To Write Love on All Our Arms
Big thanks to the brilliant women who allowed themselves to be seen in this blog, and to the organization To Write Love on Her Arms for doing all the good and for answering all my questions. And to the octoladies at Paper Darts for doing what you do and doing it with style.
It makes my heart swell and expand (and feel loads less alone) to report that sixteen women were courageous enough to share publicly, here on Paper Darts, that they struggle with their mental health. They were also brave enough to let me draw pictures of them even though I have little to no actual previous practice with drawing real human faces. Some of the women you’ll meet are writers, others are personal trainers and real estate agents and software engineers. (Mental health issues are not picky about occupations.)
Throughout this post examining my own mental health, you'll find sixteen beautiful women, all donning TWLOHA tees! In quotes are each of their answers to the following question:
Think back to the time you were experiencing the worst mental health struggles of your life. What would you say to that younger you if you could speak to her now?
I’m pretty sure my dorm’s resident assistant never really forgave me for the day she missed her boyfriend’s birthday because I’d gone crazy after not having slept for weeks. It was getting to be spring in Wisconsin following a long, dark winter and my RA had finally been looking forward to something. Instead, she had to spend the entire day with a near-total stranger in a windowless emergency room. I can still see her now, sitting near my bed, checking and rechecking her phone, half-listening as I told her my secrets:
I’m actually three hundred years old. My grandma just died and she’s talking to me. She’s whispering, “Angel, look up.” I can see the past, present, and future. I’m three hundred years old. Maybe older.
I still wonder what she must have seen. How I must have seemed to her. If she thought I was the same weak, unlovable creature I knew I was, if she was as scared of me as I was, if somewhere beneath her detached and cold demeanor she felt anything more than irritating obligation toward me. I know what you mean, my rational self said silently from inside its recently downsized room. There are so many times in my life I don’t want to be around me either.
The sliver of sanity I still possessed could see the inconvenience its deterioration was causing her and I remember feeling terribly guilty, trying to regain composure for her, desperately hanging onto moments of clarity so that we could wrap up all the silly confusion quickly. There was still time in the day for a birthday party.
Maybe I just need a sandwich, I told her. Maybe I just need sleep. I think I just need to eat and sleep.
Then I’d start talking about how I was three hundred years old again.
Hours later, I could be seen shuffling around a mental health ward in no-slip hospital socks, lock-jawed due to a heavy dose of antipsychotics, clutching my toothbrush like it was some sort of lifeline, repeatedly asking everyone where I should put it, believing that all the other people in the hospital were long-lost members of a family I never knew I had.
I could be seen staring at the wall with the resident-use phone up to my ear, listening to the dial tone for about five full minutes, expecting someone to start explaining what was happening to me or tell me when I’d get to go home, how to get home. I listened to the dial tone so long that a staff member (one of my “relatives”) came up behind me and gently revealed to me that if I wanted to talk to someone, I needed to dial a number.
Sometime later, I could be seen in a room with my stepdad and a doctor, listening from behind the fogged window of my mind as they discussed a proper diagnosis.
A day later, after medicine, a night’s sleep, and a family caravan to a ward in my home state, I could be seen looking around the bright hall of the new ward, pained face in the middle of my first totally clear thought in a month: No one’s ever going to love me now.
To be honest, when I set out to write about the stigma surrounding female mental health for Paper Darts while proudly supporting one of my favorite organizations, To Write Love on Her Arms, I was only thinking vaguely about my own mental health problems. I thought it would be easy, this sharing of my story. I’m thirty-one. My time in the hospital is long behind me. I’m taking a helpful medication and seeing a kickass therapist. The self-destruction and self-loathing of my twenties is mostly gone, shed some time ago. I’ve learned that loving myself is just easier. I’ve learned that hiding my issues from friends and family is far worse. I’ve learned that I’m capable of taking care of myself and that sometimes I need help to do it. But I am still so incredibly terrified to tell my story.
I don’t know exactly when I reached out to To Write Love on Her Arms and the women you’re about to meet, but this has been over a year in the making. I’ve been pushing it off, making excuses. I’m paralyzed about it. Who will read this? What will they think of me? Will the women I interviewed hate it? Am I doing it right? Will people think I’m unlovable now that they’ve learned that at one point I was wearing no-slip hospital socks and didn’t know where to put my toothbrush? Will I ever again get laid?
Many people of all backgrounds, identities, and cultures remain in hiding. Mental health stigma affects everyone who struggles. Like me, many women are afraid to share their experiences, afraid to reach out. Afraid that if they do, they’ll be cast aside, further ignored, not taken seriously. Unlovable, untouchable. I’m constantly thinking about all the movies that depict people with mental health issues as different shades of criminals, as people to be feared. I’m constantly thinking about how women who struggle with their mental health have been portrayed and mistreated throughout history. I’m constantly thinking about the new era of presidentially endorsed sexism, how it was so difficult for people to “trust” Hillary during the election. There’s something off about her, they thought. We just can’t put a finger on what it is . . .
I want—no, I need, in our new, bizarre alternate universe—women to be treated light years better than they’ve been treated before, specifically regarding their mental health. No more calling people crazy or dismissing them as hysterical or overly emotional or damaged or all the other things we say when we’re too afraid to look at people—specifically women, trans and nonbinary people, and people of color—as whole beings. I need all women (and all people) to be seen clearly as unique individuals and loved and respected for who they are—mental health included. I need their contributions to be accepted and celebrated with zero doubletake. Above all, no one, whether they are mentally healthy or not, should feel ashamed or scared of the power of their own mind.
It makes me endlessly happy that the fight against mental health stigma is stronger than ever. So much of the improvement is in large part due to the beautiful people behind organizations like To Write Love on Her Arms, who work every day to show those suffering from mental health issues that it’s okay to be honest about their struggles, and it’s okay to ask for help. That no one is alone. That everyone is worthy of love.
TWLOHA’s founder, Jamie Tworkowski, started the organization after he spent a week with his nineteen-year-old friend, Renee, who’d long been struggling with addiction and self-injury. Once having carved “fuck up” on her arm, Jamie remembers wishing he could replace it with “love.” When a hospital denied her entry, Jamie and friends became her “church” and her treatment center. To pay for further treatment, Jamie sold T-shirts, and their friends in the music scene began wearing the shirts at live shows. An amazing energy swelled around the group and a nonprofit was born. (Read the full origin story here.)
Since 2006, TWLOHA has responded to two hundred thousand messages from across the world with a message of hope and love. With the money they receive from T-shirt sales and donations, they’ve been able to give $1.8 million to treatment and recovery.
Though the majority of people TWLOHA serves are women, Jamie tells me that they are always working toward reaching more men, who tend to have a harder time sharing their mental health experiences. TWLOHA is a resource for everyone of all ages, genders, backgrounds, and walks of life. Its message is simple but powerful: No one is a fuck up. Everyone is loved. There is always hope.
When I asked how TWLOHA works towards its mission, Jamie tells me that communication is key: “Through blogs on our website, through social media, through student-led chapters on college campuses, and beneath our tent at music festivals, we try to go where people go, both online and offline, to deliver a message of hope and help.”
I can’t say enough positive things about TWLOHA. The organization has grown so big and so beautiful over the past ten years that no matter where I go in my TWLOHA T-shirt, someone stops me to tell me lovingly about theirs.
I remember one of these exchanges with particular fondness. Almost two years ago, I was in Asheville, North Carolina, hiding from Hurricane Matthew, which seemed like it was headed straight toward my home in Wilmington, North Carolina. My friends and I were stationed at a pub, lazing the day away drinking beer, discussing the storm we’d missed. I forgot I was wearing my TWLOHA shirt (my all-time favorite shirt) until I looked up to see a girl making a beeline toward me.
“Oh, my god,” she said, standing proudly above our table. “I just came over here to tell you I have that exact same shirt. You’re awesome!”
“You’re awesomer!” I replied.
It was a simple exchange, only a few seconds long. But it stays with me, the warm moment I realized that I’d just met a woman who struggles with her mental health too. Who struggles with the stigma too. Who wasn’t afraid to come up and share a bit of herself with me. I still remember her smile, and how we both actually believed, in that split second, we were not alone.
*To find out more about TWLOHA and/or explore ways to get involved in the organization, click here.