Guys, we need to talk.
A few days ago, I told you all about my best friend and jiu-jitsu sister, Nichole “Ozzy” Ossman, who committed suicide on September 22. At the time, I didn’t want to talk about that word: suicide. I didn’t want to talk about the hell that we’ve all been going through since that day, and I didn’t want to talk about the pain that she was going through that none of us knew about. I wanted to celebrate the good things about her and focus on the joy she brought to our lives instead of the agony that her loss has brought us.
But now, we need to talk about it.
Most of the messages I received about Ozzy’s passing were beautiful, kind, and supportive. But a couple of people suggested that by celebrating her life, I was somehow encouraging other people to end things in the same way that she did in an attempt to get the attention that they felt they were lacking in life. Needless to say, that wasn’t my intention. So now that I’ve told you why Ozzy was the most amazing person on the planet, I’m going to give you some perspective on what really happens when one of the people you love most decides life is no longer worth living.
The day you find out, it doesn’t seem real. It seems like a mistake, like they misidentified the body and she’s in the hospital, but not gone. I wouldn’t call it denial, but utter disbelief: the same thing you’d experience if someone told you that the sky was pink. The words “why” and “please” and “no” are the only ones your mouth wants to speak, but somehow you manage to force out, “I need to talk to you,” when you get to messaging everyone so they don’t find out through Facebook posts like you did. From there, it’s the same conversation about the same living nightmare. Over, and over, and over again.
What happens next is a special kind of torture. You make plans to travel home as soon as possible while your brain is more scrambled than it’s ever been. You interact with strangers at the airport who greet you with a half-smile and a “How’s it going?” You want to scream at them the same thing you’ve been almost robotically telling people for the past twenty-four hours: “My best friend killed herself. She didn’t reach out to me or anyone else. No one saw it coming. I can’t do this. I can’t do this. I can’t do this.”
But instead, you say, “Fine.”
You’re caught between wanting to talk about it and never wanting to see another human being again. Your friends will try to cheer you up. They’ll hug you, they’ll do anything to make you smile, they’ll send you messages letting you know they’re thinking about you, and they’ll hold you when you can’t breathe because you’re crying so hard. The whole time, all you’ll be able to think about is how she should be there. This shouldn’t be over her. It feels like something she’d be a part of, that this should be about someone else and that you two would get through it together.
You look through every message you’ve ever exchanged, taking screenshots of every time she said she was happy and every time you told her you were there for her as if to prove to yourself that she really was a joyful person and you weren’t just delusional the whole time. You stay up until ungodly hours of the morning looking for clues you might have missed. When you find none, you feel relieved that maybe there really was nothing you could have done. At the same time, you feel devastated that you’ll never have an answer as to why she did this. Then you cry yourself into a restless sleep, the mental image of what she did playing in your head like a movie repeating itself.
You start looking forward to the funeral, knowing that it will finally be the opportunity you need to be broken with people who are broken about the same thing. You will finally be able to break down like you’ve wanted to for so long, and all around you will be people who won’t ask what’s wrong.
When the day comes, it’s worse than you could have ever imagined.
You embrace people you’ve never met before. At the same time, you hate with everything in you that this is why you’re finally meeting all the other people who were so close to her. You see your friends who are absolute warriors on the mat sobbing and shaking, and you have to tell them that it will be OK even though it’s not OK and it will never be OK. You tell your friends “I love you” over and over again. You tell each other, “I’m always here for you. You can always come to me,” all of you knowing that what you’re really saying is, “Please don’t ever do what she did.” You see her body in that casket and it still doesn’t feel real, and it’s at that moment that you realize it will never feel real.
Once it’s over, you think life will go back to normal or that the pain will subside a little, but it doesn’t. Those who didn’t know her as well as you did will start to move on, but you can’t even get out of bed until two in the afternoon. You continue to think that she’ll respond to that text you sent her the morning before she died, saying that her phone was broken and why does everyone think she killed herself and were we really that dumb to think she’d ever do something like that? You’ll go to the gym and get some sort of peace rolling with your gym family, but as soon as you go home and find yourself alone with your thoughts, you’ll want to stop existing.
I’m telling you all of this because I want you to get a glimpse of what would happen if your loved ones had to live in a world that you chose to remove yourself from. I’m telling you this because I want you to know what can happen when your friends don’t feel like they can discuss these things with anyone or when they think that going to therapy is for the weak. I’m telling you this because you’re my jiu-jitsu family, and we should be able to talk about things like this.
We need to talk about things like this.
Ozzy and I had talked about mental illness before. I knew she had depression and anxiety just like I did, but I always thought I was way worse than she was. I told her I was always there if she wanted to talk about it or anything at all, and she always made it seem like it was a slight inconvenience rather than something that had a huge impact on her life.
When you’re on the outside, it’s easy to say that there must have been something that someone had missed. Even though Ozzy was always happy and talking about the future, there must have been signs. There are always signs, right? That’s what I always told myself. I had read books about this stuff. I knew what to watch out for. Aside from having the two most common mental illnesses in the world, she had none of the signs. Ozzy was making plans for both the near and far future. She was successful, and she knew it. She never gave up. She had an incredible support system, and she was told every day that she was loved. She never even hinted about not wanting to live anymore or feeling trapped.
For whatever reason, Ozzy didn’t want help. She didn’t want attention. She just wanted to escape whatever private hell she was going through, and she saw only one way out.
This is why we need to talk about this.
We all know how jiu-jitsu helps us battle and conquer our inner demons. For some, it’s all the therapy they need. For others, it’s not nearly enough. Especially in a martial art that tends to weed out quitters and complainers, though, it can be hard to go up to your teammates and say, “Hey, I’m in a dark place and need help.” We can’t see mental illness in the way we can see a broken leg, so it’s hard to expect people to understand that our brain is really sick.
My gym family is the only thing that has gotten me through this week, and I want other gym families to come together and talk about the things that no one really wants to talk about. I want mental illness not to be a taboo subject. I want us all to be able to say to each other, “I’m struggling with my thoughts,” or “I don’t know if I want to live anymore,” if that’s what we’re feeling. I want us to all be there for each other and know what to do if someone does start displaying signs of being depressed or wanting to kill themselves.
I want us to do this because I never want this to happen again. To anyone.
On the way back from Ozzy’s funeral, I learned via a headline on a gas station newspaper that September is suicide prevention awareness month. Unfortunately, I’ve been so aware of suicide during this past week that I’m a little late in doing my part to help prevent it, so I hope it’s OK if we do something about it in October instead.
On Friday, October 7 (for those who have tournaments on Saturday) or Saturday, October 8 (for those who have work on Friday), I want the BJJ community to come together and Roll for Nichole. I want us all to have an open mat in her honor at our individual gyms. Invite other academies, invite people who have never done jiu-jitsu before, invite whoever you want. Take an hour or two to do the thing that— at least for a while— gave Ozzy happiness and a release from the things she was battling inside her mind.
But on whichever day you choose to do this, I want you all to sit down with your coach and teammates and take the opportunity to talk about mental illness. I want you to tell each other that you’re there for each other, and I want you to discuss the warning signs of suicide, which can be found here. I want you to discuss all kinds of options for help, including talk therapy and medication. By the time you leave that gym, I want every single person to know that mental illness is as serious as a physical injury or disease, and above all, I want you all to know that you’re not alone.
During all of this, I want you to create a memory with your teammates. Laugh together. Take pictures together. Post them on social media and use the hashtag #RollForNichole so that everyone inside and outside the jiu-jitsu community can see just how big our extended family is and how we support each other.
How you personalize this is up to you guys as individual gym families. I’d love for this to be an event to raise money for Ozzy’s family to help pay for funeral expenses, but if money is tight, I understand. All I want is for us to make it as convenient as possible for us to have an open conversation about this while helping to create some kind of a silver lining to the darkest cloud I’ve ever experienced, just as Ozzy tried to do for everyone else going through tough times.
I’ve seen the amazing things the jiu-jitsu community can do when we all come together. Now, we need to do so for each other for the sake of our teammates, ourselves, and the people who love us. We need to do everything in our power to make sure that no more friends or families ever go through what Ozzy’s loved ones are currently experiencing, and I think that by having a conversation about this, we can take the first step to preventing suicide in our own gyms.
So let’s do it. Let’s roll for a better future, for a stronger jiu-jitsu family, for a world in which mental illness is treated as a legitimate condition instead of something that should be swept under the rug and ignored. Let’s roll for ourselves, our teammates, and anyone else who has been at war with their own mind.
Let’s roll for Nichole.