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Elizabeth Vargas Opens Up

The '20/20' coanchor talks about surviving alcoholism

Elizabeth Vargas

Andrew Hetherington

'Elizabeth Vargas, coanchor of "20/20"

You were among the first Hispanic female TV journalists. What was the hardest mountain to scale?

The hurdles were biggest in local news in Chicago. [The producers] wanted me to be the Hispanic reporter. I thought the best thing I could do was to not be the Hispanic poster girl but be the best journalist in the newsroom.

What has been your most interesting assignment?

I am authentically fascinated by each and every story. Obviously, going to the White House to interview President [George W.] Bush was exciting. I love going to different parts of the world — the Middle East, the jungles of Southeast Asia, the farm fields of Nebraska. You never know where an amazing story will take you.

What don't people know about being a TV news star?

We all think [it's] the movie version, that it's all glory and glamour. That might be 1 percent. The rest is the hard slog: doing an enormous amount of research, sweating out scripts, arguing with producers about how best to frame a story. I think that what people might perceive as the glamorous part of our job is the tiniest part of the job, and the least fun.

In your new book, Between Breaths, you are candid about dealing with alcoholism.

I started drinking in my 20s. I was drinking to unwind and to not feel so anxious. I told nobody, even though I had a panic attack on live television in Chicago. I was afraid they would say, "If you have anxiety, you don't belong on national television." After the birth of my second child, something was wrong — very, very wrong. I was convinced I had postpartum depression. [My doctor] sent me to an expert who said, "No, you're just anxious — go home and have a glass of wine." So I went home and had several glasses of wine. I fell off a cliff.

How did you stay on the air dealing with such chaos?

I was a very highly functioning alcoholic. I had a career where I worked hard and was able to get the benefit of the doubt when I called in sick. I was [famous] for my work ethic for many years. But let me be very honest — the wheels were falling off.

What finally led you to sobriety?

I am not really sure. It's not like a lightning bolt. There was finally the acceptance that something has to change, and only I can change it.

Biggest regret?

I regret that I self-medicated my anxiety. But sitting around and talking about regrets is self-defeating. I can't change what happened. All I can do is do my best to make sure that I do my very best today and tomorrow.

Other TV reporters have talked about ageism in your business. Did you experience that?

I never have suffered those effects; others have. This is not a television news issue as much as it is a cultural issue. Men are allowed to age, wrinkle, grow gray, and look distinguished and handsome. We are very hard on women as they age. It's a shame. As a culture, we should celebrate women's beauty when they are 30, 40, 50, 60 and 70. Obviously, I am still working and thriving in my 50s. So there you go. I certainly hope I am working here in my 60s and 70s! [Laughs]

Can you share any wisdom gained as you've aged in a business that glorifies youth?

I think the best lesson I have learned is to stop worrying so much, and to enjoy the journey more. I've learned a lot of very important life lessons in 54 years. I feel much more confident in myself now — who I am, what I know, where I've been, what I've done, what I've learned. Those life lessons are irreplaceable. I wouldn't go back to my 20s or 30s for anything.

What is your next chapter?

I feel my next chapter is simply to enjoy my journey. There isn't a day that goes by that I don't realize how lucky I am. I almost lost much of it.

Jon Saraceno is a freelance journalist living in Las Vegas.