My name is Aaron Lawlor and I’m from Vernon Hills, Illinois.
At the age of 21, I was appointed to my local library board. By 23, I was elected president of that board. My career continued and grew and at 27, I was appointed to a vacancy on my local county board and I was subsequently reelected in 2010 and 2012. And at that point, I was elected the chairman of the County Board and I was the youngest county board chairman in Lake County’s history.
I threw myself into my work and I loved what I did. It was a lot of pressure but for awhile, I responded really, really positively to that pressure. But the pressure started to really, really catch up and I needed an escape. I had been acting out sexually for a long time in a really unhealthy and destructive way. It was always in excess and it was always less safe. And I mean that like in the manner I was having sex and also in the settings and places I was seeking it out.
My sex life and my professional life had been on this kind of collision course that they’d been running down. You know, an incredibly ambitious professional life and a very active and frankly destructive sex life that ended up with me being diagnosed HIV+ in my mid-twenties. But my career continued to grow and flourish.
You know, I was out to close friends and family and colleagues on kind of an evolving basis but I had never as an elected official done, like, the big press release. I was a single HIV+ gay guy living in a town house In Vernon Hills Illinois, in the suburbs outside of Chicago. What I wanted was this connection. I wanted partnership. I wanted gay friends.
A sense of loneliness really kind of came over my life and my casual drug use became more regular drug use. It was kind of fun for awhile until, you know, it really wasn’t. And it was when, like, those two courses of my life started to intersect and my drug use was becoming more apparent or people thought something was terribly amiss.
It was the winter of 2015. And I was in a committee meeting and I’d walked out because I had to go to another event. And a colleague of mine followed me out and said, “I want you to know this. I don’t have anything to do with it but….” Some of my political opponents at the time had hired a private investigator to follow me with the idea that they were going to out me to voters in my district, and that that was going to be disadvantageous for me from an election standpoint. I did not process it well. My drug use increased and my self-esteem and sense of self-worth went down the toilet. And that just perpetuated everything in devolving.
So I was coming off a three-day bender. It was July of 2018. Some random people had just left my house and my best friend called and said he wanted to come up and see me and we were going to talk about my reelection campaign because I was on the ballot that fall. And he came over and it was a sunny July day. We sat on my back patio. And it quickly became clear to me that I couldn’t find a coherent sentence with two hands and a flashlight, let alone plan a reelection campaign.
And he said, “I’m not gonna sit here and watch you do this anymore. You need to get help or I’m not gonna be in your life.” I just needed an out. Somebody to kind of show me the way out.
And so I said, “Yes. What do you want me to do?” And then we kinda figured it out, that I was gonna call Hazelden Betty Ford and, you know, see what they told me. You know, what they wanted me to do. So I did that and enrolled in their intensive outpatient program and moved into sober living and completely upended my life. Sold my house, pulled my name off the ballot for reelection, ended my political career, and was unemployed for a year while I figured things out and I just focused on staying sober.
What I found was this just incredible connection that I was looking for, kind of all along in my life, was just meaningful connection with other LGBTQ people, in this case in recovery from addiction for the most part. But found that connection and then also just found a way where I could live where there was no daylight between my personal life of being – and my personal identity and my professional life. And started working for a health care nonprofit in Chicago that focuses on LGBTQ health. And I didn’t escape anymore because I was living a life that one didn’t come with just the very toxic pressure of politics and also was just 100 percent authentic, open about my identity, my HIV diagnosis, my being a recovering drug addict. And it’s just lifted a lot of shame out of my life and it’s really made all the difference.
When I was a young gay guy in Vernon Hill, Illinois, and especially when I became HIV+, I thought i was the only one on earth going through the exact same thing. And what I found in recovery and in working where I work now is that, we feel that way but we are not unique. We all have value, we’re all important, but there are other people that are facing the same stories.