narrower and narrower. The hangovers morphed from bleary, shaky mornings to entire days when I counted the hours until I could go home and have another glass of wine, so desperate I was for that relief. And it wasn't just anxiety I was looking to drown. It was fear. I was insecure and terrified someone would wake up and say "Hey, what are you doing here? You don't belong here!" and then unceremoniously show me the exit. That fear was there whether I was in a newsroom or at a dinner party, board meeting, or movie premiere. The world would see me for the fraud that some part of me had always believed I was. Deep down, I wasn't a confident, in-control network news anchor and the happily married mother of two wonderful children enjoying life in one of the most exciting cities in the world. Inside I was still a panicked five-year-old living in abject terror. I was living a double life, hiding the anxious, worried version of myself that spent her entire life poised at the starting line, every muscle tensed, straining to hear the sound of the shot that would send her sprinting in panic as if her life depended on it. I spent most of my life believing I was the only one who hid her secret self from the world, that everyone else was as perfect and happy as they seemed to be. I know better now. Everyone has something that scares them. Everyone must make a choice at some point whether to be brave. Everyone has a story. Mine begins with a frightened little girl…
There Was a Little Girl, Who Had a Little Curl, Right in the Middle of Her Forehead
My mother and father were young when I was born and, as they will be the first to tell you, relatively clueless about parenting. I was their first child, and I was a handful. I had colic, and I cried nonstop. It was the era of Dr. Spock, whose advice to mothers and fathers was received like Holy Scripture. If your baby cries, he counseled, leave her be; soon enough she'll cry herself to sleep.
My overwhelmed parents listened to Dr. Spock and left me in my crib to wail for hours, while they worried in the next room. By the time I was a year old I was soothing myself by rocking the crib, back and forth, for hours every night. There are many toddlers who do this. I did it until I was eight years old. It was the only way I knew to make myself feel better.
When I was four my father, who was a captain in the U.S. Army, received orders to move to Okinawa. It was in the middle of the huge troop buildup in the Vietnam War, nearly two thousand miles from my dad's new post. The base was crowded, and there were no houses available. Rather than leave my mother; my three-year-old brother, Chris; and me behind in the States, my dad looked for a home off base, "on the economy," as those in the military call it. That way, we could all stay together. We packed our bags and got our vaccines and boarded the long flight for Japan.
We arrived in November 1966 to an unseasonable chill and a steady rain. My dad scraped together $2,500 to buy a brand-new concrete and cinderblock house on a small street. That house turned out to be a catalogue of terrors and phobias for a young child. The concrete had not set when we moved in: it was cold and damp. My mother covered the floors of our closets and lined our drawers with tinfoil to keep the mildew out of our clothes and shoes. The steady, relentless rain turned the alleys around our house into streams and the fields into marshes. Our sodden little house didn't stand a chance. Water poured in everywhere. Our ceilings began dripping in dozens of places. We scattered all of our pots and pans around on the floor to catch the rainwater, plinking and plonking all over the house, a symphony of waterworks.
We didn't have a telephone, so we went to our neighbor's to call the Japanese man who had built the house.
"It's raining in the house!" my mother wailed.
That proved to be too long a sentence for the builder's few words of English.
"Rain, yes," he said, in a tone that implied that it was unremarkable for there to be rain. Clearly the idea that water was coming into the house had not made it across the language barrier.
After a lot of back and forth and a number of calls from my mother, the builder decided he ought to come and see the distraught American woman. He entered our house, spotted the pots and the leaks and finally understood, "Ah, oka-san," he said, using the polite term the Japanese reserve for addressing the lady of the house. "It's raining IN the house."
Score one for international communication, but as I recall, things didn't improve much afterward. The house remained cold, dank, and dreary. But that was just the start of the troubles that plagued our house and contributed to my fearful state. There were lots of lizards—geckos. Some kids love lizards—but they are usually pets in a glass tank, not running around wild in the house like ours were. On Okinawa, a gecko creeping up the bedroom wall was considered a good thing—because they ate the bugs. And there were a lot of bugs. Really big ones. The worst were the cockroaches. Not the everyday thumbnail-sized cockroach that you might find in your kitchen. The huge ones, big enough to fly. The island—and our house—was infested with them. They were everywhere: in the furniture, in the shower, in the corners, on the ceiling. You never knew when you opened a drawer or a closet what would come flying or skittering out. I developed a lifelong terror of bugs. That first year there was also a shrew—a nasty sharp-toothed creature—hanging out one night in the bedroom Chris and I shared. My father donned his combat boots and chased after it with one of my brother's plastic toy golf clubs, which he wielded like a Game of Thrones broadsword.
But the most terrifying of the local wildlife was the venomous habu, a viper native only to Okinawa that seeks its prey in darkness. All the military families were warned about the habu as part of the orientation to Okinawa. Parents were instructed to have their kids play in the street (even with traffic!). It was safer dodging cars, they said, than going in the fields, because that's where the habus often live. We were also told never to go out at night without a flashlight. The snakes were nocturnal, and would freeze in the beam of light. There were stories around the army base, repeated like ghost tales, of families' encounters with the habu. There was the family who found one living in their air conditioner. Another who found one on their back stoop. One night, when my mother opened the door, her flashlight revealed a fat five-foot habu, stippled with brown, yellow, and olive-green blotches. It fled the light and slithered into a hole in the stone wall around our house. Within an hour, there were police outside our house shining spotlights on the wall out front, searching for the deadly snake. They never found it. We spent the rest of the year warily scurrying past the spot where it had disappeared, eyes peeled for any movement in the rocks.
My new friends on Okinawa warned me of something else: quicksand. There was one field in particular that all the kids ominously pointed out and said we should never walk into. I would pass it every day on my way to school… gingerly testing the ground in front of me, terrified that at any step, it would suck me in and swallow me whole, never to be seen again.
When you are anxious in the way that I was, fears begin to feed on themselves. The feeling is so unpleasant that you start to notice everything, wondering if it is going to make you want to jump, wondering if you should run. I was poised at all times, it seems, to flee the bugs, the snakes, or a patch of marshy soil that looked like it might melt into quicksand. Even little things that normally don't bother people can send an anxious person up a wall. My brother was exposed to the same terrors as I was, but to me at least, he seemed to glide through, unperturbed.
Even my own body could frighten me. I remember having the hiccups one night, and I panicked. "Make it stop," I begged my parents. I could not understand it; why was this happening? "Beth, it's just hiccups," my parents tried to reassure me. They all called me Beth when I was growing up. "It will go away soon."
But I felt ambushed, as if something inside my body was actually taking over. Vomiting was even worse. Nobody likes it, but for me it wasn't just unpleasant but profoundly terrifying. It made me feel that I had lost complete control of my body, that it had been hijacked, and this triggered deep anxiety and a phobia about throwing up that I carry to this day. They were things I didn't understand, and at that age, children are often afraid of things they can't understand. We all carry our childhood selves with us as we go through life, and the little girl that still lives inside me needs, at the very least, to feel that she is in control of herself. I have since learned, through lots of therapy, that when fear is your default state of mind, you try very hard to control everything. It is a futile battle that can leave you exhausted, and desperate for relief.
We settled into our new lives on Okinawa. After six months, a home on base opened up, and we happily bade farewell to our little concrete house. By then I was in kindergarten, and we got our first beloved dog and named her Heidi. We grew up without watching television, so my parents read to us. I remember my mother reciting a nursery rhyme to me. "There was a little girl, who had a little curl, right in the middle of her forehead. When she was good, she was very very good. And when she was bad, she was horrid."
I had curls. Was this little girl me? Was I good? Was I horrid? I spent a lot of time thinking about that rhyme. Was it even possible to be both good and horrid?
It was during that second year in Okinawa that I first learned about death. I came home from school one day, and Heidi was not at the screen door as she usually was, jumping and yelping in happiness to see me. As I walked in the living room, it was quiet, and the air in the house felt heavy.
"Where's Heidi?" I asked my mom. I looked around for my brother, but I couldn't see him.
"Oh, Beth, I am so sorry," my mother said, sitting me down. "Heidi is dead." I struggled to comprehend. My eyes filled with tears as my mother gently explained what happened.
Heidi had run out of the house that day, when no one was looking, and was hit by a car. It was my brother who found her. My mother had discovered her four-year-old son sitting on the curb, crying, cradling Heidi's lifeless body. Chris was inconsolable. I looked around me, taking in the stillness and the emptiness. It was the first time I realized how fragile life was. Someone could be there one moment, and gone forever the next.
The world remembers 1969 as the year Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. It certainly was a memorable event in our house: my mother woke Chris and me in the middle of the night and sat us down in front of our television to watch history being made in grainy black-and-white images. I remember looking out the window before crawling back into bed, staring at the moon. That astronaut is up there, I thought, floating around this very moment.
That year, 1969, was far more momentous for me because that was the year my father was sent to Vietnam. By that time, I was six, and I knew even then it was dangerous there, and that bad things were happening. Fathers, brothers, and uncles died in wars. The only constants in my life at that point were my parents and my brother. There were no aunts or uncles or cousins living with us on Okinawa, no visits to our grandparents on holidays or just for Sunday dinner. We were nomads, our companions fleeting—other military families, who came and went as the army saw fit. We were in a country of people who spoke a different language and had a different culture.
The day in January when my father left for Saigon, we all went with him to the airport to say goodbye. My father held me close, and told me to be brave. My mother was now pregnant with my little sister, and I can only imagine how terribly frightening it must have been for her to see him get on that plane and leave her alone with two small children and a baby on the way. My father was so distraught, he was physically sick once he boarded the flight.
My mom took Chris and me to the officers' club on base to have dinner after my dad left. We sat there at the table, eating our fried rice while she sobbed, telling us it will be okay. I think she was trying to convince herself.
But I was definitely not okay. I responded to his departure with daily, full-blown panic attacks, a tsunami of anxiety, so intense that I felt I was about to die. There was absolutely nothing I could do to control it. The panic would envelop me, drown me. I was defenseless in the face of it. My heart would race; the blood pounded in my ears; my stomach churned.
Clearly something was not right inside me. My brother didn't have panic attacks. None of the other kids in the neighborhood appeared to have them… just me. My mother was forced to go to work that year—it was the only way we could stay on Okinawa, closer to my dad, who might be allowed to leave the war for a few days when my sister was born. Every single day, when my mother went to work, leaving my brother and me with our Japanese housekeeper, I panicked. If my father could disappear from my life, just like that, how did I know my mother would return?
Each morning, I would completely lose it: chasing after her, clinging to her legs, grasping at her skirt, sobbing, pleading, begging her not to go. I would dig in my heels, trying to stop her, forcing her to drag me along, my bare feet skidding across the stone walk to the car in the driveway. Every day it was the same. She'd barely manage to peel my fingers off her legs and get in the car and drive off, leaving me sobbing in the front yard.
Many years later, when I was in rehab, one of the counselors asked me, "What did your mother do to comfort you?"
"I can't remember," I said, "but I'm sure she did. Of course she did."
But when my mother came to visit me in rehab, I asked her about it. "How did you comfort me, Mom, when I had those panic attacks the year Dad was in Vietnam?"
"I didn't," she told me. "I felt so helpless. I didn't know how to help you."
My mother was just 28 that year, pregnant, with a husband at war. There was nowhere for her to turn for help. The army psychologists had their hands full with tens of thousands of Vietnam vets. The army wasn't even treating them for PTSD at the time. No one was thinking about the traumatized children.
Four months after my dad left, my mother gave birth to Aimie. It was nighttime. My brother was already asleep when my mom asked a neighbor to watch us while she went to the hospital. From the top bunk of the bunk bed I shared with Chris, I stared through the window, watching her walk toward the car, leaning over slightly, one hand on her stomach, the other clutching a small bag. As she opened the car door, it hit me: a wave of panic. I jumped out of bed, a high-pitched cry filled my ears, and I realized it was me. I ran toward the front door to try to stop her. It didn't matter that she needed to go to the hospital, that the baby was coming. I needed her, and I could not control myself. The neighbor stopped me before I could make it outside.
"Hey, hey, where are you going?" She stopped and looked closely at me. "What's the matter with you? Go to bed now. Stop making a scene."
It was at that moment that I realized that anxiety and panic were things I had to hide. Something in the way that neighbor looked at me made me feel ashamed of my galloping fear, my inability to hide or control it. On the night my sister Aimie was born, I learned a terrible and ultimately destructive lesson. No matter how huge the anxiety, no matter how powerful the panic, I must never, ever show it. No one can ever know. It was something weak and shameful, and it had to be hidden at all costs.
- "Read this book. If you love the sunrise and you want to see courage-the kind that stumbles and falls but rises and rises again. With love of family. And work that saves. My dazzling friend and colleague, Elizabeth Vargas, has stared straight into the lethal heart of addiction with the eye of a fearless journalist. She has written a book for us all about truth, bravery, and the hope that a new day brings."—Diane Sawyer
- "What my colleague Elizabeth has produced is not only a compelling read but also an act of true courage. This book is going to help a lot of people."—Dan Harris, author of 10% Happier
- "This gripping memoir of addiction takes readers from the highs of Vargas's successful news career to the low of alcoholism, and through the grace of recovery."—Publisher's Weekly
- On Sale
- Sep 13, 2016
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Grand Central Publishing