Guest Post by Justine Johnston Hemmestad
I was nineteen years old and had been married for three months by November of 1990, and I liked my job at a department store in the mall. One twilight as I drove home from work though, a city bus crashed into my car and nearly killed me. I was left paralyzed and void of hope, and everyone was ready to give up on me. But when I came home from the hospital three weeks later, the true challenges began. I didn’t stop trying until I walked, and I never stopped reading, writing, and thinking – I even entered into college fifteen years after my accident. Now, I’m writing about what helped me the most, with the hope that others going through a similar struggle – with TBI, PTSD, or Survivor’s Guilt – can find understanding in my story and heal through writing.
The three most important ways that writing helped me to achieve healing and mental wellness:
1. Neuroplasticity – the ability of the brain to reorganize itself by mirroring cognitive ability from one hemisphere to the other. With writing as my anchor, even in the earliest stages of my recovery, my brain rewired itself to create new neural pathways. Other people also testify to the same healing power in finding what you love and doing it. Even through my worst struggles with PTSD, I wrote, then I took Iowa Writers Workshop courses through my BLS degree coursework at The University of Iowa and I learned about writing as I continued to write. Doing what I loved, even before I knew how to do it well, helped me learn and grow in my recovery.
2. The healing power of writing. In college I learned about the Nun Study, done by David Snowdon, in which he studied the life essays that a group of nuns had written when they were in their early 20s. He saw that if an essay lacked well-formed prose, it was an indicator of the writer’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s later in life. This was important to me because I was told by one psychologist that I had dementia as a result of my brain injury, so I knew I had to battle against it and I knew it would be a life-long battle. In Snowdon’s study, he found that 80% of the nuns whose writing was lacking in depth went on to develop Alzheimer’s disease in old age; of those whose writing was not lacking, only 10% later developed it. Similarly, writing through struggle sharpens the mind. In my novella, Truth be Told, the character of Sir Lawrence writes his way through an intense struggle, just like I did.
3. A God-given purpose. As the main characters in Truth be Told began one of the first Universities in Europe, my purpose led me to enter into college, to study hard, and to keep writing. The love of the main characters represents the need to accept all aspects of the self – the analytical with the artistic self, which in my case meant both writing and leaning about writing. I was on a quest for my purpose and my recovery – I was in search of a reason WHY I was alive, for what my purpose was. In my story the forest king tells the knight: “you came back on your own free will,” symbolic of my understanding that I made the choice to live through my accident.
I write because writing is my purpose, but even higher than that is my awareness of the importance of writing to help other people. I want to show recovering people, or people in need of hope, a future they can continually work toward, an inclusive future, where they can see the purpose for their lives through doing what they love. Doing so sustained my heart and led me forward even when I could have given up hope. To know that everyone has a God-given purpose is the hope that can change lives. In the end, I asked myself a single question: What is my purpose, and how can that purpose help other people?