In 2006, Renee Yohe swiped a razor blade from a friend’s kitchen table, entered the bathroom, and carved “FUCK UP” in the flesh of her arm. The 19 year old was high on cocaine and the listless love of cheap liquor, and felt as we all do sometimes: as though she had no other solutions. With the help of a group of friends, some of which were addicts themselves, Yohe decided to enter rehab. Unfortunately (and incongruously), the drugs in her system and the fresh self-harm wounds rendered her unfit for immediate treatment. The center sent her home to detox on her own.
For the next 120 hours, that same group of friends surrounded Yohe with love and support while she prepared to reclaim her life. The brigade vowed to be her “church,” to help her “write love on her arms.” Miraculously, they were able to create a five-day rock n’ roll rehab-experience wherein Yohe stood mere feet from some of her favorite artists, the music acting as the light to her darkness – “something true when all she’[d] known [were] lies.”
One friend in the group, Jamie Tworkowski, then conceived of a Myspace initiative called To Write Love on Her Arms (or TWLOHA for short) and posted Yohe’s story to the page. As he created and sold apparel to pay for her treatment, the initiative turned into an absolute phenomenon with celebrities like Switchfoot rocking their merch on stage. 16 years later, TWLOHA is now a lauded mental health non-profit organization that acts as a stable resource of hope and services for those battling with all avenues of mental health.
SPIN spoke with Chad Moses, TWLOHA’s Director of Outreach and Experience, to discuss how they have and still are using music, faith and friends as conduits to recovery.
SPIN: How does someone struggling go about getting the help they need from TWLOHA?
Chad Moses: The first caveat is that we are not the clinicians ourselves, nor are we the counselors. We’re not the destination for anyone’s treatment or recovery. So often, people don’t ask for help because they either don’t know who to ask or they don’t even know if it’s okay to ask. Everything we do is geared towards breaking down that stigma and dismantling those lies that suggest you should struggle alone. We’re really trying to build a better bridge that connects people to local avenues for help. That said, people can reach us on our website where we have a tool that helps you find affordable treatment options by zip code, and that’s active in every zip code in the US.
In which major ways would you say music plays a part in TWLOHA’s mission and subsequent success?
Because music requires people, it reminds us of some true things that we often forget in our daily lives. It reminds us that change is possible. For us, music is the ideal metaphor. It’s something to be shared and to be echoed. When music is being projected from a speaker in a full venue and the sound is bouncing off bodies, it’s the bodies in the room that change the sound. So, we want to – in a responsible way – put as many bodies as possible around a song, so that you can be reminded of what that reverberation feels like – that echo, that depth.
SPIN: In the original story Jamie wrote about Renee, there’s talk of God and faith. Is the organization faith-based?
We’re “faith friendly,” but not “faith exclusive.” This is your life, this is your recovery, your journey. You get to call the shots, and that is such an amazing posture of empowerment. You’re free to do what you want, how you want. It’s your choice. But often, you won’t have all the necessary tools at your disposal. So, whatever it is you need, we’re going to help connect you to those options and resources.
When Renee’s story was written, we really had no idea it would turn into anything more than a blog post – anything more than just a way to memorialize what those five days of helping a new friend looked like. The story was the experience through Jamie’s lens. As an organization, we’ve employed and helped people of all faiths. At the same time, we have found some great friends in the Christian music space.
Faith-based organizations generally focus on the afterlife – what happens after we close our eyes for the last time. Our job at TWLOHA is to prevent the afterlife from coming far too soon.
TWLOHA uses an industry known for debauchery to promote sobriety and recovery. Has this caused people to question your motives or the organization’s efficacy?
It’s about meeting people in places where we naturally come together, and music is a great example of that. So much of our efforts place people right in the thick of the highest peaks and lowest valleys someone can experience, whether it be seeing your favorite artist five rows back from the rail or being right next to people who have been on a several-day drug binge. But we now see fans that go to festivals sober, they camp out sober, they save spaces for sober meetings, [and] that’s a beautiful thing. You also see artists who are very outspoken about their journeys and how they are still alive and performing because they asked for help. So, no, we really don’t receive a ton of pushback from people saying, “Why are you here?” Instead, we hear people say, “Thank you for being here. We really could have benefited from y’all being here 20 years ago.”
Your organization began in 2006 via Myspace during the “emo era.” This was a time when self-harm and depression were often romanticized. Now, thankfully, mental health and self-care are being better prioritized and recognized. How would you say TWLOHA is different today than it was 16 years ago?
I think so much of what has changed has happened through a posture of humility. We’re always trying to learn more about what it means to struggle with mental and behavioral health challenges. So much of what we do is concerned with pinpointing where people are showing up. Originally, Myspace was the place. We also started on the Warped Tour 16 years ago. Then it was EDM venues, Bonnaroo, Electric Forest. But I think it’s fair to acknowledge that so many of those initial places prioritized and privileged white voices. So, our mission now is to [diversify] and make sure that we aren’t reinforcing a specific stigma. We’ve also expanded our mission to assist with anxiety, PTSD, substance-use disorder and eating disorders.
Has the pandemic impacted how much you’re able to help?
We released this app called The Hopeful. It’s a daily-use application for encouragement, mood tracking, and journaling. We’ve talked so much about human interaction and community, but it’s also important to practice becoming a more reliable narrator of your own life.
Where is Renee now?
Renee’s is a story that is still going and we’re so happy for her. She will always be super important to the trajectory of this organization and the lives of so many people that we are now able to call supporters and friends.