Heart of the Matter, a Podcast Hosted by Elizabeth Vargas

    Our podcast interview series, hosted by Elizabeth Vargas, gives guests the opportunity to share their personal, candid stories about addiction. It offers a space to open up about substance use and mental health, to share the ways in which people are shifting their narrative – in their own relationships and across communities – to support the cause of ending addiction in our country.

    New episodes are released every other Tuesday, and available here or wherever you get your podcasts.

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    Episode notes

    Mia St. John

    A fighter in every sense of the word, boxing champion Mia St. John encountered addiction from a young age, growing up with a father who struggled with drinking and attending her first Alcoholics Anonymous group when she was just twelve years old. Years later, she witnessed her son’s struggle with mental illness and a cycle of substance use as self-medication.

    Tune in as Mia opens up to Elizabeth about enduring the loneliness of relapse, finding a home in Alcoholics Anonymous and weathering the losses of her son, Julian, and her former husband, Kristoff St. John. For more, see the complete episode transcript.

    Content warning: This episode discusses topics of suicide and suicidal ideation. If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255 or text “HOME” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741. Both programs provide free, confidential support 24/7. You are not alone.

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    Anne and Sam Lamott

    Bestselling novelist and essayist Anne Lamott had more than her share of experience with substance use disorders: Growing up with family members with addiction, she also had distinct memories of drinking as a child. Decades later, she watched as her son Sam began struggling with methamphetamines. Today, both mother and son have been in recovery for many years.

    Join Elizabeth as she speaks to Anne and Sam about addiction in the family, the influence of believing in a higher power, the importance of searching for inner grace rather than external accolades and how it felt for Anne to witness her son’s struggle with addiction as a person in recovery herself. For more, see the complete episode transcript.

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    Cheryl Burke

    To the fans who watch her on their TV screens, Cheryl Burke leads the picture-perfect life, dancing her way across countless stages and starring on national broadcasts. However, there is more to the “Dancing with the Stars” competitor than may meet the eye: Beneath the impressive veneer is someone who is unafraid to open up about her struggles with alcohol, mental health and abuse.

    As a competitor, Cheryl was taught that showing emotions is a sign of weakness, and turned to alcohol as a way to soothe anxiety and uncertainty. Tune in as Elizabeth and Cheryl talk about the ways drinking fosters emotional disconnection, growing up with addiction in the family, the events that led Cheryl to put down alcohol for good and how she has come to find strength in vulnerability. For more, see the complete episode transcript.

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    Ryan Hampton

    In the early 2000s, Ryan Hampton was homeless and struggling with an opioid addiction, wondering how he had gone from working as a White House staffer to begging for change on a California street corner. A decade later in recovery, Ryan found himself at the epicenter of Purdue Pharma’s bankruptcy settlement, fighting for justice in a case that gripped a nation in the midst of an overdose crisis.

    In this episode of  Heart of the Matter, Elizabeth Vargas sits down with Ryan to discuss his role in Purdue’s bankruptcy proceedings, how it felt to witness the now-infamous depositions of the Sackler family firsthand and why he believes the justice system, as it stands today, could never deliver accountability for Purdue’s victims. For more, see the complete episode transcript.

    Ryan Hampton’s new book, Unsettled: How the Purdue Pharma Bankruptcy Failed the Victims of the American Overdose Crisis, details the shocking injustice at the heart of the Purdue Pharma settlement.

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    Patricia Heaton

    In this episode of Heart of the Matter, Elizabeth Vargas interviews Emmy Award-winning actress Patricia Heaton. When Patricia was in the middle of it all — working all hours on wildly successful shows like Everybody Loves Raymond, while taking care of her four young children — she kept her drinking at bay. But when these shows ended and her children had left the house, she started looking forward to drinking in a way she hadn’t ever before.

    Join Patricia and Elizabeth as they connect over “self-medicating” through alcohol, feeling “unmoored” during the COVID-19 pandemic and working in a business that can be unkind to women as they get older. For more, see the complete episode transcript.

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    Laura McKowen

    In this episode of Heart of the Matter, Elizabeth Vargas is joined by Laura McKowen, author and founder of The Luckiest Club. When Laura first stopped drinking, she thought of it as “the end of all the color” in her life. But after weathering one particularly challenging night, she realized the magic that comes with being in recovery and feeling fully present in her life. Together, Elizabeth and Laura discuss the pain that lies at the root of drinking, the glamorization of alcohol, the power of truth-telling and why Laura considers herself “lucky” to have faced addiction. For more, see the complete episode transcript.

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    Chris Herren

    To any outsider in his Massachusetts high school, star basketball player Chris Herren looked on top of the world, with broken records behind him and a promising career ahead of him. But what many did not know was that beneath the physical prowess was someone struggling with mental health and substance use.

    In his return to Heart of the Matter, Chris connects with Elizabeth Vargas about parenting and the need to focus on our children’s social and emotional health, especially against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic. The two also speak about the ripple effect of speaking up and why, as a former pro-athlete in recovery, Chris is inspired by Olympic gymnast Simone Biles’s stand against mental health stigma.

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    Brandon Novak

    Former professional skateboarder, TV stuntman and recovery advocate Brandon Novak joins Elizabeth Vargas to talk about how he went from a skateboarding prodigy and reality star to homeless. He also shares where he is now: celebrating six years of recovery and spreading hope to others who are struggling.

    Brandon opens up to Elizabeth about “underestimating” his addiction, and the consequences he faced during his decades-long journey with substance use. He also talks about how his mother coped with his addiction and the only two regrets he has today. For more, see the complete episode transcript.

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    Molly Jong-Fast

    Despite entering recovery almost 24 years ago at the age of 19,  writer and political commentator Molly Jong-Fast still regularly attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings – but her routine was disrupted in the past year due to COVID-19. Together, Elizabeth and Molly discuss how they maintained their mental health throughout the pandemic, their approaches to parenting, the lifelong struggle of addiction, as well as their thoughts on civility, politics, stress and so much more.

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    Madeleine Dean & Harry Cunnane

    Congresswoman Madeleine Dean thought she understood addiction – but it wasn’t until her son Harry Cunnane was struggling that she came to truly realize what it means when a loved one has a substance use disorder. Now Harry has been in recovery for more than eight years, and mother and son have written a joint memoir, Under Our Roof: A Son’s Battle for Recovery, a Mother’s Battle for Her Son.

    Elizabeth speaks with Madeleine and Harry about what they gained from writing their book, what it means when people refer to addiction as a family disease, and the importance of amplifying the possibility of recovery – not just the horror of active addiction. For more, see the complete episode transcript.

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    Patrick Radden Keefe

    Bestselling author and investigative journalist Patrick Radden Keefe joins Elizabeth to discuss his latest book, Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty. In his book, Patrick tells the story of the family responsible for setting into motion the opioid epidemic. For more, see the complete episode transcript.

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    Gregory Gourdet

    As an up-and-coming chef in Manhattan, Gregory found himself surrounded by addictive substances. After finishing an arduous shift at one of the city’s top restaurants, he’d frequently spend the rest of the night partying, fueled by alcohol and cocaine. Eventually, Gregory’s substance use caught up with him, putting at risk the thing he loved doing most: cooking. For more, see the complete episode transcript.

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    Andrew Zimmern

    In addition to being a chef and TV host, Andrew Zimmern is also in long-term recovery. In this special re-airing of one of our favorite interviews, Andrew discusses how the support from family and friends changed his life, the joys of being in recovery for more than 29 years and “writing his own syllabus for life.” For more, see the complete episode transcript.

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    Jessica Lahey

    New York Times best-selling author Jessica Lahey discusses her latest book, The Addiction Inoculation: Raising Healthy Kids in a Culture of Dependence. Jessica and Elizabeth connect over the advantages and challenges that come with being a parent in recovery, the benefits of family dinners (even with teens!) and why young people are more susceptible to addiction. For more, see the complete episode transcript.

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    Jamie Niven

    Despite being the son of an Academy Award-winning actor, Jamie Niven’s life wasn’t all glitz and glamour. At just six months old, Jamie’s mother passed away, leaving Jamie to grow up with an overwhelming feeling of loneliness – a feeling that followed him for his entire life.

    Elizabeth talks with Jamie, who is also the chair of Partnership to End Addiction’s Board of Directors, about the way loss impacted his life and contributed to a 50-year struggle with alcohol. For more, see the complete episode transcript.

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    Michael Botticelli

    As the first person in recovery from addiction to serve as the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Michael has faced his fair share of challenges. Even before his confirmation, colleagues doubted that Michael would be fit for the role because he had a substance use disorder.

    Michael reflects on his own recovery, his experiences facing stigma, and how stigma and racism have impacted the way George Floyd and rapper DMX have been perceived in death. For more, see the complete episode transcript.

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    Steve Madden

    Before he could start his incredibly popular shoe empire, Steve Madden needed to overcome his own struggles with addiction. Inspired by the principles that guided his recovery – showing up, doing the next thing, acknowledging his mistakes – Steve built a business that would become known worldwide.

    Throughout his life and career, Steve has recovered, relapsed, and recovered again; gone to prison; and came back with grit in spades. Steve reflects on the arc of his life, coming from a family with a history of substance use disorders, managing ADHD and, most importantly, learning to let go and to grow. For more, see the complete episode transcript.

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    Admiral James and Mary Winnefeld

    As parents, Mary and Admiral James “Sandy” Winnefeld just wanted to protect their son, Jonathan. This was a job Sandy felt he should have been well equipped for as the United States’ number two ranking military officer. Yet, Jonathan’s struggles with anxiety led him to start drinking alcohol and misusing prescription medications as a teen. Sandy and Mary did everything they could to find appropriate help for their son’s substance use. Still, just three days after they dropped him off at college, Jonathan died of an accidental overdose in his dorm room.

    Mary and Sandy discuss the challenges they faced parenting a child struggling with mental health, learning to live with grief and dedicating themselves to “saving a life every day” through their work with SAFE Project — the nonprofit they founded following their son’s death. For more, see the complete episode transcript.

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    Kristen Johnston

    Just as Kristen Johnston started finding success as an actress starring in the Emmy-award winning sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun, feelings of self-doubt and panic began overtaking her life, and she found comfort in prescription painkillers. Over the years her addiction worsened, turning Kristen into the self-described “Nancy Drew of painkillers.” Kristen and Elizabeth reflect on the judgment they face as women in recovery, the importance of overcoming shame and the feelings that come with caring for someone struggling with substance use. For more, see the complete episode transcript.

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    Montee Ball

    He was a highly celebrated student athlete with a promising professional career ahead of him. Yet, due to his struggles with addiction, Montee Ball found himself sitting in a jail cell while his former teammates won the Super Bowl. Now in recovery, Montee has walked away from the NFL and committed himself to breaking down barriers that prevent Black and Brown people from accessing help for mental health and substance use disorders. For more, see the complete episode transcript.

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    Zac Clark

    In his twenties, Zac’s addiction escalated to the point where his marriage crumbled and his friendships dissipated. His relationship with his parents was holding on by a thread. But they never gave up on him, and Zac found recovery. Ultimately, he won back his health and went on to win the heart of not only Tayshia Adams but also The Bachelorette viewers across the country through his candor, compassion and commitment to a substance-free life.

    Elizabeth and Zac revisit his journey, from faking illnesses to gain access to prescription medications to finding happiness in real life, making a career out of helping others with addiction, and even falling in love on reality TV. For more, see the complete episode transcript.

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    Jeremiah Fraites

    When he was 14 years old, Jeremiah Fraites of The Lumineers lost his older brother, Joshua, to a heroin overdose. He describes it as the worst thing to have happened to his family. Years later, Jeremiah is still reflecting on the monumental impact drugs and alcohol have on music, culture, families and relationships. This topic even served as inspiration behind the latest album from his band, titled III.

    In this episode of Heart of the Matter, Jeremiah joins Elizabeth to share his perspective on substance use and to discuss his family’s experiences navigating addiction, giving up alcohol himself and learning to be a rock star without substances.

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    Holly Whitaker

    Author of Quit Like a Woman: The Radical Choice Not to Drink in a Culture Obsessed with Alcohol, Holly is also founder and CEO of online recovery program, The Tempest. She and Elizabeth discuss their experiences as women coming to terms with the impact of alcohol on their lives, how addiction is portrayed in the media, and their perspectives on the roads they took to finding recovery.

    If you are seeking treatment for your child or a loved one, know that numerous options exist. Addiction treatment is not “one-size-fits-all” and may take place in a variety of settings, at different degrees of intensity and for different lengths of time. We offer resources to help you navigate treatment and recovery, and identify the best options for your family. Information about specific providers and services on our website or podcast does not constitute an endorsement.

    Beth Macy

    Elizabeth is joined by Beth Macy, journalist and author of Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company That Addicted America. The New York Times bestselling book sheds an intimate light on the opioid epidemic in Virginia.

    Yet, in the two years since the book was published, it’s estimated an additional 100,000 people have died in the U.S. due to opioids – indicating the crisis she covered is not slowing down. Learn more about Beth and her work at intrepidpapergirl.com.

    Jim Carroll

    Elizabeth has a candid conversation with Jim Carroll, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). His agency’s mission: to stop the flow of illegal drugs in the United States and to connect those suffering from addiction with the tools they need to achieve recovery.

    Director Carroll has been traveling around the country, meeting with people in some of the hardest-hit communities and leading discussions about the challenges they face. Elizabeth speaks to him about what he’s seen, who he’s talked to and what the administration is doing and also what more needs to be done to make an impact.

    David Sheff

    Elizabeth sits down with journalist and author David Sheff. His heartbreaking and inspiring novel Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey Through His Son’s Addiction was made into a motion picture starring Steve Carell and Timothee Chalamet.

    After experiencing addiction in his family – David’s son Nic became addicted and almost died of the disease – David began trying to figure out why as a society we have been so ineffective when it comes to preventing and treating addiction. Learn more about David and his work at davidsheff.com.

    Patrick Kennedy

    Elizabeth sits down with former U.S. Representative Patrick J. Kennedy. Throughout much of his life, Patrick has struggled with his own addiction and mental health challenges, both in private and, at times, glaringly in public. But Patrick has gone from fighting his own demons to fighting on behalf of others who need help and support the most. In 2013, he founded The Kennedy Forum, a nonprofit that unites advocates, business leaders, and government agencies to advance evidence-based practices, policies, and programming in mental health and addiction. Learn more about Patrick Kennedy and his work at patrickjkennedy.net.

    Chris Herren

    Former NBA player and founder of Herren Talks, Herren Project and Herren Wellness, Chris shares intimate details of his journey and how he’s now using his experience to change the way high school students think about substance use. The First Day film makes his powerful storytelling available to schools and communities across the country. Visit chrisherren.com for more about Chris and his work.

    About Elizabeth Vargas

    Elizabeth Vargas is an Emmy award-winning journalist and author of the New York Times bestseller Between Breaths, a Memoir of Panic and Addiction. She broke barriers when she revealed that she had alcohol use disorder during a televised interview in 2014. Elizabeth’s parents, brother and sister – while unaware of her lifelong struggles with anxiety and multi-year dependence on alcohol – were supportive of her during her journey to recovery. Today, she continues to candidly share her story to help inspire others. Elizabeth is a proud board member of Partnership to End Addiction.

    Contact us

    Please use the form below to contact us with any questions or feedback related to Heart of the Matter.

    Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed on Heart of the Matter are those of the podcast participants and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Partnership to End Addiction. We are also mindful that some of the personal stories feature the word “addict” and other terms from this list. We respect and understand those who choose to use certain terms to express themselves. However, we strive to use language that’s health-oriented, accurately reflects science, promotes evidence-based treatment and demonstrates respect and compassion.