Tag Archives: Elizabeth Vargas

Guest post by Kristen Johnston

Today’s guest post is by 2 times Emmy award winning actress and recovery advocate Kristen Johnston. It may be useful to read the posts she is responding to before reading her post, here and here.

Kristen Johnston

Kristen Johnston

I’ve been a huge fan of this blog for a long time. There are many blogs about addiction & recovery, but I’ve found Veronica’s to be one of the best I’ve ever read, and here’s why: She’s all-inclusive of any and all pathways to recovery, she’s incredibly smart, an excellent writer, and she’s British, which means she’s automatically funny & self-deprecating.
(I aint gonna lie, she also wrote one of the most incisive & bizarrely intuitive reviews of my book ‘Guts’ I’ve ever read.)

However, I take great exception to her most recent blog, ‘Why Elizabeth Vargas has Given Recovery It’s Ellen Moment.’ Now, our mutual respect is such that our relationship can weather a healthy disagreement. I still think she kicks ass, and she has enough self-esteem to allow me to disagree with her publicly & on her own blog!

Before I go into why I take such exception to what she wrote, I want to say that Elizabeth and I have become friends ever since she interviewed me a year ago about my book ‘Guts’ for 20/20. This is one funny, smart lady. As she knows, my respect for what she did by coming forward on GMA (click here for link) with such grace, dignity and honesty knows no bounds.

One of the traditions of AA, written in the late ’30’s says not to mention AA in press, radio or film. (However, due to the epidemic that addiction has become, I feel we can no longer afford to do this).

Therefore, when Elizabeth mentioned that AA meetings are part of her recovery during her amazing interview about her recent struggle with alcohol some knuckleheads took exception to her honesty, I then wrote this on FaceBook:

“Honestly, what was she supposed to say when she was asked what she does now to stay sober? “Ummmm…sorry, it’s a secret”?????!!!
I believe in 12 step meetings. They aren’t for all people, but they sure as HELL saved my ass my 1st few years of recovery.
And the argument I hear all the time “If she relapses, then everyone will think AA doesn’t work” is fucking stupid, I’m sorry.
Many people relapse. It’s a fact of this disease.
To me, that argument is the same as telling someone with breast cancer that they can’t tell people they’re undergoing chemo. Which is why you’ve never heard anyone say “But If the cancer comes back, then people will think chemo doesn’t work!!”
12 step programs work for many. Many find other ways to recovery. And far too many will end up dying from this disease, despite all their exhaustive efforts not to”.

Elizabeth Vargas, by bravely coming forward & sharing her truth did an astonishing thing not just for addicts but for those in our culture who still stigmatize it. And, after all, isn’t the Fifth Tradition to carry AA’s message to the alcoholic who still suffers? It is essential it is that these meetings remain a sacred place anyone can go and feel safe knowing that their story won’t be shared with others. But I strongly believe we as individuals are allowed to share our experiences with whomever we choose.

It’s also worth noting that one of the main reasons I couldn’t BEAR the idea of getting sober was my total misunderstanding & lack of knowledge about AA. Due to it’s secrecy, I thought it was a few scraggly old men huddled in a church basement clutching styrofoam cups of tepid coffee, commiserating about the good ole days when they still had livers.
My terror of AA was so powerful that many times I’d think to myself “Oh dear God, what if I’m one of those people who ends up in a church basement somewhere?” It seemed a fate worse than death.
In fact, my fear & lack of understanding of AA was so great I waited until I came as close to death as humanly possible rather than seek help.
I’ve since discovered I’m FAR from alone. Thousands of others have reached out to me saying they didn’t want to go for the exact same reason.
You see, I had NO clue that these meetings have nothing to do with sorrow or failure…and they everything to do with determination, strength & LIFE. Or, they should.
The days of addicts hiding in shame are gone. I’m deeply honored to call Elizabeth a friend, and a fellow warrior in this complicated & misunderstood disease.”

Okay, now that that’s out of the way, here’s what offends me about Ms. Valli’s blog entry:

Using one single person as a shift in the paradigm of addiction, is, (in my opinion) totally incorrect and incredibly unfair.
To me, it felt as though Veronica was saying “Yeah yeah yeah others have come forward, but it was Elizabeth who changed everything.”

This ain’t about me. Trust me, I get plenty of props. But this brave woman did one fantastic interview. Matthew Perry has spent years and thousands of hours (not to mention his own money) to help Drug Courts, a group that works with the court system so that addicts are sent to rehab instead of prison. Greg Williams has spent every dime he has and the better part of four years creating & tirelessly showing his stunning documentary ‘The Anonymous People,’ which is about the movement taking place in our country where addicts are finally stepping forward to own our disease. Joe Schrank works tirelessly running one of the very few sober living homes in NYC. Not to mention the thousands of people I meet every single day who do anything they can to help addicts & fight the stigma of this disease. People like Veronica Valli, who write brilliant, thought-provoking blogs.
She writes that what Elizabeth did was so exceptional because no one knew about her struggle. But I easily could have kept my disease a secret for the rest of my life, and instead
decided to tell the truth anyway…. despite monumental pressure NOT to do so by a few mortified and deeply angry family members. Sadly, writing ‘Guts’ has forever ruined certain
relationships I once held dear. Despite this, I wouldn’t change a thing.

Many things Veronica wrote I totally agree with. The biggest being that it’s only because of others openness before her that people like Elizabeth can come forward.

Addiction will never be shoved back into it’s world of basements and secrecy and shame.
Not because of one person, but because of many.
As I write at the end of Guts:

“Whether we want to admit it or not, this is our black plague, a terrible scourge that’s just as deadly as cancer or AIDS. It is destroying people by the untold millions. And I believe, without a doubt, that the embarrassment and secrecy that shroud the disease are just as deadly as the disease itself.
In my opinion, the best “slogan” when it comes to addiction isn’t found at a meeting in a church basement, or in some book. It’s a phrase six gay activists from New York City coined in 1987, at the onset of AIDS: “Silence equals death.”
I won’t stay silent any longer.
I hope you won’t either.”

What Elizabeth did made me cry tears of pride. She did so much to eradicate the terrible judgement addicts face every single day.
As have so many of us.

Which is why I say we’ve ALL given addiction it’s ‘Ellen’ moment.

Kristen Johnston

Communication is about the response you get.

It’s tempting, when we have been misunderstood or have inadvertently caused hurt to blame the other person.
They’re stupid, they didn’t listen, they didn’t try to understand.
It always seems easier to try and make the other person wrong, so we can sit more comfortably in our own righteous indignation.
But that doesn’t really work for me anymore. It’s not a path that leads to serenity and connection.
What I love about recovery is the opportunity I get to grow. Just when I think I’ve got it sorted an A.F.G.A (Another. F**king. Growth. Opportunity) comes along…
Experience has shown me, that my most delicious growth usually comes from when I f**k up.

Communication is about the response you get.
Which means it is not the fault of the listener if you have been misunderstood.
It’s not up to them to listen ‘harder or better.’ The responsibility lies with the communicator to asses, what and how, they are communicating.
If you pay attention to the responses you get from people, you will get a clear picture of whether you are the hitting the mark or not.

I didn’t hit the mark yesterday.

Yesterday, I posted a blog about Elizabeth Vargas, I thought it was a pretty good blog post and was really proud of it. I published it and got a very mixed response. That’s ok, some posts of mine have done that before, I appreciate not everyone agrees with me and I like constructive feedback.
But this time I also hurt someone who has been a great supporter of mine and that stopped me in my tracks.
What had I communicated? Why had I done such a bad job? Why didn’t I see that before?

What I thought I was commenting on, was the timing of Elizabeth Vargas admitting she was an alcoholic. Not that she was the first public person to ever admit she was one.
I thought we were witnessing something ground breaking. That someone in the public eye had chosen to treat their alcoholism like breast cancer and discuss it from the word, go.
But sadly I was wrong.

It seems that Elizabeth Vargas was being pressured by the press and she didn’t choose to discuss her alcoholism publically. She was forced to.
The truth is, I think I was seeing what I wanted to see.
Unfortunately this is just another case of another celebrity being shamed by the press into admitting their alcoholism or addiction problem.

That itself should have been the story.
We don’t see public figures shamed or pressured into admitting they have diabetes, cancer, lupus or Parkinson’s.
But alcoholism is still seen as moral or character failing rather than the disease that it is.
The shift that I had imagined to take place, was one where someone could say;
‘I’ve just discovered that I’m suffering from the disease of alcoholism, that is why I have been behaving the way I do. Luckily there is effective treatment so I’m very hopeful I will be able to get better.’
In the same way people can currently say; ‘ I’ve just discovered I have breast cancer, that is why I have been feeling so under the weather. Luckily there is effective treatment and I’m really hopeful I’ll make a full recovery.’
Because there is so much shame still attached to the disease of alcoholism I thought another brick in that wall had been dismantled.

That’s what I thought Elizabeth Vargas had done, which is why I compared her to Ellen DeGeneres. I do see a lot of parallels with the gay community and their struggle for acceptance and understanding.
But the truth is (as someone pointed out to me) we are all ‘Ellen.’ Including every celebrity that has spoken out about their alcoholism and addiction, this has made the path just a little bit easier for ordinary folk. And when I speak out, I make it easier for my neighbor or friend at work to ask for help.

That is why communication is so important.

From Betty Ford and continuing with so many others (there are just too many to list and I don’t want to leave anyone off) people in the public eye have continued to bravely discuss the diseases of alcoholism and how it affected them. If they hadn’t have done this, I would still have to live in shame, afraid that someone will find out, I suffer from a disease the American Medical Association recognized in 1956.
Thanks to these pioneers, I don’t have to be.
But we have a long way to go.
No one should be bullied or pressured into saying they are an alcoholic, this just reinforces the misconception that alcoholism is something to be ashamed of.

Image courtesy of bigjom / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of bigjom / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

So thank you for all of your responses it made me reassess what I was communicating and I need to tell you I was wrong in my assertion and I apologize for that and for any offense that was caused.
But most of all I need to thank you for the opportunity to grow.

Why Elizabeth Vargas has given the recovery movement its ‘Ellen’ moment.

There is a website called ‘After Ellen’ that is dedicated to the representation of lesbian and bi women in popular culture. The ‘Ellen’ they are referring to, is comedienne Ellen DeGeneres who came out as a lesbian in 1997.
It was a defining moment for the gay community.
DeGeneres had been dodging questions and rumors about her love life for years. It was pretty obvious she was gay, but back in the 90’s this was not something a entertainer as popular as her was prepared to say publically.
It would be career suicide.
She would be labeled as that ‘lesbian comedienne’ or ‘dyke actress’ and mainstream TV wouldn’t touch her again.
Despite the enormous personal risk, Ellen refused to live her life in fear and shame for being who she was.
She was a lesbian, she loved women, that was her truth and she couldn’t live her life any other way.
Well you know what happened next.

Seventeen years later, Ellen is one of the most popular and well-loved entertainers in the industry. She is an attractive, authentic and hilarious person who happens to be gay.
What Ellen did was transformational for the gay community, she threw the door open for ordinary gay people to live in truth too.
Before Ellen this just wasn’t possible.
This one deeply personal and brave act had a ripple effect that touched everyone.

Enter Elizabeth Vargas, who has just done exactly the same thing for the recovery community.
Elizabeth publically announced in the most dignified manner, that she had an alcohol problem and was seeking professional help.
Take a second to absorb this.
Elizabeth hasn’t done anything original here, plenty of celebrities have publicly admitted they are alcoholics or addicts.
What is important here is when Elizabeth did it.
Elizabeth wasn’t ‘outed,’ there have been no pictures or salacious stories of her drinking behavior. She didn’t volunteer this information because she was cornered and wanted to get the press of her back.
She did it exactly the same way Good Morning America presenter, Amy Robach just announced she had breast cancer.
She treated alcoholism as the disease it is. Nothing to be ashamed of but something that needed professional help to be addressed.
She did it, as it was happening to her, not after her sobriety has been established.

What Elizabeth Vargas did was huge.

In many ways this is not about the celebrity it’s about the moment. Many public figures have discussed their alcoholism and addiction issues and how they got sober. Because of this, they have normalized it for ordinary people. They have paved the way for someone like Elizabeth to discuss their treatment for alcoholism, as it was happening. Just like, if she had been diagnosed with cancer, diabetes or lupus.

There is a momentum in the recovery community and we are refusing to be secretive about our addiction and recovery any more.
All of that, has led to this moment.
Announcing you were an alcoholic and were going to seek treatment would have been the equivalent of career suicide for anyone before. If people go public about being in recovery, they do it after they have established some sobriety, not as they are about to go into treatment (unless forced to like Lindsay Lohan).

Until Elizabeth.

This is the moment where everything could change for those suffering from the disease of addiction.
By normalizing the recovery process right from the start, Elizabeth has been an example of what the future could be like for us.

Ellen DeGeneres’s coming out made it easier, not only for celebrities to come out, but more importantly she made it easier for your next door neighbor, or your buddy at work to come out.
Ellen made being ‘gay’ a normal, regular thing. She gave it dignity, she refused to be ashamed of whom she was and became an example of what is possible, when one is brave enough to live their truth.

And Elizabeth has done the same for us.
In treating her alcoholism with frankness and dignity, she only invited admiration and respect into her life. No one has judged her for being a drunk or a lush; instead she has been given empathy and understanding. Elizabeth refused to be ashamed and because of that she has earned a tremendous amount of respect.

So thank you to everyone who has spoken publicly about their addiction and thank you Elizabeth, you may not realize what it is you have actually done. But from this day forth, we may refer to the battle for more tolerance, understanding and better treatment for addicts and alcoholics as ‘Before Elizabeth’ and ‘After Elizabeth’ moments.

Image courtesy of graur razvan ionut / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of graur razvan ionut / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Because you have shown us how it can be done.
We are not alcoholics because we have some character flaw or moral failing. We just have a disease that needs treatment.
So maybe, from there, my next-door neighbor or buddy at work, can be honest and frank about their addiction or drink problem and admit they were getting help years earlier than they may have done before. Instead of skulking in the shadows and making up excuses for their behavior, maybe they can finally be honest and be treated with the same respect and understanding.
Maybe, finally, the world can see alcoholism is a disease like any other, and can be treated as such, right from the start.

‘After Elizabeth,’ recovery is never going to be the same again.

There is a follow up to this post here. I didn’t get this right and have followed up on how in a subsequent post.