Anyone who has been around the punk rock music scene – aka attending Warped Tour – over the last ten years cannot deny that they’ve seen the acronym TWLOHA plastered everywhere. TWLOHA – or To Write Love on Her Arms – is a phenomenal anti-suicide and anti-self harm movement that has been making its mark through music partnerships and strong, dedicated volunteers for a decade. In fact founder Jamie Tworkowski has been traveling the world spreading his pro-love message all this time, and has still somehow managed to turn his thoughts and ideas into a New York Times Bestseller with his book If You Feel Too Much, which was released in 2015.
In honor of ten years of incredibly inspiring material and a can-do attitude, writer Christie McMenamin sat down with Tworkowski to have a candid discussion about the movement, and what it means in today’s society. Check it out below!
In terms of the recent election, we’ve seen a lot of fear and hopelessness and anxiety, and the lack of empathy really being exhibited. How exactly, and I don’t know if anyone has answers, but are there ways to combat this somehow? I mean, I know social media has been okay, but I think it goes both ways.
Jamie: Well, I think the first thing that comes to mind is that, if people are really struggling, there’s great resources that are available; there’s different things that cause people pain or fear or anxiety, and the election is a significant one, right? But thankfully, especially based on what we’ve learned for the last 10-plus years, there’s professional counselors, crisis intervention, suicide prevention, and treatment providers, so that’s the place we point to, professional help, to know that if someone feels alone in this moment, they can send a text to Crisis Text Line, they can call a suicide hotline, they can make a counseling appointment, and they can process their feelings with another person. So that’s the first thing that comes to mind, and then I think that there’s a place for balance. You probably can’t live and fight it out all day, every day on social media, that wouldn’t be very healthy. So some of it is just self-care and knowing what feels healthy in terms of participating in the conversation or in difficult conversations, so I think the election is a unique variable, but I don’t think it’s all that different from anything else that causes people pain. Even a very traumatic experience or a loss, and I think a lot of people have been processing, have been grieving, and there is also this election, so it makes me really thankful for what we’ve been pointing to every day for more than a decade, which are the people that work in these fields, who have been reminding people they’re not alone and journeying through the hard stuff.
In terms of the Internet, I found out about To Write Love on Her Arms through the bands you’ve worked with. But when I was a teenager and struggling through these things, there wasn’t any Internet support, in a way. There was a bit, but not like there is today. How can people come together in that way, and what are the benefits?
Jamie: Well, I think the internet is a tool that we use and even social media represents tools, and really the more interesting piece is, communication, and maybe more interesting than that is people, so it’s really just using the internet to connect people with other people. Crisis Text Line is a resource that we refer to, and in a moment of crisis, hoping that two people can connect and that a person struggling or even in a moment of crisis can use the internet to connect with someone else, someone who is uniquely gifted and trained, to help them through that moment of crisis, and that’s kind of been our story. Social media has been such a big part of what we do, and even our blogs, now they’re on our website, and we use the Internet to connect people, and we use the Internet to communicate. And, when you sit across from a counselor, essentially what you’re doing is communicating, answering questions, and talking through some things that you might not otherwise talk about. And then, with that, there’s the tension that you’re probably not going to solve all your problems just in the context of the Internet or social media, but we believe it can be a tool that can be used for good.
My follow-up question also concerns the Internet. In certain ways it’s not helpful, for example, pro-self-injury or pro-anorexia sites. I understand it’s also a way of creating community and coming together in a sense, but that’s kind of the opposite message, so what would you say in terms of that? How would you feel in terms of these sites?
Jamie: I think we all cope in healthy ways and we cope in unhealthy ways. So, you know, the Internet represents the world we live in, and there’s good and there’s things that might seem to have an element of community, but ultimately we would say, ‘hey, you deserve you better, there’s a better way to cope and respond, and ultimately this isn’t healthy and this isn’t taking you anywhere helpful.’ It might remind you you’re not alone, but is the message it’s sending destructive or constructive? So we just offer a different message that we think is life-giving and is healthy and healing. Because it’s one thing to find a community of people who struggle, but what does it look like to go beyond that struggle, to move through that struggle?
I know you must get a ton of emails and messages from people. Was there any one or a few that stood out or a certain experience that you’ve found?
Jamie: As a team, we’ve responded to 200,000 messages from 100 different countries, so what’s become kind of my go-to is the moment where I meet someone that says they wouldn’t still be here if not for this organization. So, someone who says maybe they had a plan to end their life and they were moved by something they encountered through this organization, whether it was at an event or a blog on our website and they ended up getting help, they ended up maybe sitting with a counselor, or even prior to that, they had a moment where they said ‘I want to keep going.’ So for me, and that’s happened a whole bunch of times. It’s hard to imagine a better compliment, or a better thing to get to receive in the context of the work, and it’s obviously it’s not just me, it’s our whole team, and we get to be a part of that, so that reminds you what’s at stake and the other end of the spectrum is meeting people who say, ‘hey, my brother loved you guys, he followed it for years, he wore the t-shirts and he lost his battle with addiction,’ or ‘he lost his battle with depression’ and so both remind you what’s at stake and why we do what we do and why we want to keep doing it.
The music aspect. How did the bands get involved? Did you contact them directly? Did they hear through word of mouth?
Jamie: The first bands that supported us were just friends, and this was before it was a charity or there was any thought of it becoming a charity. These were just friends that knew about me trying to help my friend, Renee, and the story that I had written (https://twloha.com/learn/story/), and wanting to sell these t-shirts as a way to help pay for my friend’s treatment. I think the two bands in particular were Switchfoot, who happened to be coming to Florida on tour, and then another band, Anberlin. So it just grew out of friendships, which surprises people, but so much of what we’ve learned, it makes the case for relationships. Even to this day we don’t have a giant marketing department, we don’t work with a marketing agency. These are friends we’ve made, and then over the years, friends of theirs that have become friends and supporters, so it really just grew out of those friendships that happened to be in place even before this started.
You’ve expanded, unbeknownst to me, to Warped Tour, because I have not gone since I was very young. So how did that occur? Was it just a natural outgrowth of the bands you were involved with?
Jamie: Yeah, some of the bands that started to support us were participating in the tour, and I worked at Hurley prior to all of this, so Hurley was a part of the tour for years and so I think it was just on our radar, or even on my radar, back then. I remember it felt like taking a risk, like, ‘hey, do we send a team out there?’ I don’t remember, it may have even been one person, or two people, but ‘wow, do we send someone on the road for two months?’ The primary way an organization does the Warped Tour is you rent bunk spots on a bus, so there’s an element of an investment. The tour is incredibly generous to charities, they’ve been great to us, they don’t take a dollar. There’s expenses that come with being on the tour and being part of the tour, but Warped Tour itself doesn’t take money from the charities that are out there. So we just rolled the dice and sent, I can’t remember if it was one or two people, but it went great, and I think you [Jamie turns to his sister, Emily] would know, what was it, nine summers?
Jamie: So, yeah, we’ve participated in the last ten summers and essentially every stop for the last ten years, so we’ve been a part of the whole tour for the last decade, and, we had such a surprising beginning, and really, music had a lot to do with it, and social media had a lot to do with it, and we really found a home within the Warped Tour right away, and kind of have ever since, and I think now we think of ourselves as kind of a leader in their non-profit zone. We take pride in the fact that we’ve spent the last decade there and it hasn’t been me for the most part, she [Emily] did nine summers on the road. But yeah, we’re super-thankful for Kevin and the team that make the tour possible, and make it possible for us to be a part of it
Aside from Anberlin and Switchfoot, what were the bands that really took this under their wing, or were those the main two?
Jamie: Yeah, but then early on it was Paramore, Thrice, The Rocket Summer, Sleeping At Last was one, there was a band called Between The Trees that were guys from Orlando. They weren’t maybe on the same level of notoriety, and another band that supported us, Aaron Gillespie, who is the drummer in Underoath, and had, I guess still has, a project called The Almost, and has been super-supportive over the years, so that’s who comes to mind. Hawthorne Heights. Most of those bands have Warped Tour in common, and at that time, and on Warped Tour over the years, so that’s a whole bunch of people that gave us a great head start
Coming off of that, have there been bands you’ve noticed, or musicians that you’ve noticed wearing your shirts, but you’re unaffiliated with?
Jamie: If it was someone that we got excited about, we would just try to reach out. There’s definitely been surprising moments. I remember one of the guys, it wasn’t Aaron, it was one of the guys in Underoath, wore our shirt on MTV early on and we didn’t have a relationship, so in those moments it’s just easy to say ‘thank you,’ and be curious. Evanescence would be another band, Amy’s been really supportive. Amy and Josh [Amy’s husband] have become friends, Josh is a friend of mine. He has a counseling background, which is really cool. I mean normally, they’re not wearing that shirt by accident, so it’s fun to try to learn the story of ‘hey, how’d you get in, why did you care?’ And I think for her [Emily], being on the road, or any of our team, they’re obviously there to interact with the people that walk up to the table, but there’s also this element of behind the scenes; connecting with the bands that make up the tour, but also the crew and the people behind the scenes that spend two months on the road. It’s kind of this traveling summer camp or this traveling world unto itself, and you know, I think we love the folks we send on the road. They represent us and hopefully represent our message, not just with the public, but behind the scenes as well.
What is your favorite band?
Jamie: My favorite band is U2.
What, really? [Assuming his favorite band would be along the lines of those who support the organization and that genre] I’m trying to think back to all the albums…
Jamie: [Laughing] They’re like the biggest band in the world!
I know! [Laughing] But okay, my favorite band is Hanson.
Jamie: [Laughs] Okay!
I even have a tattoo!
So what I was going to say, because I can’t get through anything without citing them, Taylor Hanson actually wore one of your shirts.
Jamie: Yeah, I met Taylor a couple times over the years, so they would be on that list as well.
I was pretty excited when I saw it.
Jamie: It’s cool, yeah. A few years back, that was one of the surprising doors that’s opened over the years. So it’s not a band who supported us, but, yeah, U2 is my favorite band.
They actually played at my college, they did a promo thing. I went to Fordham, so, naturally I’m sick the day they came. They did a few songs for the whole college in the morning for ABC, I think?
Jamie: Oh yeah, I remember something about that!
Yeah, it was a huge deal.
Jamie: Yeah, it’s the 30-year anniversary of one of their albums this summer, they’re doing a big stadium tour.
Yeah, I guess I’m not surprised because they sell out everything, still.
Jamie: Oh, yeah, I’m a U2 nerd.
I mean, it’s worse to be a Hanson nerd, I think.
Jamie: [Laughs] No, it’s just part of a niche!
Is there something, for example, a piece of art, a book, a song that really inspires or speaks to you?
Jamie: There’s a whole bunch, but recently there was a book called Reasons To Stay Alive by a British writer named Matt Haig that I really love. Last year was a really tough year for me personally, and that outlook was really encouraging. It’s essentially Matt writing about coming very close to dying by suicide, and then probably the darkest season of his life and specifically, struggling with anxiety and his journey through that. And so I just thought it was a really beautiful book that was really encouraging to me. We sell it in our online store, we did our World Suicide Prevention Day and campaign based on that book, and so we were able to share it with our audience.
I think we try to live at the intersection of pain and hope, and we try to do that in ways that are creative and that move people. Our team— different ages, different interests— and music is a big part of that, films, books, certainly the arts in general, and just that so much great art is born from pain and suffering and struggle, and so to see good come from that and to see the idea of moving through that or moving past that. I’m someone who doesn’t have a ton of non-profit heroes, I didn’t grow up wanting to run a non-profit, I really probably spent more time and energy interested in music, and hours listening to music and really engaging with lyrics, or even films and books and, at this point, TV, which is almost like really long movies, so, yeah, I think we love to find hope and encouragement and inspiration in those places.
I think that’s really all we can do when we’re in pain. I wish I had found your organization earlier, that was something that was really needed and necessary, and it would have helped a lot. As I’ve grown up, I now know a lot of people who have struggled, but when you’re young, nobody talks about it.
Jamie: Yeah, definitely.
And I know, I really think with that, I think my life could have been better, to be honest.
Jamie: Well, I’m glad you’re still here.
Me, too! [Laughs] You know, it’s funny, for a long time, I was really indignant and annoyed that I was, but I got on some good meds, and life changed
Jamie: There’s a thing that I heard years ago that I like to share, and it was actually at Church, it was a sermon. I remember our pastor talking about the idea that a scar is different from a wound. A scar represents healing, and strength, and change. And so to me, it’s been something I try to share when I go talk somewhere, and just the idea that it’s maybe easy to look at scars and feel shame, to wish they weren’t there, which I totally understand, but I like the idea of even trying to think differently, right? To know that those aren’t the wounds that they were, but actually remind us that we heal.
Yeah, I think that’s a good way to look at it.
Jamie: Sure. Yeah, it’s foreign to some people. I do think it’s cool that, hopefully to other people that do relate, that it reminds them they’re not alone. If they have scars, even if you don’t get to see them, right? Even if you’ve kept them hidden.
There should be more awareness. I’m so glad you have been able to still do this throughout the years.
Jamie: Oh, thank you. We’re really thankful to be able to keep going, and that it’s going well, honestly, and we’ve never had to have layoffs due to finances; we’re in a really good place. You know, last year we celebrated ten years. We know this is a significant milestone and that there are a lot of organizations, or brands, or companies that don’t hit. I feel like we get to bring our hearts to work, and know that’s rare and try not to take it for granted
Yeah, I’m actually going into social work mainly to do the same thing.
Yeah, right now I intern and interact with people who are mentally ill, because I want to give back in that way, and turn that pain into something that can help people. But it’s interesting how, and I never believe this, but that there could be good things that come out of it, as you said
Jamie: Yeah, absolutely, you get to remind someone, you get to relate in a unique way, and, through that, remind someone else, or tell someone else that they’re not alone where they are. I know it’s not fun getting there.
Right, right. I mean, there’s always a story to be told.
Speaking of, is there anything you want to say at all?
Jamie: I think for us, the heart of it is just wanting to let people know they’re not alone, and wanting to let people know that if you struggle, if you relate to dealing with depression, or anxiety, eating disorders, any of the things we’re talking about that, it’s okay to be honest about your pain, your struggle, your questions, and more than anything, to let people know it’s okay to ask for help. And to know that great help is out there.
And again, whether it’s because of, you know, the election, or the end of a relationship, or the death of someone, we all have someone dealing with cancer, or divorce, or there’s so many ways that people encounter pain, you know, just life, to know that whatever the cause of it may be, that there’s some great solutions that are out there and, um, not only professional help, but just to know that we need friends, we need a support system, and these things that can seem kind of simple, but we need people that we can lean on and be honest with
Yeah, so, to that end, actually, I found this quote on a website about the organization, and I thought it was just put really well. I cut out the beginning, but: “…it connects the broken people of this world as one to show them that it is okay to not be okay,” and I thought just the idea of ‘connecting the broken people’ is just such a beautiful phrase, you know?
Jamie: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
So I just wrote it down because I write a lot of things down, but I just thought if you didn’t see that it would be a nice thing to share.
Jamie: No, that’s super-cool, I appreciate that. Thanks so much, thanks for coming here!
Keep up with To Write Love on Her Arms here. Help them bring hope #into17 here.