It’s been one year.
On September 22, 2016, Nichole “Ozzy” Ossman, one of my best friends in the world, decided to end her life. She was a blue belt whose entire life revolved around jiu-jitsu. She was a fierce competitor and a fiercely loyal friend. She was so many things, so many beautiful things, and yet, when I try to focus on all these beautiful things, all I can feel is her absence.
When I last wrote about Ozzy, my grief — and the grief of everyone who loved her and lost her — was fresh. It was raw, and it was passionate. I wanted to scream her name. I wanted to write about her, talk about her, cry about her to anyone who would listen. I organized last year’s Roll for Nichole while on a weird “high” that my brain was experiencing. I felt like I was thrust up against a wall, my own mind threatening me to create something positive out of this before my sense of helplessness drove me to madness.
I never expected the response that I got. Over forty jiu-jitsu academies from around the world made the commitment to talk about mental illness and suicide among the BJJ community. We raised over $1,000 for Ozzy’s family to help them pay for her funeral expenses. I cried countless tears that weekend after seeing all the photos people posted of their Roll for Nichole events. For a moment, things felt a little less not-okay. And then that high — both the “high” of sudden, intense grief and that which was brought on by all the love that was shared among the BJJ community through Roll for Nichole — wore off.
What followed, and what has continued to follow for the past year, has been confusion. Some days it felt like Ozzy never existed at all. Some days I was truly convinced that her death was all a sick, elaborate prank. Some days I was convinced that there was a way to undo what had happened, like this was a sci-fi story instead of real life. Some days reality hit me like a sack of rocks to the face, the word “never” scrawling itself across the crinkles of my brain until I was sure it would pour out of my nose and mouth like blood.
The worst days, though, are the ones in which I’ve felt “over it.” Sometimes — often, in fact — I’m too tired to be upset anymore. Her face comes into my mind, and some subconscious part of me pushes it out again. A therapist has told me that this is my brain’s way of protecting me, the way all our brains tend to block out traumatic things so we don’t go crazy. And yet, these days when I’m doing “okay” are the ones that torture me the most. I don’t want to stop hurting. To paraphrase a line from the TV show Westworld, this pain is all I have left of her. Not hurting — or rather, realizing I’m not hurting — is the worst kind of hurt.
Something I’ve heard a lot from people considering suicide is that their loved ones would “move on.” They’d “get over it.” It would hurt to lose them, just like it hurt to lose Ozzy, but with time, people would move on. To an extent, I guess it’s true. I can’t speak for others who knew and loved Ozzy, but personally, I’m functioning. I’ve been genuinely happy many times in the past year. I can talk about her without having to worry about bursting into tears in public. I’ve gotten used to the way people look at me like they’re worried I might shatter into a million pieces before their eyes if the topic of suicide is brought up.
I’m functioning in the same way a phone functions even after you drop it and a crack spiderwebs across the screen — the device still works, but you can’t ignore that crack. And just like that device, I, too, experience moments in which I don’t function as well as I used to. I still wake up sobbing after realizing the dream I had about her was just a dream. I still struggle to hold it together when I travel to places where she and I created memories. Anniversaries of tournaments we attended together are generally days in which I shut myself up in my house and don’t talk to anyone. These moments are reminders that while, yes, I’m functioning, something inside me is broken forever, and I will never truly be fine.
I know that the ebb and flow of my grief, how it changes on a whim from subtle and achy to sharp and stabbing, isn’t anything unique. Neither is my confusion, or my “to hurt or not to hurt” paradox. Anyone who’s lost a loved one can relate. Grief is not a process with neat, concise stages — it’s an unpredictable storm that can be a drizzle or a hurricane at any given moment. But what tears me up from the inside out is how the grief that I’m experiencing and Ozzy’s loved ones are experiencing is so unnecessary. Her choice to rip herself out of our lives was a conscious decision she’d been thinking about at least since the morning of the day she died. She thought about this, and hours after she acquired what she needed to end her life, hours after she spent what seemed to be a normal, happy day with her family, she still knew that she just didn’t want to live anymore.
Our brains are designed by evolution to do whatever necessary to keep us alive, and yet, for some people, it still doesn’t register that when your brain instead encourages you to kill yourself, it means that something is seriously wrong. When you start to go blind in one eye, it’s assumed that something is wrong with your eye. When your liver or your kidneys or your intestines stop doing their job, you go to the doctor because you recognize that death might be the result if you don’t. But when your brain does the exact opposite of what it’s designed to do, we get told to “suck it up” or that “you’ll snap out of it.” It’s a dangerous narrative, and it hasn’t gone away, so even though bringing Ozzy’s death to the forefront of my mind again is extremely painful, that pain is proof to me that we need to do this again this year.
For those who didn’t participate in Roll for Nichole last year or simply need a refresher about what it is, the idea is simple: have an open mat at your academy, and use the opportunity to create an open narrative about mental illness and suicide. Let each other know you’re there for each other, that it’s ok and encouraged to get help if you’re struggling. Talk about the symptoms of illnesses like depression, anxiety, and PTSD so those who are unsure if they really have a problem can get a better idea of what they’re experiencing. Make it known to everyone in attendance, whether they’re a teammate, student, or coach, that even though we participate in a sport that requires you to be mentally and physically tough, it’s okay to turn to each other when we’re not okay.
So here we go: This year’s Roll for Nichole will be held from October 20 through the 22nd. Pick one of those days to host an open mat, then be prepared to personalize it however you want to help raise awareness for mental illness and suicide. Here are some things I learned from last year’s participants that might help:
– Make sure you have lots of waivers on hand for new participants. A lot of people who had never tried jiu-jitsu before showed up to Roll For Nichole events all over the world (and I know of a couple who ended up sticking with it!).
– Reach out to local suicide awareness non-profits to see if they’d be willing to donate materials. A couple of gyms did this last year and had some informative pamphlets and flyers available for attendees.
– Make sure your gym has its own Facebook event for their Roll For Nichole. This makes it easier for participants to invite their friends and spread the word. I also will be putting together a spreadsheet so that as the weekend draws nearer, we’ll have a comprehensive list of participating academies so anyone in the area will know where they should go if they want to take part.
– Take pictures during your event, and upload them to Facebook and Instagram using the hashtag #RollForNichole. This is my personal request. Just like last year, I’ll be putting all the pictures together in a post so that everyone can see what an amazing community we have. The hashtag makes them easy for me to find.
The last thing I want is the necessity for something like this. But until and if there comes a time when it’s no longer necessary, I want our community — the one that is full of people who willingly get choked and a bit beat up on a daily basis — that there is strength in vulnerability. Last year, I saw that even though this was an event dedicated to Ozzy, this issue is something that affects more people than I ever could have imagined. So let’s do it again and reach even more people than before. Let’s #RollForNichole.