Being an early return missionary.

[Okay folks, from the get go you need to know this about this post: it's not a critical post. It isn't meant to point fingers or to be scathing. It's an awareness post about something I believe is an issue in the LDS community.]

I came home from my mission on a Saturday. My greeting party at the airport wasn't my dreamed-of-whole-extended-family. It was my mom, my sisters, and my grandparents. Riding down the escalators with me wasn't another missionary, but my dad. There were lots of tears shed, and not really tears of happiness, though there were a few or those. I was an early-release missionary. 

I remember that next day, Sunday. I knew my parents were nervous about it. I could feel the tension in the air as they asked me about how I wanted to handle it. I shrugged and said, "Openly." 

My parents had every right to be nervous, and I should've been too. When missionaries come home early, there are always THOSE looks. "Did she do something wrong, I wonder?" A sister mutters to her husband. "Maybe she's too sick." A brother wonders to himself. Too often, this happens. If you're an early return missionary reading this, you know exactly what this discomfort is that I'm talking about. The questions that everyone has. 

I didn't want to deal with questions, so I asked my bishop to announce over the pulpit that I had been medically released for depression. Instead of gasps and stares like I was expecting, there was a comfortable, warm quiet in the chapel. 

My ward was absolutely loving and welcoming to me. Instead of looking down on me, they held me in their collective arms and helped bear my burdens. 

I know, however, not every missionary gets this warm welcome. I know Elders, especially, can have a hard time because going on a mission is a priesthood responsibility. Too often instead of loving and supporting early-return missionaries, members are quick to judge and question missionaries. There are various reasons why missionaries come home early--worthiness, mental illnesses, injuries, illnesses. Whatever the cause, wouldn't it be wonderful if we could all give that missionary the benefit of the doubt? We are all imperfect beings who make mistakes and who are prone to sickness. Even IF the missionary came home early for worthiness, they are almost always home to work it out with their bishop and The Lord. We all need the Atonement, and it isn't fair for us to think less of an individual because they have made mistakes. As President Uchtdorf put it: "Don't judge me because I sin differently than you."

We all have trials in this life. Sometimes, those trials make it necessary for missionaries to come home early from their missions. As the Savior said so lovingly, "A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another." I know that as we all make the continued effort to love our brothers and sisters who come home early, we will become even better followers of Christ who emulate His love and His life. 


What it really is.

As of yesterday, I have been home from my mission for 9 months. It has been a long, challenging, but growth filled nine months. I have had opportunities to share my story with others who are struggling with similar things to me. I got to speak to a stake girl's camp about depression. I've had a couple thousand hits on this blog. I got featured on an early-return missionary website. (http://www.missionarieshomeearly.com/#!rachel/c1ltr) Basically, I've had some pretty incredible experiences that were a direct result of being open about my depression. However, I have faced a few negative experiences, and those experiences were with people who do not understand depression.

Let me make a quick disclaimer: I don't know everything about depression, and neither do experts. As with all mental illnesses, depression is a complex disease that is centered in the brain. With this post, I am not claiming that I know everything about every case of depression-heck, I don't even understand my own case. My purpose with this post is to provide some brief, basic information about depression so that maybe we can all understand it a little bit better.

I did some research before writing this, and my favorite article that I came across was published by Harvard. (http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsweek/what-causes-depression.htm) It is very factual and simple, as well as broad. Here is one main point:

Our brain is full of thousands of neurons which communicate messages from various parts of the body to the brain, and vice versa. To communicate, these neurons receive electrical signals and then release neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that go from neuron to neuron. I like to think of them as letters being put in a mailbox. These "letters" attach themselves to specific "mailboxes" in adjacent neurons. This is an intricate process that I am not an expert in. However, when it comes to depression, most often it is caused by an imbalance in these neurotransmitters.

(You should definitely go read the article that Harvard health published [link above]. The article continues to talk about several other known causes for depression like trauma, life events, genetic predisposition, medications, and a few other things.)

I want to make it very clear with this post: Diagnosed MDD (Major Depressive Disorder) is not a choice. Again, depression is not a choice. Yes, there are choices we make that can affect our emotions, especially bad decisions. But when it comes to diagnosed depression, it isn't a choice that an individual makes to be sad. I make this distinction because of my experiences I've had with people who don't really know what depression is. They tell me that it is a selfish emotion that I just need to get over. They tell me it is all in my head and that if I would just think better thoughts that I would be alright. I wish it were that easy! But it isn't. I have to take medication, go to counseling, and keep a carefully balanced lifestyle. Trust me, I'd much rather just think about sunshine and daisies and feel better.

Elder Holland put it splendidly when he said:

"Let me leave the extraordinary illnesses I have mentioned to concentrate on MDD—“major depressive disorder”—or, more commonly, “depression.” When I speak of this, I am not speaking of bad hair days, tax deadlines, or other discouraging moments we all have. Everyone is going to be anxious or downhearted on occasion. The Book of Mormon says Ammon and his brethren were depressed at a very difficult time, and so can the rest of us be. But today I am speaking of something more serious, of an affliction so severe that it significantly restricts a person’s ability to function fully, a crater in the mind so deep that no one can responsibly suggest it would surely go away if those victims would just square their shoulders and think more positively—though I am a vigorous advocate of square shoulders and positive thinking!

No, this dark night of the mind and spirit is more than mere discouragement. I have seen it come to an absolutely angelic man when his beloved spouse of 50 years passed away. I have seen it in new mothers with what is euphemistically labeled “after-baby blues.” I have seen it strike anxious students, military veterans, and grandmothers worried about the well-being of their grown children."

Despite the complexity of MDD, I know that there are steps that one can take to become healthy again. Not everyone gets completely healed of depression-I'm not sure I will. But there is always hope. I know this. And my hope comes from the Atonement of my Savior, Jesus Christ. Because He overcame death and rose again, I know that one day I too, can rise perfected. Again, from Elder Holland:

"I testify of the holy Resurrection, that unspeakable cornerstone gift in the Atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ! With the Apostle Paul, I testify that that which was sown in corruption will one day be raised in incorruption and that which was sown in weakness will ultimately be raised in power. I bear witness of that day when loved ones whom we knew to have disabilities in mortality will stand before us glorified and grand, breathtakingly perfect in body and mind. What a thrilling moment that will be! I do not know whether we will be happier for ourselves that we have witnessed such a miracle or happier for them that they are fully perfect and finally “free at last.” Until that hour when Christ’s consummate gift is evident to us all, may we live by faith, hold fast to hope, and show “compassion one of another,” I pray, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen."

Never give up hope--for yourself, or for those you love. Depression is a real thing, but it is a real thing that can be treated--especially by love.