Early Returned Missionaries; Eliminating the Stigma

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The topic of coming home early from a mission is a sensitive one. Seeing as I’m an ERM (early returned missionary) I would know. Returning home is difficult on its own, but having to do so early is a horse of a different color. My experience as a missionary was uniquely difficult, as I’ve said in some of my past articles.

My mission was incredibly trying as I know it is for anyone who serves or makes their best efforts to serve. Through my experience, I came to feel that there is very little awareness about how to cope with this issue. My hope is that we can all come together to eliminate the stigma that surrounds coming home early and ultimately to foster acceptance and love no matter the situation.

“Verily, verily, I say unto you, that when I give a commandment to any of the sons of men to do a work unto my name, and those sons of men go with all their might and with all they have to perform that work, and cease not their diligence, and their enemies come upon them and hinder them from performing that work, behold, it behooveth me to require that work no more at the hands of those sons of men, but to accept of their offerings” (D&C 124:49).

If you are struggling to know how to welcome home an ERM or are simply seeking solace from your own early-return-experience, I hope this article helps you.

I have meditated a great deal on how to talk about this issue, and I struggled with how much of my own experience I should share. In my efforts to refrain from oversharing, I have left out details. I have cringed more times than one when well-meaning members have overshared over the pulpit, and I hope you’ll see that my intention is not to overshare, but is to honestly portray my experience for you.

Maybe it is the element of anonymity that writing online provides, but I have felt the need to share my story openly. As you read this, I urge you to remember that this is very personal. I do not wish to use this article as a platform to draw praise, and I would especially appreciate it if everyone would reserve judgment. I share what I share because I feel that my experience is rather unique and for this reason gives me a unique and authoritative perspective from which to talk about this issue.

Every Experience is Different

I plan to talk about all the different reasons missionaries come home. All of them. I do not want to bunch any of those reasons together. No one should read this and think, “here we go again, another ERM article about coming home for health reasons.” This will not be all about mental health, or physical health.

Some had to return because of worthiness issues, or familial and personal tragedies. I plan to address all of these reasons. Whatever your reason, the Lord knows your heart. He knows your intentions and He knows the intentions of all those missionaries that were able to serve for the entire duration of their full-time missions.

It’s possible that you were sent home for a combination of reasons. Whatever it was, own it. Do not let it own you. If you let it have too much power over you, it will consume you. Resist the urge to blame Heavenly Father. He does not do these things to us. All things may be foreseen by God, but they are not caused by Him. Sometimes our best may not yield the results we want, and we have to learn to be ok with that.

Because you are unique, your mission was too

In the words of Elder Holland, “not every mission was outlined to be 18 months or two years. That is a modern construct.” You served the mission you could! He helped you do something you couldn’t. Cherish what you had. Don’t apologize when people ask you if you served. No need to follow the yes, with a “but” it was only so many months.

The term of service isn’t relevant when the issues we face aren’t our fault, and even if the issues you faced as an ERM were your fault, as they were for me, the Lord will help everything work out for your good as you do your best to follow Him.

Think about what motivated you to serve in the first place. Let yourself continue to be motivated by this as you move forward with your life. Its ok not to be ok sometimes. It is normal to be an ERM, and more people are passing through similar experiences than you think.

My Story

I realize that apart from strangers, this article will most likely be read by friends, family, and people who have heard rumors of my struggles who either served in my mission or live in it. First and foremost I would like to say sorry to all who I may have hurt through my experience as a missionary. The pain I caused was never intentional.

Coming home early is especially hard because your struggles are more publicly apparent in comparison to others. Whether they knew why or not, people could see that I had come home early and that I was suffering. Most were incredibly understanding and supportive. Others, however, asked probing and inappropriate questions. The days when this happened were the hardest. Anyone who has come home early can attest, that there are bad days and there are good ones.

My first Sunday back home

Sacrament meeting chapelGoing to church that first Sunday after you return early can be incredibly scary. You might get lots of puzzled looks and maybe even a few well-meaning, but unhelpful comments, but it’s not as scary as it seems. If any of you have recently returned and feel this way, know that this is the adversary. He wants you to feel uncomfortable in the place where we should feel the most at home. Just know that you may not be comfortable right away, but it will come with time.

My fear was mostly driven by personal anxiety about the situation and was not a reflection of how I was received in home ward. My home ward is amazing and so many of the people in it played a huge part in my healing process, whether they know it or not. If you’re nervous, take it from someone who knows, it gets better with each Sunday. The Lord will see your efforts. For some, something as simple as going to church is done with little to no effort, but for you, it may be a huge obstacle and He sees that.

When I came home the first time, I felt that I let a lot of people down and even more painfully, that I had let myself down. I have since learned to be grateful and accepting of my mission experience, but this did not come easily. At times I felt hopeless, but through the support of loving companions, friends, and family, I was able to make it through.

Regrets are not productive

I had no baptisms to show for my experience, which added a great deal to my initial feelings of failure. Most of my missionary service consisted of reactivating less active families. I felt blessed to have been a part of this, but no matter how many times I was told and knew myself that numbers didn’t matter, I couldn’t help but feel a little discouraged about this. This is a common feeling among ERMs—that they didn’t do enough, but it is not productive to dwell on things we can’t change. I learned that my 15-month mission was the mission I was meant to serve.

The first time I returned

Because of bad decisions I made before my mission, it became necessary for me to return home to repent after five months in the field. I can still remember sitting in the airport feeling alone and hopeless. That plane ride seemed to last an eternity. I was perpetually on the verge of tears and was hardly holding it together. Despite my despair and other hardships I had to endure while home, including crippling isolation and the end of a relationship that I thought was meant to be eternal, I worked hard with one goal in mind; to return to the field and finish what I had started.

After nearly seven months of spirit refining work, I was cleared to return back to my same mission. I went back with a changed heart and anxiety about how I would be received. It was difficult to adjust to mission life all over again. Some days were easier than others. I pressed on with the help of my two amazing mission Presidents and inspired companions.

The second time I returned

After being back in Mexico for a total of about 15 months, I found that I had somehow fallen again. My companion and I had both become incredibly disobedient. We deliberately broke mission rules that we knew we shouldn’t have, and little by little dug ourselves into a deeper hole.

Because of our actions and some underlying emotional health reasons (that probably somewhat motivated my disobedient actions, but in no way justified them) it became necessary for both of us to be sent home. For a while, I tried to understand how I could have had such a devastating lapse in judgment. I learned quickly, though, that trying to understand the why behind my actions was futile. Instead, I needed to focus on how I would press on and how I would react to this adversity that I had brought upon myself.

The darkness that surrounded me this second time seemed even more impenetrable than the time before. I felt that I had completely squandered the opportunity Father had given me to return to the field. I only had three months left! “How could I have let this happen,” I thought.

With the help of loving parents, grandparents, and friends I was able to not only make it through this experience but to learn from it.

We are all wounded and broken in our own way. Whether we have caused the problem or not, the Lord is familiar with our unique experiences. My experience required me to rely on the Lord a great deal. I am now able to talk about and reflect on my mission experience with fondness.

Light Can Come From Darkness

Something positive that I have learned from my experience is that we can use our darkness to bring light to others. We do not have to be healed completely to help others. Whether the wounds you are healing from are mental, emotional, physical, spiritual or a combination, they don’t have to be completely healed in order for you to move forward. The challenges we have can be the vehicle that provides help to another. I found that I was able to help a very close friend who was passing through something equally as hard. We were able to support one another, even in our mess. Though our separate darknesses can be different, the light that heals is always the same. It is constant. It will never go out.

There is nothing more cliche but more fitting to represent the light Christ can bring to our lives than the analogy of a lighthouse. It stands both as a warning of possible dangers and as a comfort signaling to us that refuge is near.

The ultimate source of light and strength I have received throughout my entire experience has been Christ. There have been other people and things throughout that have helped, but I have found that when those other things fail or cease to bring the relief they used to, Christ will never fail me. I may fail him. I will fall short, but he has always been there when I have decided to come back to him.

Look at the Positives

That darkness can purify and refine us. Learn how to channel your painful experience into something positive. Notice what you do have because of your experience. Stop focusing on what you can’t do, or couldn’t do on your mission. Focus on what you can do now because of it and what you can continue to do. Focus on what is unique to you. Use it to help others. Instead of letting the fact that you returned home early control you, control it. Channel the pain you have probably felt as a result of your experience into helping and relating to others.

For Mental Health

If you came home for mental health reasons it is likely that you are struggling with feelings of inadequacy and regret. Just know that the Lord understands you and he understands your condition probably even more than you do. There is no need to be ashamed of mental and emotional illnesses. You should be no more ashamed of having depression, anxiety, or any other combination of the various mental illnesses that ail us than you should of any physical illness.

Mental illness does not come as a consequence of a lack of faith or obedience. A common misconception concerning mental illness is that it can be changed if you just put your mind to it. But coping with and managing mental illness is not a matter of willpower. There is no way to be completely cured, but there is a way to live a full and happy life even with mental illness. A great authority to look to if you are struggling with this is Elder Holland.

Mental illness manifests in stressful situations

You may wonder why you were not aware of the illness that caused you to be sent home beforehand. Mental illness manifests itself in highly stressful situations, and a mission is stressful not only to the body, but to the mind, emotions, and spirit as well. It is probable that the illness was always there but laid dormant until it was triggered by the stressful atmosphere of the mission.

If your illness has largely come about as a result of abuse, remember that the Lord will judge you for what you would have been had the abuse never occurred. He does not hold you accountable for the damage you have suffered at the hands of others. God does not remove all suffering from the righteous, but he always provides a way for them.

You are only supposed to climb mountains. You were never meant to carry them. If your illness is debilitating, seek the help you need. There are many mental health care professionals who are also members of the Church that are ready to help you find the healing you crave. It is possible, but the healing of any wound takes time. Give yourself time.

For Physical Health or Injury

Illness

Physical injury and health problems are one of the main reasons people are unable to serve the entire 18 months or two years of their missions. Some may be preexisting conditions, but for the most part, many are sent home for health problems that develop on their missions, or that even occur as a result of the strenuous physical requirements of the mission. Whatever your individual circumstance, know that the Lord has been there. He has already felt every pain you are and will experience.

If the exact nature of what is afflicting your body is still unknown, hold on. I understand that for many, even after repeated doctor visits, you still may not fully understand what is going on with your body. This can be frustrating, especially as people make comments like, “are you sure it’s not all in your head?” The Lord knows how you are feeling. If you are suffering from an undefinable illness, don’t let what you don’t know consume you. Trust that the Lord will allow everything to work together for your good.

For Tragedy

Bad things happen to good people. This is a side-effect of living in this world. If you came home because of the loss of someone close to you, resist the temptation to be angry with God. I can’t imagine how it must feel to lose someone close to you. Many people will not know this feeling but God is even more acquainted with it than we know. He lost 1/3 of his children to the adversary before they even came to earth. He watches his children fall constantly. What brings him joy, and, I’m sure, solace is when his children overcome the adversity that befalls them.

Do not be discouraged by stories of other missionaries who lost loved ones and stayed out in the mission field anyway. Every situation is different. It’s possible that what you could learn from coming home far outweighed what you could have learned by staying in the field. It could also be the case that someone at home may need you more than someone in the mission field. Trust that the Lord has a plan for your life, and knows us and our capacities. He will never forsake you. Lean on his glorious Plan of Salvation for strength and hope.

For Worthiness

Last but not least, I would like to talk about those individuals who had to come home early because of their own bad decisions. If this was your experience, you will or probably are wrestling with feelings of inadequacy and hopelessness. Remember that the Lord loves you no matter your weaknesses, and has provided a way for you to become clean again. Find comfort in the fact that, “though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow” (Isaiah 1:18).

I always struggle to talk about the Atonement because there is no way to adequately express the exquisiteness of His sacrifice. It is the light in all the darkness. If you were the only person on the earth, He still would have come and performed the Atonement for you. Christ will be your greatest advocate through this. If you ever find it too hard to stand, kneel.

Prayer will be your greatest tool as you go through whatever disciplinary process may be required for your situation. More people have gone through this than you know. it is a very personal thing. Follow the counsel of your bishop closely. He will help you traverse this unfamiliar territory and will help you with your goal to return to good standing. Healing and complete repentance are possible. I am a testament to that!

Mission Fortify

I recently attended an ERM conference put on by the Non-profit organization Mission Fortify whose mission is to help all returned missionaries. They periodically put on conferences where leaders will come share their personal experiences with returning early and provide guidance as to how to move forward. It is a great resource, especially for those who have returned home recently.

At the conference I attended, a Stake President and his wife talked about his own experiences with mental illness and how this has helped him help others with their experiences with it. Another of the speakers was a licensed social worker who talked about what mental illness is and what it isn’t. He also discussed how there have been many general authorities who have struggled with mental illness, including George Albert Smith. Although I have been home for nearly two years, this conference was incredibly informational and healing for me and would be a great resource for anyone struggling with being home early.

For Parents and Loved Ones

Pass no judgments. First and foremost, the seemingly harmless conversations we have about the gossip from our missions is destructive. I have both participated in and been the victim of this. It only perpetuates the stigma of shame and disappointment. Try and avoid saying “I know how you feel,” because the truth is, you don’t and that’s ok. Even if you are an ERM giving counsel to another ERM, share your experience, but don’t say you know how they feel, because every individual’s experience is different. Encourage them to remain close to the gospel. Be there for them when they feel like they have no one else.

A group of friends takes a picture.ERMs are an increasingly growing group. There is such a huge need to foster love and service to all early returned missionaries. We should no longer ignore this issue, we should learn to talk about it in a respectful and non-judgmental way. There is no need to dance around the issue or pretend it doesn’t happen, doing this only strengthens the stigma.

What missionaries need when they come home is to be supported and loved. They need a refuge from the private guilt and silent unspoken pressure that they feel. Be that support for them. If you don’t feel you understand or can relate to them, do your best. They are fighting a hard battle and they need you.

Thea is a recent college graduate of Utah Valley University and is currently an intern for MormonHub. She got her Bachelor of Arts in English with an emphasis in Literary Studies and a minor in Humanities. She also served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ in Mexico, and as a result, she has developed a passion for tacos and chalupas. John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway are among her favorite authors and she aspires to acquire a first edition from each someday. Her other interests include bearded dragons, the outdoors, and traveling.