CANTON — Award-winning journalist Elizabeth Vargas built a career atop the high-pressure world of live television.

Behind the scenes, the co-anchor of ABC’s “World News Tonight” and co-host of “20/20″ and “Good Morning America” struggled with anxiety and addiction to alcohol.

Vargas told that story in her 2016 book, “Between Breaths: A Memoir of Panic and Addiction.”

On Thursday, she will speak at the Canton Palace Theatre for Stark Library’s Dr. Audrey Lavin Speaking of Books Author Series. The event begins at 6:30 p.m. Seats can be reserved for free at StarkLibrary.org/SpeakingofBooks.

Vargas, who now hosts “A&E Investigates”, spoke with The Canton Repository before her upcoming visit.

For those who don’t know your story, when did you begin to struggle with anxiety?

“That’s been a lifelong struggle for me. ... I was always an anxious kid but when I was 6 years old, my dad went to Vietnam and that’s when my panic attacks started happening almost daily. ... Anxiety is something I’ve always had. ... I have two children, one of them also struggles with anxiety, and he has since he was a tiny child. I think it’s something you’re honestly born with.”

How did you try to manage your anxiety, especially in your professional career? Journalism is a pretty high-stress occupation.

“It’s funny. I had a therapist ask me years ago, ‘OK, so let me get this straight: You have a lifelong battle with anxiety and you choose a career in live television?’ ... But I did. And mostly I kept (my anxiety) secret. ... I internalized it all and felt like I should always keep it hidden and never admit that I suffered from it. That’s a pretty huge burden to carry for anyone. And eventually, late in my adult years, I started self-medicating that anxiety with alcohol, which is something many, many women do. There’s an enormous link for women in particular between anxiety and addiction: 60 percent of women who are alcoholics also suffer from anxiety. It’s only 30 percent for men.”

When did you realize you were addicted to alcohol and how did you get help?

“It took me a long time. That was my crutch and I didn’t want to give it up, even though it had stopped working. It took me a long time to really, truly admit to myself that I was addicted and needed to stop, and a while to quit. As I tell people when I speak about this, relapse is part of recovery. If quitting were so easy that everyone could do it the first time they tried, we wouldn’t have an addiction crisis in this country. It’s not an easy thing to do. You have to rewire yourself and relearn how to live life and how to manage anxiety and stress, but thank God I was able to do that.”

Why did you decide to speak publicly about anxiety and addiction, and how have people reacted?

“My story was leaked to the press by someone other than myself. ... I was left to deal with the consequences of that. But as I began to realize how many people were suffering, and that part of the reason I didn’t seek help sooner was I thought I was singular in my struggle ... I decided to write the whole story. And I was really, really nervous about it. I won’t lie about that. After I turned the book in, I literally every night would wake up in a cold sweat and resolve in the morning to call the publisher and say, ‘Never mind, stop the presses, don’t print this book, I’ve changed my mind.’ But I’m really glad I did. ... Every day, without exaggeration, I hear from somebody who’s read my book and sought help or was better able to understand someone that they knew and cared about who was suffering, and that’s a real gift. It’s a gift to be able to take the darkest chapter of your own life and make something good out of it.”

Is the conversation around mental health and addiction starting to change?

“Gosh, I hope so. That’s why I speak out. It’s a huge hurdle we have to climb, the stigma around mental health and especially the stigma around addiction is so strong. ... I think that the more people talk about this openly without shame and the more we can open people’s eyes, the more we can chip away at that. The sad truth is that decades and decades after the (American Medical Association) declared addiction a medical issue, there are still so many people in our society who view addiction as a moral failing or a lack of willpower or a lack of self-discipline. We have to get over that because people are dying in record numbers because of addiction.”

What will you be sharing in Canton?

“The message of my book, which is how much we as a society are struggling with this crisis (and) my own personal story. ... I know it’s an enormous issue, especially in the state of Ohio. Hopefully it will resonate with people that we can treat people with compassion and still get them sober and that people won’t be afraid or fearful or ashamed to admit to somebody that they’re struggling and need help.”

 

Reach Shane at 330-580-8338 or shane.hoover@cantonrep.com

On Twitter: @shooverREP