Justine Johnston Hemmestad
In 1990 my car was broadsided by a speeding city bus as I turned out of
a parking lot – I was in a coma and had sustained a severe brain injury.
I was paralyzed when I woke up from my coma, though I worked hard to
walk again within a few months, and to relearn how to perform the basic
functions of life.
I began to write when I was carrying my first child Megan, less than two
years after my accident, as tool or a way to cope with feeling so alone
in my disability and misunderstood. Writing, throughout the darkest part
of my recovery—when everyone looked down on me and I had no one to talk
to or relate with me—helped me to get my thoughts in focus, to learn new
things, and to remember what was important to me. I felt bullied, my
thoughts and perception were skewed, and I felt emotionally alone,
isolated by my personal lacking (my speech was slurred; my reactions
were slow, etc.).
But writing was my Savior. When I was so afraid and so filled with guilt
for being disabled, writing offered me a safe and comforting place to
go, where I could cry and feel loved. Writing was my confidante and gave
me hope when the world was crushing me. Writing even helped me find out
who I was, since everything about “me” seemed to have melted away with
my TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury). Writing helped me find my words to
speak again. Writing was my purpose, and writing was my healing.
My novella, Truth be Told, is essentially the story of my
recovery wrapped up in fictional characters in a different time and
place. Everything is symbolic in my novella because symbolism itself
taught me how to travel deep inside my thoughts and search until I found
the answers. Symbolism aided my memory by the weight of its meaning.
The old man in my novella is symbolic of God, prayer, love of my
children, and the inner truth I found when I dug deep, the challenges
that stretched my mind and that I knew I had to face when I wanted to
give up on life completely.
The Lady is the aspect of my recovery in which I felt lost, even to
myself—I didn’t know who I was—but in prayer and meditation I learned to
focus my mind, calm my thoughts (which were drowning in the guilt I felt
for being disabled) and listen to God’s answer…what defines me?
The knight is the aspect of my recovery that was assaulted by PTSD. Not
only was I recovering, but I was recovering amidst a torrent of fear,
pain, and false persecution. He represents the survivor’s guilt I had
for living as brain-injured, and the part of myself that felt I deserved
the lies that people told about me simply because it was easy to lie
about me. I illuminated my purpose— the purpose that any recovering
person needs to be able to climb out of the darkness—symbolically as
Jesus. When people lied about me, writing defended me and made the truth
immortal. My purpose, as writing, was the well within me; writing saved
me and gave me direction in life (even when I no longer had any sense of
direction due to my TBI). There were people who tried to point me in the
wrong direction, but my prayer, and written prayer, was always brimming
My purpose in writing raised me out of the darkness and set me on a new
path. As my characters in Truth be Told founded one of the first
Universities in Europe, my purpose led me to enter into college, to
study tirelessly, and to set goals and reach them. For a person with a
TBI, these things stretched my mind to the breaking point. And yet my
savior, writing, was always there, so much that my purpose and my goals
became intertwined. Every class I’ve had brought me new challenges;
every professor’s pushing has helped me more than they were ever aware.
My husband and I now have seven children and I’m still writing, for both
have truly been essential to my recovery. I’ve also earned a BLS through
The University of Iowa and am now working toward a Master’s Degree in
Literature through Northern Arizona University. I’m grateful to have
written a book that I felt so strongly, all along, could be of help to
survivors, for them to recognize themselves in the characters and to
know that they’re not alone. I would have recognized myself in this
story and it would have given me hope. My mission now is to give other
Earlier this month I participated in the Facebook Love Your Spouse Challenge because I wanted to encourage others. I believe I still need to do that, so I’m sharing my posts here. May it give you hope!
Love Your Spouse Challenge, Day 3
I know there are folks out there pointing out this challenge shows the smiles and not the hard times marriage brings. That’s why I’m doing this. To be authentic and to give hope. Marriage and parenthood is the toughest thing I’ll ever be involved in.
This is February 1998. I’m pregnant with Brian and my smile is fake. I’d been so sick for the first trimester, I was still trying to find “normal.” I’d been in a car accident that nearly totaled… our new van. I/Brian walked away without a scratch, but it took an emotional toll. My hormones were a mess and I received the message that I was a failure for nearly killing our child with the accident. I now know I was depressed (hormonal imbalance has always been an issue, I just didn’t know it for a long time) and a form of PTSD from the accident. I isolated myself, hiding in our bedroom because I was so ashamed to feel this way during such a happy time. Tom didn’t know what to do, so he left me alone.
If this sounds familiar to you, learn from us. I might have to initiate the talk, but it is worth it. Be honest. Explain you don’t need him to fix you, just listen. If you need a hug, say so. If you need to snot on their shoulder, say it. I encourage you to pray together. It’s talking, not fancy talk or religious speak. That is a powerful tool in your arsenal to break isolation.
We came out stronger (after a long time, it was a process) because of this and from that accident came Brian’s name. Brian means strong, and we chose Paul as a reminder that God can use the most impossible people, and once chosen, you might have an issue/thorn that makes it hard to be used, but be available—and watch Him do mighty things through you.
And that’s why I’m doing the challenge! Thanks, Susan, for tagging me. If you want to play along, please do!
Time is running out! Don’t miss my Goodreads giveaway. Details below.