WASHINGTON — As the nation celebrates its independence on the Fourth of July, Russell Phillips is also reveling in his long, turbulent journey toward his self-determination.
“I was a drug addict for 18 years. I managed to rack up over 30 arrests. I’ve been homeless; I’ve been hungry. I obviously caused pain to my family,” Phillips said.
But after years of drug addiction, prison time and homelessness, the 39-year-old Laurel, Maryland, resident now wakes up before dawn most days and works well after dark with his two jobs.
Phillips is making up for lost time, and he said he aims to be the man his single mom wanted him to be. He also wants to be a light for others who are in despair.
His own life hit a low point on Oct. 24, 2015, when his mother died while he was locked away in maximum security prison in Cumberland, Maryland.
“I was a mama’s boy my whole life. She never gave up on me, even at the worst times of my life,” said Phillips, crushed that he was unable to attend his mother’s funeral and consigned to weeping on the shoulder of the prison chapel.
But, Phillips credits chaplain Galen Beitzel for providing him lifesaving guidance. “We started to develop a rapport … he’s a really good guy. He has a really big heart,” he said.
After serving 2 1/2 years of a 10-year prison sentence for dealing drugs, Phillips next completed a stint in drug rehab to fully recover from cocaine and PCP abuse.
He won reinstatement as a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which keeps him more than busy with his two jobs.
When he has time, Phillips is also working on writing a novel about a single mom struggling to raise an only son.
“He ends up taking a wrong path through life, hanging out with the wrong people, making some really bad decisions,” Phillips said about the book, drawing from his own life and his mother’s experiences.
Phillips also has goals he’d like to accomplish: He wants to deliver motivational speeches and start a nonprofit group called “Light in the Shadows” that would help those addicted to drugs.
“While I was in prison, my only goal was to get home and show my mother how much I had changed my life and how serious I was this time,” Phillips said. “Unfortunately, I had to visit her in a graveyard.”
According to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey, 46 percent of American adults have said they have a family member or close friend who has been addicted or is currently addicted to drugs.
Because of his experiences, Phillips also wanted to share this message for others: “I want people to know that even if they’re in a dark place right now, that anything is truly possible.”