Thursday, March 31, 2016

TWLOHA: Ten Years of "Writing Love"

On the bookshelf near my bed, this TWLOHA poster
reminds me that it's worth it to get up tomorrow morning.
This past month, TWLOHA has celebrated its tenth anniversary. What is TWLOHA?

The simple answer can be found in their mission statement, which says that TWLOHA "is a non-profit movement dedicated to presenting hope and finding help for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury, and suicide. TWLOHA exists to encourage, inform, inspire, and also to invest directly into treatment and recovery."

There's much more to be said, and they give a better account than anyone on their own website. Nevertheless I'd like to try to describe it by own clunky prose, insofar as I've come to know it.

TWLOHA is especially a movement aimed at young people. It seeks them out on the front lines of youth culture: at concerts and festivals and, of course, on the Internet. In ten years it has become a large and significant resource for making connections between treatment and many people who are least likely to seek it.

The most important thing about TWLOHA, however, is the human experience that, from the very beginning, brought about something that no one had ever planned, and that continues to be the source of its vitality today.

"It started with a story."

There were these two guys sharing an apartment in Orlando, Florida. David McKenna worked as a band manager in the contemporary music industry and Jamie Tworkowski was a sports equipment salesman who loved surfing and had a knack for writing. McKenna was a recovering cocaine addict who would give presentations about getting help for addiction at local venues, small churches and such.

One day, a 19 year old girl named Renee showed up for a presentation. Afterwards they had a conversation. Renee was addicted to cocaine and alcohol. She also had severe depression, pondered suicide, and engaged in a kind of behavior that is politely known as "self-injury" or "self-harm." I have written about this category of behavior before, and the subtle forms it can sometimes take. Just as there are many ways we can physically, emotionally, and verbally abuse other people, so also there are many ways we can abuse ourselves, and some of these ways can be very subtle.

Renee's self-abuse, however, was not subtle at all. Her arms were covered with scabs and the scars of cuts from razor blades.

David and the others encouraged her to go to rehab and she said something like, "I'll go tomorrow." I think they arranged to get in touch in order to help her follow up on this fragile resolution.

Not surprisingly, however, she went out that night and binged on everything. She got smashed on cocaine, pills, and booze.

This is a story of depression, addiction, self-loathing, confusion, loneliness, lots of bad relationships, not knowing who to trust -- this is a very real story and I get this story; I've lived many elements of this story myself and it doesn't surprise me a bit. The part of this story that really does "surprise" me is still to come....

After a night of partying, the girl took a razor blade and cut a word onto her arm, a word that she thought expressed her identity. She branded herself with a word that was meant to say, "I am worthless. I can't do anything right." The word was an obscenity that meant, basically, "Screw-up" as in "I am a screw-up" but using the f-word instead of "screw," making it more biting, hateful, and violent.

The next day she agreed to go to the rehab center where David had connections, but when they brought her there she was turned down. She was a "cutter" with a fresh wound, the center explained, and she was also still high and they had no detoxification facilities. She would have to get the drugs out of her system before she could enter.

"Bring her back in five days," the rehab center said.

I don't know what kind of resources were on hand for Renee's new friends. Could they have taken her to a "detox center"? Financial resources were an issue here. She didn't seem to have much income, or to be connected to her family at the time. Did they think of just taking her to the emergency room? She was basically a stranger, and it would have been easy to just say, "Hey, we did our best but there's nothing left now but to turn her over to the Big Anonymous System that takes care of poor people so that we don't have to."

I don't know where this is. Could be a great place. Just using it for a symbol of "big" and "anonymous" and "system," etc.

Instead, David and Jamie decided to take her back to their apartment. They contacted more of their own friends and asked for help. This small group of friends decided, for the next five days, to stay with Renee, keep her drug free, help her, and most importantly, love her.

They gathered to be a community for her, to love her. Somewhere in those days Jamie the aspiring writer with a poetic imagination came up with a metaphor. They were going "to write love on her arms." They would erase the lying self-condemning word that she has "written" on her arm with cuts from a razor blade and replace it with a living word: love. And they would begin very concretely, by loving her through the time ahead and getting her to rehab.

They did it by staying together with her, eating together, watching videos, going to basketball games and concerts together, staying up with her at night, empathizing with her through the hardest parts. Together, they got her through the five days and brought her to rehab. Renee began to deal with her problems, and she discovered that she was loved and that she was not alone.

This story is not a fairy tale. It's not a "happily ever after" story. It's a "bumpy bumpy happy bumpy crash start-again hopeful" story. Renee had further relapses along the road to recovery. Today she is drug free and harm free, but it took time and it wasn't easy. David McKenna had relapses and more recovery before he died tragically in a car accident in 2012. Jamie Tworkowski has been very open about his own battles with depression.

But I'm getting ahead of the story.

For me (and perhaps also for those who went through it) the most important part of the story is what they discovered in this experience. Human beings need love. People who are suffering need solidarity, friendship; they need to be embraced and valued for who they really are, to be loved as persons.

We need to be persons who can love and be loved through the experience of community. All of our social and political problems (in my view) boil down to this fundamental problem: We need community. And we don't have it. We are so isolated as human beings in our society today that when a group of people come together for five days in community and friendship and solidarity, to share a person's suffering with love and respect for her dignity, it seems like a miracle.

Maybe community is a miracle.

But back to the rest of the story. Perhaps I should repeat what I said at the beginning: "It started with a story." Because you're still wondering what all of this has to do with a national non-profit with the funny name?/acronym? of TWLOHA.

Before they took her to the rehab, Jamie asked Renee if he could share her story with others. He wanted to write the story of these days they had all spent together. She said yes.

And so Jamie wrote a two page story. He called it: "To Write Love On Her Arms." He thought it was a good story and that, perhaps, others might find it helpful, identify with Renee's struggles, and even be inspired.

So he shared the story.

Here's where things take a distinctively 21st century twist.

It's hard to believe that it's only been ten years since the word "share" took on so many explosive new meanings thanks to the world of social networking. In 2006 Facebook was still evolving from a student exchange site, YouTube was just a year old, and Twitter didn't even start until that summer. Of course, lots of people were online. New things were happening all the time. More and more people were telling their stories by blogging. But Jamie didn't have a blog.

He had a MySpace page. MySpace was the original "social media platform" (as some of us still remember) and it had plenty of limitations, but it was easy to post a story on it. That's how he shared it. (He still shares it HERE on their website.)

Ten years ago people didn't commonly talk about a social media post "going viral." Jamie's story was written in his own lyrical style, simply, honestly, full of his own reflections. He probably didn't expect that more than a handful of people would ever read it.

But the story "went viral." It got shared and reshared all around the world.

And people from all over the world responded, not only in their hearts but also on Jamie's MySpace page. Thousands and thousands of messages came pouring in from people, many of them young people, who were amazed to learn that they were not the only ones who suffered, that their lives had value, that there was hope.

People felt that Renee's story "gave them permission" to express their own suffering, to share secrets they had never shared before. Jamie's page became a kind of "place" where people felt they could bring their suffering and express it honestly.

Meanwhile, "old tech" did its part. The story became rapidly known, but Jamie and his friends had another concern. They were committed to helping Renee pay for rehab. The sporting goods salesman came up with an idea.

Tee shirts:

Sell tee shirts to raise the money for Renee's rehab. They took the tee shirts wherever they could. People made the connection to the story and bought the shirts.

Then Jamie brought the shirts to a rock concert on March 30, 2006, and Jon Foreman -- lead singer of the blockbuster internationally acclaimed band Switchfoot (and overall amazingly good human being) -- wore one on stage.

I think Jamie realized that night that a movement had begun, that people needed to keep hearing about the power of love and community, and that people needed help in order to even begin to get (medical, therapeutic, professional) help. He was probably overwhelmed by the idea of a "movement" and any role that he was called to play in it. But he knew he wasn't alone. He had friends.

So together they started this group called To Write Love on Her Arms, but since that's a lot of words in our graphics dominated world, they went for the initials: T.W.L.O.H.A. TWLOHA. It doesn't even spell anything pronounceable, though I understand that it's commonly pronounced "twa-LOW-hah" (like "aloha" with a "tw" at the beginning).

They still sell tee shirts and accessories, and they use the money to sponsor hundreds of people who need treatment. They continue to raise awareness and fight the stigma of mental illness. They've helped other groups to start things like the first 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK) and the first 24/7 Crisis Text Line.

Just look at the website and see what TWLOHA has become today.

AND READ JAMIE TWORKOWSKI'S ORIGINAL STORY HERE, which is far more eloquent than my many words about it.

Happy Birthday TWLOHA!

You are doing a good thing, and you have your finger on the key element, the central point that keeps all of this from collapsing into platitudes and failed human efforts. You know that our stories matter because they are part of a much greater story, and that life has value because it is a gift.

"It's our belief that your story is sacred,
that it's priceless,
that it's entirely unique,
that no one else can play your part.
It's our hope that you will
NEVER, ever, ever GIVE UP."

~Jamie Tworkowski (with my emphasis on those three words)

I'm an old man but maybe I can help too. I have a long story, and I have discovered that there is much value in sharing it, especially its most vulnerable parts. Some of it is told HERE, but there is so much more to tell, and while life goes on the story goes on and gets deeper.

Older people need help too. We are more complicated and more proud. We are adept at playing a role and living in agony behind our own masks. So many of us don't get help because we come from a generation that's still extremely reluctant to face the reality of mental illness.

We too need love to be written on our arms.

Yup, I've got my shirt.