Writing Wednesday: An Inspirational Read about Overcoming Brain Trauma
Updated: May 17
J.P. MacFarland and Her Memoir Hope Alive.
Author J.P. MacFarland and I have been talking about her memoir, Hope Alive, and I invited her to join us today to share her insights.
Matilda Butler: J.P., thanks for joining me for a conversation about your memoir, Hope Alive. I appreciate you sharing your experiences and thoughts with our readers.
J.P. MacFarland: Hi Matilda. It’s great to be here. Thanks for hosting me.
As I look back on my journey, I realize how many people have helped me along and I am eager to pass on some of what I’ve learned. Hopefully I’ll bring inspiration, encouragement and assistance to others.
Matilda Butler: J.P. your memoir, Hope Alive, is a fascinating and uplifting story of what it took to "find yourself" after two brain aneurysm hemorrhages. I wonder if you’d begin this interview with a little about your memoir.
J.P. MacFarland: Sure! Hope Alive begins with a glimpse at my “past life,” when I lived and breathed racing, and thought dirt bikes, race cars, and going fast would always be at the center of my life.
Then, the story fast forwards to a day I don’t remember – the day before and morning of my twentieth birthday, when I went deep-sea fishing for the first time with an old friend and some of her friends. My first (and probably last) foray into the world of deep-sea fishing didn’t go that well. After getting very seasick and trying to make myself throw up, I collapsed onto my friend and began having a seizure.
I lost consciousness as the boat sped back to the marina, beating the ambulance there from seven miles out in the Gulf of Mexico. The EMTs quickly called for a Life Flight helicopter, as my “posturing” limbs told them I was already in a coma, and it was bad.
When my parents got to the hospital, they were told every parent’s worst nightmare.
Their daughter had a massive brain aneurysm hemorrhage
Their daughter was in a Level 3 coma (the lowest level of consciousness).
Their daughter probably wouldn’t survive the hours-long surgery needed if she was to have any chance to live.
Their daughter, if she survived the surgery, most likely wouldn’t live through the night.
Their daughter, If she did survive the night, would probably never awaken from the coma, as they don’t often see people wake from Level 3 comas.
Their daughter, if she did wake from the coma, might not be the daughter they had known before.
Fortunately, defying people is kind of my thing. I amazed the doctors by not just surviving and coming out of the coma, but actually retaining the sick, twisted personality my family and friends knew and loved. I had survived things throughout the coma that people usually did not, causing the doctors to call it miraculous.
When a second, even more massive brain aneurysm hemorrhaged while still in the hospital -- just two short months later (on what my mom calls the worst day of her life), it once again looked very dire. Mom saw the CT scans and told me later, “There was so much black on your brain, it’s amazing you can do anything more than sit there and drool on yourself.” To be fair, some days I do just that.
When I managed to wake up after my second brain surgery (I would have 4 before it was all over), the doctors once again dubbed it miraculous that I had come out of it at all, much less my usual self. Considering at least 50% of brain aneurysm cases die within a year, you can understand why even my strong mother had her doubts that I could survive the second hemorrhage. I was determined to not just survive, but to thrive.
However, that second brain aneurysm did more damage than the first. It put my recovery on hold again, threw me back to square one, and did a real number on me psychologically. I talk about dealing with the psychological trauma of it all, in those dark moments when I was alone with my thoughts of a past life that seemed so recent, and an unknown future that seemed so far away.
I was eventually released on Halloween, 134 days after I’d gone into the hospital. From there my memoir follows the surreal, at times very disheartening, struggle I went through over 11 years of trying to get my life back, to get back to “normal,” and figure out who I was if I was no longer defined by the activities of a past life. There are many ups and downs in the book, and it gets darker as I deal with tempting suicidal thoughts, but it does come to a happy ending!
I show how God was always at work in my life, directing me to where I am now, even in the years before I got hurt.
Matilda Butler: Thanks J.P. I imagine that readers will now understand why I call this such an inspiring book. I think your struggles will help other women look at their own struggles in a new light.
As you know, many women think about writing a memoir but find it a daunting task. Would you share your experiences with your decision to write your memoir and your experiences with the actual process? If possible, include what was the most difficult part of writing the memoir and what was the most rewarding.
J.P. MacFarland: It IS a daunting task! But certainly not impossible. When I first started, not long after I got out of the hospital, I wrote the introductory paragraphs, and then I think my brain couldn’t handle anymore.
Over the next couple years, I went back to it, slowly adding on, but I got stalled at the part where my father fainted upon seeing me unconscious on the metal gurney in the O.R. prep room. I would feel so sad and guilty about the pain and anguish I (unwittingly) put my family through that I would break down sobbing, and wouldn’t be able to write anymore.
The most difficult part was the emotional toll it took. My mom said, “Oh, I bet that’s great therapy!” I’m sure it was, but I kept boxes of Kleenex on my desk because I’d inevitably get to a part that made me cry, stop, break down silently, and then start again.
Wine helped during some of the tougher parts!
Sometimes it seemed so overwhelming – it was too much information to remember and get down. I have pages of notes where I’d scribbled memories down as I remembered them, and checked them off when I found the appropriate place to use them in the manuscript.
Matilda, you asked about the most rewarding part. Looking back, this was my reward — the realization of the weight that was lifted off me when I had finally, after eleven years, written the last word. There were still edits and revisions to come, but I’d done it: I’d written my story.
I learned throughout the process that it just comes down to perseverance and tenacity. You have to keep going back to it every day. It has to be your job (as much as you can afford to let it be) for as long as you’re writing. If you work, then maybe it can be your part-time job when you’re at home. But you have to sit down and put work into it every day. Slowly, it’ll come together and begin to take shape just as coming through any major life trauma takes perseverance and tenacity.
Of course, I love those days when you’re on a roll and just can’t stop yourself. But even on the days when every word is painful, you still need to keep working.
Matilda Butler: Given what you now know about memoir writing, publishing, and marketing, what advice or tips do you have for other women who are in the early stages of this journey?
J.P. MacFarland: I do have several tips based on writing Hope Alive.
Tip #1: First of all, jot down those memories and pieces of advice you want to share whenever you think of them. However long you’ve lived, it’s a long span of time to remember all the little details. Sometimes I’d think, “Oh, I need to put that in the book!” Then I’d forget and couldn’t think of what I’d remembered for another couple weeks. Finally, I started jotting down notes that would probably look crazy to a sane person – that helped me keep track of what I needed to add or wanted to write.
Tip #2: You can never have too many edits or revisions. Typos are the most insidious little suckers known to man, and spell check doesn’t catch many things. “Food rub” instead of “foot rub?” That one passed through at least three sets of eyes before my best friend finally caught it. Fortunately, she paid for a professional editor to review it for me, and he helped me greatly in polishing it.
Tip #3: When it comes to the publishing and marketing phases, the internet is your best friend. I actually wound up finding my publisher through a website (http://authors.me), which I highly recommend. They match you with agents and publishers that are looking for your genre, and you can upload your manuscript and/or book proposal safely. I sent the whole manuscript as well as my proposal to publishers – I wanted someone to read the whole story, and not just the proposal. By that point I’d already been turned down by agents who’d only read the proposal.
Tip #4: Get thick skin if you don’t already have it. I was sick of getting told “no” by people who didn’t even know the whole story, so I went straight to the source (the publishers) with the full manuscript, and it wound up working out perfectly.
Tip #5: Be willing to go outside your comfort zone. I’m just dipping my toes in the marketing pool, but I did tons of research online about putting together a media kit. I can’t tell you how much online researching I’ve done throughout this process – each stage brings completely new things that you have to learn about.
Tip #6: My most important tip — Never give up! That goes for everything in life. Those are my inspirational words for each woman who knows she can be amazing but just isn't sure how to proceed.
Matilda Butler: Thanks J.P. for those great tips. I appreciate your willingness to share so much today. Your memoir, Hope Alive, has much to offer any person who has had major life challenges and needs to find inspiration for overcoming them.