In My Mother's Eyes

{This post was written by mom. I asked her to open up about what her experience of having an early returned missionary daughter has been like, and what challenges she's faced as she's tried to help me conquer the beast of my mental illness.}

“Mom, I can go! I can go!” These were the first words out of Rachel’s mouth in October 2012 as Pres. Monson announced the church’s decision to change the missionary age for both young men and young women. Being the mother of four daughters, I didn’t ever think I would be a “missionary mom”.  It was a spiritual moment for Rachel and for us. I was going to be a missionary mom!
This was a happy time in Rachel’s life and ours. She was in a good spot, enjoying her freshman year at BYU. She dedicated herself to preparing to go on a mission. She took missionary prep classes and other religion classes so she would be prepared to teach wherever she was called. There was slight concern about her depression, but it seemed we had gotten on top of it. She was taking her medication that seemed to be helping, she was being gentler with her sisters (irritability is a prime symptom for Rachel with her illness), and she was happy and excited.

When she received her call to the Washington Seattle mission, she was thrilled. And so were we. My family spent some time living in that area before I was married. She had to take finals early, move out of her dorm, and speak in sacrament meeting all the weekend before she entered the MTC. I remember crying as we drove away after dropping her off, thinking “she’s gone.”  Because after she returned, there would be schooling, marriage, a family of her own… But “gone” feels different to me now.

I waited anxiously for emails while she was on her mission. Many times I tried to evaluate how she was doing emotionally because we knew this would be taxing on her. She is a very bright and intelligent, well-spoken person. And as what happened in many missions, her training in the field was cut in half before she became a trainer herself. There were some low times that she did confide to us. But she got a companion who she loved and she seemed to be able to pick herself back up. My anxiety increased as there was talk of her seeing a therapist in the Seattle. But I prayed that surely she would be blessed. She was doing the Lord’s work; she was worthy and had the desire to serve Him.
In October of 2013, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland delivered his message entitled, “Like a Broken Vessel” in General Conference. Just one year after the announcement of the missionary age change. Tears rolled down my face as I listened to him. I am the daughter of a mother who suffers with MDD.  My husband was diagnosed seven years into our marriage with bipolar disorder. I am experiencing the mortal challenge of mental illness by being a daughter, wife, and now mother of those who suffer with mental illness. I was so touched and grateful for the candid and loving nature in which Elder Holland delivered his message to all of us. Little did I know tears were rolling down Rachel’s face too, she was barely holding on.

After an email that I received from Rachel where she was very candid about how badly she was struggling, I enlisted some help from the wife of the Young Single Adult Branch Presidency member where Rachel was serving. I am so grateful for her love and support to Rachel at that time. It was decided they would talk to mission medical and the mission president. After this, it was decided at the end of October that Rachel needed medical help at home and the support of her family. I am also grateful for her loving mission president, Pres. Eaton, who explained to Rachel that she had served a full mission, and the Lord accepted her offering.  Rob flew to Seattle so he could fly home with her. I was devastated for her. She had done everything right. I didn’t know how this would affect the rest of her life.

We waited anxiously at the airport for her, I just wanted to hug her and tell her it was ok, everything was going to be ok. That following Sunday was a fast Sunday. We walked in as a family terrified of how people would react. Rachel asked that our bishop announce from the pulpit that she had been given an honorable medical release for depression. She wanted to be up front and honest about what she was facing. I still admire her courage for taking this position, and that she still is trying to advocate for those who suffer. It makes me proud of her desire to serve the Lord in this way. She bore her testimony that day of her love for the Savior. Our ward couldn’t have been kinder. They didn’t judge, and welcomed her home with love.

I have struggled writing this post. It’s almost been two years now since she came home. I’ve wanted so badly to be upbeat and positive. And there are times when I am. I didn’t get the typical “missionary mom” experience, and Rachel didn’t get the typical missionary experience. I don’t want Rachel to think we’ve given up. But I’d be lying if I said she was all better. That everything has gone smoothly and that Rachel is back to herself. This is when I feel she’s “gone”. I can’t expect her to be the same though after going through the trials that she has and continues to endure. And we know that this will be a lifelong struggle for her. But part of loving those who suffer with mental illness, is dealing with the loss.  It’s a grieving process that sometimes involves changing our expectations for our loved one. I feel sometimes that we (because this affects our family, her friends, etc…not just Rachel) are spinning in circles. I suspect/know she feels the same many times.  I keep waiting for a reflection period, a time of reprieve for her. It feels like it hasn’t happened yet.

Being the mother of adult child is a whole new challenge in itself, let alone with a daughter who is trying to come to terms with and manage a mental illness. It adds a whole new level of complexity of where to let go, and where to fight for what I feel she needs. I know Rachel has very strong feelings about us, feeling like we are “helicopter parents”. I guess I don’t know yet where the line is. I hope she will understand someday, that although not perfect, our fierce love for her and her happiness have been our only intent. We want to part of the solution, not the problem. I think she knows this logically…but hasn’t quite understood or felt it.

All this being said, this is what I do know; I’m not giving up on happiness for Rachel and neither is the Lord, and neither is she. I continue to pray for healing of her heart from this challenge in her life. Because I don’t think we get to ask for this challenge to be removed. But I want her heart to be comforted and strengthened so she can endure and press forward with a brightness of hope (2 Nephi 31:20). Just as Elder Holland stated, I will continue to strive to make sure that we “Above all, never lose faith in our Father in Heaven, who loves us more than we can comprehend.” (*changed for context) I will continue to look for miracles in our lives. I will continue to pray not to lose hope. And I will continue to strive to understand the promises of the Atonement for Rachel and for me. She was His precious daughter, before she was mine. I will continue to try and have faith in His hand in her life.


10 Things You Should Never Say to an Early Returned Missionary

   When I came home after serving a six month mission, I received a lot of responses. I got asked a lot of questions. More often than not, everything that was said or asked was totally fine. I was able to talk about my experiences pretty openly. However, after a few negative experiences and after speaking with other early returned missionaries, I've learned that there are some things that you probably shouldn't say to a missionary who comes home early. 

1. "So, why did you come home early?"
  If a missionary wants you to know why they came home early, they will tell you. Hopefully, you can be the kind of person they trust to be open with. If they don't want to tell you or if they aren't open about it, please don't be offended. It's a hard thing to talk about. Just treat them with love and respect--no differently than you would if they came home after the usual amount of time.

2. "When are you going back out on your mission?"
   This is an awkward question to answer if you aren't planning on returning to your mission. I got asked this question a few times and I answered honestly--I'm not. But some missionaries may feel pressured to return to their mission when people ask them questions like this. Of course, we would want to support any missionary in returning, if it's right for them. 

3. "Why aren't you going back on your mission?"

    They have a reason. They know, for whatever reason, that going back into the field isn't the right thing for them to do. For me, I knew that I couldn't stay mentally healthy as a full-time missionary. I knew I had to work through my depression at home where I had the time and resources to get healthy. Each early return missionary will make that decision with God. If they want to share with you, I promise they will. Please don't put them in that awkward position. 

4. "I'm sure you'll make it back out."
   This relates to #2 and #3. Not every missionary makes it back out--like myself. Saying something like that is assumptive. It places an unnecessary (and unintentional) pressure on the missionary to return to the mission field, even though that might not be the right thing for them to do.

5. "Oh."
   This response usually comes after an early return missionary opens up about coming home early. I got this all the time. It was usually accompanied by an awkward silence and the person avoiding eye contact with me. If a person feels comfortable enough with you to share that they came home early, be proud! Be supportive! You don't have to coax or try to stoke their confidence. Just express things like, "Well I'm sorry you had to come home early." If they are being open with you, be open with them. They'll love you for it.

6. "Well, you served a full mission."
   This is not the worst thing to say, but it is not the best. Truth is, it's nice to hear--the first three times. It is a phrase that gets a little repetitive. When I came home, I knew that I had served a full mission and that I was a returned missionary--even if it was an early return missionary. Being told that you served a full mission over and over again made me a little frustrated because it felt like a cop-out, like something that you would say just to avoid talking about it more. I wanted something a little more sincere, a little more personalized. Something someone said to me once that made my day was, "You served a full mission, and your mission has just begun. I am so proud of you."

7. "Were you worthy?"

    Guys, this question just doesn't need to be asked because it doesn't matter. (For more on this opinion, see this post) Whether someone came home early because of worthiness or not is none of your business. That is something that is between them and the Lord. Please, just support them. Love them. Don't assume things or ask something you wouldn't want to be asked. If you know they came home early for worthiness, love them. Treat them the same. They need your love more than anything.

8. "You're a priesthood holder--isn't it your duty and responsibility to serve a full mission?"

    From President Kimball in 1982: I was asked a few years ago, “Should every young man who is a member of the Church fill a mission?” And I responded with the answer the Lord has given: “Yes, every worthy young man should fill a mission.” The Lord expects it of him. And if he is not now worthy to fill a mission, then he should start at once to qualify himself. I respect this counsel from a great prophet of God. I have a firm testimony in prophets and in their calling. However, I don't think that President Kimball expected a young man to serve a mission who had been deemed not healthy enough to do so. Nor do I think that President Kimball wanted members of the Church to shame young men into serving missions or shame them for not serving full missions. That is not the right way of going about things. God never shames us into doing anything. He tells us what He expects and asks us to do our best. He knows our hearts and our intentions. He knows when we aren't healthy--in mind or in body or in spirit. Do I believe that young men should serve missions and that missions make them more well-rounded priesthood holders? Absolutely. Do I believe that serving a mission dictates who a person is, what blessings they deserve, and if they'll make it to the Celestial Kingdom? Absolutely not. Serving a full-time mission is NOT a saving ordinance. I think some members of the Church somehow think it is. Don't make that same mistake.

9. "Was it just too hard for you?"

     Anyone who has served a mission knows just how hard it is. It is grueling on so many levels. Every day you are working from before sunup til after sundown. You face hardships, rejection, and sickness. You feel alone. Missions are HARD. When a missionary comes home early, sometimes it was too hard for them. It was too hard for me! It was too hard for me to balance my health with missionary work. When my health became severely endangered, I needed to come home. So the answer to this question is mostly "Yes." For some reason or another, the mission was too hard for the missionary. God does not expect us to run faster or work harder than we have strength for. Why should we expect that of others?

10. "If I were you..."

    Everyone approaches situations differently. I believe at times we are given specific challenges for us to face and learn from by God. Please don't make the mistake of imposing your way of approaching challenges on someone else. Their challenges are their challenges and they need to learn from them. Of course offering advice is alright, especially if they ask for it. But saying things like "If I were you" implies that they are doing things wrong. They aren't you, and you aren't them--so don't expect them to act how you would. Likewise, don't assume you know the situation through and through. You aren't them, so you don't know exactly what demons they are dealing with.


The best thing you can do for a missionary who comes home early is love them. Love them with all of your heart. Pray to know how to help them best and to know what things to say. I promise that if you respond with a heart full of love, you'll know exactly what to say and what not to say. The most important thing for you to do is to let early returned missionaries know that you love them and support them, no matter what. Don't get too caught up in what to say as much as in what to do for them. There are always do's and don'ts to every situation, but when you include God, there is only devotion and love.