To Write Love on Her Arms

By Jamie TworkowskiMarch 3, 2016

This is the beginning of a celebration. Ten years ago, TWLOHA came into existence as a story that invited people to speak and to be heard, to seek help and to help others, and to live this life together. This month we’re looking back on the last decade, sharing some of our favorite blog posts from TWLOHA’s history along the way.

Pedro the Lion is loud in the speakers, and the city waits just outside our open windows. She sits and sings, legs crossed in the passenger seat, her pretty voice hiding in the volume. Music is a safe place and Pedro is her favorite. It hits me that she won’t see this skyline for several weeks, and we will be without her. I lean forward, knowing this will be written, and I ask what she’d say if her story had an audience. She smiles. “Tell them to look up. Tell them to remember the stars.”

I would rather write her a song, because songs don’t wait to resolve, and because songs mean so much to her. Stories wait for endings, but songs are brave things bold enough to sing when all they know is darkness. These words, like most words, will be written next to midnight, between hurricane and harbor, as both claim to save her.

Renee is 19. When I meet her, cocaine is fresh in her system. She hasn’t slept in 36 hours and she won’t for another 24. It is a familiar blur of coke, pot, pills and alcohol. She has agreed to meet us, to listen and to let us pray. We ask Renee to come with us, to leave this broken night. She says she’ll go to rehab tomorrow, but she isn’t ready now. It is too great a change. We pray and say goodbye and it is hard to leave without her.

She has known such great pain; haunted dreams as a child, the near-constant presence of evil ever since. She has felt the touch of awful naked men, battled depression and addiction, and attempted suicide. Her arms remember razor blades, fifty scars that speak of self-inflicted wounds. Six hours after I meet her, she is feeling trapped, two groups of “friends” offering opposite ideas. Everyone is asleep. The sun is rising. She drinks long from a bottle of liquor, takes a razor blade from the table and locks herself in the bathroom. She cuts herself, using the blade to write “FUCK UP” large across her left forearm.

The nurse at the treatment center finds the wound several hours later. The center has no detox, names her too great a risk, and does not accept her. For the next five days, she is ours to love. 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.

She is full of contrast, more alive and closer to death than anyone I’ve known, like a Johnny Cash song or some theatre star. She owns attitude and humor beyond her 19 years, and when she tells me her story, she is humble and quiet and kind, shaped by the pain of a hundred lifetimes. I sit privileged but breaking as she shares. Her life has been so dark yet there is some soft hope in her words, and on consecutive evenings, I watch the prettiest girls in the room tell her that she’s beautiful. I think it’s God reminding her.

I’ve never walked this road, but I decide that if we’re going to run a five-day rehab, it is going to be the coolest in the country. It is going to be rock and roll. We start with the basics; lots of fun, too much Starbucks and way too many cigarettes.

Thursday night she is in the balcony for Band Marino, Orlando’s finest. They are indie-folk-fabulous, a movement disguised as a circus. She loves them and she smiles when I point out the A&R man from Atlantic Europe, in town from London just to catch this show.

She is in good seats when the Magic beat the Sonics the next night, screaming like a lifelong fan with every Dwight Howard dunk. On the way home, we stop for more coffee and books, Blue Like Jazz and (Anne Lamott’s) Traveling Mercies.

On Saturday, the Taste of Chaos tour is in town and I’m not even sure we can get in, but doors do open and minutes after parking, we are on stage for Thrice, one of her favorite bands. She stands ten feet from the drummer, smiling constantly. It is a bright moment there in the music, as light and rain collide above the stage. It feels like healing. It is certainly hope.

Sunday night is church and many gather after the service to pray for Renee, this her last night before entering rehab. Some are strangers but all are friends tonight. The prayers move from broken to bold, all encouraging. We’re talking to God but I think as much, we’re talking to her, telling her she’s loved, saying she does not go alone. One among us knows her best. Ryan sits in the corner strumming an acoustic guitar, singing songs she’s inspired.

After church our house fills with friends, there for a few more moments before goodbye. Everyone has some gift for her, some note or hug or piece of encouragement. She pulls me aside and tells me she would like to give me something. I smile surprised, wondering what it could be. We walk through the crowded living room, to the garage and her stuff.

She hands me her last razor blade, tells me it is the one she used to cut her arm and her last lines of cocaine five nights before. She’s had it with her ever since, shares that tonight will be the hardest night and she shouldn’t have it. I hold it carefully, thank her and know instantly that this moment, this gift, will stay with me. It hits me to wonder if this great feeling is what Christ knows when we surrender our broken hearts, when we trade death for life.

As we arrive at the treatment center, she finishes: “The stars are always there but we miss them in the dirt and clouds. We miss them in the storms. Tell them to remember hope. We have hope.”

I have watched life come back to her, and it has been a privilege. When our time with her began, someone suggested shifts but that is the language of business. Love is something better. I have been challenged and changed, reminded that love is that simple answer to so many of our hardest questions. Don Miller says we’re called to hold our hands against the wounds of a broken world, to stop the bleeding. I agree so greatly.

We often ask God to show up. We pray prayers of rescue. Perhaps God would ask us to be that rescue, to be His body, to move for things that matter. He is not invisible when we come alive. I might be simple but more and more, I believe God works in love, speaks in love, is revealed in our love. I have seen that this week and honestly, it has been simple: Take a broken girl, treat her like a famous princess, give her the best seats in the house. Buy her coffee and cigarettes for the coming down, books and bathroom things for the days ahead. Tell her something true when all she’s known are lies. Tell her God loves her. Tell her about forgiveness, the possibility of freedom, tell her she was made to dance in white dresses. All these things are true.

We are only asked to love, to offer hope to the many hopeless. We don’t get to choose all the endings, but we are asked to play the rescuers. We won’t solve all mysteries and our hearts will certainly break in such a vulnerable life, but it is the best way. We were made to be lovers bold in broken places, pouring ourselves out again and again until we’re called home.

I have learned so much in one week with one brave girl. She is alive now, in the patience and safety of rehab, covered in marks of madness but choosing to believe that God makes things new, that He meant hope and healing in the stars. She would ask you to remember.

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Comments (14)

  1. T

    Wauw, thanks so much for this. The story is beautiful, so hope and powerfull. I think God can speak through people and this is an example of it. Thanks for the words, thanks for the hope.

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  2. Dee Humbles

    Watched the movie yesterday for the first time. Read this post today because watching the extras on the movie was too much in one day. I’m 45 and was first diagnosed with depression at age 13. My bipolar diagnosis came at age 29. I have had PTSD symptoms since at least 1984 but that diagnosis was just 3 years ago. I thank you all for your courage in telling your stories and for this movement. Realizing love is the answer but not the cure is heart breaking but hope making. Being extra broken in a broken world is hard but it is extraordinarily worth it when we can stand together to help ourselves and others. I’m involved with NAMI Indiana and have a tremendous husband and support system…life is still storms and sunshine, pain and joy, heartbreak yet always hope. Thanks again. ;

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  3. Brittney

    Always just as inspiring. I read it like it’s the first time, every time. <3 I often forget hope. I forget I am worthy of love, but this story, this song, reminds me to look at the stars. To live because I should. I have been weak. I have abused myself with words and with actions, but it needs to come to an end. I'm happy to say I have friends who created my rehab. Who stayed up nights on end with me on the couch because the nightmares and haunting thoughts clouded my judgement. I'm still hurting, it feels like the pain won't ever leave. I'm just not afraid of hurting anymore. I'm learning, I am alive to feel.

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  4. Wendy Clancy

    Hi Jamie, hello TWLOHA friends. Isn’t it amazing that different souls came together to help resurrect the soul of another(in the light of the Lord)? Happy Anniversary TWLOHA!!!

    Today, on this day, a friend of my 22 year old son committed suicide. My son battles depression and drug addiction. I feel as though the world has lost another love. I so want to help get people talking so they feel that they are not alone and that their lives are important! Why am I afraid to start a fundraiser on my own?
    I am way too serious and type A-not a creative bone in my body. An excuse? …perhaps.
    I will take suggestions. Thanks!!!

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  5. Sarabeth Danford

    I read this today to my patients at the acute psychiatric hospital I work at and it really touched them to hear Renee’s story and to know she has come so far. They like to hear the blogs and to hear that there really is hope out there. Its one thing for them to hear staff saying there is hole but to hear it from someone who has lived it… Thank you. Not only for giving me hope but for helping in giving hope to others.

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  6. Willow

    as one who struggles & fights with all of these things; this story is still truly inspiring to me no matter how many times I read it. Thank you Jamie, Renee, & the rest of the TWLOHA team for giving the hopeless a hope in Christ. Thank you for fighting for us, and for giving us a voice.

    Reply  |  
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  10. Charla

    Stay with this guys, you’re helinpg a lot of people.

    Reply  |  
  11. curse70

    The journey of Renee is a familiar one to me , and will be familiar to many other people out there , with a few different twists and turns along the path of addiction , but at the end it splits in two , one short path which stops suddenly and finally with no second chances , the end may come in different ways suicide, overdose , illness , murder , most of you if not all of you will have felt the impact of death through untimely loss of relatives , friends , loved ones , boyfriend , girlfriend , husband , wife . Addiction has no favourites , has no gender , has no religion , has no age restrictions , all monies are welcome whether rich or poor. But all you patrons of this disease, beware death is on the other side knocking at your door .
    The other path can be a long journey, full of ups and downs testing your inner strength along the way . You don’t have to fight these battles alone , at times it feels like your trying to fend off wave after wave of your illness and disease , till your on your knees begging for peace of mind and freedom of your soul , sometimes the only solution to stop the chaotic demons racing around your head can be final.
    But you don’t have to walk this path alone , seek help through groups , through services , through talking , through praying , through medical services. Keep going , you might not feel comfortable with people at first but don’t give up , try a different organisation , talk to someone else , go on line and be anonymous , True people are compassionate caring and believe in helping people with no judgment or prejudice and accepting you for who you are and what you’ve done , then being there supporting quietly in your shadow , always there to catch you when you stumble and fall over lifes barriers , to guide you , to help you choose the right solutions to issues that crop up along the way, to encourage , praise , applauding your every movement down the path you chosen for a better existence , an existence called life .
    The first piece of help I got was from a guy called Appy Allan , i was introduced to this ageing hippie about 10 years ago ,, he didn’t ask questions he just gave me support , took me to my first meeting , and told me he’d be there for me any time day or night, It didn’t stop me using there and then but it planted a seed in my head . So after 27 years of hopping from one substance to the next , climbing up narcotic ladder , in the end I was taking.anything I could get to stop the cravings , but mainly to make my head numb , to stop the memories from child to man , of the awful things said and done , the memories of life long pals that have passed away to leave me standing alone , the way I treated my girlfriend and children , stealing money set aside for food and bills to feed my addiction ,and still to this day she’s still here by my side , its not quite like when we first met , but to be here after all the chaos and destruction and heartbreak as addicts we leave in our trail , I still can’t make any sense of why she hung around waiting for the day I finally pulled myself up from rock bottom and gained enough courage to make changes. That seed had now sprouted and grown it will be 6 years old in November this year and i still see Appy Allan and i respect his guidance and support and hold him dear to my heart.
    So please don’t give in help is out there , sometimes in the strangest places.

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  12. Nancy Beichler

    This story is me, both professional and patient. Thank You for writing it, its like there’s someone else that understands.
    “covered in marks of madness but choosing to believe that God makes things new, that He meant hope and healing in the stars.”
    “These words, like most words, will be written next to midnight, between hurricane and harbor, as both claim to save her.” Thank You, Thank You, Thank You.

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  13. Kate

    I know this cycles around women, but we should have To Write Love On His Arms. The suicide rate for men is higher than hat for women.

    Reply  |  
    1. TWLOHA

      Hi Kate,

      The TWLOHA name does indeed include the pronoun of “her.” This is a direct correlation to the original story where the founder of the organization was helping his friend Renee enter treatment for self-injury and addiction:

      The TWLOHA name, however, does not lend itself to the thought or belief or idea that mental health affects only those of a certain gender identity – or any identity for that matter.

      Reply  |  
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