When Jamie Tworkowski first met Renee Yohe, she was 19, depressed, bipolar, and hooked on coke and booze — with 50 scars from cutting herself. He was struck by the self-hate phrase she’d carved into her forearm.
“She is full of contrast, more alive and closer to death than anyone I’ve known,” Tworkowski wrote in the blog he launched about Yohe.
Tworkowski was 26 and idealistic enough to hope that sharing Yohe’s story would help others who feel alone in their addiction and psychological struggles. So he started a blog called “To Write Love on Her Arms” (TWLOHA). The blog quickly drew more than 110,500 comments by international readers who connected with Yohe’s despair.
An Internet Cause Was Born
Now six years later, “To Write Love on Her Arms” has spawned a non-profit organization and a movie by the same name starring Kat Dennings of the television show “Two Broke Girls,” and Chad Michael Murray, Rupert Friend and Corbin Bleu. (And Yohe’s own band, Bearcat, has a song on the movie soundtrack.)
What’s more, Tworkowski has written a new book called “If You Feel Too Much: Thoughts on Things Found and Lost and Hoped For” to further reach out to people in pain, “human to human,” in his words. A national book tour will last through summer, and publisher Tarcher/Penguin will donate $1 for every book pre-sold.
Tworkowski was a sales rep for Hurley surf and apparel when he met the woman who would change his direction. Now 35 and still living in Melbourne, Florida, Tworkowski runs the non-profit full time. It’s dedicated to offering people hope and finding them help, including funding to pay for drug rehab.
Rock Bands Support the Effort
Tworkowski speaks at schools and events and does outreach at concerts. Bands such as Paramore, Switchfoot and Amberlin have supported the effort by wearing TWLOHA t-shirts and spreading the word through their musical circles. Social media has played a huge role as well, Tworkowski said in an interview.
TWLOHA reports that it has given over $1.5 million directly to addiction treatment and recovery and been profiled on television networks including MTV. One of the messages from the TWLOHA website speaks directly to the reader and could sum up the mission of the group, the movie and the book: “You are not alone, and this is not the end of your story.”
Where the Journey Began
It was Tworkowski’s roommate, David McKenna, CEO of an Orlando-based music company, who first launched Yohe into recovery. McKenna (who’s since died in a car crash) was a recovering addict who told Yohe he couldn’t be around her anymore if she used drugs. He helped propel Yohe into rehab.
But the rehab clinic had residents recovering from not just addiction, but also self-harm. Clinic directors feared Yohe’s still-raw cuts would upset other residents, so they asked her to return in a week.
Yohe still had multiple drugs in her system and would be fragile as she purged them. For the next several days of her detox, McKenna, Tworkowski, and other friends kept Yohe constantly occupied.
Yohe’s friends knew they had to raise money for sustained rehab for her. They started selling “To Write Love on Her Arms” t-shirts online, promoting them via social media. As the donations flowed in, the enterprising few grew into a team helping many more than just Yohe, who went on to pursue a musical career. Today TWLOHA’s Facebook page has 1.4 million likes.
The Beat Goes On
The $1.5 million that TWLOHA has invested in addiction and mental health treatment comes from many sources besides their t-shirts. There are yearly marathons and concert tours, and one year was funded with a $1 million Chase grant. Show attendees tend to be younger and have less means for healthcare.
Booths staffed all over the venues make it easy to feel hopeful about recovery, Tworkowski said, as well as to find the means to pay for it. The message? You’re not alone. If you need help, people with local treatment and resources are waiting.
Book and Film Spread Hope for Addiction Recovery
As for the movie, which was based on the TWLOHA story and released this spring online via iTunes and Google Play, Tworkowski said he’s grateful that the film destigmatizes mental illness and inspires people to ask for help.
“This is a film about broken people loving broken people,” Tworkowski said in promoting the movie, in which he’s portrayed by Chad Michael Murray of the television show “One Tree Hill.”
“Our hope is that TWLOHA inspires honest conversations and leads to folks to fight for the friends around them,” Tworkowski said. “Our dream is that people might get help and even choose to stay alive as this story continues to be told.”