Even missionaries that “finish” do not always feel successful
by Kristen and James Reber
Originally published December 13, 2013
For a long time, even up to a year after I came home from my mission early, I thought that missionaries that had been able to finish their expected amount of time had no problems–that they were able to easily put their missions behind them and look back with fond memories. Of course, I knew they’d had hard times too, but I thought that the mere fact that they had been able to finish their missions would help them leave those hard times in the past and only recall the good times. Therefore, I was surprised one day when a friend who had finished his two years said, “There are days when I still look back and wonder, did I really do all I could do? I still feel like I failed in so many ways.”
I was also surprised when my husband, James, told me that he often looked back on his mission and felt like a failure. He struggled with depression during his mission, but was completely unaware of what he was suffering until a year or so later. Last week James came to me and said he had written something and that I could post it on my blog if I wanted. I read the following post, and immediately wanted to publish it. This is for anyone who feels like they failed their mission, whether you came home early or finished the expected amount of time:
My name is James. I have been home from my mission for six years and I still feel like a failure.
By all outsider views, my mission was “successful.” I served the full two years; I never had any rule infractions; never sloughed off work; always tried to be a missionary like the greats of the early church days; always tried to talk to every person I saw.
But I still feel like my mission was a failure. I still try not to think about my mission, still feel overwhelmed at the thought of speaking my mission language, still feel anxious and fearful about emailing the one person I taught who joined the church and remained faithful.
Why do I still struggle with my mission after six years? Why has time not healed all wound? Since my mission, I have learned that I suffer from anxiety and depression. Looking back, I see that anxiety and depression tinged every moment of my mission. “Just go talk to that person, Elder, and it will get easier.” It never got easier – no matter how many people I contacted on the street, I was always terrified of that next person. “You’ve been in a slump, Elder; you can work harder. Does your attitude need changing?” At the time, I thought I had a bad attitude. I now see that I was feeling the withdrawal and crushing weight of depression.
I’ve realized all this in hindsight, but at the time, I had no idea about depression and anxiety. I thought I was being lazy, I thought I was not living up to my calling as a representative of the Church. I thought that if I just lost myself and got to work, I would suddenly be amazing – no more of this pathetic attitude holding me back!
When I came home from my mission, I felt like I had nothing to show for my time. I served a full two years but I don’t describe them as my best two years. Even now, I am afraid of interacting with other returned missionaries who spoke my mission language. I could practice my mission language with my sister but I get overwhelmed by the thought. I could email the man I saw baptized but I am scared to do so. I have no idea why I am scared to email a friend from the mission; for some reason, I still can’t handle anything related to my mission, even after six years of being home.
For those of you who have come home early, or who served the full time but still feel like failures, please know that you are not alone. If you struggle to read your mission journal, if you actively avoid thinking about your mission, you are not alone.
Know that you can heal from the hurt and disappointment and feelings of failure. It took me six years, but that was largely because I didn’t know about my mental health issues. I am doing better every day.
James really is doing better with his clinical depression and anxiety every day. Of course, there are days when it is harder for him to cope with them, but largely, he is doing better.
Finishing a mission does not automatically result in feelings of victory and success. And that is okay! A finished mission does not always mean it was a “successful” mission. Or, a successful mission does not always mean the missionary will feel that it was a successful one. As missionaries, we tend to judge ourselves by pretty harsh personal standards, always believing that we can do better. While believing that you can do better is motivating for some, for others it can be very debilitating and lead to emotional and mental health issues.
Here’s my take: you were successful if you did the best you could. You may not always feel like you did the best you could, and maybe you didn’t. I know that I didn’t always feel like I did my best, especially before I realized how sick I was, and I know there were days when I had a genuinely bad attitude. But as I continued to face my mission again and again over the course of these two and a half years, I have realized how common and normal those feelings are. My feelings about my mission have gotten better, and I have felt peace about my mission. It may not look like a success in some respects, just as James’s mission doesn’t look like a success in some respects–neither one of us had as high of numbers as Paul or Ammon or any other largely successful missionary; really our numbers were more like Isaiah’s–but both were successes in the Lord’s eyes. I encourage you to seek that peace from the Lord if you are struggling to look back on your mission with anything other than fear or sorrow. You likely did better than you are giving yourself credit.
Also, I want to add, and James echoes this, that if you came home early because of mental health reasons, rejoice that you are aware of your illness now rather than later. James had so much to work through when he came home. He’s said to me time and time again that those that come home early for mental health reasons are luckier than him because they were aware of what was going on and could get the help they needed. You are not a failure for having a mental illness, nor are you a failure for not being able to “push through it.” You did the right thing in coming home early and getting help.