Berlynn Cottom goes by many names — Cotton Candy and Fluffy usually being the most preferable. And anyone who knows her would say they’re fitting.
With a boisterous laugh and passion to help others, the 57-year-old Brunswick resident — born with fetal alcohol effect (FAE) and brain trauma, and later diagnosed with bipolar and schizoaffective disorders — has a reason to smile: In April, she will be nine years sober and drug-free.
“I’m happy, I’m at peace and living life on life’s terms,” Cottom said of taking control of her life and mental health.
“When my mama, who is German, had me, I was under 4 pounds. At the time, there were two different hospitals: One for whites and one for blacks. Because my mama passed for white, I was taken there.
“But when I was born and came out black, they gave my mom an incubator and sent her home for me to die.”
The only thing that kept her alive, Cottom said, was the alcohol-water formula her mother fed her. But after suffering through years of mental, verbal, physical and sexual abuse, and being told not to discuss what happened in the home with others, Cottom’s mental health began to take a turn for the worse, eventually following her to school.
“Being a baby addict, I knew how to somehow get my so-called medication — how to maneuver, how to hide it and how to function. But because I was being raped and molested at home and was what you would say ‘slow,’ I didn’t talk,” Cottom said.
“I was placed in a corner with crayons and paper, and learned to talk that way. But when I began to talk about what was going on, they would tear them up and throw them away.
“At the time, I didn’t know I had a mental disorder. My family said I was a little slow and that I would keep up, but all of that led to self-hatred and self-deprivation. I eventually started using different coping skills like self-harm through middle, junior and high schools.”
At one point, Cottom began sneaking alcohol in cans to school to help her function. It wasn’t until she turned 32 years old that she was diagnosed with bipolar and schizoaffective disorders.
“That was the happiest day of my life. When I was diagnosed, I had become such a prey to predators that people could tell I was searching for love and just looking for something I had no idea what it was,” she said.
By definition, bipolar disorder is a psychiatric illness involving both manic and depressive episodes, while schizoaffective disorder can have symptoms of both schizophrenia and a mood disorder such as bipolar disorder or depression, research shows.
Seen in about 0.3 percent of the population, the exact cause of schizoaffective disorder is unknown, but genetics, brain chemistry and structure, stress and drug use may play a part. The chronic disorder is managed by medications and psychotherapy.
“The meds do their part and I do mine,” she said.
With an associate’s degree in psychology from Clark College, a job as a processing clerk at Piedmont Bank and a husband with who she had three children, it seemed as if Cottom’s life was on the rebound.
But that all came crashing down when her husband became addicted to drugs.
“He got on drugs, and I followed him. It got worse from there. I tried to get help, but it didn’t work and alcohol worked faster than the medication I was on,” Cottom said.
It led to cutting herself, getting high on cocaine, abandoning her children and living on the streets, sometimes inside of trashcans.
“I had lost myself; I didn’t know who or where I was. So I moved to Milledgeville and disassociated myself for six months. I came back looking for my children, but my husband had given them away — but they were returned. When they were returned, I realized I was simply tired of the life I was living and said a prayer,” she said.
The next day, Cottom was arrested and found herself detoxing in a cold cell alone for three days. It was there that she discovered Alcoholics Anonymous, Gateway Behavioral Health Services and National Alliance on Mental Illness in Brunswick.
On the insistence of her sponsor, Cottom was checked into Gateway in 2007 and had to relearn how to live and work on the repressed anger from her childhood.
“One thing about it — it’s easy to put down the drugs but hard not to go back to them. So I just absorbed everything and began teaching other women like myself that we are people first,” she said.
Since checking into Gateway almost nine years ago, Cottom would say that she’s more than busy these days.
“I’m a sponsor, teach anger management, have done presentations for Amity House and NAMI, speak at drug court, speak at AA and Gateway meetings, help people in Gateway find employment, teach mentally ill adults, took the AAA driver’s class even though I don’t have a car, and even perform urine tests,” Cottom laughed.
She recently shared her story of overcoming the challenges of her mental illness in an “In Our Own Voice” presentation at a NAMI meeting.
“Any place anybody wants to hear my story, I’m there. If I can help just one person stay on the right track, then I’ll do it. These are my accomplishments but my success story is that I’m alive and still clean and sober.”
Working solely on a volunteer basis, Cottom said this new phase in her life is nothing short of a blessing. She’s even a regular volunteer for NAMI, which is the nation’s largest grassroots organization dedicated to improving the lives of families touched by mental illness.
“This is a passion for me and how I get paid is when I see the women here out working and spending time with their kids. God has placed me where I am right now for a reason. When I was raped and molested as a child, God was preparing me to help others like myself,” she said.
“I remember saying, ‘If you’re not going to help me, let me carry the pain of others and that’s exactly what I’m doing. My coping skills are a lot different now.”
Instead of self-inflicting pain from rubber bands, Cottom chooses to say “no” to those urges and replaces them with prayer and classical music.
“I have seen a therapist (regularly) for the past three years and just learned to say ‘no’ aloud. Sometimes when I get angry, I look at my feet and hands to process that I’m in the here and now,” she said.
Her mission nowadays remains on dispelling myths about mental illness to overcome the stigma.
“A lot of people think we can’t work because of our mental health but we can. We are smart people, too, and we’re more than our (disorders). We are people with names and we bleed just like anyone else,” she said.