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#TWLOHA10 Celebration Was Poignant Reminder That “You Are Not Alone”

On April 2, 2016, To Write Love On Her Arms (TWLOHA) celebrated their ten-year anniversary with an evening of songs, conversation, poetry, and hope.  Since 2006, TWLOHA has responded to over 185,000 messages from 100 countries and have given more than $1.6 million to treatment and recovery.  The ten-year anniversary celebration brought individuals from all over the country to help celebrate these substantial achievements.

Upon arrival at the event, concert goers were greeted by friendly volunteers distributing out pamphlets with information on TWLOHA and provided a list of resources, support groups, treatment centers, and crisis lines. Once inside there were places to buy TWLOHA swag as well as a photo station where people could take a photo holding up signs which you could write down the answers to, ‘10 years from now, I hope to:’ or ‘TWLOHA was there for me when:’.  The other thing very noticeable at the event was the throngs of people all wearing their TWLOHA gear. Hundreds of people packed tightly together proudly displaying the TWLOHA shirts, jackets, bags, and hats they have acquired over the years, or that very night!

I walked around the venue taking in the sights and sounds of conversations between friends and total strangers. People meeting each other for the first time were openly discussing what struggles led them to finding and receiving help from TWLOHA. TWLOHA volunteers from past to present were scurrying around the venue in their custom jersey style t-shirts diligently working while also taking the time to hear from the people whom they have aided over the years. Finally, the time had come to begin the celebration and I dashed up to the balcony to take it all in. When I looked down, all I could see was a sea of hundreds of people packed tightly on the dance floor all staring expectantly at the stage until the curtains finally drew open.

Standing on the stage before throngs of cheers were poets Sierra Demulder and Tonya Ingram who recited the inspirational poem, “We’ll See You Tomorrow”. After the opening poem, New York based poet Tonya Ingram stayed on stage to begin her inaugural solo performance at a “Heavy and Light” show. She began with a quote from Robin Williams stating, “ I think the saddest people always try their hardest to make people happy because they know what it’s like to feel absolutely worthless and they don’t want anyone else to feel like that.” She then performed two of her own poems about depression and lessons in dealing with what life can throw at you.

A word about Tonya. She is the type of poet who makes you understand why poetry exists. She doesn’t use flowery hyperbole about her life, she is brutally honest about her experiences. She makes you feel what she experienced, which wasn’t pretty, but she also leaves you feeling strong and empowered. Her last poem gives the listener advice in dealing with what life can throw at you, no matter how horrific, to get you to the other side with strength, veracity and humor. After her performance, Tonya had the honor of introducing the reason TWLOHA was created, Renee Yohe.

Renee is the lead singer of Bearcat and the center of the beautiful story Jamie Tworkowski told in 2006.   Renee is stunning, inside and out, and a true beacon of hope for all those who are lost and afraid to be found. The living embodiment of why you should never give up. Those familiar with TWLOHA know Renee’s story and have read about Jamie witnessing her teetering on the brink of death before entering into treatment. Seeing her in person, ten years later, a bright beam of light from the center of a stage, singing to a packed crowd all of whom are there because of her, was truly magical experience. If anyone needs a role model for redemption to focus on in their lowest moments, look no further than Renee.

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Renee shared a little about her experience and how much her life changed from being a kid at 19 addicted to drugs and self-harming to the 29-year-old we saw before us. “The journey has not been perfect,” she shared “but what kept me going during those unbearable moments is that it could be beautiful”. A quote she held close to her all those years was a saying her father shared with her, “You lose your way when you lose your why”. She took that quote to heart by finding reasons to keep going. Another tool she used to help keep going was, “I gave myself permission to say ‘I’m not ok’” so she knew when she needed to ask for help. She made sure each of those listening to her in the audience and on-line knew, “you are not alone. If the idea of staying sounds like a punishment, tell yourself to wait. Tie yourself to the ship like Odysseus to get through it because things change.” She then performed her personal fight song, “Crazy Fishes”, before tearfully introducing the creator of TWLOHA, Jamie Tworkowski.

Jamie is the soft-spoken powerhouse behind and international movement which has brought help to thousands of people around the world. After polling the audience to see how many people had traveled from outside of Florida to be present in the audience, at least half the hands in the audience shot up. A noticeably impressed Tworkowski then made an attempt to see how far people had traveled. A chorus of shouts began pouring in on top of each other from the crowd made it abundantly clear people had traveled from all over the country, and some internationally, to be present that evening.

Jamie discussed openly with the crowd about the successes TWLOHA has had over the past ten years and the impact they have had on lessening the stigma that is associated with mental illness. That in and of itself is the accomplishment of which he seemed most proud. According to Jamie, two out of three people suffering with mental illness do not ask for help.  Because of TWLOHA, more people are able to ask for help and have the resources to get the help they need. Several representatives from Orlando based Solace Counseling, a counseling center TWLOHA works with directly in order to fund treatment, came to speak about different aspects of counseling and the importance of seeking help.

Next up was singer-songwriter, Matt Wertz.  TWLOHA’s “Heavy and Light” format essentially means you can either expect tears of joy or laughter at any point throughout the event. Where the audience had, up to this point, seen the heavy, Matt Wertz was definitely the light. Talented, funny, and charismatic, Matt played a solo acoustic set, but also made sure to make the audience laugh between each song.

Poet Sierra Demulder performed after Matt and brought both heavy and light to the show.  She is goofy and fun and immediately put the audience at ease. She made the audience comfortable listening to very uncomfortable and personal subjects in her poems including eating disorders and self-harm. Sierra’s poems combined with her welcoming demeanor is what TWLOHA is at its core. A place where is it ok to discuss the horrific effects mental illness can have on the victim as well as the loved ones who try to support the victim.

The next band up was The Summer Set, a punk pop band who has previously performed at a Heavy and Light show. During the song “Lightning in a Bottle”, the lead singer, Brian Dales, asked the audience to embrace their neighbor and the audience happily agreed. Seas of strangers wrapped arms around shoulders and swayed to the song. The Summer Set finished up their set with a cover of, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”, which was Dales’ personal anthem for getting through tough times.

Jamie once again took the stage to share his recent personal struggles with depression and the tools he uses in his life to overcome the challenges he faces. Because, as Jamie said, “We are made to tell stories, we are made to give a shit about stores”, he read from his book,­­­­ If You Feel Too Much, a paragraph to which he keeps coming back and re-reading to help with his depression. He focused on the importance of recognizing when to lean on those around you and letting people know when you are not ok. He focused on the importance of friendship and how allowing someone to be there for you as well as you allowing yourself to be there for a friend, has made all the different in his life. Then Jamie brought out the most adorable co-host, his soon to be 4-year-old nephew Landon, to introduce a friend he has come to lean on, Jon Foreman of Switchfoot.

Jon Foreman completely captivated the room, from floor to ceiling, everyone in the room was utterly engrossed in his performance. He is a true rock star and one of the reasons TWLOHA garnered so much attention in its infancy. While Jamie had previously recounted how Jon had been such a figure of strength and compassion in his life, Jon also recounted how Jamie and TWLOHA had affected his life.

When Jamie first sent Jon a box of TWLOHA t-shirts, the day he received the box was also the day his band, Switchfoot, had been dropped from their record label and their opening band up and left the tour. When Jon felt everything caving in around him, he had TWLOHA and their mission to focus on. This collaboration and understanding of riding out the storms has led him and his band to even more success and resulted in Switchfoot being set to release their TENTH album together. Jon performed several songs including, “Resurrect Me”, “All of Gods Children”, “Caroline”, and “Dare you To Move”.  For his encore, Jon came back to the stage with all the Heavy and Light performers: Matt Wertz, The Summer Set, and Renee Yohe.

For the finale, the group performed two songs. “In Your Eyes” and the very apropos, “Lean on Me”. The concert ended with everyone in the crowd and on stage singing the final chorus of “Lean On Me”, “Call me, when you need a friend, call me, call me, text me, call me…”

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, mental illness, self-harm, anxiety, depression, or thoughts of suicide, contact TWLOHA.com/find-help for resources, or text the TWLOHA crisis line at 741-741.

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