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Chicago lawmaker’s private struggles with alcoholism, drug addiction help guide his work in public office

‘Alcohol was pretty much my drug of choice, but I certainly did enough other things as they came along, like a lot of other people,’ said state Rep. Greg Harris, now clean and sober for 19 years.

House Majority Leader Greg Harris, D-Chicago, last year.
House Majority Leader Greg Harris (D-Chicago) is a champion of causes like addiction and mental health treatment, which have played an important part in his own life. 
Mark Brown/Sun-Times

Illinois House Majority Leader Greg Harris sat down with me Friday to discuss substance abuse, addiction and mental health treatment — just some of the many social issues the Chicago Democrat has ably championed during a 13-year legislative career.

They also happen to be subjects of a very personal nature to Harris, whose own battles with alcohol and drugs are a main reason he will be honored next week by the Gateway Foundation, the nation’s largest nonprofit addiction treatment facility.

“Alcohol was pretty much my drug of choice, but I certainly did enough other things as they came along, like a lot of other people,” Harris told me.

“And what started out as something fun and social got worse and darker as the years went by to the point that I wasn’t even able to stay permanently housed, went through a bunch of different treatment programs, psych hospitalizations, suicide attempts, in and out of recovery for years and years and years.”

Even now, after 19 years being clean and sober, Harris, 63, seems as much aware of his fragility as his strength.

“I consider it something that every day is like a new start,” he said. “I’m still very involved every single week in a program of recovery.”

I regard Harris as one of the state’s most all-around squared-away lawmakers, which makes his struggles something of a surprise — although he’s occasionally mentioned them publicly.

Perhaps best known as sponsor of the state law legalizing gay marriage, Harris is routinely entrusted to handle many of the stickiest issues facing lawmakers. He ascended to the House Democrats’ second-ranking leadership post in January.

“Do not assume that what you look at on the outside is what’s going on on the inside with people. Just don’t do that,” Harris said. “I know all kinds of people. We suit up, and we show up every day with a game face on. And that doesn’t mean you’re not dealing with depression or anxiety, or that you’re not one drink or drug away from going back into a hellhole.”

Harris, who is openly gay, said these are issues he’s struggled with most of his adult life and probably even in his youth.

“It’s not uncommon for LGBT people to go through these things because of having to live in the closet and being marginalized and whatnot growing up,” he said.

Harris, born in Denver, moved to Chicago in 1977. By the 1980s, he had a top job with a trade association for the home furnishings industry.

He also had a bad substance-abuse problem, which only got worse in 1988 when he learned he was HIV-positive.

“Then it was just off to the races,” Harris said.

By 1990 he was diagnosed with AIDS, and soon afterward developed one of the opportunistic infections that in those days usually led to death.

“My doctor at the time said there’s like a 5 percent survival rate. You’ve likely got just a matter of months left. You should wrap up all your affairs,” Harris recalled.

“Obviously, that didn’t happen,” he said.

During that time, Harris enjoyed his first extended period of sobriety, lasting about seven years. He still remembers the day it came crashing down.

“I thought: I’m just going to have a glass of wine with my dinner. I’ll be fine. Boom. Within two weeks, it was as bad as it had ever been. And it took me a couple of years after that to get back to where I am now.”

Where he is now is cautious, uncomfortable talking about himself and about me holding him up as somebody more than he is.

“I do the bare minimum I can get by with, every week, to keep myself centered and in a safe spot. And so far, for 19 years, that’s worked,” he said.

I regard him as an inspiration, someone who has overcome his personal demons to do a lot of good — making sure there is state support for groups like Gateway to help the next person trying to get out of a hellhole.