I’ll be 50 years old soon. I served my mission from 1987 to 1989 in Italy. Unlike most of the young men and women with whom I served, I didn’t grow up in the Church; I had been a member for 13 months when I entered the MTC at age 21. However, I had a long history of undiagnosed anxiety and depression. Missionary work was hard, and it seemed to me, mostly futile. We got relatively little member support, people were not terribly receptive, and my dreams of being the Wilford Woodruff of Sicily were soon recalibrated. But I toughed it out, because I couldn’t imagine any other option.
One lovely friend of mine – a sister missionary who had been serving in my home ward before I left – understood what I was going through, and our exchange of letters (while she was in the field and after her return) did much to help and sustain me while I was out. At one point, when I had been out for about 17 months, my circuits finally blew and I left my apartment one morning and just stood there in the street with no idea what I should do, or where I should go. My companion finally took me by the elbow, led me to a local park, and sat me down for three hours and told me stories of his upbringing and his experiences in the National Guard, while I stared blankly off into space. I recognize that now as an anxiety reaction, but at the time, I had no idea what was going on. I went to the doctor, and they put me on Xanax since my blood pressure was through the roof, and my mission president cautiously OKed it. I don’t think he knew what to do. He knew me well as I had served as mission secretary for five months earlier.
I made it back, and mostly kept quiet about the fact that I had hated my mission. It took me years to get past the common trope that it should have been “the best two years.” What had I done wrong that I had such a miserable experience? It was hell. At one point, a GA (a seventy, now mercifully dead) visited my mission and told us in a zone conference that if we didn’t give the mission everything we had, “the Lord would never trust us again” (a direct quote). It took me years to be convinced that I hadn’t failed and doomed myself to a terrestrial eternity at best.
My second son came back from his mission three months early. Like me, he had depression and anxiety issues. He had meds; they didn’t work. He worked his tail off, he taught, he baptized. His mission president pleaded with him to go home to take care of his health. He was talking to a mental health professional, at Church expense, at the direction of the Missionary Department, during the last six months of his mission. His mission president finally called us and spoke with us at great length. He told us how much he loved our son, how hard he had worked, how many lives he had blessed, how strongly he brought the Spirit into his work. He told us that my son simply shouldn’t have to deal with his crippling anxiety and depression anymore, that his sacrifice was more than acceptable to the Lord, and that he would be sending our son home to us with an honorable release. The Missionary Department called. They told us that a GA had reviewed our son’s case, and that as far as the Church was concerned, he had managed to complete a 24-month mission in 21 months, and that he should not feel as if he had fallen short in any way. He was given a blessing by his mission president before he left, in which he was released from all guilt or feelings of inadequacy, and another confirming blessing when he got home – two, in fact, one from our wonderful stake president and one from me. He is now at school at BYU-I, he is soon to marry a wonderful young woman, and he is at peace. He knows he did his part. He will deal with depression and anxiety, most likely, for the rest of his life; but he will not have the additional burden of feeling that he failed the Lord.
Oh, what a wonderful difference! I am so glad that he has not had to suffer what I did, that he had the help and understanding that I didn’t have. I am so glad that somewhere in the great plan, the Lord has touched some hearts and opened them to young men like me and my son, to make it easier for them to be the men they are capable of being, without being handicapped by that unnecessary guilt and shame.
Bit by bit, we’re getting better. As a people, as a Church, as Saints, as children of God. How slow it seems sometimes – but we are getting better.