Thursday, April 11, 2013

When a Missionary Returns Early

I was impressed as I watched as our 21-year-old son take copious notes of general conference last October. The previous week he had spoken in our ward Sacrament meeting prior to serving as a full time proselyting missionary for our church. This young man, who had never been fond of public speaking, had addressed the congregation powerfully and with deep spiritual conviction, amazing many that had known him his whole life.

Frankly, it was a miracle that these events ever occurred. For several years our son had struggled with a mystifying array of chronic balance and nausea problems that had impinged on every facet of his life. As he was in the process of applying to serve as a church service missionary, he had a second tonsillectomy. His symptoms miraculously abated to a large degree; although, the doctor said that the surgery could not have helped that much.

Our bishop consulted with the church's missionary department and our son soon began preparations to serve a regular two-year proselyting mission; something he had previously thought impossible. He received his call to North Carolina as his younger brother prepared to depart for his mission overseas. The prospect of funding two missionaries at the same time was somewhat daunting, but we were thrilled.

Unfortunately, the mission to which our son was called required its male missionaries to ride bicycles. While our son no longer had severe dizziness problems, his balance was inadequate for cycling. (Strangely, proper medical documentation for this condition had accompanied our son's missionary application.) A few weeks after corresponding with the mission president about this matter, our son received a new call to Pennsylvania. He spoke with me privately and said that he had the odd impression that he would not end up serving there.

The change in our son's call meant that he and his brother would not be in the MTC at the same time. But on a beautifully sunny day, for the second time in 10 weeks, we dropped a son off at the MTC and drove away. It was strange going from five to three kids at home in such a short period of time.

This is the MTC calling...
We were surprised when our son called about a week later from the MTC to inform us that he had again been experiencing some dizziness and nausea problems. He had gone to the infirmary and they had sent him to an ear-nose-throat specialist, who had ordered tests.

We waited. Then one night shortly before our son was to head to Pennsylvania, we received a call from a counselor in the MTC mission presidency. Our son's physical problems had worsened. The tests had revealed a problem that required neurological treatment, for which our son would need to return home.

When our son got on the phone, he insisted that we wait to pick him up until two days later, despite his physical discomfort. He didn't want to miss the visit of an apostle the following day. Our stake president then called and arranged for us to bring our son directly from the MTC to meet with him.

Back home again
None of the bustle of drop-off day was present when we arrived at the MTC to fetch our son on a cool autumn morning. A member of the MTC mission presidency chatted with us briefly. Our son arrived in the lobby with two members of his district. They exchanged earnest embraces and well wishes before we loaded the luggage in our car and departed. Miraculously, our son that was overseas began emailing during the drive home. I handed my phone to our son, who exchanged hopeful messages with his brother for a few minutes.

Our stake president was very upbeat. He extended an honorable release to our son, explaining that our son would again be set apart as a missionary once his treatment rendered him able to serve. Our stake president offered advice for getting rapid medical help so that our son could return to his mission as soon as possible. We all left his office with this same hope.

Knowing that secrecy breeds many rumors, I asked that the bishopric publicly inform ward members of our son's situation. My wife also announced my son's situation in Relief Society meeting. Ward members have been magnanimous and supportive since then.

Complex diagnosis
Getting competent medical treatment proved to be a challenge. But thanks to my wife's tenacity, our son was soon examined and tested by a specialist that pinpointed the problem. He explained that our son has had a permanent neurological condition since birth that causes overactive stress perception.

This causes our son's body (not his mind) greatly heightened fight-or-flight response. He is continually being riddled with adrenalin; although, his mind is calm. This results in a broad array of physical problems, including the balance and nausea issues previously mentioned, chronic concentration problems, the propensity to easily catch common viruses, and a host of other issues that unpredictably present themselves. But we now better understand a number of lifelong behavior patterns.

We now realize that our son might have gone undiagnosed had he not gone to the MTC. Although his time there was short, he had some tremendous spiritual experiences that deeply enriched his life. He was the go-to guy in his district on gospel doctrine matters. He learned much and enjoyed playing volleyball with his district members.

No going back
But our hopes of our son returning to his mission have waned. Three months after our son returned from the MTC, he finally unpacked his luggage. The more we understand about his condition, the more we realize that it is unlikely he will ever again reach the point that the missionary department will consider him capable of serving a full time proselyting mission.

There is no medical treatment for our son's condition, which is technically permanent type of disability. All that can be done is to employ treatment commonly used for certain anxiety disorders and similar mental illnesses. This is mainly accomplished through therapy, such as mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. Medication is not used, since our son's condition does not respond to drugs commonly used to treat anxiety disorders.

The past few months have been challenging for our son. Through therapy he is slowly making progress. But social settings are extremely difficult for him, particularly those involving larger groups of people. He explains that it is as if each person is perceived as a potential threat, requiring him to pay close attention to each individual. It wears him out and causes negative physical responses. The larger the group, the worse it is.

Our son is a smart man. He knows this is irrational, but that makes no difference to his body. He does better in group settings if his back is against a wall, he has an escape route, and all of the others present are within his scope of vision.

This has made it very difficult for our son to attend church meetings consistently. He explains that he gets very little out of the meetings at present because his body is going nuts while he's in the meetings. But he goes as much as possible because he knows that blessings come from being in the right place at the right time. He also knows he needs socialization. Sitting around the house, unable to work or go to school leads to boredom and depression.

Despite previous marvelous temple experiences, our son has not attended the temple for months because he doesn't perceive a reasonably acceptable escape route. You can, of course, leave a temple session. But it is frowned on. He wouldn't feel right going into a session with such a tenuous grasp on whether he will have to run out or not.

Small gains
When our son began therapy he was told that his symptoms would likely get worse. They did. He had hoped to do some school, but for many weeks he simply couldn't concentrate. That has improved in recent weeks and he has started taking online classes. He thinks he may be able to try to physically attend university classes in a month or so.

As prescribed, our son does regular physical exercise. Bit by bit he is also confronting situations that have caused physical anxiety responses in the past. He once loved swimming and even participated in lifeguard training. Then a few years ago I saw him experience strong anxiety symptoms while trying to swim 100 yards. Swimming has been difficult for him ever since then. But he went swimming last week and did just fine.

The therapy should over time allow our son to cope with most common life situations. But normalcy in many settings will never come naturally to him. Handling these situations with apparent normalcy will likely require much effort and extract a significant toll.

Although our son was preparing last year to serve a church service mission, he is not yet at a point where he could consider doing so. He is still in the baby steps phase. Only time will tell whether he will ever be able to do this kind of volunteer work.

Social stigma
As I mentioned above, members of our ward have been very understanding. Many actively pray for our son. One evening a young man in our neighborhood brought a plate of cookies and spent time chatting with our son. A couple of years earlier he had returned from his mission after eight months of service due to medical problems. He understood and was able to relate with our son.

Still, it is difficult to explain our son's condition to friends and family. It's a somewhat befuddling issue that we and our son are still trying to understand well. When I tell people that I have Multiple Sclerosis, they might not know exactly what it is, but they have some idea of how it affects people's lives. It takes so long to even begin to explain our son's condition that there usually isn't time to do so in most social settings.

Many people mean well and would like to help. But they can't wrap their heads around our son's disability and they have no idea how they can be of service. Quite frankly, we often don't know either, despite knowing more about our son's case than anyone besides him and his doctor. We would invite people to visit him more often, but that may produce more problems than it solves.

Shame and inferiority
After hearing a recent radio report regarding a study about LDS missionaries that return early, I chatted with my son about his experience. I was unsuccessful in finding information online about the study other than an ad for an April 9 presentation. But the radio reporter said the study revealed that for early returned missionaries:
  • Feelings of shame are common, but are most closely tied to their parents' response.
  • Most feel that they never get a chance to tell their story without being prejudged.
  • Many feel that they have failed an important rite of passage and seek some other way to achieve this distinction.
  • Most feel pressured to return to their mission, regardless of whether the want to and/or are able to or not.
My son said that he had never sensed any shame from our family after returning from his mission. Rather, he expressed gratitude for the love we have exhibited. For this I am grateful. I am very proud of my son and I love him very much. Although he was unable to complete his mission, the fact that he prepared himself to go is a great accomplishment of itself. I admire him for facing his current challenges.

Regarding being prejudged, my son said that he has been dealing with this for several years now, given that he did not leave for his mission at the minimum age. Most of his church acquaintances are aware that he went through a period where he struggled with spirituality and with the church during his teen years. He feels that most church members—even those that mean well—see him as inferior.

The church used to go to great lengths to help young missionaries that went home due to problems return to the mission field. That is no longer the case. Church leaders discovered that this policy hindered the work too much and didn't very often end up helping the young people involved. So missionaries that return early for whatever reason nowadays are unlikely to be returned to the field unless it is going to be a quick turnaround.

It seems that it doesn't matter why a young LDS man fails to serve or to complete a full time proselyting mission; the social stigma remains. For example, many feel that the stigma associated with being honorably excused from missionary service is almost as great as it is for unworthiness.

Rite of passage
My son understands the rite of passage issue. But for now his disability leaves him too dependent to even consider undertaking any such adventure. So he feels that he can't speak to the matter just yet.

Pressure to return
There is no doubt that my son has felt pressure to return to his mission. At first, much of that pressure came from himself. As stated, we at first were working toward helping our son return to the mission field until we began to understand that this wasn't going to happen. Leaders also applied friendly pressure at first, but are now focused more on how they can best help him deal with his condition. Some ward members and family members still occasionally apply pressure. Although they mean well, they don't have enough understanding of the situation to act more appropriately.

No glory
I'm not sure what can be done about the social stigma mentioned above. I think that attitudes have relaxed from what they were years ago. But it is a fact that young LDS men that do not complete a full time proselyting mission for whatever reason are considered to be in a lesser class than those that do. With the recent lowering of the minimum missionary age for young women, I wonder if a similar social perception will develop over time for young ladies (although church leaders insist that their service is completely optional).

I recall coming home from my mission, reporting in high council and Sacrament meetings, having a big party, and generally being welcomed with great honor and recognition. In our stake, those that complete their missions are awarded a plaque that has hung in the stake offices during their absence.

None of that happens for early returning missionaries. Their return often goes publicly unmentioned by church leaders and family. There is no recognition for the service they have done. No reports in church meetings. No glory. No honor.

I'm not sure how the church could go about remedying this problem. Doing too much could unnecessarily foster more early returns. But there certainly must be ways that a church—a community of disciples of Christ—can provide a better social environment for those that do return early from their missions.

Where did you serve?
My son admits that social situations among other church members his age are difficult, especially when the topic of where the various young men served their missions arises. It is understandable that returned missionaries want to talk about their missions. The 10% of their young lives they have spent doing full time missionary service has significantly contributed to their identities.

But it's kind of a non sequitur to respond to the inevitable "Where did you go on your mission?" and "Did you go on a mission?" questions with, "I was going to Pennsylvania but I got sick in the MTC." The looks on people's faces and their body language usually says, "Move this guy to the inferior class." There is a tendency for young ladies to immediately drop such guys from their list of those to whom they would give the time of day, so the dating scene can be tough.

Everyone has problems
Of course, it does no good to whine about social realities. Each person deals with their own set of challenges. Some are more publicly visible and others less so. This just happens to be our son's lot in life. As has been said many times, the man is defined not by the challenges he faces but by how he faces his challenges. I hope for, pray for, and actively work for my son to deal with his challenges in a way that results in eternal happiness.

But I would still be interested to know what others think of the issue of early returned missionaries. I suspect that with the lowering of minimum missionary ages we may see an increase of these cases as more callow young men and women are tested by the rigors of full time missionary service.

What, if anything, should the church do? What can and/or should ordinary members of the church do?


MainTour said...

While my wife and I both served foreign speaking missions, we are seeing challenges getting our three boys out.

Our second son has autism which greatly limits his social skills. This then leads to some internal confusion about his role in the church, in the priesthood and in life. Mission service is out. All he wants to do is just to live independent and happy.

Scott Hinrichs said...

My wife and I also both served foreign speaking missions. We too have a son with an autism spectrum disorder. He's very high functioning and can satisfactorily manage in most church settings. But we don't know what will happen when it comes to missionary service. That's an issue that we will have to deal with down the road a bit.

Scott Hinrichs said...

An anonymous reader provided the following excellent response:

Your recent post really hit home with me. I also returned home early from a mission due to extreme anxiety issues very similar in symptom if not cause to what your son is going through. For five years afterward I hovered somewhere between less active and inactive because of how painful church had become.

Why was church painful? Because church reminded me of my mission and my mission reminded me of my anxiety and the disappointment of coming home early. So while everyone else was singing 'Nearer My God To Thee' I was having flash backs to some very uncomfortable memories. Every time someone stood up to share a missionary experience I was reminded that I had failed to complete mine.

What steps led to me regaining activity after five years? The passage of time dulled the pain of my tragic mission experience and increased my ability to handle anxiety. It also gave me time to create a new internal identity so that instead of feeling like “the guy who got sent home early” I was now “the guy with a decent job and several worthwhile hobbies”.

I'm not sure if there is anything church policy or church members could have done to speed this process up. It takes time to overcome extreme anxiety. And the pain of coming home early had very little to do with how people treated me and much more with accepting that my mental image of how my life was supposed to work out now had several gaping holes in it. It was only after getting my anxiety under control and crafting a new mental image of who I was and what I wanted from the future that I was able to move forward with my life. So all in all my problems were mostly internal issues that I had to deal with rather than external issues with how church policy and members treated me.

I guess the most important thing is to have supportive family members and friends that can help the early return missionary create his new mental identity and life goals. In retrospect I wasted a lot of time trying to force my new anxious self to conform to my old idea of who I was supposed to be. It was only when I was honest about my new challenges and priorities that I was able to start making real personal progress.

In conclusion I want to share a very special experience I had shortly before my mission president decided to send me home. I was praying and letting God know how tired I was and how frightened I was at the thought of going home due to illness. I was obsessed with the shame of trying to face my ward and family after returning early.

At that moment I had the most profound feeling of peace come over me and had the distinct impression that God had given me permission to return home. It was not required that I continue onwards in my condition. God was accepting of my weaknesses and still loved me.

I'm not normally a very spiritual person so this sensation took me completely by surprise. And as a perfectionist this was literally the last response I would have expected to receive. In many ways that one moment of comfort from a merciful God did more to keep me drawn towards the church than any number of outreach programs, policy changes or friendly ward members ever could.

P.S. I also really liked your recent series on the Law of Consecration.

Scott Hinrichs said...

I heard an interesting comparison between a proselyting mission and a military mission. When a comrade on a military mission is wounded and is unable to complete the mission, his fellows get him help. He is given a hero's welcome home complete with medals. Does this tell us anything about welcoming early returned missionaries?

Bookslinger said...

I think Asperger's and anxiety disorders should almost be automatic causes to be honorably excused. On a full time mission, there are no "escape routes" and no immediate experienced helping hands available to help an Asperger's/anxious missionary cope with challenges. Your companion is not going to be trained in how to deal with or assist you in your challenges, and if your companion is imperfect in any way, your challenges of Asperger's or anxiety will essentially prevent you from dealing with his imperfections.

If the companionship relationship is not working due to one missionary's challenges, or his companion's inability to deal with those challenges, there are only so many "emergency transfers" that a mission president can do before realizing that everyone will be better off if the one elder goes home.

Even changing companions on normal transfer days, if done every transfer, is going to get a missionary a bad reputation, and future comanions will be prejudice against him from the start.

Scott Hinrichs said...

Bookslinger makes some very good points. There are church service missions available that can be closely tailored to the individual's capacities for those that are honorably excused from serving as a proselyting missionary.

It should be recognized that proselyting missions are hard. They are chock full of hard work, variability, interactions with others, and a host of other challenges. They can also be full of joy. As noted by Bookslinger, there is no one available to handle a missionary's special needs.

Still, there is a tendency among members to look at the honorably excused as damaged goods. This is a social construct, not a gospel construct.

Goosie said...

As somebody with Asperger's who served a mission, I can attest to the extreme difficulty of doing so--especially when accompanied (as AS often is) with depression and anxiety. Just having a companion is difficult enough, but when everything else is added to the mix it becomes overwhelming. Asperger's was not recognized at the time, so nobody had any way of realizing what was going on. Today, I am certain that I would not be recommended for full-time missionary service.

About nine months in I came to a point where I had to decide whether to stay or go home. I gave myself a month to ponder, pray, and fast, and the answer I received was that I was to stay. I dragged myself through the rest of the mission and returned home, having endured the full two years. When my mission president met with me for the last time, he told me that even if I hadn't accomplished a single thing, just lasting for two years would have been a major achievement for me. Nevertheless, I consider my mission something of a failure and have trouble hearing about missionary work in church because I'm reminded of that.

You don't hear it said very often in church, but I believe that a full-time proselyting mission is not for everyone. There are many ways people can serve that fits their individual circumstances and abilities.

Scott Hinrichs said...

Thank you for your personal story. I appreciate your insights.

Geoffory Anderson said...

This post brought back memories of an experience I had several years ago. During a priesthood meeting our Bishop read a letter from the First Presidency counseling church members in general and Young Men's Presidencies specifically concerning the practice of pressuring young men to serve missions. I don't remember the words exactly but the letter clearly stated that: 1. The primary goal of the Young Men's program was to guide young men toward a temple marriage; 2. Full time missionary service is of lesser importance than temple marriage; and 3. A young man's choice to serve a full time mission, or not, should be reserved to discussions between the young man, his Bishop and his Father In Heaven.
I wonder how many great young men may have been pressured away from either a mission or temple marriage due to a perception of their not measuring up?

Scott Hinrichs said...

These are very good insights. We teach young men from the time they are in nursery that their goal is to serve a mission. This is constantly reiterated at every level in the church. We hear it every general conference. It can be very difficult culturally and spiritually for young men that are worthy but unable to serve (and for their families).

The counsel in the letter to which you refer is good. But I also note that church policy is not to grant an endowment recommend to a young man that will not be serving a mission until he is ready to be sealed or arrives at some unspecified future level of spiritual preparedness. It can be very challenging for an unendowed young man to find and date young ladies that want a Temple marriage that would consider going out with him. So the goal of a Temple marriage can be difficult for these young men.

This hits pretty close to home for us. While my son with an anxiety disorder has been endowed, my younger son with Asperger Syndrome may not reach that point in his early 20s. It is beginning to dawn on him that a full-time proselyting mission might not be in the cards for him. He recently told his mother that he wonders whether he will ever be able to become a husband or a father but that he tries not to think about it right now. That's pretty mature thinking for a kid his age. But I can tell that he is already experiencing pain just knowing that these mainstream rites of passage may be out of his reach.

Unknown said...

I am sorry to hear that your son has had a negative experience of coming him early, but being honourably released. The same happened to me and I think the Atonement and marriage are the only two things that are helping me to heal. Although I don't live in the US (I am from the UK) I would love to talk to your son, if it would help. I wrote a blog post recently that helped me make sense of everything that I went through: All the best, Ethan R Wilkinson

Scott Hinrichs said...

Thank you for your kind words. It has been a year since my son returned. He has had a lot of professional and ecclesiastical support and is doing quite well. He is still working through health issues, but he has been able to resume some elements of regular life. Thankfully the people in our ward have been very supportive, he has understanding friends, and he has found the LDS Institute adjacent to the nearby university to be a place of refuge. Things are going about as well as could be expected under the circumstances.

ddelamare said...

I recently returned from a mission as well for medical reasons. I had to thank you for these kind words!