Allison Payne fought a brutal 20-year battle with alcoholism

After slurring her speech and swiveling in her chair on an August 2008 broadcast, Allison Payne said, 'I was not drunk'

                            Allison Payne fought a brutal 20-year battle with alcoholism
Allison Payne was an ex-news anchor at WGN-TV. (Twitter/ @vanishedchicago)

Former WGN-TV anchorwoman Allison Payne, who died at the age of 57 on September 10, had once opened up about her struggles with alcohol addiction for which she had sought rehabilitation. Addressing a passing remark that she had made during one of her interviews back in 2010, Payne went on record with her 20-year fight against addiction, adding that she felt no shame in admitting that she has had a drinking problem.

Then WGN 9 News Director Greg Caputo told Chicago Tribune said that her drinking issues had got nothing to do with why Payne had been off the air for much of 2008. The Emmy-winning anchor and the station attributed the absences to a series of mini-strokes and their lingering effects, including depression, for which Payne received treatment. Drinking, Payne said, “was not the issue when I was out sick. …My right hand was numb. I had no use of my right hand. They diagnosed me with mini-strokes.” Some of the other journalists who lost their lives in the recent past include, Gary Waddell, Janet Malcolm, and Robin Miller. 


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In January and August 2008, Payne went on medical leave after suffering a series of mini-strokes. That led to her announcing an indefinite leave of absence in November 2008 and admitted in January 2009 that she was being treated for depression. "It was brutal getting out of the house, I couldn't get out of bed," she said in an interview.

Payne did make a return in 2009 but went off-air in January 2011. She confirmed a few weeks later that it was because "I’m having trouble with my vocal cords." A series of unprofessional on-air appearances, including slurring of words, glassy-eyed gazes, and sobbing led to massive criticisms, forced the channel to demote her from the 5.30 pm and 9.00 pm newscast. Payne never revealed the details of what was ailing her, but after several attempts to get back, decided to end her career in September 2011. "After a series of unfortunate health events, Payne and WGN parted ways in September 2011 as she returned to her hometown of Detroit," WGN said in its statement.

'I was not drunk'

Payne's off-air remark to former pro hockey player Theo Fleury became a topic of discussion after she said that she once worked with the same Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor that helped Fleury. Chicago Public Radio blogger Robert Feder reported Payne’s remark, recalling how Payne responded to viewer concerns over her slurred speech and swiveling in her chair on an August 2008 broadcast. At the time, she told Chicago Tribune, “I was not drunk," and instead blamed the incident on the effects of the mini-strokes, with a combination of adrenaline-fueled excitement. 


On being further pressed on her AA meetings, Payne acknowledged she does not attend weekly meetings, adding that it has been “probably five years since the last time I went on a big drinking binge.” After the slurring segment, Payne went to Mayo Clinic for a number of tests regarding her health issues. “Remember that time I told you I was not drinking?” said Payne. “That’s because I’m not a drinker. No way I was drunk on the air. Twenty years ago, when I first came to Chicago, I felt like I might be headed down the path of a drinking problem. One of my colleagues at WGN who shall remain anonymous took me to my first AA meeting, and subsequently, I met this guy Michael, who’s larger than life. He became my AA sponsor. …Years later, he became Theo’s sponsor."

She continued: “There is no shame in all of this. That’s why I was so happy to talk to Theo. Because he was coming clean and he was letting go of his shame. In saying to Theo that (this person) was my sponsor too, I was letting go of some of my shame that I’ve held on to. I haven’t written a book or called you and said: ‘I’m a recovering alcoholic. Why don’t you do a story on that?’ It’s not something you advertise. But there are a lot of people in the AA community who know.”¸Payne said she has been conscious to make doctors take her history of addiction into account while helping her deal with her health issues. “Substance abuse can become a problem,” she said. “I wanted to make sure that nothing in my life got out of hand.”

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