Justine “JJ” Johnson Hemmestad – Survivor

Listen to JJ’s story here, or read below:

Helping Others To Help Myself

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By Justine Johnston Hemmestad

I’m 45 years old now, and my husband and I have seven children (with our first grandchild on the way).

Twenty-six years ago I was 19 years old and only married 3 months when I was in a car vs. bus accident in San Diego, California.  I  sustained a severe brain injury, and was in a coma – but when I came out of my coma and my husband took me home from the hospital, the true challenge began.

The doctors never thought I would walk again but I couldn’t imagine then how hard my recovery would be and how long it would take. I couldn’t remember one moment from the next and was called a liar by nearly everyone I came into contact with, but especially family, and I was discredited by everyone I came into contact with. Everything I did, I was also made to be a scapegoat and emotionally bullied. Since my memory and verbal communication was so bad I’ve had people blame things on me because I was an easy target.

About a year after my accident we moved to Central Iowa.  My husband had family in the Midwest and the cost of living was too high in San Diego, especially after all the hospital and medical bills after my accident.

I believe so little was known about brain injury and brain injury recovery at the time that people thought the fact that I was tired all the time (as an example) was a personal failing and I that was lazy, or that being afraid of everyone was rudeness rather than severe PTSD or bad eyesight or not being able to remember what people look like. Brain injury wasn’t thought to take years and years to recover from then. I slurred my words and searched for my words, which also discredited me especially by family and the medical community. I think those people around me thought I was trying to make things up when I couldn’t remember what I said or what someone else had said. which locked me in an unending trap of despair that made me see myself as unworthy. 

I don’t have any anger for the way I was treated because now I can help other care-givers or family members of brain injured people be more aware of the affect of how they treat the injured person has on them. 

In order to escape my prison I learned that I needed to share my recovery with other people to give them hope, without the fear of what building someone else up at my expense might do to me. When I was so afraid and so filled with guilt for being disabled, writing was my confidant and gave me hope. I knew through prayer that I needed to help others in order to be helped myself though, so I began to coordinate church projects and then I entered into college through distanced learning. The more challenge I faced in my classes and the more I wrote, the stronger my mind became.

During the hardest point of my recovery I coped by writing, which is what my novella Truth be Told arose from. TruthBut as I wrote about my worst experiences in the form of fiction, I also wrote about my inner belief in God and how that belief not only helped me to recover but helped me to understand why the people around me treated me like they did. I clung to my purpose, which was writing and being a mother, and I never turned away from it. 

Even when my novella, Truth be Told, was repeatedly rejected, I continued to submit it to places because I knew in my heart that it could help someone. I believed that I lived to help someone. Not only did I feel that my book could help other brain injury survivors, but I always felt that it could help anyone who had gone through trauma and needed hope. I wanted to show them a different future, a future they would continually work toward, a future inclusive of everyone, where they could see the divinity that their very lives called forth, a divinity that gave them purpose. With their purpose spotlighted, their life’s quest would introduce to them to the true joy of life.

I had a purpose and I knew where I needed to be (like a baseball player who looks at where they want the ball to go when they throw it instead of at the ball itself). 

I found my own purpose in being a mother and in writing, and within those things I worked for my truth to be made known. I felt that if other people who were minimalized sought out their true purposes as well, they would have the keys to freedom from persecution and disregard, whether recovering from a brain injury or from the treatment of the world around them that had led to a feeling of unworthiness and purposelessness.

To know that everyone has a god-given purpose is the hope that can change lives.
The characters in Truth be Told are symbolic for the different stages of my recovery, but they could easily represent anyone in need: The Lady is the part of myself that was lost and terrified, the knight is the part of myself that struggled with PTSD and survivor’s guilt, the old man is my prayer/faith/and love that continually challenged me, and Jesus symbolizes my purpose.


I’m also working toward my Master’s Degree in Literature through Northern Arizona University (world campus) and I’ve earned a BLS from The University of Iowa – college was a steady track toward recovery for me. Studying has drastically improved my memory in some ways; though things like not being able to recognize people or even see them (especially in a crowd), and not being able to navigate to a certain destination, haven’t gotten better.

My novella can be found at TRUTH BE TOLD – Novella

My publisher and I are donating a portion of the profits of my newest e-book called “Macbeth’s Spinners” to an organization called Laughing at my Nightmare, which advocates for the disabled community in regard to needed medical equipment to make life more adaptable and accessible. Please help support me in this cause. I hope to raise funds for them.

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