This is my story, but it is also a story I believe many others share.
I was assigned to serve my mission in one of the Salt Lake City missions. Our mission had a reputation for having missionaries with health issues, presumably because Salt Lake missions are close to church headquarters and church insurance providers (but that’s just speculation).
Some of our missionaries were physically impaired; we had an elder who used a wheelchair for mobility and another elder with cerebral palsy. We had a sister with a tumor growth that left her partially disfigured. I had a companion with chronic back pains from a horrible car accident that required regular physical therapy.
These missionaries had physical, often obvious, health issues. They met regularly with doctors, experts in their fields, who knew how to diagnose and treat these physical ailments.
But for every elder or sister with a physical ailment, there were at least one or two more with unseen emotional or mental health issues. Some came to the mission with diagnosed conditions, like OCD or clinical depression. Some came with heavy emotional baggage from past trauma, in need of continued professional counsel. And some of us, like me, developed deep psychological issues during the course of our missions.
There is this myth we all believe before we serve missions– that missionaries are pretty close to perfect, always happy to serve, always making good decisions, and always kind and optimistic about the work they do. And it’s no wonder we do; the missionary tales shared from the pulpit are of devoted missionaries who went the extra mile, who were passionate about the cause, and who seemed to have an impenetrable faith.
But here’s the truth: missionaries are regular people, just like you and me. There are very few missionaries that never tire, that never have a bad day, that never question why they’re on a mission. There are few missionaries that never wish they could sleep in or wear regular clothes, or just get away from their companion for a day. There are few of us who do not daydream of our homes, our friends, of what we would be doing were we not out proselytizing.
About three-fourths of the way into my mission, I began to have a serious breakdown. I was exhausted and I just needed a break. But “real,” or significant, breaks are not built into the missionary schedule. You have a few hours one day a week where you do not have to be engaged in regular missionary activity, but that day, those hours, are not time to sleep or relax. Those hours constitute the little time you have to buy groceries, wash your car (if you have one), read and write letters and emails to friends and family, wash laundry, and do all the other little tasks that you are not permitted to do on other days of the week. As much as I wanted to just sleep on those days, I never had the time.
So, gradually, I became more and more exhausted. At one point it was so bad that I could hardly pull myself out of bed in the mornings. I felt like I was a zombie by day, only taking in half the world. I finally decided to seek some medical help; a doctor recommended I get more sleep. My mission president was suspicious of that advice; he recommended I get more exercise.
Because exercise is surely the key to curing a year’s worth of built-up exhaustion!
Shortly afterwards, I was transferred to a new location and paired with a companion who had a reputation for being very difficult. I love challenges, and I pride myself on my ability to stand my ground, while being generally kind. So I didn’t mind.
But fast forward two and a half months, and I was still paired with the same companion. Things began to go downhill– in our companionship, and for me personally.
My companion would constantly disagree with me– even when it came to little things, like which track of a CD to listen to while driving (true story). She would constantly tell me that I was horrible and rude to her. And whenever I tried to work things out, she would refuse. Everything I did or said, big or small, bothered her and threatened to set her off.
At one point, we got into a fight that continued to escalate until I was seized with an uncharacteristic anger that I had never felt before (and have never felt since that day). For a moment, my vision went white, and I grabbed her shoulders. “What are you going to do, try to push me?” She asked.
Suddenly I came to. What am I doing? I asked myself. Not only am I not a violent person, but rationally, I’d never win in a fight against her. She was much taller than me and much more muscular. She prided herself on her athletic ability, and in comparison, at 120 pounds, I was puny. I knew something was wrong, and felt like I was going crazy.
My struggle was only compounded by my mission president. By this time, he had clearly grown weary of me. I felt like he no longer had respect for me or trust in me, which was strange because I have always been the type of person people trust. My parents trusted me; my teachers in high school and professors in college respected me. I had over 2 years of college experience under my belt when I left for a mission, and at not just any college, but one of the top universities in the world. I knew what it was like to make my own decisions, live on my own, and work hard to achieve my goals. It felt so alien for me to be in a situation in which an authority figure distrusted me.
During one meeting with my mission president and this particular companion, the president told me, “you are very manipulative. You cry and whine to get people to take your side.” I still remember the sting of that comment. I was heartbroken and struggling, but my mission president saw the outward signs of my pain as evidence that I was manipulative and wanted attention. (To be clear, what he said was untrue, insensitive, and completely out of line).
One day, after my personal study, I just began to cry and cry and cry. I sat on the couch in the basement where we lived and just sobbed for hours. I could not bring myself to go outside that morning. I could hardly bring myself to do anything at all.
Finally, I decided to turn to one of the few people I really felt I could trust– the mission secretary, who also happened to be a retired psychologist. I asked her for help, and she scheduled a time for us to meet at the mission office.
I am SO grateful I was able to seek out professional help. In talking with the mission secretary/psychologist, I was able to clearly see that I was tumbling into a spiral of depression. I realized that I was living with a very hard-to-deal with person who was controlling and emotionally abusive. I also realized that many of the hurtful things my companion said to me stemmed from a place of pain and betrayal in her own life. Being able to see things rationally helped– it didn’t immediately change things, but it helped me be okay with where I was.
And when I mentioned to our psychologist that the mission president had called me “manipulative,” she immediately responded with, “that’s not true.” She let me know that what he said was wrong, and that while he was the leader of the mission, that did not give him the credentials to psychologically assess or treat missionaries.
On Mormon missions, there is a big emphasis on working hard and being spiritually in-tune all the time. It is very easy to feel bad about yourself, or as if your efforts are inadequate. During these times, I wish missionaries had a greater number of options. On my mission, the advice given for tough times was very one-size-fits-all: pray, read your scriptures, and get out and work harder! This might work if you’re having a regular little bout of homesickness, but if you’re in a traumatic situation or experiencing symptoms of what could be clinical depression, I truly believe getting out there and working hard is not going to help you feel better. Sometimes you need a day off, you need time to de-stress and really relax. Sometimes you need to meet with a credentialed psychologist with whom you can have an honest and confidential conversation.
If you broke your leg on your mission, would you go to the mission president’s home to have it treated? Probably not. (I hope not!) Would any rational human being tell you, “just keep walking on it, and the fracture will go away”? Of course not! Everyone knows walking on a broken leg will only make it worse.
Similarly, if you feel depressed and are struggling to get through the day, you should have the option to seek out professional, unbiased support. Depression is a real issue, and like a broken bone, and it is not cured by just working harder or trying to suppress your pain.
The author of this post lives and works in California. She completed her mission at the end of 2011 and currently is a counselor in the Young Women’s program of her ward.