As a part of my series about people who made the journey from an addict to an entrepreneur, I had the pleasure to interview…
Russell Phillips is voice for change. At the age of 16, he decided to try drugs for the first time. It was a decision that would forever alter the course of his life. Over the next 18 years, his life would continue to spiral out of control, until ultimately, in 2014, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for distributing cocaine. This is a story of addiction and overcoming.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you describe your childhood for us?
With the exception of seeing some domestic violence early on from my mom’s alcoholic boyfriend, I had a pretty good childhood. I was raised by a single mother in Maryland. We weren’t poor but we weren’t rich. I remember her working 2–3 jobs to make ends meet and give me the best life she could. To this day, I’ve never seen someone love another person the way she loved me. She always put me first. She went to work every day, came home and her whole life revolved around me. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize all the sacrifices she made for me until later in life.
Can you share with us how were you initially introduced to your addiction? What drew you to the addiction you had?
I began selling drugs when I was 16. I would hang out and party with friends on the weekend. So, it started with alcohol and weed. We’d hang out together after we got out of school on Fridays. Looking back though, I see that when everybody else was going in the house at 1, 2, 3 a.m., I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to go home or stop partying. I didn’t see the signs at the time, but I do now. One day would turn into two but when I got introduced to cocaine, I would disappear for two, three days at a time.
Of course, my mom was worried about me. She would call me if I wasn’t home, ringing my phone off the hook. I would avoid her because I was high. I didn’t want to talk to my mom. But 18 years later, when I got clean, I realized she didn’t care if I was high, she just needed to know that I was alive.
What do you think you were really masking or running from in the first place?
I think if anything I was trying to fit in with the wrong people. I felt this need to be accepted. I felt the need to fit in, obviously with people who were headed in the wrong direction. I wanted to have this “bad boy persona” and I think I didn’t feel good about just being myself.
Can you share what the lowest point in your addiction and life was?
Around late 2013 and the start of 2014, I’d already been struggling with a cocaine problem and by that time I started using PCP as well. I used to bounce around between my mom’s house and other people’s houses a lot. I would stay with a girl and if things didn’t work out my mom’s door was always open to come back home. While my mom was always there for me, she couldn’t handle the PCP. Not to say she was okay with cocaine, but she worried that on PCP, I was going to die, kill myself, or hurt someone else. She ended up kicking me out. I couldn’t stay there anymore, so I ended up sleeping on a bench at a Metro station. I’ll never forget how cold it was….
My mom was worried sick about me, so she would call me every single day when she got off of work and she would ask me if I had eaten anything. I would tell her “no,” so sometimes she would pick me up from the Metro station and buy me something to eat. But I still couldn’t go back home. I can remember she used to just cry her eyes out. It’s hard to think about.
That was the lowest point in my addiction but the lowest point in my life was losing my mom. That was tough. I was in prison at the time. I was a momma’s boy my whole life and she passed away at the hardest time in my life. I was serving a 10-year prison sentence and I got a call saying my mom had passed away. I broke down.
Can you tell us the story about how were you able to overcome your addiction?
I was tired. I was tired of causing my mom so much pain. I was tired of being the reason she cried all the time. I was tired of missing time with my daughter. I was just tired. I didn’t want to keep putting them through that. While I was in prison, I had a lot of time to reflect on all the wrong I had done as well as think about the direction I wanted my life to go in. I had a choice to make. I could either be a statistic or an example. It was an important decision because the answer would more than likely determine if I lived or died. So I chose to be an example- an example of everything that’s possible. I started to get clean in prison so by the time I had gotten out, I was clean for about 18 months. There were drugs in prison, but I’d decided by that point I was committed to a different life so I chose to stay away from that stuff.
I wanted to get clean, and as far as willpower, I’ve been through a lot. I wanted to finally enjoy time with my daughter and not miss anything else. Again, I could either be a statistic or an example so I chose to be an example.
How did you reconcile within yourself and to others the pain that addiction caused to you and them?
Unfortunately, my mom passed away while I was in prison, so I’ll never have the opportunity to make that up to her. Before she died, I told her how much she meant to me over phone calls and things like that, but I don’t know that I ever really showed her how much I love her. It’s something, unfortunately, that I’ll have to live with forever. All I can do is try to share my story so hopefully no one ever has to step on the same landmines that I did.
While my mother was still here, I didn’t get to spend as much time with her as I wanted to so I try to make the people I love the forefront of my life, to show them I love them. I know now that anything can happen at any time. I already live with enough regrets. I don’t want to live with any more.
When you stopped your addiction, what did you do to fill in all the newfound time you had?
I was in prison when I first got clean. And when I got out, things were really tough for me. I came home October of 2016. So I’ve only been home two and a half years. When I first came home, I didn’t have anything. No money and my license was suspended. I had no car, I had no job and my mom was gone. The house that she lived in got foreclosed. A family member stole a life insurance policy that my mom had left for me. I literally had nothing. The only thing I had to my name was a dream and ambition. I started from the bottom, but I had this desire to be great.
I also felt like if I were to go back to that life now, it would be a slap in the face to everything that my mom worked for. It was hard but she would tell me my life didn’t get messed up overnight, so it wasn’t going to be fixed overnight. I knew going into this that it would be a process, so I put my trust in that.
What positive habits have you incorporated into your life post addiction to keep you on the right path?
I’ve always been bright. I’m driven and I know I have to keep going for the people I love.
I work hard even in my free time. I realized that when people get off of work on Friday night, they think they can relax for two days and then when Monday comes, go back to work. I’ve learned that when you’re chasing something bigger than yourself, there is no free time. I can remember when I first got out of prison, I had a job but it wasn’t getting me where I wanted to go. So, I got a second job and pushed myself harder. I want to give hope to anyone walking in my shoes now or in the future. If you want it badly enough, change is possible. But before I could preach it, I had to prove it.
Can you tell us a story about how your entrepreneurial journey started?
So, ironically, it all started in prison. I started going to the library every week and just getting a pile of books, from tech start-ups to how to be an entrepreneur. I read a lot and it kind of opened my mind to new worlds that I never even knew existed. Although I may have physically been in prison, they couldn’t lock my mind up. So, all my initial knowledge and inspiration basically came from books out of the prison library. It planted the seed and when I got out of prison, it just became part of who I am now.
What character traits have you transferred from your addiction to your entrepreneurship. Please share both the positive and negative.
It’s just my desire to do good in whatever I do — whether that was bad or good. Also my drive and ambition. I honestly feel like it’s a gift and a curse. It’s almost as if my addiction has changed from drugs to chasing my dreams. I work so hard to be the person I want to be. I tell myself sometimes that I’m trying to do too much and to relax a little bit, but I can’t. This is who I’ve become now.
Why do you think this topic is not discussed enough?
I think people are scared of it because people who don’t understand addiction, they bash both addiction and addicts as well. And, people who are addicted or families of addicts, don’t always want to face the severity of the issue at hand. I think it’s easier just to forget about it or even pretend the problem isn’t there.
Can you share three pieces of advice that you would give to the entrepreneur who is struggling with some sort of addiction but ashamed to speak about it or get help?
Whatever you choose to do in life, you have to realize all the work that goes into making and completing something. I think a lot of people hit barriers and they quit and fall back in their comfort zone. Again, it’s a process. You don’t go from A to Z without taking the proper steps in between. You have to get out of your comfort zone in order to achieve anything.
Also, everything is an option. Every single decision must be thought through. When you live, your decisions not only affect you but the people around you and your community. They affect people you don’t even know, both positively and negatively. Always be conscious of who’s watching and the consequences your action may have and who they may hurt.
The last piece of advice is just to love one another. We’re all so separated and we argue over everything but not everything is black and white. We’re all in this thing called life together. If anything, our children need to inherit a better world than the one we currently live in. If we don’t do it for ourselves, let’s do it for them.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC1VQa09TkG5d2S8MBq8gx8w(YouTube: Russell Phillips)
Thank you so much for your insights. That was really inspiring!