How Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Saved My Life and How It Allowed Me to Be a Better Person by James Gough

I know that when someone drops a title like “How Jiu Jitsu Saved My Life,” people are expecting a badass story about choking guys out that tried to attack me and how I fought them off with complete ease. That’s not what this story is about. This is how BJJ saved me from myself. I’m going to drone on a little bit here but I want you (the reader) to bear with me because it is very relevant to the point I am trying to make.

I come from a pretty regular family. I wasn’t a spoiled kid by any means, but I never went without necessities, I always got what I needed, I went to school, I did above average. I had a pretty decent childhood. My mental health started to head downhill when at the age of 15, I lost my Great-Grandmother. I know to most that sounds like a rather silly thing that could send someone into a spiral, but she was the one person who always encouraged me to shoot for the stars, to try and do extraordinary things. She encouraged me to play rugby and other sports, she encouraged me to sing and perform. She was the one who always believed I had talent. So when I lost her, a part of me disappeared, the part that made me believe in myself, and my ability to succeed in life. Now I hadn’t completely lost my s*** yet, but I was definitely on my way to that point.

I was already bullied a lot in school, not physically but a vast majority of people who I knew would take any opportunity to poke fun at me, insults ranging from “you’re ugly” to “you sh*g sheep” (a reference to the fact I grew up on a farm). Kids can be very cruel. Although insults like being called a sheep sh****r are hurtful, I knew they weren’t true. However, when someone calls you ugly, or fat or poke fun at your appearance relentlessly for five years straight, it isn’t surprising when you start to believe what people are saying. I lost confidence in myself. Even people who I considered to be good friends, who I since realised weren’t true friends, would join in for the name calling. I somehow managed to scrape my way into college, which I would go on to fail the first year. 

Part of my failure that year involved my first “adult” relationship. I was only 17 years old, and she was 19, so naturally I was borderline obsessed with the relationship. It was very intense. She was heavily involved with drugs when we first met, which for anybody who has been in a similar situation, is very difficult to deal with. Being a person who doesn’t take drugs who is infatuated with someone who does. In under a month she became pregnant. I was only 17, but I was 100 percent on board to have and raise the child because truthfully being a dad is the one thing I have always wanted to do more than anything else. So we talked it over and we decided we were going to keep the child. Then a month later she decided to get an abortion without telling me. The night I found, I don’t particularly remember a whole lot, only that I spent the entire night being talked off the ledge by my friend Kieran. It was definitely one of the roughest patches of my life, as I struggled to cope with the situation and its ramifications.

Although there were good thing that happened during that period of time, like getting to sing on stage for the first time and getting a great reception, I was completely unhappy with my life. I went through a string of relationships, dead end jobs and failed friendships. My best friend decided to convince me to move to Leeds, UK, to become a Personal trainer. I had very little going on aside from a job stacking shelves in ASDA. So upped sticks and moved to Leeds to become a Personal Trainer and hopefully begin a new life for myself. I succeeded in becoming a PT, and I was successful at it, at least for a while. However, working 80 hours a week and never having a personal life, very few friends around took its toll and I was back at square one mentally. I spent that Christmas by myself because I was so mentally exhausted and depressed that I didn’t want to be around my family.

At the start of 2016, I would begin a short, intense and ultimately one of the worst relationships I have ever been in. When we met, I thought she was amazing. She was cute, funny, sweet and kind. Super caring and thoughtful. Then as time went on, she would slowly try to change me, to mould me into who she wanted me to be. My best friend would point these things out to me and I would make excuses for her. She was extremely toxic for me. When that relationship ended, I felt used and broken. I was at an all time low, I was ready to end it all. I was burnt out and fed up. The one small ray of hope in life that I found, was Martial Arts. I had already been wrestling for a few years, and I decided to take my first Kickboxing class. I would go on to have several MMA fights, losing all 3 of them. Back into the hole again. I gained over 10kgs (22lbs), I hadn’t been that heavy since I was 15.

In December 2017, I came across a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu school called Scramble Academy Leeds. I went to a taster session before signing up in January this year. I immediately took a liking to the MMA coach as he had a similar way of looking at things as I did and he understood where I was at. He took on an almost big brother role, where he would encourage me in my victories and console and educate me in my losses. I competed in competitions, I started to lose weight, I improved as a martial artist. I even won my latest competition. But more importantly than all of those things, I had finally managed to start to take control of my mental health. I am about to turn 24. I am not rich. I am not famous. I have not achieved all the goals I wanted to. But I am happy. I am sane. I am not drowning in my own debilitating mind anymore. And isn’t that the goal in life? To be happy? I look at the world through a different perspective, I problem solve better than I ever thought I could and I am confident in who I am for the first time since I was a kid.

I’m not saying that BJJ is the thing that will help you to beat depression, or to give you confidence, or to help you beat anxiety, or help with any other mental health issue. But it did help me. If you find something that works for you, like BJJ worked for me, hold onto it. Use it to make yourself not only a healthier person mentally, but a better person entirely.

Myself (centre),with 2 of my favourite training partners.
The time I got to train with Firas Zahabi… talk about a wow moment!