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Elizabeth Vargas' alcoholism fueled by anxiety, depression and panic attacks

Elizabeth back in rehab for alcohol addiction: Has anxiety disorder and depression
Photo by D Dipasupil/Getty Images

ABC News anchor Elizabeth Vargas is back in rehab to treat her alcohol dependency, her reps told People. Vargas checked into a treatment facility over the weekend after suffering a relapse.

"As so many other recovering alcoholics know, overcoming the disease can be a long and incredibly difficult process," Vargas said. "I feel I have let myself, my co-workers and most importantly, my family, down and for that I am ashamed and sorry."

Elizabeth, a married mother of two, first went to rehab in November 2013. Vargas previously revealed she began drinking in secret as a way to cope with her longtime anxiety. She said hiding her alcoholism all these years was exhausting.

"The amount of energy I expended keeping that secret and keeping this problem hidden from view was exhausting," Vargas, 51, told Good Morning America. "You become so isolated with the secret and so lonely, because you can't tell anyone what's happening. Even to admit it to myself was admitting that I was a failure."

Had Anxiety Disorder and Panic Attacks Since Childhood

Elizabeth said her alcoholism was fueled by the chronic anxiety she experienced during her childhood. Vargas said she had severe panic attacks as a child, when she spent a lot of time alone because her dad had gone to serve in the Vietnam War, while her mom left home every day to go to work. She said the anxiety and panic attacks continued into adulthood.

"I dealt with that anxiety, and with the stress that the anxiety brought, by starting to drink," said Vargas. "And it slowly escalated and got worse and worse."

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Anxiety afflicts more than 40 million American adults. It's highly treatable, but only about one-third of those suffering anxiety disorders seek treatment.

Vargas said her husband, Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Marc Cohn, confronted her about her alcoholism several times over the years, but she was in denial about her problem. Vargas, who called alcoholism a progressive, deadly disease, finally decided to get help when she showed up to tape a segment for "20/20" and was too drunk to do it.

Even after spending several weeks in rehab this fall, Elizabeth admitted she still had the urge to drink sometimes but was glad she got help for the sake of her sons, ages seven and 10. Vargas, who's a part of Alcoholics Anonymous, said she still feels crippling anxiety at times, but has come to realize it's OK to feel anxious.

"There are lots of people who feel a lot of stress," she said. "Not everybody turns to a glass of wine or three like I did. [Anxious feelings are] not going to kill you. You have to experience them."