If you spend much time around Revolution BJJ, you’ve probably encountered us, at least in passing. Billy teaches the Sunday yoga class before open mat, we both help out with the kids’ classes several days a week, and we show up to train jiu jitsu about as often as we can. On any given day, one or both of us is likely to be there for at least a couple of evening classes. As two of the oldest people who train at Revolution, every now and then Billy or I get that question, “How did you get started in jiu jitsu?” Perhaps you’ve even been one of the ones who asked. We usually give a little smile and a warning that it isn’t a happy backstory. Some of you have heard the story. For those who haven’t, consider yourself warned.
We’ve been married a long time –it’ll be 33 years in May–and raised three amazing kids, Sammy, Maia, and Ethan. Like most people, we went through our share of tough times over the years. In March of 2016, however, we found ourselves facing every parent’s worst nightmare. Our oldest child, Sammy, was 21, and we realized he was in a serious mental health crisis. Although we tried to help him and get him help, just weeks after we became aware of his struggle, he flew to Maui, and on April 6, 2016, he died there by suicide.
In the days after he died, we found a small notebook of his with to-do lists scribbled inside. On two of these lists, he wrote, “jiu jitsu” We had no idea what it even was. In what seemed an unbelievable coincidence, the police detective in Maui who had called us to break the terrible news and met us when we flew there to bring Sammy’s ashes home told us how he trained jiu jitsu and how much it had helped him cope with the loss of his newborn son several years before. It felt like a connection that was meant to be.
Within just a few weeks, Billy signed up for Daniel’s evening gi intro class at Revolution and was almost immediately completely hooked on the sport and on Revolution. Although I had no interest in participating, I couldn’t help but notice the impact that it had on him. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that it probably saved our marriage during those first few dark and awful months after our son died. Of course, he wanted me to join him on the mats, but I reminded him that not only did I not have an athletic bone in my body, but it usually smelled pretty bad in the gym on the occasions I came by to pick him up after open mat!
By December, Billy had worn me down enough that I agreed to try the intro class just to shut him up. Of course, by about week three, I couldn’t wait to sign up and Daniel put us on an unlimited family plan which we have taken full advantage of ever since. At this point, Billy has been training for 5 ½ years and January will be my 5 year anniversary. We love the physical and mental challenge, camaraderie, and mental distraction of the sport and jiu jitsu has changed us inside and out. Not only has it shifted our perspectives on who we each are, but Billy is nearly 100 pounds smaller than he was when Sammy died, and I’ve discovered the athlete I never knew I could be.
While I was still in that first intro class, we found out about a jiu jitsu seminar being offered in Philadelphia by a group of brown and black belt women to raise money for Submit The Stigma, a suicide and mental health awareness program started by Erin Herle, one of the women leading the seminar. Erin lost her father to suicide when she was a teenager and is very public about her own struggles with mental health. We traveled to Philly for the seminar, and even though I was so new that most of the terminology (hip switch, cross face, back step) was completely over my head, the experience with those women was transformational for me and convinced me that this was something I wanted more of. We also got to spend some time talking with Erin about our son and how we found jiu jitsu. Over the five years since, we’ve stayed in touch with her through social media and IBJJF tournaments. Although our stories around suicide loss are very different, it’s a powerful connection.
When people know our story, they sometimes turn to us for advice about facing mental health challenges, both their own and that of their loved ones. Other grieving parents often ask us how we cope and how we find purpose after such a loss. I wish I had easy answers for anyone, but all I can do is tell my story. If you’re struggling with your own demons, whether grief, depression, or thoughts of self harm, definitely seek help and I hope you find it. But do something else for yourself as well and get to the gym–push yourself to learn hard things and make your body do something new. All I know is that I found myself at Revolution and for an hour at a time, I can leave my problems at the side of the mat with my crocs.
We are forever grateful to the instructors and our teammates at Revolution BJJ for the love and support we find there and look forward to growing even older on the mats! If you want to know more about Submit the Stigma, look it up on social media or visit the webpage at https://www.submitthestigma.org/
If you or a loved one are experiencing a mental health emergency or require immediate assistance:
Call your local community services board and ask for emergency services.
You can also contact 911 or go to your nearest emergency room.
Other Crisis Numbers:
Crisis Text Line: 741741
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
LGBTQ+ Crisis Text: 678678
LGBTS+ Crisis Hotline: 1-866-488-7386
Intimate partner/domestic violence Crisis Hotline: 1-800-838-8238
IP/DV Crisis Text: 804-793-9999
Addiction Recovery Support Warm Line: 1-833-473-3782
Help in finding a therapist:
Psychology Today – Widely-used therapist directory
Contact your insurance provider to get a list of in-network behavioral health providers
Specific therapy services:
Virginia Community Response Network: Free short-term mental health services for essential workers in VA impacted by COVID-19 related stress
Full Circle Grief Center: Specializes in individual and group grief counseling in the Richmond area