Now in it’s ninth year, To Write Love On Her Arms has remained at the center of self injury and suicide prevention efforts since 2006, when Jamie Tworkowski’s account of friend Rene Yohe struggles with depression and addiction went viral. A cornerstone of music community activism, TWLOHA is a Warped Tour mainstay and everyone from Dustin Kensrue to Miley Cyrus has endorsed the organization, sporting TWLOHA T-shirts or writing the word love on their arms in support. Anna Acosta speaks with TWLOHA founder Jamie Tworkowski about the release of To Write Love On Her Arms, the movie that tells the story of how the organization got its start, as well as about his new book, If You Feel Too Much, out May 19.
One of the things that interests me–which you sort of touched on in the film–is how rapidly TWLOHA and the movement behind it grew after the initial website set up, and how it’s expanded ever since. Has the organization’s responsibility changed now that you’re operating on a global scale?
TWORKOWSKI: Well, some things are a little different in the movie. In reality, Renee went to treatment for 30 days, not six months, and when she got out–it looks like we had this big, fancy office already, which just wasn’t the case in real life. Our first website was just a Myspace page, and that was all for the first couple of months. It definitely happened quickly. We got the best of Myspace. What happened when the story began to spread, the way it spread through the music community–the bands that put it forward had so much to do with that. So, the film is a bit off in some ways, I think just for the sake of squeezing several years into a 90-minute movie.
In terms of that expansion, how much farther do you want to take this? In your perfect world, where do you see TWLOHA going?
TWORKOWSKI: Well, I think in some ways I’ve kind of let people down because I’ve never had the kind of answer to that that I think people expect. There was never a five-year plan, a 10-year plan. I really see it more as a creative project. I think more than anything, we communicate a message that we believe in that is meant to be compelling and encouraging, especially for people who struggle and we get to do that in a lot of ways. Online, college campuses, in the realm of music–I think as time goes by, my hope is just that we continue to expand on that and that we can continue to be creative in the ways that we present our message to different people and over time we’ve been able to add more programs and more ways for people to get involved. There’s definitely not this crystal clear, you know, by year 15, “world domination” answer. [Laughs.]
Speaking of expansion methods – you’ve got If You Feel Too Much coming out in May. That’s very exciting. What made you feel like this was the time to go that route and write a book?
TWORKOWSKI: It’s something that I’ve been dreaming about, talking about and certainly thinking about for a lot of years now, so it wasn’t really a new thought. It was honestly something I was kind of crying wolf about. Some of that was just being busy. There’s been so much going on and I’ve had a lot of responsibility and it’s just been difficult on a lot of different levels. Some of it was just me coming to a place where I really wanted this to happen and it seemed like good timing, what with the movie coming out and all. It’s not a a brand new memoir, and it’s definitely not the book that I might have imagined myself writing five years ago. It’s more of a collection of my best writing, going back to even before the organization started. Writing it was me warming up to the idea that I could just be myself, between my favorite pieces and pieces that have meant a lot to other people, and pieces that nobody else has ever seen before – just wanting it all to exist in one place.
You’ve said that you hope the book will lead to people getting help or even staying alive–in that spirit, would you consider it to be a self-help book of sorts or is it more of a personal memoir?
TWORKOWSKI: Well, I don’t really use those words. I don’t really think about that. I understand it’s no different than when an album comes out on iTunes and has to have a genre and half the time it’s wrong. [Laughs.] But I think the self-help thing is ironic, because a big part of what we’re saying is that you need other people, so in a sense it really doesn’t fit with that phrase. You know, technically, on the back in fine print, it’ll say self-help/memoir. I just think I relate more to the memoir aspect of that. It’s just stories from the last 10 years, and there’s been a lot of freedom in terms of the things that I write about. A lot of that’s been the journey related to the organization. Some is just my own life and struggles with depression, relationships, friendships, travel–I think we touch on some things that are pretty relatable and pretty universal in terms of pain and hope. I think those things can show up in a lot of different places. There’s stuff about girls, music, sports – it’s really just writing that comes from my life.
There’s the book, but obviously the film just recently came out as well. One interesting part about the film is that it doesn’t attempt to portray you as some sort of saint who “saved” Renee, or to imply that at the end everyone gets a happily ever after. I think that showing her skepticism about the integrity of the project actually did a lot to lend credibility to the honesty of the film, but with that in mind, what was it that ultimately made her decide to trust you?
TWORKOWSKI: I don’t think there was a moment, an all-or-nothing moment in time where her mind changed. Our relationship has been a really challenging roller coaster. We recently did a Q&A together when we hosted some hometown screenings [for the movie] in Melbourne, where we’re based, and we kind of laughed about how there’s no guidebook for what we’ve done. Navigating a friendship that was borne under these circumstances, and creating a charity from it, and movie rights, and millions of dollars worth of T-shirts – there’s been a lot of growing pains and challenges. She was 19 when I met her and she’s 28 now, and I think we’d both say we’ve grown up a lot. To get back to your question, I think if you would’ve asked her that question at 10 different points along the way, you’d have gotten different answers each time.
There’s been a lot of healing and our friendship is in a really good place. She’s not a full-time employee of the organization. I think that was challenging at first, because some people assumed we were just supposed to work on this together for the rest of our lives. I think we both settled on something that felt a lot healthier, which was just to let her be an individual and to let her pursue the things she gets excited about. Right now that’s music, and jewelry, and telling her story on her own terms. I don’t think there was a line in the sand and she crossed it and it’s been different ever since. It’s been a process, and I think we’re both happy about where it is now. Even the process of the film being made, there was a lot of healing that took place. Not just with Renee, but also with my friend David McKenna, who actually passed away after the movie was made. One of my personal reasons for wanting to get involved was, on some level, to get my friends back—almost to go back to the start and to try to see if those friendships could be restored. A lot of that happened over the course of the movie being made.
Sort of makes the whole thing worth it based on that alone.
TWORKOWSKI: Yeah! I think there’s always been two parts of it. We’re aware of what the story means to a whole bunch of other people–some we’ll get to meet, and some we never will. We know we’re connected to something that’s kind of taken on a life of its own and it’s much bigger than the two of us. We’re aware of that element, and there’s also the personal aspect that this grew out of a very simple thing. This grew out of three people who were friends spending five days together. So there’s the bigger picture and then there’s just this very simple, very personal side of it as well.
I think that probably helps to humanize the movement for the people who follow it as well. It’s easier to believe in something when it’s this relatable, since it all ties into community. On the musical side of things, obviously TWLOHA has always has a huge grounding in the music community. That’s where I remember first hearing about it way back when, at a show where a guitar tech was wearing a T-shirt. In regards to music in the film, I understand that music was added in at the script stage. How do you think music played into the making of the movie?
TWORKOWSKI: It’s interesting. The organization didn’t make the movie, so I wasn’t a part of that process. A good friend of mine, Josh Loveless, was the music supervisor. The music obviously goes beyond the role of just being a soundtrack. Basically, I think you see for starters how much music meant to [Renee]. A lot of times when you see music really shine in the film, it’s this fantastic take of her needing a song to provide hope or strength and that was true when I met her. She was someone who really loved music. That’s why we spent two of those five nights at shows, just so she could be around music. I think there’s just so much common ground–obviously music shows up in the story that I wrote, and musicians have been so instrumental in helping folks find out about the story and the organization. We love to point out that music has this unique ability to remind us that it’s okay to be honest, to feel things deeply, to ask questions. I think because of that, music has always had a really authentic connection to what we do, and I think that plays out in the film.
Speaking of TWLOHA’s involvement in the music industry, stepping away from the film for a moment–do you have any upcoming collaborations you can tell me about?
TWORKOWSKI: We just finished Heavy and Light. It used to be just in Orlando, but we were able to expand and to the House of Blues on Sunset in L.A. as well. That was in January and we refer to that as our favorite night of the year, our flagship event. We also had people just get back from Soundwave in Australia. I don’t even know the number offhand but I think it’s something like oureighth summer coming up on Warped Tour, where we’ve found such a home. Those guys have been so generous and welcoming, not just to us, but to our ideas and to things we want to do out there. I know we’re all starting to talk and get excited about this summer, but overall so much of the focus has been on this movie moment and the book coming out in May as well.
Fair enough, that’s a lot to take on! But for you as the founder of TWLOHA, which has been a huge source of comfort and healing to countless people across the globe, what’s the most important thing that it’s done for you?TWORKOWSKI: You know, I think I’ve found those things as well. A lot of times, I’ll be onstage speaking and I realize that I’m not just talking to myself. It’s provided such an amazing outlet for me to be honest and to walk through my own struggles. I’m someone who has struggled with depression for years and still does, and we talk a lot about wanting people to be able to be honest and this has allowed me to do that, in such a unique way. I think I’m just thankful that I get to bring my heart to work and I get to talk about things I really believe in, whether that’s speaking at a college or writing a blog on our website or whatever it might be on any given day, I think I just love that I get to spend so much time being a part of a conversation that feels really important. Not just in general, or to other people, but even to my own story and struggles.
Has it taught you anything that you didn’t expect?
TWORKOWSKI: The thing that comes to mind is that honesty is contagious. Even in the beginning, people would ask me how this happened. “How did you write a story that went viral? What’s the secret?” I just think that we accidentally gave people permission to be honest. It wasn’t that I wrote this amazing story. I’ve heard Renee say that her life isn’t unique, which is obviously very humble, but I think what she’s getting at is that so many people have struggled with the things she’s struggled with. I think the amazing thing about TWLOHA is that it’s not just this person I met in 2006—it’s the idea that millions of people can relate to that person’s story and to her journey.
It’s been such a cool thing to see people step forward and want to be honest, and to want to come to a place of believing that they deserve a support system. That life is worth living, and ultimately that if you need help, it’s ok to ask for it. I think that’s a huge thing. I don’t pretend to have all the answers relative to this conversation and these topics. I just want people to know that if they struggle with these issues that they’re not alone in those places. Their pain and questions certainly matter, and they deserve to be met in those places and we like to talk and think about the idea of what it looks like when people share the weight of things that are heavy in their lives. It’s been so cool to see that and to see the light bulb go off for people, where they feel like they don’t have to fake it, they don’t have to hide it or pretend.
That’s definitely no small thing. What is the one thing above all else that you would like people to know that TWLOHA stands for?
TWORKOWSKI: I think I’ll say it this way: When people asked me early on, “What is this? What does it do, what’s it about?” I felt like I had this answer that took 20 minutes. As the years have gone by, I’ve been able to boil that down. I think now it’s maybe two things; we want people to know that it’s okay to be honest and that it’s okay to ask for help. I think everything for us starts there. Obviously, that’s in the context of people’s pain, like depression, addiction, self-injury, suicide–but that in the face of these struggles it’s okay to be honest and it’s okay to ask for help.
I can speak to my own personal experience. When I was a teenager, I struggled with a lot of the same issues that your organization deals with and I can say that personally, it meant a lot to me.
TWORKOWSKI: That’s super cool. Thanks so much, and thank you for helping to tell the story. I think that last part is the big one, the heart of the matter. There’s this statistic that we share a lot, where two out of three people who struggle with depression never get help for it. So in my mind, that really points to the stigma and the shame and the confusion and the reality that so many people live alone in these places, and we just want to be a part of the solution in terms of seeing that number change and letting people know that it’s okay to ask for help, and you don’t have to be alone in that struggle. It’s been so cool over and over, whether on the road or via an email or through a tweet, to see people moved, where they come to a place of believing that and feeling like that could be true. That’s what keeps us going. That’s the most important part.
Read an exclusive excerpt from If You Feel Too Much
RING THE BELLS
i am writing to tell you about a song. The song was not written by a famous artist. The band is not signed to a major label. i have listened to the song twenty times today. i listened to it three times in a row this morning, borrowed headphones plugged into a borrowed computer in a borrowed office. i cried for 10 minutes straight. It is an awkward thing to be a grown-up crying in an office, especially someone else’s and especially during business hours, and yet the thing i heard in the headphones came louder than the fear or shame i felt for crying. There was the sense that i was hearing something important, something that felt true to the deepest place in me. Who can say why we love something or feel something? i am certainly no authority but perhaps it starts with truth. There is something about hearing or seeing or feeling something that is true…
My friend Steven McMorran lives in Los Angeles. He lives with his wife, Danielle, and their adorable baby boy Aiden. They chose Los Angeles and they remain in Los Angeles because there are songs inside of Steven. They stay also because of the people around them who not only believe in those songs, they know the cost and weight of the songs. They live in a humble apartment that though close enough in miles, is far from Malibu and Mulholland. They have made it a home, made with things that can’t be measured in square feet. It has been my privilege to get to know them over the last couple years, to learn their stories and to be loved by them. When i spend time with Steven and Danielle, i am certain that i am loved beyond anything that i could ever explain or earn or deserve. i am certain also that my friends are living a sacred story worthy of love songs and fight songs, a story rich with victory, defeat, sadness, forgiveness, laughter, depression, redemption, passion, pain, and hope.