Elizabeth Vargas’ alcohol confession brings painful feelings to the forefront

The news anchor’s recent admission prompts one writer’s personal reflection on why embracing the pain is a good and healing gift we owe to ourselves and our mental health.

ABC News Anchor Elizabeth Vargas interviewed by Diana Sawyer. Photo Courtesy of ABC channel

“I think I just want to go home and be by myself,” I finally admitted. My best friend looked at me from the driver’s seat, clearly caught off guard. We were sitting in her car in a parking lot, ready to meet up with friends for a night out. The clock was already creeping toward midnight. Several hours earlier, I’d learned a heartbreaking truth about a good friend and my very recent ex-boyfriend. When I called my best friend in tears, she was at my house within minutes to console me.

We decided that I needed to be out somewhere, surrounded by conversation, alcohol, and chaos that would deaden the pain. And so, there we sat, ready to head inside a bar for what was left of the evening.

Ever since we’d jumped into the car, though, something had been prodding me to simply surrender to my distress. My first instinct, as always, had been to resist it and squelch the discomfort of sadness, anger and hurt by ignoring it. After all, that’s what I’d been doing since the breakup. I knew, however, that as soon as I was alone again, it would be waiting for me, demanding to be felt and dealt with.

“Are you sure?” she asked. I nodded, knowing that I was in for a painful night on my own.

And so I spent the evening alone at home, embracing the pain. It came flooding in, harsh and heavy. But somehow sitting through the pain was remarkably redeeming.

A well-known news anchor admits to addiction

I was reminded of this long-ago evening while watching the recent interview that ABC news anchor Elizabeth Vargas had with Diana Sawyer. In it, Vargas disclosed the painful details of her alcoholism, explaining that her addiction was a means of coping with difficult emotions. In an earlier interview, Vargas had with George Stephanopoulos in 2014, Vargas acknowledged that a critical component of her recovery was learning to allow herself to experience negative emotions. “What I learned to do … was to feel the feelings,” she said.

In her book, Constructive Wallowing: How to Beat Bad Feelings by Letting Yourself Have Them, psychotherapist Tina Gilbertson wrote, “Any emotions you’ve repeatedly suppressed in the past are inside you right this minute, ready to add their force to any similar feelings triggered in the present and future.” In other words, despite what the feeling is, if it’s not properly released, it becomes a permanent, working part of our emotional life. Yikes.

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The result is a continual attempt to dodge reality. For Vargas, since she would not address the anxiety and insecurities dwelling within her, a perpetual state of inebriation became her new normal. Of the effects of alcohol, she remarked, “It was like, ‘Ah. I finally feel relaxed.’ … All my insecurities would sort of fade back.” She’s not alone, of course. Many people find alcohol, or other unhealthy behaviors, like eating junk food, a trusty crutch for the emotions they’d rather not feel.

When I asked Gilbertson about the long-term effects of failing to deal with difficult emotions, she explained, “Disowned emotions wreak havoc over time, and can lead us to [depression and anxiety]. Also, relationships are affected because you can’t be closer to another person than you are to yourself.”

Contrary to what most people believe, the emotions we experience do not simply cease to exist when we’re distracted from them. In Constructive Wallowing, Gilbertson explains the life cycle of feelings as being rooted in nature. “[The] process of taking root, thriving, and then dying is nature’s plan for feelings, just as it is for … all living things.”

Because our feelings follow a natural life cycle, the attempts we make to terminate them prematurely actually do more harm than good. Gilbertson referred to other physiological processes that people interfere with, such as digestion (by making themselves vomit) or the skin’s healing of a wound by picking a scab. “But nature is bossy!” she says. “Your stomach will try to digest any non-toxic thing that goes into it. Your skin will do its best to repair an open wound. And your heart will keep trying to let your unfelt feelings complete their natural cycle by continually bringing those feelings to your attention.”

Of course, it’s easy for us to surrender to the natural life cycle of enjoyable feelings, such as happiness and gratitude. We relish their presence, allowing them to take root and flourish within us. There’s no temptation to squander or interfere with them, so once they bloom, they are permitted to naturally die or, as Gilbertson puts it, “be let go.”

So the question is, if all emotions, whether enjoyable or not, must follow a life cycle, what is the proper way to surrender to this natural rhythm without negative feelings resurfacing later?

Allowing yourself to truly feel pain is the only path to an authentic life

Unfortunately, the answer is not an easy one. We must allow negative feelings access to our hearts—where they can hurt. “Feelings want to be let go, but they need to go on nature’s terms,” Gilbertson explains. They have to exit through our hearts, where we can feel them. They want to grow and bloom there before they die.”

Since emotions in and of themselves are not harmful, it’s perfectly okay to sit with them, allowing them to enter the deep recesses of our hearts and be felt, just like I did that evening many years ago. Without realizing it, I was surrendering to my feelings’ life cycle, led so beautifully and dependably by Mother Nature.

Similarly, Elizabeth Vargas found freedom in feeling those emotions she had tried for years to suppress with alcohol. She stated, “[I]t’s learning to accept that I’m human. That there’s nothing wrong with failing, that there’s nothing wrong with feeling anxiety.”

Avoiding our emotions in an attempt to prematurely terminate them comes in many forms besides alcohol. Many women attempt to stay constantly busy to distract themselves from emotions like anger, stress or disappointment.

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As Gilbertson explained to me, “We simply aren’t taught how to deal with emotional pain. We have hospitals for physical pain, but seeking help with emotional pain still carries a stigma. We think we’re supposed to be able to deal with it on our own, without instructions of any kind. So we don’t learn emotional literacy and we can’t pass it on to our children.”

Ultimately, the first step is understanding that feelings are simply a response to an experience. Unfortunately, for women like Vargas, this is contrary to what they’re taught.

“Very early on I got the message that this [anxiety or distress] was a bad feeling,” she revealed on The View. “So I thought … ‘I have to hide this’.”

Happily, Vargas has made incredible strides in her life, setting an inspiring example of how we as women can and should allow ourselves to feel emotions, even the unpleasant ones. As Gilbertson wrote, “When you embrace your true feelings, unpleasant as they may be, you gain integrity and access to the vastly underrated joys of authenticity.”

I think Vargas would agree, having told Diane Sawyer with a serene smile, “Every moment of happiness is like, thank God. This is so amazing.”

Elizabeth Pardi
Elizabeth Pardi
Elizabeth Pardi is a New York-born, Virginia-raised, Ohio-dwelling freelancer. She spends her days laughing, learning and running her way through life with her superstar spouse and their charmingly passionate one-year-old.

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