To Write Love on Her Arms at Rutgers

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The following is longer than normal… But I think it is worth reading. It’s an article that I wrote for The Daily Targum that was cut and edited to have a completely different appearance and focus in the publication. I figured the editors would cut things out– the article is far too long for their usual length– but I didn’t like their complete change of story.  This story is one that was not done justice in the Targum and so I lay it down here.

Jamie Tworkowski, the founder of To Write Love on Her Arms, a non-profit interfaith organization dedicated to giving love and support as well as inspiring hope in those struggling with depression, self-injury, addiction, and thoughts of suicide, spoke at Rutgers University– New Brunswick on Tuesday night at 8:00 p.m. in the Multipurpose Room at the Rutgers Student Center on College Ave.

The Arts and Culture Committee of the Rutgers University Programming Association (RUPA) organized the event.

“There are a lot of college kids that are dealing with depression or suicidal thoughts or addiction,” said Alana Millich, a School of Communication & Information junior and vice president of the Arts and Culture Committee. “We knew that the Rutgers community would love it… that there was a big following for To Write Love on Her Arms, so we just saw that this would be something that Rutgers wants and that Rutgers might need.”

Begun in 2006, To Write Love on Her Arms has grown rapidly in the past five and a half years.  Currently the non-profit organization with the largest online audience of Facebook and MySpace, TWLOHA has thus far donated over $850,000 to fund treatment worldwide and responded to over 160,000 messages from over 100 different countries.  With such a large following, Tworkowski and his organization have garnered much attention, having been features on large media outlets such as NBC Nightly News and Rolling Stone.

The night began with Tworkowski’s friend and a supporter of TWLOHA, guitarist and singer Eric James of The Last Royals, playing an acoustic set of five songs.  Music, Tworkowski said, has a significant place in the movement.

“Music has this unique ability to remind us that we’re alive and that it’s okay to feel things, it’s okay to ask question,” Tworkowski said to the audience. “Songs have this… kind of hall pass where they’re allowed to be honest… about stuff that’s difficult.”

James not only uses his music as an outlet for his emotions, but also as a reminder of healing.

“No matter how bad I felt at the time,” James said of the songs he’s written, “now I just look back and I’m reminded that things have gotten better in most cases.”

After James’ set, Tworkowski took back the stage and began to tell his story of how TWLOHA started, a story which he said actually began before the point at which he usually tells it.

A Florida native, Tworkowski is a surfing aficionado, and at the age of 22 had worked his way up to becoming a sales representative for the entire state of Florida at Hurley International, a large surfing clothing line and surfing equipment company.  In January of 2006, while at a board meeting in California, Tworkowski and his colleagues were informed by Bob Hurley, its CEO, of the death of their friend and colleague, Zeke Sanders by suicide.  When Tworkowski suggested the idea of honoring Zeke by working to help suicide prevention, he was stopped by a friend, a vice president at Hurley, who claimed that once a person wants to take their life, there is nothing that will stop them.

A couple days later, while still in California, Tworkowski was invited by friend to watch a music video shoot for She Wants Revenge, which was, to Tworkowski’s great interest, being directed by Walk the Line’s Jaoquin Phoenix. Standing around awkwardly, as Tworkowski put it, he could not help but notice that Phoenix’s arms were covered in Magic Marker—notes to himself for the shoot.

“All it was was this… visual that stayed with me of just… the oddness of it, but… also maybe… the boldness of it,” said Tworkowski.  “That he maybe was aware that we could see his arms and really didn’t care, and was kind of comfortable living this way, behaving this way, was just safe in his skin.”

Two weeks later, back in Florida, Tworkowski met Renee.  Having never met her before, he and a few friends helped one of their friends to try and convince her to get treatment for addiction and depression.  Refusing to leave the drug dealer friend whose apartment she was staying at that night, Renee asked for a few more hours.  That night, Renee tooka razor blade and carved the word “F**CKUP” into her left forearm.

“I think if you had the chance to meet my friend Renee… and say ‘Hey, what… was that word?’… I don’t think it would be a conversation about profanity, but I think instead maybe it would be a conversation about identity,” said Tworkowski. “I think you would hear her say… ‘This how stuck I am, this is how much of a failure I am… This is who I believe myself to be.’”

Picking her up the next morning, Tworkowski’s friend took Renee to a treatment center in Orlando where she was told to come back after five days provided she stay sober and keep from hurting herself.  For those five days, Renee stayed with Tworkowski and his friends, telling them her story.  They learned of her pain and how, again, music was her saving grace.  Inspired, Tworkoski asked her what she thought of the possiblity of sharing her story.  Smiling, Renee agreed with the idea, hoping for a purpose for her pain.  Once she checked into treatment, Tworkowski began to write her story and one phrase in particular kept appearing: “to write love on her arms”.

“What that was was a goal… It was the idea of believing that a better life was possible for her and believing that she deserved that better life,” said Tworkowski. “Our hope was that she could arrive at that place, at this new identity in the face of what she had marked on her body.”

From there on, things grew rapidly.  Getting the idea for black t-shirts with white print on them from a Coldplay concert where the band wore black clothes and white shoes, Tworkowski set out to raise money for Renee’s treatment.  Friend and lead singer of Christian rock band Switchfoot, Jon Foreman, wore one of the first at a concert in South Florida and TWLOHA’s MySpace page saw many new messages, comments, and friend requests overnight.

More bands got involved, wearing t-shirts at their gigs and telling others about the organization, and soon, at the age of 26, Tworkowski left his job at Hurley International.  For the first year, TWLOHA operated under the umbrella of another non-profit charity, Fireproof Ministries. Since then, it has operated as 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, and today, 14 people are on staff, sharing  anoffice in Melbourne, FL and a house full of interns primarily respond to messages and take part in interventions and promoting the cause.

The fact that people have responded to this issue worldwide says something about the universality of it, said Tworkowski.

“What that tells is that maybe this is not an American conversation, maybe this is not a white people conversation, maybe this is not an emo conversation,” said Tworkowski. “Instead maybe this is about being alive on this planet, and maybe it’s about this human condition that you and I keep waking up to that in this life we will experience… this problem of pain.”

In the United States, 20 million people suffer from depression, and untreated depression is the leading cause of suicide, which itself is the third leading cause of death.  To Tworkowski, however, the statistic that gets him the most is that two out of three people with depression never seek help.  Yet, with the growth of his organization and the spread of love as a movement has him hearing from people who are finally seeking help or rehabilitation and ways in which to deal with pain that do not result in them hurting themselves.

“This pain has come in the context of other people,” said Tworkowski. “Maybe our healing actually happens in the same context… maybe healing doesn’t come when we give up on love or trust or friendship or people, but instead, maybe healing begins to happen when we actually let some people know us in those places.”

Students who are long-time supporters of TWLOHA turned up for the event, and when Tworkowski and James sat down for a Q&A, no one raised their hand.  Afterwards, however, many people lined up to speak with Tworkowski, who listened to each and every single person’s story, giving them his full attention.

“A lot of things definitely hit home, and I’m glad that I was able to come out to this event,” said David Alexis, a School of Arts and Sciences junior.

“I think it’s really awesome, ‘cause it’s… spreading the message that you don’t have to go through something alone,” said Cristina Fontana, also a School of Arts and Sciences junior and a counselor for ScarletListeners, Rutgers’ very own peer counseling hotline. “There’s always someone that can listen to you.”

After the talk and the meet and greet, Tworkowski spoke about the affect his cause has had on people and what affect that, in turn, has had on his cause.

“Sometimes it feels like there’s not a lot to give,” Tworkowski said. “But it’s also an honor that… you’re reminded, you see people with tears in their eyes… Sometimes people say they’re still alive because of what you’re doing, and that’s the kind of thing that keeps you going as well.”

Although it seems that TWLOHA resonates with certain types of people who listen to certain types of music, Tworkowski said he hopes that this is something that people will see is not specific to any one kind of person.

“It grew out of this certain subculture… so it’s taken some time to grow beyond that,” he said. “Maybe not everyone would love all the bands we work with or the way the t-shirts are designed, but when you get down to the heart of it, the issues, the ideas that those are things that are… universal, that people in a lot of different circles… that they would appreciate.”

This past summer, TWLOHA has launched a new campaign which asks two simple questions: “What is your biggest fear?” and “What is your greatest dream?”  Fears vs. Dreams has taken off to become bigger than a simple summer project, and with it, TWLOHA is expanding, making sure that those in need know that rescue is possible.

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