My “summer” spans from April to October. I’ve lost count of how many miles I’ve traveled and how many cities I’ve seen. I’m far more likely to get lost in a calendar than I am on an interstate, and if I’m not careful hours sublimate into weeks as I work to bring our mission to the world of live music.
I was fortunate to discover early on the grounding force of personal connection. Ever since my first event working for TWLOHA, I have been collecting the stories of the people I meet. In fact, I reference my earliest such memory in our 10th anniversary post. Some time passed before I started sharing these stories with our team, and while I don’t remember when that began, I do remember why.
I felt alone, even in the midst of tens of thousands of people. I missed my team. The digesting of watery eyes, new tattoos, old scars, shaking hugs, and high fives deserved a sounding board. It wasn’t fair to my heart to keep it in. It wasn’t fair for my team, many of whom virtually never step behind a booth, to feel distance from the people we are driven to serve and support. And the people who were sharing, the least we could offer is our attention and intention to cheer them on.
These stories have become spokes in the wheel. They are proof of our reach and structure for our vehicle of hope. Everything we have sought to create would fall flat without each interaction represented here. I hope these stories remind you that we have work to do, and I hope that you are struck by the reality that perhaps the best thing we ever do is listen, is be an audience for the people we see every day.
And so, here is how I spent my summer. These are some of my stories from the road.
McDowell Mountain Music Fest – Phoenix, AZ
Our first sale of the weekend happened before the doors even opened. A woman in her 40s introduced herself as Pam. She said that she learned about us a few years back, and I asked when was the last time she visited our website. With a flick of her pink highlights and a smile she said, “Today!” She has struggled with suicidal ideation for 30 years now, and as of a few weeks ago, she didn’t know if she’d be around for this festival. She picked out a few new shirts and asked for me to snap a picture of her in front of our table skirt that reads “I Am Living A Story. I Will Not Give Up.” The next day she was back at the festival sporting her brand new Music tee.
Another woman stopped by simply curious about our name. I told her how we got the name and briefly walked her through the story. I didn’t get too far into it, really just mentioning that Renee struggled with cocaine addiction, when the woman dropped her head and asked, “How old was she?” I told her that Renee was 19 when the story was written. The woman sighed heavily. “Did she make it?” I smiled and said, “Yes, Renee is still with us, and her honesty with her struggles launched this project to connect people to the help they deserve.” The woman looked up and said, “Thank god. My daughter, Kim, is 19. She will have 1 year sober on April 1st.” It was cool to see Kim’s mom believe along with Renee that there could be a purpose for the pain her family has felt.
So What?! – Grand Prairie, TX
Cameron stopped by, looked at the merch for a while, and then started to walk away. After six steps or so, he turned back and made a beeline to the prompt cards and asked if he could take one. I told him that I had a marker if he wanted to fill one out here, and he excitedly took me up on that plan. No one else was walking by, so I got to watch as he wrote. His writing struck me as incredibly deliberate, as if he had thought before about what he was going to write but was still chasing what it would look like to see those letters and words on paper. He wrote on both sides, seeing them as complementary chapters. I hugged him. Partly because he deserves it and partly because I didn’t want the distorted guitars or the wind to steal my thanks from him. He told me about how eight years ago he ran into Jamie at a restaurant after a Texas stop on Warped Tour, feeling the weight of dark days and yet somehow encouraged. He mentioned Jamie or TWLOHA tweeting at him in the hopes that he would wake up the next day and the next and the next. He smiled as he recalled how he couldn’t make it to a speaking event a little while back but his friends went and Jamie remembered his interaction with Cameron all those years before. It’s a privilege to be part of that legacy of hope that is unfolding. It is a legacy of people who, in a moment, only needed to be reminded that this planet is still spinning, which gives the promise of new starts. It’s a legacy of people who still need reminding that together we will make it through this, that we ARE making it through this.
Welcome to Rockville – Jacksonville, FL
Sarah and Ryan stopped by on day two. After reading our mission statement, Sarah asked a few more questions about our work. I told her that we are seeking to be a bridge to connect people who are looking for help to that help. She asked, “Why?” I smiled and braced myself for what I expected would be a difficult conversation of convincing someone that mental health is a real thing. Before I got too deep into my rebuttal, she cut me off and said, “I’m not trying to be a jerk. I am an addict. I am curious why you all would care.” In a moment the conversation shifted in a more human direction. We talked about AA/NA, step work, and recovery. She has been in recovery for 11 years, Ryan for 6.5. We discussed Step 12 and the importance of outreach and humility. We talked about brighter days and grasping tightly to others when we realize our own weaknesses. Man, that was a fun talk. Sarah sends us her most heartfelt encouragement to keep the fight going.
Carolina Rebellion – Concord, NC
Chelsea is eight months pregnant. She couldn’t recall how she first heard about us, but she is thankful for our voice and our presence. While she is looking forward to motherhood, she has been battling some pre-postpartum anxiety. She knows that postpartum depression runs in her family. Both her mother and grandmother have been open about that part of their mothering journey. My sister is a doula, so I know more than most dudes my age about the healthcare angles and roles of a support network, and I asked Chelsea if she had a support network in place. She said yes, and I told her that she is already miles ahead of so many women who feel like they are broken and are trapped in shame about their depression. She said that she was going to talk with her OB about connecting with a doula to help with those first weeks and to be present in the company of wise and loving voices as she seeks to care for her child and herself.
John stopped by not too long after Chelsea. He was wearing camo, looked to be about 50 or so, and was accompanied by his teenage daughter. I think his daughter told him about us a few years back, and he opened up to me about his daily battles with depression and self-injury. It was such a beautiful reversal of a standard script where his daughter was able to comfort him as he shared. I gave him a hug, and he thanked us for showing up to places like this. He left with a deep sense of courage and a resource guide for his hometown.
Rock on the Range – Columbus, OH
On the last day Lena stopped by. She was the girl who last year had a relapse with pills, and I told her that it wasn’t too late to have a Day 1. That evening she swung by the booth to tell me she was on the way to the bathroom to flush the rest of her drugs. She was surprised I remembered her and thanked us for being back at the festival. She happily shared that she has been clean since that day.
Bonnaroo – Manchester, TN
Todd was the emcee of the Solar Stage, which was directly in front of us all week. There they hold panels throughout the day highlighting green initiatives and charities of all sorts for Q and A time. He was super intrigued and inspired by the RSVP activation and tearfully wrote a note to his brother who struggles with addiction. It said, “I love you and will always love you. I do not judge you. I want nothing more than for you to know peace and calm in your life.” He took some information and a card to pass on to his brother. He said he never would have expected to see people like us in a place like this, but he thanked us over and over for offering some hope to his family.
Amy stopped by very briefly to tell us “Happy Roo” and that she was thankful we were onsite. She has survived three suicide attempts and says that she is happier now than she ever dreamed possible.
Carly walked by on the second day with a sparkling sign. At Bonnaroo you get used to seeing groups of people dance by with homemade decorations, but hers was different. It shouted in oversized pink letters “5 MONTHS CLEAN AND SOBER.” She said that she made the sign weeks ago and knowing that this milestone was going to happen at Bonnaroo, she stared at it daily. We gave her a book and hug and a reminder to take it one day at a time until next time we meet.
Olivia attended 9 Bonnaroos before she got sober. She had been afraid to come back these past 3 years due to the ever-present threat of relapse, but she knew that music was a place where she has always felt alive. So gradually, she began to add live music back to her life. During her Roo hiatus, she started seeing jam bands and got plugged into the Wharf Rats (AA/NA groups for fans of the Grateful Dead). It was through a WR meeting that Olivia met Michelle. Michelle thought it was important for Olivia to get back to Bonnaroo, so she “miracle funded” her ticket and the two had not left each other’s side all week. On their way to a Soberoo meeting, Olivia saw our tent. She works at an in-patient treatment center and one of her residents told her about us, and she knew that she had to introduce Michelle to us. They both bought some hand-stamped jewelry to commemorate Olivia’s return to the Farm.
My buddy J runs the Soberoo program, and it’s always a joy to catch up with him. For the second year running, he filled out an RSVP prompt and left an NA tag attached to it. His card read, “If I can do it, then so can you.” A few days later Beth happened by the booth with her friend Trey. I explained the campaign and she took to browsing the cards. She saw J’s note and pointed it out her friend, and I told her that she could take it if she liked. She said, “No, I don’t think that one is for me. I’m a bit off the wagon currently.” After looking around a bit more, she came back to the note, plucked it off the line and said, “Actually you know what? Maybe this is what I needed.” That’s the magic of showing up at places like Bonnaroo. You never know who is going to have their Day 1. Or their Day 1 for the fifth time. A fresh start happens whenever WE decide, and the courage it took for Beth not only to acknowledge her falling but also to try again will never be lost on me.
Electric Forest – Grant Township, MI
Jasmine stopped by a few times throughout the weekend. The first time was to express thanks that we were at the festival and to check out the RSVP campaign. She came by the next night, and after a brief stroll through the activation she took a seat in front a closed tent a few spots away and began to cry. I paid her a visit and asked if there was anything we could do for her and she opened up about her depression that was darker and heavier that day. “It’s hard to be so sad in the happiest place on Earth” That observation wasn’t ironic, or witty, or poetic. It just sucked. We chatted for a while. About music and about family. About TWLOHA and depression and leaning on others. About nothing and about how to pass the time until our brains decide to give us rest. She came by one more time the next day to thank us for showing up to this festival and for serving our role in such unique and consistent ways. She dropped off a note with a collage that represented some of the things we discussed, which struck me as a super apt metaphor for the entire festival.
Creation NE – Mt. Union, PA
Jordan’s life back home looks less like a Family Tree and more like a Web, where communication often skips generations. Her sister is her best friend and currently there is a vacuum of conversation between her sister and niece. This is made all the more painful as the niece’s granddaughter is caught in the crossfire of more brokenness back home (perhaps you are already getting a bit dizzy from following these characters). At any rate, this young woman is 14, struggles with self-injury, and carries the weight of utterly unsympathetic parents. So Shauna and her sister are left to find creative, if not covert, ways to care for this young woman. I was able to give Jordan the last resource pamphlet I could find for her city and walk her through Crisis Text Line, some recommended reading, and additional resources on our website. She left with a handful of wristbands and stickers, which will be given to the young woman so that she can pick her own team as she takes steps toward recovery.
Lifest – Oshkosh, WI
Rachel learned about us last year and was able to introduce her daughter to us. She has been clean for a good many months now, and Rachel wanted to say, “Thank you for all you’ve done for my family.” Her phrasing struck me profoundly. So often in what we do, we are responding to an individual crisis. I remember learning in QPR that for every suicide, there are 7 people directly affected. It would stand to reason that this number would hold true for any tragedy. It would stand to reason that this number would also hold true for any moment of celebration. We get to see families rejoin and reorder. As we give hope to Rachel’s daughter, we also give respite to all those who love her. In moments like this, the world shrinks while smiles grow.
Alex is a blonde mother of 7 blonde children. She had never heard of us before, but she needed a break from chasing her kids around and our booth was conveniently positioned in a cool current of air conditioning. She asked a bit about who we were and then asked if we still had her size in the You Are Enough shirt. As I passed her the shirt she wiped away a tear saying that that phrase meant a lot to her, especially after this past year. I can’t imagine what that may have hinted toward. Perhaps how she interpreted it was nothing quite like Jess Morris intended. But that’s part of the magic. Words written by an Australian, filtered through the edits of a Louisianan, formatted by a bearded Floridian, printed by a local Father/Husband/Bull-dog owner, shipped by a warehouse of new staffers and interns, to make it all the way to a Wisconsin mom who had been closer to her wit’s end than she thought possible and can now wear a mantra worth believing.
PromoWest Fest – Columbus, OH
Ella stopped by on the second night with a handful of friends. She works at a treatment facility called the Flower Hospital in the Toledo area. It was hard to grasp all that they did, in part because it was so so so loud where we were, and in part because they apparently do a ton of great work. She said that their clientele runs the gamut in age and affliction, but she bought a copy of If You Feel Too Much to add to the campus library. She came back shortly afterward asking if I would write a note to encourage the residents at the facility. She said, “I love everyone that comes through those doors and I wish that I could do so much more, but that is why this book and the note mean so much. Thank you for being here.”
Alive Fest – Mineral City, OH
Tonya was at the festival with her daughter Ann who was selling books. Ann has had a long history of mental illness and self-injury. Both Tonya and Ann got “Love” tattooed on their forearm to commemorate Ann’s first year of being injury-free. Shortly after, she had a relapse and the clock was reset. When she had made it another year, they both added to their original tattoos. Ann turned hers into “Beloved” and Tonya added the words “…is patient.” It has now been 20 months since Ann’s last episode and the thoughtfulness behind the tattoos made me smile. It occurs to me that being patient is the best thing we can ever do. That is altogether different than being passive. Patience is stubborn in its own right. It does not allow for you to run from pain but beckons you to sprint straight toward it and set up your camp in the shadow of the mountains our loved ones face. Patience is the reminder after relapse that says, “But look how far you’ve come, this is not a failure, YOU are not a failure.” Patience says, “I can already see a brighter tomorrow, but I won’t spoil it for you…I’ll be here to celebrate and see this afresh through your eyes.”
SoulFest – Gilford, NH
As I was counting out, Rebecca approached the booth. She grabbed resources and fired off questions. She looked down at our Info Book, soggy from the afternoon’s downpour, and when she looked up her eyes were ebbing tides of strength and sighs. “I am the mother of a transgender daughter. Four families in my support group have had to bury their babies this year. My church has disowned me, my family is confused, and I am doing all I can to make sure my daughter lives to give the hope I know she can give to this world.” I began to cry. She reached across the table to wipe a tear from my cheek, and I swear I’ve never known grace quite like that. This woman found the strength to comfort me, when my empathy betrayed my poise, when I lacked the words to comfort her. Forty-two percent of all transgender youth will attempt suicide. That number drops to 6%, the national average of cis-gendered youth, if the teen has a supportive community. This woman doesn’t want lawsuits, or publicity, or to be a face of the cause. She just wants to not have to visit her daughter’s grave. She wants the freedom to not have to ask, “What else could I have done?” She wants to offer hope to the families in her group. “Don’t they know that my daughter is more like God than they could ever imagine?” Rebecca said that she didn’t know what to expect coming to a faith-based festival, but having someone to talk with without needing to guard or censor her story felt a lot like breathing. She has as many questions as anyone else does about what it means to be LBGTQ, but having those questions does not absolve us of the responsibility to care for the lives of those most in danger. Their lives deserve the urgency to establish some sense of safety over and above the perceived necessity to find “answers” before acting.
Nocturnal Wonderland – San Manuel, CA
Connor was working security for the festival, and he stopped by on the first day. He shared that he has PTSD from a couple military stints abroad. He recounted being directly affected by explosives twice and talked about how he still lives with the effects of those experiences. Connor said that sometimes the nightmares are too real and feel too inescapable, but he believes that if the bombs did not end him then there must be a reason he is still waking up.
Houston Open Air – Houston, TX
I met Peter a little before doors reopened following one of Saturday’s evacuations. He is one of the truckers for Alice in Chains, and he enjoyed the brief moments of silence where he could wander the empty festival grounds. He was more or less just walking aimlessly when he stumbled upon the vending area and our booth. After reading an info card he shared that his fiancée is currently sober but has battled meth addiction for most of her adult life. He also spoke of his niece who had recently died by suicide. She was a middle school student and a lesbian. The bullying and fear took an all-too-familiar toll. He said they lived in Indianapolis, and I assured him that we have friends and resources in that area. Peter left with a “thank you” and an info card folded three times over so it could fit in his wallet.
Louder Than Life – Louisville, KY
Fawn ran up to the booth on the first day. She was excited to have finally found us at an event. Fawn struggled heavily with depression and self-injury but was able to make some strides toward recovery by leaning on our website. When I asked her how she first learned about us, she said, “My mom. She knew I was having a rough time, and one day she calmly said, ‘You should really check out this website.'” So often I hear the opposite story, where a parent says their kid told them about TWLOHA; this was a really cool reversal.
James and Kat stopped by not too long after Fawn. James is Kat’s dad, and he mentioned that this was the first time he has been able to go to a music festival with her. They were browsing the market area waiting until the next band came on, and to help pass the time they asked what TWLOHA was. After giving them the mission statement, James said, “That’s awesome; I’m actually in recovery.” He went on to share that this is actually the first time he has seen his daughter since she was three weeks old. When she was born, opiates had a death grip on him and Kat’s mom told him to leave town. Over the past few years, James has been attending NA meetings and while working through the Steps, he knew that he had a lot of amends to make with his family. He’s been doing great, and the love between him and Kat’s mom has rekindled. They each grabbed a wristband and thanked us for being here.
All names have been changed to provide anonymity to the people who shared their stories with us this summer. If you, like them, find yourself in need of hope or help, please reach out.