Holmesburg resident and recovering addict is using her experiences to help others battle their demons.
Mary Coco-Brown recalled the intensity of the man sitting before her as he contemplated taking his own life. The 35-year-old had gotten himself clean then fell back off the wagon, and wasn’t sure he wanted to put in the work to get clean a second time.
“I told him, listen, it’s effort. It’s a journey,” Coco said. “And on the other side, there’s a beautiful life you can have.”
Coco’s words resonated with the man, but not as much as the fact she had had the conversation with him in the first place. Coco herself said that for addicts, the world could be a cold and isolated place.
“People don’t really value a street person,” said Coco, 50. “Even if you just listen to them and give them a hug, that’s a big deal. They don’t get a lot of hugs.”
The Holmesburg resident herself has been fighting her own battle with addiction for decades. She started doing hard drugs such as PCP and methamphetamine at 12 years old.
“I grew up in Kensington,” she said with a dismissive shrug. “It was never hard to get. It’s readily available.”
In September, Coco was hired to talk to and help people who face the same struggles with addiction she has for most of her life. She is not at liberty to say where she works, but she meets with people in the city on a daily basis.
Coco described her younger self as interested in things she wasn’t supposed to be. Her mother worked long hours and she grew up without a father. She started injecting drugs at 16.
“I gravitated toward anything that would take me outside of myself,” she said.
The first time she had the strength to set aside drugs was when she had a baby girl at 19. But even bringing another human into the world couldn’t stop her from falling back into old habits quickly after someone introduced her to crack and heroin.
“I lost the ability to go home to my daughter,” Coco said. “She was basically raised by her grandparents.”
Coco recalled living in abandoned houses and spending Christmases away from her family when she could have gone home.
“One day, I don’t know, it was like God just came down and touched me, and I decided I had enough,” she said. Her daughter was around 13 then.
She went to rehab, jail, and a recovery house before she was able to call herself clean and sober. She went to school to become an addiction counselor.
Coco was clean for years before succumbing to her old habits once again. After getting clean again with the help of her current workplace, it offered her a job.
A few months ago, Coco accompanied Councilman Bobby Henon on a ride through of pharmacies in Northeast Philadelphia to see if they offered naloxone.
“I think people [in Philadelphia] see this issue as black and white,” Coco said. “People don’t see the horror of it. I think it’s sad when people don’t value human lives.”
Coco said that she was overall pleased with what she had seen on the pharmacy tour, but feels the city could be doing more to help.
“People have to get medication-assisted treatment because that’s all they have, and that’s really unfair,” she said. She recalled seeing people who weren’t receptive to medical treatments not having any other options, saying medication wasn’t an “across-the-board” solution.
She’s supportive of safe injection sites, a system where people can inject drugs while being monitored.
New DA Larry Krasner spoke in favor of safe injection sites.
Coco considers her workplace the joy of her life, and after many difficult years has forged a strong relationship with her daughter.
Her daughter underwent similar addiction issues, but Coco said they were able to help each other get and stay clean, calling them best friends.
Coco has advice for addicts looking for help.
“Help is available and be sure that you’re ready for it, because there are a limited number of times you can seek it,” Coco said. “I would hate for them to use up their chances in the system we have nowadays and use up their chance to truly get clean.” ••