Here's to you, Jamie Tworkowski

Dear Jamie, 

When i bought my first To Write Love On Her Arms shirt, i had no idea what it meant. i was thirteen and confused about all the things. But i liked the idea of love being a movement, so i traded some money and got a shirt. When i bought the shirt, i was walking out of the hardest year of my life-- one full of depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and a decision to keep living. 2007 was a monster that a thirteen year old should not of had to face, but i did. And at the end of it, i found TWLOHA. Which is why today, nine years later, i'm writing you. 

i'm a junior in college now. Since i bought that first TWLOHA shirt, i've bought over a dozen more. i'm an English Writing Major, a firm believer in the power of words, and a continued TWLOHA supporter. This semester i got to combine those things and write an analysis of the TWLOHA community by using the #TWLOHA10 response cards and spending a lot of time on social media. i looked at social media interactions and filled out response cards to examine what the TWLOHA community values. Nine pages and a lot of hours later, an essay happened that i hope reflects what the community is. 

You and your team composed a mission statement that reads, 

"To Write Love on Her Arms is a nonprofit movement dedicated to presenting hope and finding help for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury, and suicide. TWLOHA exists to encourage, inform, inspire, and invest directly into treatment and recovery.” 

Tonight, i'm here to tell you that TWLOHA is accomplishing what you have set out to do. Tonight, i'm stripping my essay of it's academic roots and formal wording. Tonight, i'm going to tell you about this community that you didn't mean to start. Tonight, i'm going to celebrate what the TWLOHA community is, because after hours of research, i can promise you, Mr. Tworkowski, that it's something worth celebrating. 

Ten years ago, you wrote a blog that traveled around the world and started a conversation too important to be ignored. You unapologetically told the story of a friend that would touch the heart of millions of people. You founded an organization that is built on the celebration of staying alive and feeling the pain that comes when taking another breath seems impossible. It is a collection of people from all over the world who share the common denominator of mental illness and are involved in an ongoing conversation of hope. The TWLOHA community is made up of people that believe in the power of belonging, vulnerability, and hope.

When i was in the thick of my analysis, i spent a lot of time reading handfuls of response cards. Every response was as diverse as the responders, but each one echoed the same thing: that these people feel like they are a part of something. 

i explored the responses of the prompt that reads, "My favorite TWLOHA memory is:" and in the sea of feedback i learned how the followers express their part in the community. i saw a response on Instagram from a girl who speaks about TWLOHA with a sense of pride and excitement. She filled her response with memories, titles, and phrases that would only be familiar to TWLOHA supporters, like the mention of your book, If You Feel Too Much. She wrote with a tone of ownership and belonging. i found another response from a girl that mirrored the other's use of TWLOHA titles and its sense of belonging. She speaks of sharing stories with other community members, inferring a sense of comfort and ease with other TWLOHA followers. These girls' language is proof of the sense of belonging that your organization gives to people. The TWLOHA community allows people to feel at home within it and likewise, it allows people to feel safe in their vulnerability. 

As you know, it takes a certain level of comfort to encourage vulnerability. The stigma behind mental illness, the very thing TWLOHA seeks to challenge, is often enough to keep us quiet about our struggles. However, the TWLOHA community defies that.

Upon looking at the "TWLOHA was there for me when:" response cards, i got to see the reality of the vulnerability that is fostered within the community. Looking at Twitter responses, i came across a woman who admitted to having suicidal thoughts on her response card. And she said, "They gave me hope" to explain what TWLOHA has done for her. It's not hard to see the vulnerability within her post-- but let me say that i know from experience how hard it is to admit that you wanted to die. Another post i found on Twitter was longer and more intimate than the other one i mentioned. This woman posted her response card on Twitter, disclosing her past with anxiety, depression, and isolation. She speaks out about her experience with counseling as well as her struggle to feel worthy, heard, or understood.

It doesn't take much time on social media to learn that these posts are not the common thing you see. Both tweets mentioned, as well as others not mentioned, are laced with honesty and vulnerability. These women spoke of the things our culture tells us to hide because they felt safe doing so within the TWLOHA community. The people within the TWLOHA community are bound together through their struggles, but they're also bound together through their decision to keep living despite the pain. Though this community was founded because of the brokenness exists, it keeps going because it encourages a posture of hope despite the pain. 

We both know that though it's hard to see past present pain, it isn't impossible. A common anthem found within the TWLOHA community is that, "hope is real." This idea was found in action when i looked at the "10 years from now, I hope to:" response cards. These responses were different because they were based on an act of courage. Hope is risky, but the TWLOHA community members are brave. The responders didn't let the "could be" stop them. 

My favorite one was found on Instagram (the post could not be found again). A girl altered the heading by crossing out the words, "I hope to" and wrote, "will be here." It's easy to assume that, based on the foundation of TWLOHA, that this Instagram user has a history with mental illness, maybe even suicidal thoughts. In her response, she hopefully declared that she will live to see her life a decade from now. She not only believed in herself, but she believed in hope. 

The TWLOHA community is something special, but i know you already know that. These responses are only a few of the ones on social media, but together, the ones mentioned above prove that the TWLOHA community values belonging, vulnerability, and hope. These responses also bring us back to y'all's mission statement where it says what TWLOHA hopes to do in, "presenting hope and finding help for those struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury, and suicide." 

Jamie, you're doing what you set out to do ten years ago. You wrote a blog and sold some shirts and today you've built something that is so much bigger than yourself. You hoped to start a conversation about mental illness and you did. You started this organization to help a friend find help and today, you've helped thousands of others do the same. To Write Love On Her Arms is diverse and growing. It is thriving because people, like me, believe in what it stands for. This organization exists because brokenness is real, but it is succeeding because people believe that there is more to life than pain. People are choosing to ignore the stigma of mental illness and participate in this community that lives on the power of belonging, vulnerability, and hope.

Tonight i am here to remind you that the conversation is still going. Hope is winning. Mental illness is not going anywhere, but it is being talked about. TWLOHA is encouraging what so many of us have felt is impossible-- that we can beat the darkness. TWLOHA is a chorus of people remind us that we aren't alone. And you started this. You were the first person to encourage this continued wave of belonging, vulnerability, and hope. This would not exist if you had not written that blog, if you had not decided that one person's story might be able to impact someone else. 

So here's to you, Jamie Tworkowski. i will echo what you have said to so many people before: you matter.

And we thank you.