Violated. Depressed Cutter. Shame and depression. These are some of the words written on the front side of cardboard signs, held high by Brockport students in front of an audience of more than 200 people in the college’s Union.
Vindicated. Long-term relief. Getting through it. These are the words written on the back. They represent the students’ liberation from severe afflictions, from self-harm and suicidal thoughts to depression and drug addiction.
The national nonprofit organization and movement To Write Love on Her Arms (TWLOHA) presents hope and provides support for people suffering from these common clinical illnesses. Its founder, 29-year-old Jamie Tworkowski, and his friends stage events at schools across the country combining live music, art and speech. Their goal is to facilitate “an honest conversation about pain and hope,” thereby de-stigmatizing conditions like depression and encouraging treatment and recovery.
The College at Brockport hosted a TWLOHA event Thursday, Dec. 3. The event featured two dances by the Student Dance Organization, a performance by singer/songwriter Zach Williams and a speech by Tworkowski, who founded TWLOHA unexpectedly three years ago.
Cardboard testimonials, arranged by Kerri Phillips, SSWO member and event organizer, and Jonathan Woods, Brockport Student Government’s cultural committee representative, kicked off the event.
As the lights dimmed and music began, six students strode the stage, one by one, stopping halfway to display both sides of their cardboard sign, “before and after” they sought help for their respective condition. One such student was Kyle Astor, a former self-injurer and crack cocaine addict, whose sign read “Cutter and Junkie.” She said the testimonials were somewhat of a self-affirmation.
“I’m not a big fan of hiding things anymore,” Astor said. “I like to be open about [my self-injury and drug addiction]. Yes, it did happen, but I overcame it.”
The overall message was well received by the audience.
“We all can relate to the struggles represented by the signs,” Brockport Junior Katie Mason said. “For me, it brought back personal experiences with friends and family. It was nice to see they had the courage to get up on stage and share their struggle. It let other people know they don’t have to be afraid or feel alone.”
Tworkowski mentioned the cardboard testimonials in his speech and related them to the music of the movement.
“I thought the cardboard testimonials were powerful and cool,” he said. “They (the students) were incredibly brave and honest. It seemed they had a sense of resolve. Yet, I wonder how many of us live in between the process of flipping the sign, or on the front without a solution?
“These things (clinical illnesses or similar, but less severe conditions) happen in secret and silence because people are afraid of how others will respond. And that’s what’s so powerful about music. It’s an outlet to express [what's troubling us].”
Sharing ‘redemptive spirited’ songs
Tworkowski went on to explain how the eccentric singer-songwriter Zach Williams, whom he met while visiting friends in New York City, where the Florida man now lives, expresses his troubles.
“His songs were written from a place where he was wrestling with fears, dreams and trying to provide for his family (wife and daughter),” he said.
That place was a Georgia hospital waiting room, where Williams lived while his wife was recovering from a horse riding accident, in which she broke multiple bones in her neck. The doctors told him his wife would be a quadriplegic, but she miraculously recovered with full functionality. Much like the support needed to deal with and recover from clinical illnesses, Williams’ friends were a tremendous help during the time of tragedy.
“They sat with me in the waiting room for weeks at a time,” he said. “I know I was loved and cared for because they carried that burden with me.”
Williams wrote the song “Hospital,” which he performed at Brockport, as a letter to his wife. His performance resonated with the crowd, one student in particular.
“Zach’s music hit me hard,” junior Alex Krolikowski said. “You could really see his emotion and hear the truth shining through his songs, especially the James song. The ‘get out of the water’ metaphor was phenomenal.”
The song Krolikowski is referring to is “James.” It’s about a friend’s father who died in his sleep. James suffered from alcohol addiction for several years, though his family was unaware of it for a long time. Williams said he was able to keep it secret because he spent a lot of time out of the country tending to rug warehouses he owned. “Get out of the water” referred to James’ stagnant alcohol addiction.
Williams said his songs fit with the TWLOHA movement because they have a “redemptive spirit.” His lyrics tell personal stories about people in his former Georgia community.
A recovering addict’s endeavors
Tworkowski’s speech and a recovering addict’s/TWLOHA member’s testimony followed Williams’ performance. Denny Kolsch began his testimony with a question: “What do you do when hope and happiness are gone, and the door to life is shut and you don’t have a say in the matter?” he asked.
“That was me. I was the one who felt helpless. All of the things that made me happy were gone and the things that gave me joy and excitement as a child no longer did. I was only excited if I could get a fix.”
Kolsch was an addict and didn’t know how he got there.
“It all kind of exploded in my high school years,” he said. “My friends went off to college and I stayed in my community. Inside I was empty and trying to find ways [to fill the void]. The only way I knew how to deal with my issues was with drugs.”
Kolsch said there was a period of three to four months where his days consisted of waking up, calling his dealer, going out on the streets to get drugs and coming back to his room to use — the life of a heroin addict.
Kolsch had friends and family, though they were of little help to him, at least in the short span of things.
“I had people who loved and cared for me and saw me suffering, but didn’t know how to react to my life of brokenness,” he said. “They didn’t know how to help me and I didn’t know how to let them. I didn’t want them to.”
At the pinnacle of Kolsch’s addiction in 2003, he was given an unusual opportunity through a local church. Friends and family, members of the church, were going on a mission trip to Nicaragua, in Central America, and a spot opened up. Kolsch was invited nd the experience changed his life forever, he said.
“I was in a state of deep despair and desperation,” he said. “I was strung out and hated God and anything to do with God. I was a leper on the margins of society and didn’t feel like anyone wanted to be near me.”
He was wrong. An elderly woman on the trip, whose curiosity was piqued by Kolsch’s track marks, among other things, wanted to be near him. She began prying into his life, asking questions and offering up some degree of solace. He resisted her inquiries at first, but learned to open up.
“I think I was ready to get better and wanted to let people in,” he said.
Having been introduced to the concept of community, he decided “to choose life,” he said, and began to feel change and the joy and excitement of life he left in his childhood long ago. He came back to the U.S. with an exuberant willingness to leave his demons behind him and work toward a better future. He was high within a week.
Kolsch found himself in a hotel room shooting heroin and filled with the same shame and despair that ruled his life before the mission trip. But this time, he reacted differently. He let others help him.
After leaving the hotel room, he noticed a white Jeep riding around town. The driver was a friend from the mission trip and he was looking for Kolsch. He had a choice: reject him or let him into his hollowed out life. He chose the latter.
“He [his friend] looked at me dead in the eye and said ‘I love you and you don’t have to do this. You don’t have to live this way.'”
After that night, he didn’t. He packed up his bags, moved back to his parents’ house, and started going to church and attending a twelve step program. He got clean. He stayed clean.
“It’s still a struggle,” Kolsch said. “The temptations are strong, but life is filled with contrast. I try to find contentment and value in what I do, tasting the beauty and joy in preparing for moments of tragedy.”
Students share their experience
The event closed with a question and answer session with the two TWLOHA members and Williams. Students and community members stepped to the microphone, positioned in the audience, to share their struggles and ask for advice.
“I have a brother with bipolar disorder,” one audience member said. “He is at the bottom of the barrel, facing suicidal thoughts and I don’t know how to help him.”
In response, Tworkowski spoke of his experience with Renee Yohee, a suicidal and self-injuring drug addict who he and four friends helped get clean.
“People encouraged her to get help years before I came along,” Tworkowski said. “For whatever reason, she pushed those people away. But, she was so grateful for those who didn’t give up on her and reminded her that there’s hope.
“Tell your brother that you love him, are concerned about him and want to get him the help he needs. Encourage him not to be afraid to get help. There may be some tricky tension, so find a balance of compassion and honesty.”
Kolsch said the people he initially rejected created a foundation that eventually changed his life. In the long-run, they had a “profound effect,” on him, he said.
“Knowing they were there probably prevented me from taking my life,” he said.
Another audience member, Brockport junior Misty Stratton, shared her experience with a number of unfortunate events that led to a sever state of depression. Her mother had seven miscarriages, her brother was diagnosed with autism, her romantic relationship ended, she was date-raped and found out her father was terminally ill, she said.
“After all this, everything came to a head and for a month I was sleeping 18 hours a day,” she said. “When I was asleep, I didn’t have to deal with anything.
“I’ve been dealing with depression since I was 14 and help isn’t something you seek at that age. Peers consider it shameful. But it’s not. Don’t keep things bottled up. I thank God for the people who were there to help me.”