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" Left Behind | 2008 | Fireworks "

07.25.08 10:40 p.m.

We become her hospital and the possibility of healing fills our living room with life. It is unspoken and there are only a few of us, but we will be her church, the body of Christ coming alive to meet her needs, to write love on her arms.  

-Jamie Tworkowski


To Write Love on Her Arms

I tap the teenage girl on the shoulder. "I just wanted to say that I really appreciate your wearing that shirt. It's an amazing cause... and I've known people who..." but I can't quite get the word out and just trace my fingernail over my inner arm once. "Thank you for wearing it."

She looks at me baffled but polite, as only teenage girls can manage with the full intensity, and we walk separate ways after a moment.

I spotted her shirt from fifty feet away, black text on the white reading "To Write Love On Her Arms". I'd first encountered the group a few months before Emily left me, as she became an active proponent of it throughout cyberspace. Given that Emily had also been discussing the body modification subculture more frequently, I initially assumed TWLOHA was in this vein. After all, she'd just tattooed "Beloved" on her wrist, so it did not feel like a vast cognitive leap.

TWLOHA was started by Jamie Tworkowski in March 2006 to help his friend Renee Yohe pay her rehab bills and it ballooned from there. They seek to give hope to those with depression, those who are addicted, those who are suicidal, those who cut. They try to connect people to treatment centers, books, support groups, or just someone who will listen. They donate money to keep suicide hotlines open or defray the bills of troubled kids who need it. They are not without their controversy, mostly a request for greater financial transparency as would befit any other nonprofit organization, but, ultimately, they want to start discussions about this epidemic of treatable conditions.

I have known too many people - mostly women but also several students of both genders - who cut themselves. My school never seemed to know how to handle them - usually by washing bloody items and ignoring it happened - but I tried responding with compassion. They didn't need someone to judge them or use their self-injury as blackmail. What they are going through is beyond my ken, but not beyond my caring. So they would talk to me about it, how it externalized the pain they felt inside, how it relieved pressure so they could function like "normal people", how it was as much an addiction as smoking, how they were ashamed to succumb but couldn't stop themselves. Each one felt that they were the only one doing it, the only one capable of being that "screwed up", but they were far from alone in every sense. With the women, I just made sure they knew that I loved them and would help them quit if they every wanted to. With the kids, I took them to the nurse, made sure they got cleaned up, got it on file, and tried to talk to them about it privately if I felt they would be receptive. As such, I played therapist to a half dozen when they could get a few minutes away from students or other faculty. They didn't stop cutting. I know this for a fact. But I hope they felt less alone and less ashamed for my attention.

I met with Jacki and Kevin and told them of my interaction with this young girl, of her confusion, and thought little more of it until we entered Hot Topic. There, above a t-shirt featuring a quote from Anchorman and next to one for Death Cab for Cutie was the TWLOHA shirt I had seen the girl wearing.

I glared, frustrated and conflicted. I want this organization to get all the exposure it can. Only when people are allowed to speak freely of self-injury will it lose some of its stigma and shame to those who hurt themselves. Certainly, if I may paint with a broad paintbrush, the patrons of Hot Topic are in TWLOHA's target demographic. They are the cutters, they are the depressed, they are the suicidal, they are the addicted. The fourteen-year-old in the HIM shirt is likelier to have a spider web of scars on her arm than those who would not enter the store. I don't think the subculture causes this, for the most part, though it attracts those who would cut. At the expense of some negative comments, some patrons of Hot Topic may feel that these issues are glamorous and fashionable accessories to their neon purple arm warmers and pleather skirts.

My great worry here is that, like the girl I'd met earlier in the night, many will buy and wear these shirts because their favorite musicians do and they seek to emulate them without a thought of what they are advertising. TWLOHA is too important to be trivialized, to be treated like some flash in the pan band or fashionable movement (though it seems to be). The organization has barely existed for two years, it is not ready to be sold on the discount rack once teenagers move onto a different symbolic representation of Evanescence or Paramore.

These shirts I glared at had been yanked out of Hot Topic once, because the tag attached to them made reference to religion and Hot Topic refuses any involvement with religious iconography. (The crosses and inverted pentagrams on items they sell apparently don't count.) Later research tells me that Hot Topic donates an unspecified portion of each sale to TWLOHA, even if they refused to sell the shirts and gave the remaining stock away to clerks because they didn't want to support a message of recovery that mentioned spirituality. So TWLOHA is getting more funding, but they are explicitly doing so at the cost of watering their message down for Hot Topic, who seems to have seized upon this movement purely owing to the fact that several emo bands (Evanescence, Paramore, Switchfoot, Panic! At the Disco) support the organization. Hot Topic does not have AIDS ribbons or LiveStrong bracelets, likely because these maladies are too mainstream and not because they are not sympathetic enough. Maybe someone high up at Hot Topic genuinely cares about this cause or maybe they are cynically manipulating their customer base by co-opting a grassroots movement so they can charge five dollars more per shirt and be seen as socially active.

My temporary solution is to buy a shirt straight from TWLOHA, so I know my money isn't going through a multi-national middleman and because I want this movement to be successful. I know better than some what I will be advertising by wearing my shirt (I went with one reading "Stop the Bleeding" for its unambiguity). I wouldn't have written this post were it not for Hot Topic selling these shirts, nor would I have likely bought one from TWLOHA, so perhaps they succeed in spreading the message in the end, no matter their core intent.

Soon in Xenology: Fireworks. Partners in crime.

last watched: The Dark Knight
reading: Spook
listening: Highly Evolved

" Left Behind | 2008 | Fireworks "

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.

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