Episode #226 - Returning From a Mission Early - Navigating Emotional And Mental Health

April 28, 2024 Damon Socha Season 1 Episode 226
Episode #226 - Returning From a Mission Early - Navigating Emotional And Mental Health
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Episode #226 - Returning From a Mission Early - Navigating Emotional And Mental Health
Apr 28, 2024 Season 1 Episode 226
Damon Socha

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Returning home from a full-time LDS mission early is one of the more difficult trials one will face.  Not only must you navigate a new life but you must do so with disappointed friends, family and peers all while battling a terribly controlling illness that highjacks your emotional and spiritual welfare.

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Returning home from a full-time LDS mission early is one of the more difficult trials one will face.  Not only must you navigate a new life but you must do so with disappointed friends, family and peers all while battling a terribly controlling illness that highjacks your emotional and spiritual welfare.

Episode #226 – Returning from Missionary Service Early – Navigating Mental & Emotional Health.  Today, my podcast will be different.  I am not going to speak about the doctrines, scriptures or general authority talks about mental and emotional health.  I am not going to reference Elder Bednar’s talk on this subject.  I am going to address the reality that exists in the everyday lives of those who return early from their mission due to mental and emotional health concerns.  Recently, I had another disappointing experience regarding a young man who was returning home due to emotional concerns.  I say disappointing because the words that were spoken and the tone that was taken regarding his return home was to say the least, the most un-Christlike discussion I have heard.  This type of discussion is not new to me as I have traveled through the murky waters of mental and emotional health.  What is most disappointing to me is the lack of empathy, compassion and concern that was shown to this young man by his own family, friends and those around him.  It is one thing to suffer significant emotional distress during a mission and to find yourself in the early return decision process, which by the way is gut-wrenchingly difficult.  And it is another to come home to coldness, disappointed friends, family, leaders and others who only see weakness and a lack of fortitude rather than the illness.

It is simply time for the stigma to be removed.  We have had general authorities and even an apostle speak on the subject reminding others that mental and emotional illness is no different than a physical illness.  By the way the apostle was Elder Holland, one of the most determined members of the quorum of the twelve.  We have a habit of casting these Elders and Sisters to the early return leper colony, branding them with the early returned hot iron and then leaving them to basically fight church culture, society and their illness simultaneously.  It is no wonder that the majority of them do not remain within the church.

The young man in question is not someone you would know.  But he is an example of what individuals face when emotional and mental illness ravage the mind and body.  The parents are extremely disappointed in him.  His girlfriend is supportive but is also being told that she should not continue her relationship with this young man.  His ward and stake leadership is good but not really experienced with mental and emotional illness.  A host of additional things have been said, much of which I will not relate here.  Anyone who has experienced a missionary returning home understands.  What I noticed most about the conversations about this young man is not how can we help, how can we support him, how do we better understand what is happening to him.  It feels more like a punishment for not remaining on his mission.  I am not sure why we as members of the church are so judgmental but we have a propensity to judge first and give mercy when we decide it is appropriate.  If there is one thing my illness has taught me is that compassion should always come first and judgment should be left to the Lord.  

I understand parents who want their children to serve the entire timeframe.  I understand the feelings when they do not.  I have had two such children return home.  We as parents tend to get wrapped up in the idea that our children represent us and a return home reflects poorly on our parenting methods.  We look to our church peers and try to save face and so we push them to stay out not because we necessarily think it will be good for our child to stay, but because of embarrassment.  I have found that when we parent from the perspective of embarrassment or peer pressure, we tend to be very poor parents.  Can you imagine our Father in Heaven forcing us to suffer to save face with all the other Gods?  What a terrible thought.  Parents should be the most compassionate, understanding, and fiercest defenders of their children.  Interestingly enough if a child returns home due to a physical illness, parents, leaders and peers do tend to rally around them.  Yes some negative ideas always remain but for the most part physical illness is an acceptable and explainable cause.  And somehow mental and emotional illness is not.  It is a strange paradox and yet it occurs daily throughout the church.  Many missionaries suffer deep wounds because of fear.  They stay in the mission dreading every day, every encounter, every moment and because I have been there myself, I am not sure that there is great value in this type of suffering.  I will explain my experience a little later on.

The question is why.  Why do we treat mental and emotional illness in such terrible ways.  It is really about history.  While I am not going to talk about the entire history of mental and emotional illness, let’s just say that sanitoriums and lunacy bins and crazy houses is not that far removed from us.  Nor is the idea of demonic possession or supernatural explanations.  Add to the history of locking people in small rooms, the pioneering self-reliance spirit of our pioneer ancestors and you have a perfect storm of history that causes church culture to prize emotional control and spirit over mind.  We have a culture within the church that simply states mental and emotional weakness is sin.  Mental and emotional illness in the church is not considered sin in the same sense of something like stealing or adultery but it gets its own classification due to our complete insistence on the idea that the spirit can have complete control over the body’s emotions and desires.  We get this from our teachings that our thoughts lead to actions and so we must control our thoughts.  And yes it is true that we can control our thoughts to a certain extent, however, it is important to understand that our emotions do not all rise out of our spirits or random firings of the mind.  Everything we do is linked to our emotions and those emotions have biological and spiritual origins.  Focusing solely on the spiritual origins leaves no room for the biological nature of our body.  And biology is an important component to our emotional state.  Our bodies under certain conditions most definitely have the capacity to alter the mind.  The spirit does not have the capacity to overcome a mental or emotional illness causing imbalances in the mind.  That is not the way the body works.  We intuitively understand this idea because when we get a severe flu, we recognize the decline in our cognitive abilities, we get foggy brained.  The same principle applies with mental and emotional illness.

We also have a tendency due to our history in the church to interpret scriptures in a particular way that at times can be detrimental to our ability to demonstrate love, compassion and understanding.  For instance, the scripture “Wickedness never was happiness.” found in Alma in the Book of Mormon is often taken out of context and interpreted to mean that if you are unhappy then you must be under the condition of sin.  When you interpret the scripture in this sense then emotional and mental illness appears sinful.  If you are unhappy then you need to do more, read more, attend the temple more, be more engaged and throw off your sinful lazy nature.  While that can be true outside of mental and emotional illness, this line of thinking can cause serious, problematic, life-long trauma that leads to removing oneself from church membership and service.  It is not sinful to be unhappy.  Depression, anxiety, bipolar and the emotions that come with those illnesses are not in any way caused by sinful behavior.  They are an illness of chemistry and the physical mind and body.

The problem is that many times these illness are treated by church members as a sinful weakness rather than an illness.  And this is often true for the majority of the church.  And more especially the older portion of the church that tend to comprise the lay leadership.  Now I am not speaking of the apostles or even the seventies but of the church leadership that tends to deal more directly with the individuals who are suffering.  Their lack of understanding and awareness causes far more pain and suffering than should be experienced.  I have seen and felt this on many occasions. Now I understand that the leadership is fallible and mortal but many who suffer do not see it this way and regularly suffer further emotional harm by the idea that emotional and or mental weakness is sinful by nature.

Now the history of the church has a culture of squaring shoulders and enduring the pain and suffering without complaint.  I don’t entire disagree with this idea of endurance, except in the case of mental and emotional illness.  Simply enduring mental and emotional illness will not solve the issue and is likely to make matters worse.  The idea of “suck it up buttercup” that consistently persists within the church and society is damaging to individuals who suffer.  Not only do they suffer the illness but must suffer the pains of rejection by peers, parents and leaders in real and subtle ways.  Endurance for someone with mental and emotional illness does not look like the endurance one suffers under physical trials.  When we attempt to endure mental and emotional illness by simply squaring shoulders and repressing our emotions, we exacerbate the problem and often find the illness worsening. When this happens almost every person removes themselves from the social pressure of membership.  Most individuals who suffer with mental illness already have a depressed spirit and a deep sense of worthlessness and unworthiness.  When a leader, parent, friend or peer reinforces these feelings it often leaves deep wounds that take significant time to rectify.

For those who suffer, I feel your pains everyday.  I know of your disappointment, heartfelt desires to serve and your love for the Savior.  One of my daughters wanted to serve a mission from an early age.  She had always planned on going and was excited to serve.  She even had been called to mission that was close to one of our favorite spots, Nauvoo Illinois.  She prepared well and left our home without any issue.  And yet about 6 weeks into her mission, she experienced serious issues with her mental health.  She had great desires to serve and yet the Lord allowed for her to experience a mental health crisis.  Ultimately she had to return home.  This was not about home sickness or a lack of desire to serve.  This was about a real illness that affected her emotional ability to function.  She still suffers today from the experience and the illness.  Naturally we have been supportive and understanding with her.  Even with support, the truly gut-wrenching decision to come home and forgo everything she had desired to do was devastating.  It takes most individuals many years to come to an understanding of returning home early.  And some it takes decades.  And unfortunately most return missionaries do not have the support that my daughter did.  Without support and understanding, the road to recovery is very long and daunting.

I suffered from serious bipolar difficulties when I served my mission.  Now, I did not come home due to intense fear of rejection from my family and friends.  Mental illness was not at all understood when I served and to return home was more devastating than to stay at least from the perspective of support. I don’t have many memories of my mission and the ones I do are not spiritually uplifting.  Yes I served but the struggle and emotional turmoil cause me serious issues for another decade and at times I still have nightmares about it.  Yes nightmares about my mission.  I consistently have dreams about serving again to make up for my emotional difficulties.  I struggle with missionary work and the idea of serving.  What is often a defining spiritual moment for many individuals for me somewhat of a tortuous two years.  I admit that my mental illness was a consistent problem from many perspectives including energy, desire, feeling the spirit, feeling comfortable and at peace.  I am not sure that I have entirely made peace with it.  Have I felt that the Lord accepted my service.  Yes, he was pleased that I was able to do as much as I did.  But that hasn’t erased the emotional damage. I am now about 30 years removed from my mission and I still from time to time have nightmares and difficulties, especially when the depression returns.  I feel healed now but I still have scars that remind me of those difficult days.

Should I have gotten treatment.  Probably, but that was a cultural problem as well.  Even treatment was problematic and sparse.  I did eventually find some treatment and help after my mission, but it would be many years before I could really talk about missionary service.  For those who have returned or are returning, the road is difficult and daunting.  You are going to feel unworthy, unloved, chastised, isolated, depressed, anxious and a host of other negative feelings.  This will be true even with good support.  Your mental and emotional illness will not help these feelings to heal but will likely inflate them to difficult levels.  Your whole world is going to feel as though it has been destroyed and scattered to the wind.  You won’t know where to start or how to begin.  You may even have difficult emotions regarding the church and your mission.  You may recoil at the site of missionaries.  You may find entering a church building difficult and yes even the temple.

When you pass through emotional trauma and the levels of pain associated with that trauma, your body will recoil at anything remotely associated with the trauma.  So distancing feelings towards the church, your mission, your companions, your friends, family and leaders are likely to occur and they are not sin.  Those feelings are a normal part of the brain function.  The brain does not like pain and will avoid it at all costs.  When something like the church becomes associated with serious emotional pain, it can take some time for the brain to feel comfortable again with any part of the church.  It is OK to feel this way.  I have struggled with it regularly and still do at times.  Over time those feelings diminish and eventually subside although a portion may remain for a long time.  Again that is OK as well.  Healing even with the Lord’s divine help takes time.

Because you feel emotional pain as part of association, you are likely to feel some pain as you continue to attend church, the temple and other social events.  The pain is OK to feel.  It is not a sin to feel it.  And because you feel it and your mind is preemptive in avoiding the pain, it will attempt to dissuade you from anything to do with church.  However, the church and its doctrine are not the problem.  The Savior has always stated that love, compassion, understanding and long-suffering should be a part of the culture of the church.  Doctrine & Covenants 121 gives a good understanding of these Christ-like principles. The doctrine persuades all men to support, love and lift up the hands that hang down.  The problem is imperfect people.  People who are living the gospel but not applying its precepts in an appropriate manner.  Your anxiety is actually caused by these individuals.  If you had a fully supportive loving ward, attending church would not be as much of an issue.  Those pains would quickly be replaced by the love and support that you feel.  However, the reality of the gospel culture does not always reflect the doctrine and so it can be difficult to continue to attend church meetings and functions and work through the mental and emotional health issue.

So today hear is your lifeline and help.  When you return home early, what do you need to expect and do. 

The first thing you should expect is some disappointment on the part of parents and leaders.  Some will hide it better than others.  But it will be present.  This disappointment and lack of understanding will cause some people to avoid you, speak to you differently, ask strange questions and sometimes ignore that you even served.  You will get all kinds of crazy responses to your arriving home early.  I realize that this type of response is not going to help your return or make it any easier.  But to expect it is far better than to be surprised.  Understand that even leadership is fallible and they may also be strangely awkward and distant.  What is important is not to let these people cause you greater issues.

You are going to feel relieved, depressed and anxious at the same time.  The relief comes from the removal of the pressure upon your illness, the depression and anxiety is part of your illness.  It is going to make you feel unworthy, unloved and lost.  You are going to have trouble engaging in life and in the church.  You are going to feel as though you want to distance anyone who might be disappointed in your return.  You might even feel ashamed.  These are normal feelings but you shouldn’t feed them nor should you repress them as though they don’t exist.  It is OK to feel this way.  It will take time to adjust to your new reality, until then do your best to keep yourself busy in some way.

Some individuals will serve a service mission and that is wonderful.  If you don’t feel that it is right for you, don’t jump into a service mission just to satisfy another person.  Be mindful that it is going to take time to heal and to recover.  A service mission may provide this but it may also cause reoccurring issues with your mental health.  Obviously you are going to need to work on your mental health and that is likely going to involve good counselors and medical professionals.  Don’t jump into something that might cause problematic symptoms to reoccur and that even means schooling.  Sometimes, many times, we attempt to jump right back into our previous life but that can cause a cascading failure with your mental health.  Take some time to get your mental health back into a manageable state.  Work on those things that trigger your illness and find and plan ways to cope with the symptoms.  Doing this will save you a great deal of trouble down the road.

The one thing that has helped me more than anything else is honest prayer.  Respectfully speaking to our Father in Heaven but honestly about what is happening, what you are feeling and experiencing and ask for guidance and revelation.  The second thing that is often important is to keep working with the gospel, attending church, attending the temple, reading scriptures.  When you do this, you are likely to find some anxiety and feelings of doubt.  Your mind will likely associate everything in the gospel with your illness.  So do what you can when you can.  Keep taking small steps towards returning completely to activity.  This will allow for portions of the gospel to be slowly reintroduced to your mind and emotions and the spirit will begin the healing process.  You will begin to associate good feelings with the gospel again.  In order for you to feel the spirit and to be comfortable again at church you will need to have some positive experiences.  As those positive experiences begin to replace the pain and hurt, you will see new light in the gospel and in the Savior.

You are also going to need a friend, mentor and advocate to help.  It is rare to work through mental and emotional illness alone.  This will be difficult at times as many individuals do not know anyone who suffers with mental health issues and can be supportive.  And many support groups are not as helpful as you might think.  Research your illness.  There are many good websites and good information about mental health.  Just be cautious because there exists a great deal of bad with the good.  A counselor can be an option for your support but it is far better to have someone who is far more connected.  A family member or a friend that can be close to you regularly and when things get tough.  They will get tough at times and you should be ready for several episodes right after you return.  This doesn’t mean that you won’t heal or won’t have good moments.  It just means mental and emotional illness takes time to heal and episodes will occur during that early return process.

I admit that it took me far longer than it should have to come to the understanding of just how important developing a relationship with the Savior was.  While the support or lack thereof of your peers will factor into your management of the illness, the Savior will always be there.  This doesn’t mean that he is going to erase your pains or the association to the church and its people.  But he does strengthen and ease the pains so that they are more bearable.  Are you going to have days when you just can’t do church?  Yes.  But what I have found is that the Lord asks you to do what you can.  If you can give an honest prayer about how you feel and state you want to do what you can.  I have found the Lord generous in his ability to provide solutions, peace and understanding.  You might not be able to listen to “I’ll Go where you Want Me to Go.”  But you might be able to listen to other uplifting music.  You might not be able to attend all of church but perhaps you can partake of the sacrament.  What the Lord asks is that you strive to do what you can.  Extending yourself to the point of emotional exhaustion and a deepening emotional crisis is not helpful.  Doing more, being more, engaging more may not be the best solution to the problem.  But not engaging will be far more detrimental.  Engage in the gospel and attempt to work through the problems with the Lord.  Find those positive experiences.

There are some things and ideas that are important as you work through the process that I had difficulty understanding.  First, the Lord loves you and accepts your service as though you had completed a full mission.  You are not less because an illness sent you home.  You are not weaker than others.  You are not less worthy than a missionary who served the entire 18 months or two years.  He will let you know this as you ask and listen.  He fully understands what happened and he gave his approval of your service when he inspired a mission leader to send you home to heal.  Sometimes we can think that our mission leaders are just giving in to pressure.  I assure you that they care deeply and that your call home is inspired.

Two, do not look back.  Our mind naturally does this as part of its predictive nature but avoid the temptation to look back to see what could have been.  Do not let your past become your future by reliving it everyday.  This will be an ongoing process throughout your life.  The Lord will not chastise you with your past.  Only Lucifer does this.  The Lord wants you to grow and develop and find peace.  Nothing in your past is going to bring that peace, especially when you suffer with mental and emotional illness.  I admit that this leaving the past in the past is very difficult and takes time to learn.  Your illness is going to bring it forward time and time again.  All I can say is to have the Lord help you.

Three, you are going to have difficult moments.  It is a reflection of the illness not you.  You are not your illness.  You have to separate the illness from who you are and that is also difficult.  Because we are emotional beings separating our illness emotions from our real emotions can be very difficult.  However, recognizing when your emotions come from your illness can be extremely helpful to your daily management.  It provides the brain a solution for the darkness, pain and issues it is experiencing.  When you have difficult emotions, don’t be afraid to say so.  Although I admit that in our society having a mental health day is rarely smiled upon.  I often have to use the excuse that I am physically ill.  It is just fine if you need to explain your bad day with the stomach flu.  I work in the construction industry and if I said I needed a mental health day, I doubt that anyone would consider that important.  Expect that you will have bad days and perhaps several in a row.  Bad days are not some kind of setback to your management.  It is just part of the illness.  The illness tends to be a rollercoaster rather than straight line management.  Some days you are just going to be frustrated because you don’t know what more to do.  And the truth is that there is nothing you can do but petition the Lord and accept what he provides.

Keep going.  The Lord has said do not run faster than you have strength but he didn’t say you can just sit down and wait it out.  The Lord still wants you to run but to do so at your pace.  You will be inclined to be highly engaged in the work at times to make up for lost time.  Don’t try to make up for lost time.  You will only exhaust yourself in the process and then you will be forced by your body to rest.  It is far better to continue to progress in small ways that to engage and disengage in the gospel.  I like the saying you didn’t come this far to only come this far.  Don’t give up what you have.  Just be balanced in the way you go about it.  And just so you know that balance is a difficult thing to accomplish because mental and emotional illness can vary by day and you may need to adjust your balance daily.

Most of all, can I just say how much the Savior cares for you.  I have so often wanted to quit producing this podcast but the Lord simply won’t allow it.  He cares for those who suffer so deeply.  So many times I wish that I could express in words this love but our language is insufficient.  His power to heal us is endless but that also requires that we do our part.  Now I have suffered with depression and anxiety most of my life.  That is just what the Lord has given me as part of my celestial trials.  But I have seen glimpses of celestial life and the Lord’s love for you and for me.  He has let me experience it at times and I have such a deep compassion for the problems you face.  If you ever need someone to talk and listen, I am always here by email or by phone.  However, the Lord is also always near you.  The one thing I have noticed about his earthly ministry was that he wasn’t in rich homes being served.  He was always with those who suffered.  May you find him beside you regularly.  May you feel of his divine love and concern for you and most of all may he wrap you in his arms.  Until my next podcast, do your part however small so that the Lord can bring forth his miracle to you.