One simple idea can change the world, and Jamie Tworkowski proved it with the introduction of nonprofit To Write Love On Her Arms in 2006. What started as a way to help a new friend in need pay for rehabilitation ended in a worldwide phenomenon. MySpace helped To Write Love On Her Arms (or TWLOHA) get to where it is today, and now TWLOHA merchandise (shirts, hoodies, belts) can be purchased at twloha.com or Zumiez and Hot Topic.
When a friend of Tworkowski introduced him to Renee Yohe, everything changed. Upon meeting the broken 19-year-old, Tworkowski became inspired. Yohe's problems with self-harm, depression, addiction and suicidal thoughts/attempts inspired Tworkowski's idea.
"I asked her this really vulnerable question and I think I assumed the answer would be 'no,' " Tworkowski said while speaking at Fredonia State College last month. "And the question was: 'Hey, what do you think about the possibility of telling your story?' And I didn't know what that meant; I didn't know where that would go; I wasn't a well-known writer. But I think the feeling in me, first off, was that something special was happening and I didn't want to forget that.
"Instead she kind of lit up and smiled and she said she loved the possibility that maybe there could be a purpose for her pain; that maybe someone else could find hope in her story; that maybe someone else could relate to the things that she had lived through."
After her stay at rehab, Yohe cleaned up her act and now helps TWLOHA in any way she can. Hers is the story printed on the inside of some of TWLOHA's shirts; she's the inspiration behind this movement for honesty that Tworkowski started. TWLOHA merchandise started with the band Switchfoot wearing the items, and since has been seen on members of Paramore, Anberlin and Underoath. Many teenagers now sport the gear to support TWLOHA and its cause to help others suffering from depression, addiction, self-injury and thoughts of suicide.
After his visit to Fredonia, NeXt was able to sit down with an exhausted Tworkowski to ask him a few questions:
>NeXt: What broke your heart the most about when you saw Renee's struggling 19-year-old self? What really hit you?
Tworkowski: I think she just had so much potential and so much life and was so gifted and yet just seemed so stuck and so stuck in her pain, and I think, if I'm honest, there was the fear that she was gonna die. And the flipside of that: just wanting her to be OK -- wanting her not only to live but to really be alive. I think just seeing someone that was really hurting and really seemed stuck and yet had so much to give and to offer the world.
>NeXt: How did you feel about the recent suicide committed by Tyler Clementi (the Rutgers University freshman who took his life Sept. 19) after the private video of him was released?
Tworkowski: It was just heartbreaking and it was in the middle of a week or two that was just filled with so much tragedy. The one good thing I feel like that's come from it is it feels like people are really talking about it and saying that the bullying is not OK and it's not acceptable and that it seems like it's really come to the surface. It's terrible what it takes for us to get there, but I think that on a certain level it's just really sad. You hope that people who are mean to other people have no idea what that could lead to; how fragile people are. We don't know what else someone's in the middle of and you want to give people the benefit of the doubt that they would never mean for it to go to that place, but I think it just reminds you of what's at stake.
It felt pretty surreal for our team. If there's something in the news relating to suicide, we try to acknowledge it and speak to it. That, I remember, was like more than one a day that we were hearing about and it just felt like our Website (www.twloha.com) was filling up. We'd never seen a week like that.
>NeXt: Do you ever get sick of repeating yourself about the vision of TWLOHA?
Tworkowski: I try to save it for the stage. Sometimes the hardest moments are just meeting someone, like the friend of a friend or something, because it takes a bit of an explanation because it's pretty unique. It's easy to get tired of talking and part of it's hard-wired, I'm an introvert. I try to remember what's at stake and that I really believe in our mission and the message and that it's worth me being tired to articulate that.
>NeXt: What is your favorite design for the TWLOHA shirts?
Tworkowski: It says, "At least we live tonight" and that's a lyric from a friend's song. My friend Steven plays in a band called Satellite, and that's from a song called "Ring The Bell." ... A lot of the [shirt] ideas come from me. It's really neat to have that platform. I'm not a designer, but it's fun to talk to our designer and say "hey, can we try this?"
>NeXt: Did you struggle with any of these problems (depression, addiction) when you were young?
Tworkowski: Depression still; I still take antidepressants. I've been through counseling a couple different times. I think depression's still something I struggle with. I wouldn't say I've directly struggled with the other stuff, but I know folks who have.
>NeXt: There was the six-word memoir for pain and hope found on the TWLOHA Website, can you come up with one off of the top of your head?
Tworkowski: I think mine might honestly be "To Write Love On Her Arms."
>NeXt: It has been four years and look at what you've done -- what would you like to accomplish in 10 years?
Tworkowski: I don't really wake up and think about the organizational structure -- it just feels like a much more artistic project for me. It's much more creative. I think about these events and the things we wanna do with music and video, so I don't think we ever could have dreamed up that it would look like this. I don't know that we have a vision exactly. I think we wanna continue to be brave and creative and running in all the different directions that we are right now like with the Internet and music and colleges, so I hope that we'll continue to expand and just be creative in how we get this message out.
>NeXt: What thoughts or worries keep you up at night?
Tworkowski: I deal with pain like anybody else and questions and relationships and just worry about people who are sick or just think about things in my own story that I wish were different, so probably the same stuff as anybody.
>NeXt: What makes To Write Love On Her Arms different from any other depression-aimed organization?
Tworkowski: We didn't really mean to start an organization.
>NeXt: So, that's what sets it apart right there?
Tworkowski: Yeah, that's the beginning, but I don't think we try to communicate in a way that looks like every other organization. [In] a lot of organizations, it's very clinical and we really focus on design and language and we want things to look and feel a certain way. We just wanna communicate and try to inspire people and encourage people.
Emily Steves is a senior at Gowanda High School.