The following is a letter from my good friend Kristan Whitney. Kristan was called to serve in the Marshall Islands mission and was given an honorable medical release before her expected eighteen months were up. I asked her to share her thoughts about her experience and what she would like others to know about life as an early-returned missionary. Here is what she said...
Before my mission I was aware that there was a stigma, however slight or prominent it may be, for missionaries that returned earlier than the expected time frame. I didn't give it much thought. Despite knowing a few people who had returned from their missions early, it was never something I expected to happen to me. I was prepared. I knew what to expect and how to cope…or so I thought.
It was happening before I knew it. Only days after leaving the MTC and coming to my new area I was struck with an overwhelming depression. I thought it was homesickness. I had been told that this was normal for every missionary during the first month or so. But mine didn’t go away with time, and it steadily grew worse. Later I would be diagnosed with Anxiety and Depression. After my therapist could see I wasn’t making progress, he and my mission president decided it was time for me to go home. I had served for seven months.
My case was just one of many. An increasing number of missionaries are coming home early because of mental or physical illness. I was lucky that my mission president was very kind and understanding of my situation, as was my family, my ward, and my friends. Not everyone gets that luxury. Many early returned missionaries are judged, ridiculed, and isolated by the ones that should be supporting them. It wasn’t uncommon, even for me, to be asked if or when I was going back to my mission. Trust me, after a harrowing experience like mine, I was in no hurry to get back into the fray.
Coming home was a struggle. All of my friends were still on missions. I felt lonely. I felt like a failure. It took months to feel like I hadn't really failed. I received consolation from God, who assured me that it was good that I was home and that I didn't need to go back. But the battle wasn't over. In a way, I felt I had betrayed all of the friends I had made on the mission. I grew very close to the people in my area and to be suddenly removed from them without knowing if I would ever see them again was highly difficult. But the thought of staying on my mission, or returning to it, was even worse.
So I started therapy. The church provided me with both group and private sessions. I learned I was not alone, and that many others had it even worse. That helped me feel more normal. Still, I couldn't avoid some feelings of hurt and inadequacy. I still had friends leaving for their missions and I was getting letters and news about everyone else still serving. I was flooded with a culture that put every missionary moment on a pedestal of grandeur. There was no escape.
I am glad the work continues, but even to this day I cannot say that talk of missions doesn't have some sting. When returned missionaries talk about their fond memories of the mission and their favorite companions, I cannot always relate. Don’t get me wrong, there are many, many things I love about my mission, but I have to be careful about how much I think about it because there is a lot I prefer to not remember. If I leave a conversation about missions, it probably means I am just trying to avoid something that could trigger an anxiety attack or depressive episode.
Although we never faced the frontlines of an actual war, like soldiers with PTSD we early-returned missionaries have seen a battle. And just like veterans, everyone’s experience is different. So my advice is to be sensitive. You wouldn’t ask an injured soldier why they don’t just get back to the battlefield, so don’t look down on us for not getting back to ours. Just know that some missionaries are called off the field early and the reasons are between them and God. When one calling ends, another begins. And just know returning early does not necessarily mean returning without honor. There is honor in doing your best, even if it isn’t the expected amount of time.
Ultimately coming home early from a mission wasn't a bad thing. If a missionary you know comes home early, don't worry. Just enjoy you RM's earlier-than-expected company. God knows what he is doing and how long he wants people to serve. Apparently seven months was enough for me to serve. He wanted me to come home and get married, and that is what I am doing. It's all in his timing.
About the author: I am a nature lover, and looking at baby animal pictures and blogs about cats always cheers me up. I am always hungry for adventures big or small.