Every time a new group of interns joins the TWLOHA team, each staff member is asked to offer an “introduction” about themselves, the details of their role, and how they came to work for the organization. Because these staff introductions tend to run together term after term, Lauren, TWLOHA’s Intern Program Director, will also have a handful of off-the-cuff questions to switch things up. During my meeting with the members of the spring 2014 term, I smoothly went through my usual bullet points: my academic and professional background, why I believe words are important and powerful, what a day in the life of TWLOHA’s Editor looks like. Then, Lauren asked me to share one thing I had “been surprised by” since joining the TWLOHA team. I paused for a moment.
Though my time with TWLOHA took on trends and cycles, as any full-time position inevitably does, it also brought with it a fair amount of the unexpected. I was surprised by how welcoming TWLOHA’s leadership was, from day one. I was surprised at the vision and productivity of a small team in a slow beach town, by their ability to reach people around the world. I was surprised whenever I saw TWLOHA shirts on strangers at airports, in amusement parks, or at my local gym. I was surprised when the girl at the festival booth told me things she’d never uttered to anyone else before. I was surprised the first time a friend sought me out for advice and resources, and I was surprised when I had the right words to say.
But, ultimately, the thing that surprised me most was realizing that people can find true and sincere community online.
Of course, TWLOHA began online, with people rallying around a story Jamie posted on Myspace. And in this age of social media, certainly we’re all aware of the connectivity that exists at our fingertips—I mean, I met my husband on Twitter, so I know much can bloom from online interactions. But, most of the time, I can feel very drained and disappointed by what I see on my computer or phone screen. So often, the internet seems to be a source of criticism rather than encouragement, of self-promotion rather than selflessness, of pettiness rather than substance. What’s the value in bringing people together, I sometimes wonder, if they insist on drawing lines?
But, then I came to TWLOHA, and I was surprised—surprised to be an active participant in a safe, hopeful, unifying online space. Through the stories I helped craft for TWLOHA’s platform, through the comments at the bottom of a page, through heartfelt replies traded in email inboxes, I encountered a different sort of network. I worked with writers who wanted to courageously speak up about issues like abuse, suicide, self-harm, or recovery. I read accounts from individuals who said they were “saved” by a blog, from readers who’d printed a post and put it on a wall as a reminder to keep going. I responded to messages from those in low, dark places, seeking hope of any kind, as well as messages from those now standing strong and reaching back, reaching out to those still stumbling. I saw fundraising pages and hashtags and quotes take on lives of their own, passing quickly within and beyond the world of TWLOHA supporters. Stigma was challenged, information was gained, differences were dismissed, common ground was discovered. When I opened my browser, I found life. And, as I told Lauren and the interns that day in the boardroom, it was surprising, in the best way possible.
I won’t be asked to introduce myself to another group of interns; I’ve taken a new editing position, in a new state, and my desk sits empty for the moment in its sunny corner of the TWLOHA office. But as much as I’m excited about the opportunities ahead, I also recognize I’m motivated by the support of those I’m leaving behind. Being TWLOHA’s Editor these past couple years has meant much more to me than a line on a resume. It wasn’t just about gaining experience or skills, and it was something greater than the daily tasks that consumed my time. Altogether, it’s been healing. I can honestly say, I am better than I was two years ago; I am more whole. And I know, at least in part, that is a credit to the online community I’ve been privileged to enter into. It’s a reflection on the supporters and the readers and the virtual passersby who are quick to say, “Yes, me too.”
Thank you—for celebrating these words, for embracing the storytellers, for championing hope, for making this job so very rewarding. I am forever grateful.
(I should note here, TWLOHA also encourages people to find and build a tangible community in their day-to-day, in-person, face-to-face life. Often, the end goal of any online encounter TWLOHA has is to point people offline—to talk to a counselor, to apologize to a friend, to speak up for a loved one, to invest in a student, to greet a stranger. It is vital and empowering to live mindfully in your home, your school, your workplace, your neighborhood. But your online life can be a part of that too. Perhaps it’s a catalyst for confession, a medium for keeping in touch, or an outlet at the end of the day. How you find that balance is up to you, but remember it’s important to do so.)