Sunday, September 11, 2016

The loneliness of the long-distance drinker





ABC | PEOPLE

Elizabeth Vargas to Share Story of Alcohol Abuse and Anxiety in Book, ABC Special

By Mark Joyella on Aug. 23, 2016 - 5:40 PM

Two years after she announced she would write a memoir, 20/20 anchor Elizabeth Vargas will mark the release of her new book, Between Breaths: a Memoir of Panic and Addiction, with an hour-long ABC News special.

The special edition of 20/20 will feature ABC News Diane Sawyer interviewing Vargas about the secret she kept for years–and the difficult recovery she continues today.





Sawyer and Vargas will also report on the link between anxiety and alcohol abuse; and Vargas talks to an expert at the National Institutes of Health, visits a treatment center and speaks to alcoholics who are trying to get and stay sober.

The special airs Friday, September 9 at 10 p.m. ET, and the book will be released the following Tuesday. “When I first began to worry about my own drinking, I turned to books other women had written about their own alcoholism. I learned I was not alone, and it helped me find the courage to reach out and get help,” Vargas said when the book was announced in 2014. “I have spent my entire life telling other peoples’ stories. This one is my own, and is incredibly personal: the burden and loneliness of of the secret drinker.”




You know, even as I sit here, I wonder if I even want to do this.

I watched the 20-20 special with Diane Sawyer last night. Couldn't NOT watch it, I guess, for the same reason everyone else has: the train-wreck-in-slow-motion effect, the watching through your fingers, which is even more dramatic with a "celebrity" who has been in the limelight for some time. Not just for her journalism, but for her drinking.

Now, barely two years sober, Elizabeth Vargas announces she's releasing a memoir about her alcoholism titled, very curiously, Between Breaths: A Memoir of Panic and Addiction. Note that "panic" (with that odd image of breathlessness) comes before "addiction". And nowhere does the title mention alcohol.





Strangely enough, last night, that's almost all she talked about: stumbling around blind-drunk, coming out of a blackout in the Emergency Room with her blood alcohol at a near-fatal level. . . fucking up at work. . . I don't know. I guess it's just that I've heard it all before. And heard it, and heard it, and heard it, particularly from celebrities.

All the way through this hard-to-watch thing, Diane Sawyer kept mentioning "red flags" (hiding booze, excuses at work, chunks of lost time, being unable to get off the sofa for her kids). But I saw some red flags of my own.

When I first saw an item on 20-20 about Vargas and her alcoholism, she said she announced it only because she was "scooped" and wanted to set the record straight. She looked very, very uncomfortable. Her smile was tight, her body language rigid, and she looked as if she couldn't wait to get out of there.





The story goes that her first stint in rehab was pretty much of a disaster. As was her second. The third time seemed to be the charm, except. . . 

Except that there were still red flags.

Sawyer: Do you think you hurt your children?
Vargas: Oh, no. I'd die for my children.

A little later on:

I will never be able to forgive myself for the way I hurt my children.

Sawyer asks her, near the end of the piece, "I know not every alcoholic wants to say how many days they have in. . . "

Vargas didn't just shut down. There was an audible slam. No, she did not want to say.

Sawyer was not quite ready to let up. "But do YOU know?"

"Oh yes. I know." But her face had closed down again, as it had done several times during the hour.

I have to tell you what I think about this. Addiction makes you lie. Otherwise, how could you hide all those bottles? And you don't necessarily stop lying because you have stopped drinking.





I don't think Vargas knows her sobriety date. She has had to start all over again so many times that she has lost track. But in the 15 years that I went to AA, I came to realize that a person's sobriety date is more important than their "belly-button birthday". If you don't know it, don't remember it, it's very likely you'll just keep re-setting the clock. 

So now, a book, a tell-all.  I wonder who told her to do this. For surely, someone did. Writing a memoir is a way to redeem yourself - quickly - by "breaking the silence" and "helping others reach out". It puts a shiny cover (literally) on the whole thing, makes you look noble for being brave enough to share it, and makes it all - what? Containable? At very least, it turns it into a commodity that can be bought and sold.





We live in a culture which claims that throwing the gates wide open and pouring out every trauma to the public is the path to "healing". "Sharing the pain" is supposed to give us lasting and/or permanent relief. Going public is therapeutic, isn't it? Well - isn't it?

I don't know how we've come to this point. It's not that I didn't identify with Vargas' blackouts, trips to the ER, high blood alcohol levels, and even screwing up at work (in her case, even on the air). It's that I DID identify. I did most of that stuff, and repeatedly. But I came to realize - the hard way - that it is very, very dangerous to expose yourself, to peel your skin off like that, when you're newly sober (meaning, the first five years or so).

Though Vargas wasn't as tight-lipped and uncomfortable as on that first night of revelation, there was still some acting going on. This woman makes her living in front of the camera, has done so for twenty years. Her face flitted from warmly confidential to deer-in-the-headlights to wretchedly guilty, to unreadable. Understandable, perhaps, but why stand under the glare of TV lights so soon? 




But the thing that I puzzled over most was the emphasis. The show I watched last night was almost all about alcoholism. Yes, there was some reference to anxiety and panic, but not as much as I thought there would be. And yet, the title of her memoir leaves out alcohol altogether! "Addiction" can mean playing too much bingo. The "between breaths" - a very strange allusion, I think - seems to be pointing to something like asthma or emphysema. It's as if she still can't quite spit it out - in writing, at least - that she's an alcoholic. Perhaps "someone" advised her not to put that in the title. Emphasize the panic and anxiety. They'll go down better. They are, after all, badges of honour in her high-pressure industry.

Why do I get this slightly vertiginous sense of spin?





It has taken me a long time to write about all this. Last November (November 30, to be exact) I celebrated 25 years of sobriety. Though I no longer attend AA, I would return to it in a heartbeat if I felt my sobriety were compromised. But I still remember, as booze-drenched as I was, what my last day of drinking was like.

You have to remember that date, or at least the date you first dragged your ass into detox or a meeting (or a meeting in detox). Otherwise, you're doomed to repeat it. It means you're "vague-ing" it off (and vague can be a verb, as far as I am concerned).

My last day of drinking was stupid, boring and depressing, but it summed up the sad joke my life had become. I was huddled in bed in the middle of the afternoon. It was deluging rain outside, had been for days, and so dark it was almost like night. The blinds were closed.  I had a bottle of cheap wine in my hand and I was taking pulls out of it. When I had sucked it dry, I threw it on the floor and said, "It's not enough." And then, for the first time in probably years, I heard myself.





In moving to Vancouver from a small town in Alberta, I had wanted so much more. I had ranted in my diary about this in a nearly-unreadable, intoxicated scrawl: "How the FUCK did this happen?? I had so many dreams and I lost them all and I want them back. In fact, I insist on it!" It was a funny thing to say during your last week of drinking.

There was another thing. I have to say this, I really do, because it's so important, a huge factor in my recovery. Before moving to Vancouver, I wondered aloud to my much-older sister what would happen if I couldn't adapt myself to life in the big city. She shrugged, made a pooh-pooh mouth, and in her best little ice-water voice, the one with the heartless little lilt in it, she said, "Oh well, I guess you'll just self-destruct."

Lying in that bed shaking my empty fist, I was GOD-DAMNED if I was going to let that poisonous prophecy come true. That toxic bitch probably has no idea how much she helped me that day.





But I digress. I think. 

I don't know about getting my dreams back, but at least I didn't die. It was extremely rough in the land of the sober, and sometimes I thought sobriety was even worse than drinking. I latched on to people very hard back then, and I think in a lot of cases I made them uncomfortable. It was extreme even by AA standards.

But I wasn't going to put my "anxiety" (or my PTSD or my bipolar disorder, then undiagnosed, or perhaps underdiagnosed) ahead of my drinking at a meeting. I had to talk about alcohol, even as I was thoroughly sick of it. Because anxiety wasn't really my problem. Panic wasn't my problem, nor was some sort of vague respiratory condition. Calling it that would have sanitized my messy, tawdry, stigmatized condition, and I couldn't afford to do that.





It's a long time later, years and years and years, and though for the most part I don't even think about alcohol, watching something like that 20-20 show last night can start things clanging. I don't think Elizabeth Vargas is out of the woods yet. She may have a couple more trips to rehab before she gets her feet on the ground (and don't get me wrong - I sincerely hope she does). Whoever advised her to do the book so early in her recovery - a recovery that seems rather fragile to me - is cockeyed. And if she decided on her own, then SHE'S cockeyed. But I think somebody should have taken her aside and set her straight. Too much "brave" too soon can be a recipe for rehab (again). And fourth times are seldom lucky.

The 20-20 Facebook page has hundreds and hundreds of comments, almost all of them rhapsodic, about Vargas' honesty and courage. But I think when sobriety is relatively new, these kinds of revelations need to be shared only with a trusted few. To throw it wide open is to open yourself to infection. It's peeling all your skin off. Why is unmitigated, unregulated, unrestrained "sharing" considered so therapeutic? Because it reduces the stigma! - doesn't it? 

Except that it doesn't. 





So what does? People going about their business, sober, once they have met the dragon face-on. Living a good life, a productive life, even a happy life - sober. It's being an example. People can pay attention to it or not, but if there are enough examples walking around like that, it can't help but make a difference.

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