In 2006, Jamie Tworkowski—an avid surfer and sales representitive for the Hurley clothing line—met Renee Yohe, who was suffering from addiction and was in need of treatment and recovery. Tworkowski documented Yohe’s story in a blog post on Myspace that ultimately went viral and led to the formation of To Write Love On Her Arms—the non-profit organization that has been speaking out about mental health for over a decade, aiming to erase the stigma attached and create an open environment for discussion, education, and—above all—care.
Recently, Tworkowski sat down with AQ to discuss the roots of TWLOHA, its connection to the music festival scene, and what still needs to be done to continue to develop positive conversations regarding the topic of mental health and awareness.
Jamie, generally speaking, what is TWLOHA’s mission statement?
So, as an organization, we exist to bring a message of hope and help to people struggling with addiction, depression, self-injury, and suicide. And beyond that, we want to inform, encourage, inspire, and also give directly to treatment and recovery. So we do a number of things, and I think over the years, I’ve come to believe probably the biggest thing we do, or what we do the most of, is communicate. We’ve just learned that there’s such a stigma, there are so many bad ideas and really so much silence that exists when you think about, or think about talking about, these issues. So much of what we do is try to break that silence and try to educate people, and also move people from a place of hopelessness to hope, and out of isolation into honest relationships—and more than anything, into whatever professional help people might need, as well. We also give financially, so that we’re not just giving advice, but we also get to, in a real practical way, help people get help.
My understanding is that you didn’t originally set out to start a non-profit. So, can you tell me a little about Renee Yohe and how you guys came to meet?
I’d met her through a mutual friend who I was living with at the time, a guy I was renting a room from in Orlando. After she was denied entry into a local treatment center, she lived with us for the next five days. And so, we kept her safe and kept her sober, and just spent that time with her…. But for me, it was [about] getting to know this new friend and learning her story, and talking about things that were difficult, and also talking about the hope that her life could change, and that life could get better—that healing could happen, that sobriety could happen.
I asked her what she thought about the possibility of telling her story, and once she entered treatment, I wrote two and a half pages and posted that story as a blog on Myspace…. Soon after that, I had the idea to design and sell t-shirts as a way to help pay for her treatment. And really, both [the blog post and t-shirts were met] with such a surprising response. I mean, I guess you could say they went viral. People started to find the story and share the story, respond to it, find their way to this Myspace page, and then, also quickly, people began to order the shirts online. At first, anything that came from outside of Florida was really exciting, but within a few weeks we were getting some people from other countries, and it’s all just grown from there.
So at what point did you consider organizing a non-profit, and can you talk about the undertaking that was?
Yeah… it was this quick, gradual ramp, leading to [TWLOHA]. And I guess the simple version is that I could tell pretty quickly that we were getting an opportunity to do more than help one person and to do more than tell one story. I always try to point out that we had such an unlikely beginning. I imagine when the average person who wants to start a charity has an idea, they don’t have an audience or an income. And we were in such a surprising spot because we had money coming in and we had this growing audience before there was even, you know, any set organization in terms of starting a charity. So, the timeline was, I met Renee in late February 2006. I wrote the story, printed the shirts in March of 2006, and it was actually just a few months later—that summer, June or July—that I ended up leaving the job I was doing at the time, a sales job for the clothing company called Hurley, and for the first year, we were under the umbrella of another charity. That kind of gave us a big brother that we could learn from and ask a million questions, and just learn everything that goes with having not only having time to have a charity, but also creating one that’s sustainable. And for close to 13 years now, we’ve been on our own.
Jamie, looking back on that time when you were first getting started, did you ever have any doubts or apprehension about what you were going to try to achieve and put together?
Oh, for sure. I mean, there was no way to know if this would last six months. There was no way to know if it could be a job for one person, if I could even draw and maintain a salary. There was this element of popularity—it was sort of a trend, and we had a lot of traction in the music community…. But so many things come and go, so many things rise and fall, and I think for someone placing bets, there wasn’t necessarily a lot of reason to believe that the interest would be there a year later, or certainly five or ten years later. There was a lot of fear and a lot of anxiety. I also had a really good job, the sort of job I dreamed about growing up, and I felt like that was my one chance that I probably wouldn’t get back. So, it felt like a big risk for me personally to leave that Hurley job. Although, I also had a hunch that this was just too special to walk away from. It was also that it was the chance to really bring my heart to work and be a part of a conversation that felt really important… and hopefully to see people get healthy and maybe even see people end up staying alive because of it.
I’m glad you mentioned the music community, because TWLOHA has become a staple at music festivals like Bonnaroo, Firefly, Electric Forest, and the Warped Tour, where TWLOHA officially got its start on the festival circuit. I’d like to read a quote from you, and this was you speaking about the Warped Tour, specifically. You said “For the last 20 years, people have been coming to Warped Tour to see their favorite bands, to sing and scream words that feel true and to feel less alone. It’s been the perfect setting to invite folks into the possibility that it’s okay to be honest, it’s been the perfect place to start a conversation about mental health.” Is it fair to say that early on you recognized the healing power of music and the positive communities that are harvested at music festivals? That you could actually reach people in need very easily by being present at these events?
Yeah, definitely… doors started to open in terms of relationships with people who played in bands. But then also, a very early opportunity was to have a free spot at a music festival in Orlando called Cornerstone…. I wasn’t expecting a lot, you know? I remember even wondering if it was, like, silly. Here I am trying to help one person, would it be weird to have a booth at a music festival when you’re only trying to help one person? And yet, I was blown away by how well it went, from the support of the bands on stage to their fans coming out and wanting to talk, wanting to learn, and wanting to buy t-shirts. It’s not like it all came out of my head. Some of it was just seeing what happened when band members supported us, and then also just seeing the success at that first festival. It was easy to imagine, ‘Wow, if this is happening, on a small, local scale, there’s no reason to believe it couldn’t continue and couldn’t multiply.’ But going back to that quote you read, I just think music is allowed to be honest. It reminds us that we’re human; that it’s okay to ask questions. It’s okay to raise your voice. It’s okay to feel things deeply. I think so much of that relates to the conversation we’re trying to have around mental health.
You talked about the outreach from the music community—I know Miley Cyrus, for example, has been a big supporter of the organization for the last 10 years. People from the world of sports have also gotten involved. When celebrities approach the organization, what is generally their reasoning, and why do they want to get involved?
I think there’s a personal connection where they’ve been affected by these issues, whether they know a friend or family member who has been affected by depression or addiction, self-injury, anxiety, an eating disorder, suicide…. People are drawn to what we do because it’s personal, and that’s true of the high-profile people with tens of thousands of followers online, and it’s also true for our interns who come in during their first semester.
If I look back to just 20 years ago—which isn’t a very long time—talking about mental health was literally taboo. In your estimation, how far have we come—but also, how far do we still have to go before the stigma of struggling with mental health is dissipated?
That’s a great question. I do believe that we’ve made progress as it relates to dialogue, as it relates to hopefully reducing some of that stigma. I think it’s fairly simple, or it can be fairly simple, in terms of how that happens. I just love to tell people that when we talk openly and honestly about these issues, that stigma is forced to go away. And when we talk openly and honestly, we give other people permission to do the same. I think, over time, we’ve seen so many different people with different interests—certainly high-profile people—but all kinds of people, choose to talk about these things. And then we’ve also seen so many painful headlines. You know, we see the stories when someone we look up to or admire is lost to suicide, or is lost to an overdose, and in the last 20 years—or even in the last few years—we see those consistently. So, I do think the conversation is happening more and more. Hopefully that makes it easier for other people to feel like they can join the conversation. But, I still think there’s a long way to go and a lot of work to be done. And, you know, we still hear from people who feel like within their family, or their community, or their group of friends, that it’s very hard to talk about it. We still know that ignorance or a lack of knowledge or bad ideas exist where people can be hurt by the response they might be met with.
So I think—kind of almost answering the question with the question—I feel there has been progress and there’s still work to be done. I think about in my own life, when I was in high school, for example, I couldn’t have told you anything… I don’t think I could have told you one thing about depression or self-injury. I don’t even think I knew what that was in high school, and I think now, the average high school student [knows more] about depression, self-injury, and anxiety… I think they have that knowledge and that is surely something that they’re aware of. So, just the change in culture… where people are just more aware of these things. Also, it’s one thing to be aware, but then the challenge simply becomes, what does it look like to be healthy? You know, what does it look like to practice self-care, and to know that it’s okay to see a counselor? Not only to know that, but to take that step if we need to.
For more information on TWLOHA, please visit www.twloha.com.
Additionally, Tuesday, September 10, is World Suicide Prevention Day. Follow the hashtag #WSPD across all social media platforms or visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention at www.iasp.info for more information.