Looking Back At To Write Love On Her Arms, 10 Years Later

Like a lot of millennials my age, To Write Love On Her Arms is a vague memory of my high school experience, one that conjures images of girls with thick black eyeliner and boys who wore fuzzy sweatbands bought at Hot Topic. I would've thought it was a band, if not for the dreamy images I sometimes stumbled across on social media (which back then consisted only of MySpace and LiveJournal), captioned "To Write Love On Her Arms," urging the reader to remember that they weren't alone if they were feeling depressed or suicidal, or if they were battling drug addiction.

This month marks 10 years since those first social posts started, and you might be surprised to know that the message is still spreading across the web. Yep, TWLOHA didn't just make its mark on Myspace and LiveJournal — it's survived on Facebook and Tumblr, too. Since it was created in the spring of 2006, To Write Love On Her Arms has become an official non-profit that's given more than $1.5 million to mental health organizations, and sold 48,000 of their now iconic T-shirts, tanks, and sweats in 2015 alone.

With the rise of Twitter, Facebook, and other powerful social media platforms, it seems like there's a new hashtag campaign for a cause every week. From #freethenipple to #HeForShe, hashtags make headlines, and even make headway for their cause. And in many ways, TWLOHA can be seen as maybe the first grassroots viral awareness campaign, a sort of pre-cursor to the social media activism we have today. Looking back at their origins, and their success, is an interesting case study in how just talking about mental health issues openly can inspire a lot of hope.
How It All Began
It all started with a girl named Renee Yohe, who would eventually be played by Kat Dennings in the 2012 film about the movement. Or, I guess you could stay it started when Yohe met Jamie Tworkowski, and he and his friends helped her through her drug detox — and then it really started when Tworkowski wrote a blog post about the experience titled "To Write Love On Her Arms."

"First off, I wrote the story just for myself, just to try to capture and remember the conversations we had and what was a really moving experience for me, because I had never had an experience like that before," Tworkowski, the non-profit's founder, told me recently.

Tworkowski was 26 and working as a sales rep for Hurley when he met Yohe, a 19-year-old friend of a friend who was battling drug addiction and self-harm. When she turned to Tworkowski's friend David for help to get her into a rehab facility, they found the rehab wouldn't take her after classifying her as "high-risk" because of the fresh self-inflicted wound on her arm. The facility agreed to admit her if she remained clean and sober for five days. So Tworkowski and his friends took her home and watched over for her for those five days. As he writes in the blog post, "I’ve never walked this road, but I decide that if we’re going to run a five-day rehab, it is going to be the coolest in the country. It is going to be rock and roll. We start with the basics; lots of fun, too much Starbucks, and way too many cigarettes."

The blog post began to spread, first among friends and then across the web, especially after Relevant Magazine, a Christian publication for twenty- and thirtysomethings, included it in an email blast. This was before Kickstarter and GoFundMe, and so Tworkowski then began printing and selling T-shirts with the title of the blog post, "To Write Love On Her Arms" to help fund Yohe's treatment.
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The Tipping Point
Jon Foreman, a friend of Tworkowski's who happened to be a member of the popular alternative rock band Switchfoot, wore the first TWLOHA T-shirt on March 30, 2006. The shirts became available to order online shortly after. Two months later, Tworkowski quit his job to work full-time on TWLOHA. "Because of the T-shirt sales, I knew we could do more than just help Renee." The non-profit now estimates about 10,000 shirts were sold in 2006.

By the end of that year, the group hired a few employees, one of whom was David Ranzio. Ranzio had grown up in the same church as Tworkowski, and learned about TWLOHA shortly after the blog post was published. After volunteering for the organization and fielding emails that came in through the MySpace page, Ranzio became a full-time employee in November 2006 along with Trisha, Tworkowski's girlfriend at the time, and Lauren, who would later marry Ranzio.

"We didn't have an office, Lauren and I were working out of our house, Jamie was working out of his condo and Trisha with her laptop in her apartment in NYC. Shirts were piled in Jamie's garage and in the corner of [mine and Lauren's] living room," Ranzio says. "We had a shirt fulfillment company, a couple other people helping out with the MySpace and a few other things, Jamie's mom helped with the books and we had the board. But it was pretty much just the four of us doing everything."
As the group, and the slogan, spread online, Ranzio remembers there came a point when, "you couldn't pick up an issue of AP magazine [a music publication] without seeing the shirt on multiple pages." The T-shirts, which are what most people probably associate most closely with the group, funded the organization's tours with bands in the alt-rock scene, where they spread the message that those struggling with depression, self-harm, and substance abuse were not alone. By April 2008, the shirts were available in more than 650 Hot Topics in the U.S.

Throughout the late '00s, the organization continued to tour with bands as a way to get their message out, starting with their first tour in the spring of 2007 with the band Anberlin. Tworkowski was able to talk with the crowd every night, he says: "I would just get up for a couple of minutes before they'd go on and I kind of introduced the work that we were doing, and our mission, and that we were available to talk at the concerts as well."

What They Do Today
The group continues to collaborate with musicians, recently creating a shirt based on "Jar of Hearts" singer Christina Perri's song, "I Believe." Perri wrote the song specifically for a 2013 performance at the House of Blues, and explained, "I wrote 'I Believe' for a younger version of myself. I really could have benefited from knowing To Write Love On Her Arms when I was younger." The lyrics decorating the shirt read, "This is not the end of me, this is the beginning. Hold on. I am still alive."

It'd be easy to dismiss the sale of a bunch of emo T-shirts as an empty gesture, but for TWLOHA to form on MySpace, and still be making its mark on the teenagers of today, is no small feat. On Instagram, a platform that picked up steam years after that first blog post, you'll find more than 140,000 posts tagged #TWLOHA: teens wearing the T-shirts, inspirational quotes, and messages like the one on soccer player Joanna Lohman's #TWLOHA Instagram caption, "Love is the movement." Here's hoping that what they started continues to inspire those that need it.
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