2/25/16

What We Want You to Know


When I set out on my mission in April of 2013, I was planning on serving an 18 month mission. I remember that when I said goodbye to my mom I said, "It's not that long! I'll be home next November!" I thoroughly meant that. I was geared up and ready to wear my shiny black badge for a year and a half and I was stoked. But, my mission didn't last that long.


A lot of people in the LDS community don't know how to respond to early returned missionaries. This is understandable, as it varies case by case. The lack or responses or the negative responses are, in my opinion, often fueled by misunderstanding. So, to provide some more understanding, I asked a group of early returned missionaries to answer this question: "What would you like the world to know about being an early returned missionary?"

"Just because I seem fine after I came home for medical reasons doesn't mean I can- or should- go back to the field. Even though "finishing my mission" was what I wanted more than anything. Sometimes you finish your mission earlier than you want to, but the Lord is in charge and that's okay. I had cancer, and though most people didn't notice anything but the scar on my neck, I was very much not okay. Even after cancer was "gone", I am still trying to find the right dose of the medication I'll have to take for the rest of my life almost 2 years later. The blood tests and ultrasounds every 6 weeks to 6 months wouldn't have let me go back, even if I seem fine."

"Just treat me like you would if I served the full period. Ask me about my mission. I'll tell you. The mission wasn't the hard part, coming home was. There should be no social repercussions."

"Please please please do not treat my mission as if it were secondary to someone who was able to serve for the expected time. I still served a full-time mission, it was still MY mission, and I still loved every moment of the 6 months I was able to serve. Talk to me about my mission, it's one of my favorite things to talk about. Ask me about my injury, ask me about the people I taught and don't feel bad that I served for "only" 6 months. Those were the most fulfilling 6 months of my life. I still wore my mission tag with honor and pride and I loved all the people I served. Also, don't assume that I didn't want to return to missionary service. My knee surgeries were a lot more grueling than anyone had anticipated. I'm still an R.M. so please treat me like one."

"I'm not afraid or uncomfortable when people ask questions. I'd rather have people ask me about my experience returning home early than for them to speculate."

"We're human. We are hurting and mourning the fact we are home early too. Just love us and be willing to listen. Don't be afraid to talk about it if we initiate the conversation. If your RM isn't talking about it, don't push if they're not willing to talk. Not everyone comes home for worthiness issues. Just because we don't have a cast or aren't bedridden, doesn't mean it wasn't a medical release." (referring to mental illness)

"I love the Lord, and wanted nothing more than to remain in the field. But whether the Lord needed us to serve 2 years, 2 months, or 2 days, He accepts our sacrifice."

"Just because I didn't serve the full 18 months, doesn't mean I didn't serve complete my service."

"It is hard and you feel like no one understands but you are not alone."

"You can talk to me about coming home early."

"Just because I came home early shouldn't mean I'm any less of an R.M."

"It is very hard and even emotionally traumatizing. I'm struggling with feelings of inadequacy and depression. I feel broken, defective, and worthless. I feel like a failure. It can be overwhelming when people ask things like "when are you going to go back?" Honestly, I don't know and I can barely take it one day at a time. A huge part of my life just collapsed and I'm still trying to sort through the mess. More than anything I want validation and crave knowing I have value in someway, because frankly I just don't feel it."

"If I want to tell you my story I will. Don't bombard me with questions! (Especially when I first came home)"

"There may be times that I want to remember my mission and others that I just want to block that time period out."

"I'm just a normal human being with an abnormal problem."

"Missions aren't for everyone, but that doesn't mean we should treat anyone differently. Whether they don't go, come home early for whatever reason, or serve full term, it doesn't matter.
You can talk to me about coming home early."

"I've been home for almost two years. While I see coming home early from my mission as a blessing that led me to finding my husband, it is still a traumatic experience. Please be patient with me. I experience severe social anxiety when I have to be strangers. I know my mission is in the distant past for you, but coming home early affects my life every day."

"It's always going to be a part of me, and while I don't regret it it still kinda haunts me in a way. I don't think it's fair, but that's just the way our culture is."

"I feel the same about my mission as all of you who served for the normal amount of time! I fulfilled my mission as God wanted me to, and when He said I was done, I moved on to my next mission in life. The way He said that I was done and that He was proud of me was a little different than the way He said it to you, but He still said it."

"People need to know that just because someone came home early it doesn't change who they are. The reasons for coming home are way too far reaching for us to judge. Some choose it, some are sent home, and some didn't want to go on a mission in the first place. But the fact that they were there is what counts. God never said you need to be perfect now, He said we need to become perfect. That starts with trying and failing a lot. What early returned missionaries really need is just someone who shows them that they are so happy to see them and that they are loved. Isn't that what being a true missionary means? Lifting those who are down trodden. An early returned missionary knows people will talk about them, but what they need is someone who will talk with them."


We all want you to know a variety of things. We want you to know we are trying. We want you to know that we served full-times missions, but they were on God's timing, not our own. But most of all? What we want you to know is that we need your love.


2/10/16

The Truth About Tourette's

(I'm excited to have Landen Blume as a guest writer today on my blog today! Landen is my coworker, and while we were talking one day, we discovered that we share the commonality of being early-returned missionaries. He told me his story, and it is amazing. Read on, friends!)


"You're fine. Nothing's wrong with you. You're a perfectly healthy boy. Stop overthinking it."
For years, this was the general response from everybody. Teachers, friends, therapists, siblings, and my parents. It frustrated me. I knew something was different about me, I just knew it. Yet everyone couldn't see it. 

Let me start out by saying: Tourette's Syndrome is not how you think it is. 

When I was twelve, I was awoken in the middle of the night by a severe pain in my lower right side. After a long, scream-filled car ride, we arrived at the ER where I was told I had kidney stones and they began treating me. While waiting for the doctors to come in and give me one of several basic exams, my mother leaned over and softly said, "Land, when the doctor comes in, we are going to have to tell him a little about you, and there's something we'll tell him that we haven't told you. When you were eight you were diagnosed with Tourette's Syndrome." Confusion was added onto my intense pain. What? I don't have Tourette's. I don't  randomly swear, I don't do anything like that. Somebody is wrong. Doctors are always wrong... 

As time went on, I realized I didn't know anything about this weird syndrome my parents said that I had. So I began to research it. I found out that there was very little information regarding Tourette's, but it was more than I knew. I talked to my mother and father extensively, them being a therapist and doctor respectively. I was told the disorder was characterized by facial and vocal tics, both voluntary and involuntary. It seemed weird. I didn't recognize having any of these "tics". My mother told me that when I was in elementary school, when the teachers asked a question, before answering I would stand up and down repeatedly before I could answer. Eventually they brought me to a psychologist who diagnosed me with Tourette's. The information did little for me. I understood nothing about this thing, and thought they were wrong. "Some misconstrued diagnosis because of one quirky behavior," I figured.

My life moved onward, almost forgetting about the whole Tourette's thing. At that point, I was not as self-aware, not as prone to thought. I was just a kid who didn't know who he was. As I got into Junior High School, I kept feeling like I was weird, different. I moved through life with what I believed to be a completely abstract mindset. I struggled a lot with depression and anxiety. When I felt backed into a corner or like things were just about to snap, I panicked. I felt like I was suffocating. I needed air. Every fight our family had, I thought was the end of the world. Every insult from a classmate was attempted murder. I began playing with this pom-pom that my sister used for cheerleading. I would wrap it around my hand and shake it about, and my imagination would run wild. I would play whole scenes that I had invented. It felt like I was plugged into a generator. My mind was clear as I played, I could concentrate. But I only used it as a release for my emotions and imagination. My parents looked down on it. My father often said it was a blatant waste of time. In a way, it was. I could spend a whole Saturday with my pom-pom. My hand would go numb and wrinkled from sweat, but it didn't matter. My brain felt free. The pom-pom was soon replaced with a shirt, and it stayed a shirt for the years to come. It was one of my escapes. I didn't realize it then, but that shirt tic was a crucial key to my Tourette's. 

Skip ahead a few years, and a few important life changes. Despite failing nearly every class for two years and having to make them all up in two weeks, I graduated. Miraculously. My mother fought like a lion to get me to graduation. She got me to dig deep, to focus. She was, and still is my champion. My number one fan. My Chemistry teacher helped as well. She found out the 150+ hours of detention I had, and wrote them all off for me and also paid all my school fees. Over $400 she shovelled out for me. Why? "School, life, it all has a system. You need to know the system, Landen. You're smart. You'll change the world. Just learn the system, learn how to navigate it, and you'll ride it like a wave all the way to the end."Not only did I graduate, but I walked with everyone. It was a fantastic night. 

The next life issue was related to my broken faith. The age for LDS missionaries had been lowered, and everyone began to ask me, "When are you going on your mission?" Eventually, I had to tell everyone (parents and family included) that I was not going on a mission, and I insisted on the fact that "missions are not necessary in our faith to salvation. I'll be fine without squandering two years to serve people I don't know, eat weird foods I didn't like, and all this for a church where so many of its members had been unkind to me, and to my family, and I would rather stay home and play Pokemon than go to church for three hours." So I left to college instead. College was actually a huge opportunity for me, and I am grateful I went. My roommates were lifesavers. My introverted nature was immediately shut down by them. I would try to sneak into my room without talking and Talon Boss would stand in front of me and say, "We're going to eat ice cream over at the bishop's house. You're coming with us." They ripped me out of my depressed shell, and I opened up. It was an opportunity to round my personality out, and I began to see what I wanted to do with my life. My Tourette's had stayed almost invisible to this point, as well. 

Life was looking up. I even met "the girl of my dreams," and those were some of my happiest days. Sadly, my indecisiveness and lack of focus caused me to lose focus on schoolwork and I began to fail. I'll try to justify that by saying I was frustrated at the "system", that I was sick of jumping through hoops like a dog. I was sick of being told essentially "You haven't learned to memorize numbers or follow orders well enough, so you're not allowed to continue learning." All my life I excelled with science, writing, and music, yet struggled with math and homework and other such aspects. I felt like school couldn't support my weaknesses and also couldn't handle my strengths. Those points are all true, but in reality, I just wasn't committed, and wasted my time with my girlfriend and video games. I did so poorly at school that I dropped classes, and eventually had to leave college. Over the months of college and living at home, a period which felt like "limbo" to me, I slowly rekindled a faith in God due to the bright faith of my roommates, some of which were taking lessons from the missionaries, and they eventually got baptized. Them simply affirming that "you always pray before you eat" taught me that God wasn't looking for recitations, he was looking for genuineness. But, those were merely seeds being planted. I am an impatient person, and didn't see this progress. I continued slipping and falling.

Everything in my life seemed to spiral downwards (I was living at home, had no job, my girlfriend left the state so we had broken up, and my family was struggling as well), my grandfather died, and my childhood best friend, my dog Sophie, died a week after. I thought all was hopeless. I was lost. 

Until my grandfather's viewing.

Long story short, a series of miracles allowed me to speak to my missionary cousin and his powerful, bold words convinced me that I had to serve a mission. I know, it was insane to me too. I figured I should begin to learn about the church for which I was determined to serve a mission, so I studied. I went back to church, I paid attention. However, adversity in my life amplified. The natural stresses and difficulties in our family had grown large, and I felt as if all the pressure was on me. I was exhausting myself, so my parents finally sent me to see a therapist who diagnosed me with an anxiety disorder. Speaking with this therapist did nothing for me. I stayed upset, angry, and depressed. I just had a name for it now. "Anxiety."

I went on to the Pennsylvania Philadelphia Mission, and I learned Spanish. Those were the best months of my life. My family improved phenomenally while I was gone, I learned unbelievable things on my mission, and to top it all off, I was speaking Spanish and eating tacos, tamales, and pozole all the time. What's better than that? 

On my mission, my Tourette's became pronounced. I developed steady, constant tics. But I didn't think anything of it. They were no nuisance. In fact, it gave me the chance to learn a lot about what caused my tics, and I learned a lot about myself and my mind. It was as if a dormant beast had finally reared its ugly head and I knew I could bring it down. I learned to focus and control my mind and it worked wonders for me. I was gliding on this tidal wave of life that I expected to carry me into the eternities. Then I crashed.

At the 16 month mark of my mission, I was suddenly struck with what can only be described as complete speech paralysis.One evening, within moments, I began developing severe vocal and motor tics, having a severe stutter which prevented any speech whatsoever, had several large facial movement tics, my hands and arms twisted and contracted involuntarily, my neck tensed up and twisted, my chest seized up. I thought I was having a stroke. I was terrified. I spent that night sobbing on our couch, stuffing a pillow in my mouth to muffle the bitter cocktail of grunts, groans, sobs, and screams of fear. Over the next two days, I visited several psychologists across the state of Pennsylvania, needing to type out sentences on an iPad to tell them what I wanted to say, and finally, after consulting with a therapist and my mission president, I went home. 

I couldn't believe it. After the best 16 months I had lived so far, in two days everything came crashing down without any warning. One minute I'm walking around Northern PA, the next I'm sitting on an airplane to Salt Lake with my suit coat in my mouth to not disturb other passengers. During those two days, my lively, confident attitude was replaced with a scared, timid, passive one. I didn't want to talk to anyone. I didn't even want to be around anyone. With my new tics, I was a burden to everyone. At a choir concert for my sister, I sat in the back with my coat stuffed in my mouth to be quieter and all I got were dirty looks from the surrounding audience for "being so disruptive."

I had to come and live back at home with my mother, who I knew would give up anything to help me, which subsequently made me feel guilty and bad. My whole family was willing to sacrifice themselves and their comforts for me, and in a way, that made me feel stressed. I didn't want them to have to do that for me. I scrambled during the first days at home to find "anchors", or safe zones/things that I could rely on. There was almost nothing I could rely on. I had no phone, no car, not even my own room. 

For me, with the way I think and feel, I need anchors. I need reliability. Things as simple as a comfortable pillow or a warm blanket make monumental differences to me. If I'm at a social gathering (which now terrify me), and I don't have some kind of "crutch", like my phone, I panic, and my tics get even worse. Now, contrary to popular belief, not all my tics are directly stress related. When you are stressed, your tics amplify, but for me, it's whenever I'm full of energy. Happiness, sadness, you name it. 

I've now been home for just about three months, and it's been quite the journey. It's been an uphill battle, learning about my Tourette's and how it interacts with anxiety. My neurologist has Tourette's just like me, and just like me, he never grew out of it, the way you're supposed to as a teenager. He understands me, even when I can't speak well enough to explain myself. It's hard to explain Tourette's. 

Tourette's is strongly linked with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and ADHD. Let me put it this way: that feeling you get, when you need to inhale or blink? That's the same feeling as needing to "tic". I feel the stimulus, that sensation, in my tongue, my lips, my neck, my throat, my hands, my wrists, my lungs, everywhere, and in the same way that you inhale to satisfy the sensation, I "tic". However, the sensation doesn't go away for me. I tic, and tic, and tic, and I still feel the need to "breathe". Panic often sets in. It feels like suffocating, constantly, without any respite. At times I've found myself physically twisting my neck with my hands to try and desperately satisfy this compulsive urge. These compulsive urges are immensely powerful, and sometimes are difficult to resist. During the harder times of my life, my suicidal tendencies became amplified by a sudden "tic urge" to down a bottle of pills or crash my car. To me, it felt nearly impossible to resist. 

All my life I've had these disorders, and recently we have discovered that I may have developed some disorder where although something is wrong, my brain tells itself that everything is fine. All of these years, I felt like something was wrong. My brain was telling me something was wrong, but eventually I started to believe everybody else. Everything was fine. I just needed to "shape up" and "stop overthinking it", because I was a "perfectly normal boy". Basically, it was like forcing skin to heal over a wound and then saying, "See? Everything's fine." Now I have this theoretical "scar tissue" that I am now learning to heal the right way. I have to tear up everything I once knew, every social norm that was ingraven into my brain, and start from the beginning. I have to face my Tourette's, and learn to handle it. I have had to spend the past few months literally learning how to talk again. What sounds letters made, what words sounded like. A complete re-wiring. I still can't really pronounce the certain sounds in English. 

At this point, I probably will have my Tourette's for most, if not all of my life. But that doesn't worry me. One of my mission companions once told me, "The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next best time is today." So although I should've started all this work years ago, there's no better time than the present to get started. It's been such a learning process. It's been terrifyingly beautiful for me. 

Since the incident on my mission and being home, I've tried a slurry of medications, and although they technically reduce my tics, they're just glorified horse tranquilizers. This one's for schizophrenia, that one's for hysteria, this one is for bipolar. My whole persona is suppressed and slowed and that simply forces my body to reduce tics. It's a borderline nightmarish situation, so I often go without medication just to have my brain back until the tics get too bad to function. Then I delve back into the conscious coma.

Having Tourette's complicates the simplest aspects of regular life. To get a small cavity fixed in my tooth, rather than just one quick shot and a 15 minute filling, I have to be put under with nitrous gas so I don't accidentally twitch right into the drill. I sometimes have to pull over when a fit of tics hits and my hands and arms twist uncontrollably. 

The tics are just like the sensation of needing air. When I'm not paying attention, I can tic without noticing at all. No matter how big the tics are, just like being able to passively breathe without noticing. But when I notice (i.e. if I see someone else tic-ing or someone mentions a tic) I begin to tic. (Like right now, you have just noticed your own breathing. You're welcome.)
I can "hold my breath" for a time and suppress the tics momentarily, but then I feel the need to "gasp for air" and for a little while the tics are worse.

My whole way of thinking revolves around compulsive thoughts and feelings, and how I react to them. I wish I could simply turn off the tics, or choose not to do them. Many people have said things like "It's just because you're stressed, calm down." or "You've gotta get better at pronouncing that sound, Landen.", "You can't just give up. You've gotta try to talk better." or "If you know you aren't going to satisfy the sensation, just don't do it." But it isn't that simple. So don't expect others with Tourette's or any kinds of tics to just be able to "not". That's like telling someone to stop breathing, just because they know there's no air. We're going to keep gasping, it's the way our body functions. We can't control that.

Right now, I am constantly working on developing confidence again. Talking to people, going out of my suddenly-shrunk comfort zone. It's an exhaustive process, but one worth taking. I know I can't stay static with my Tourette's, I need to progress. And it's been working. 

I have a great job, I have a car, a phone, and several other safe anchors. I am feeling safe again. Sometimes my tics are really bad, and I struggle with the feeling of limbo, but I know there's a light at the end of the tunnel. Someday, I'll be totally independent again, and can begin paying it forward. I feel a sense of hope at the thought of visiting my mother on Sunday nights for family dinner, and the thought of owning the car I really want, and at taking trips to Central America. My tiny piece of stable "anchor" land beneath my feet is growing into a little island, where I can finally stretch my limbs and relax. 

I still don't know everything about Tourette's, or anxiety, or much of anything for that matter, but I'm learning every day, and there's one thing I will never forget:

No matter how much I may feel like there's no air, I am still going to keep breathing.




2/2/16

I'm a Liar, and I'm Not Sorry About It

As a child, I was taught to never lie. In fact, a lie about a misbehavior carried a harsher punishment than the misbehavior itself. I learned very quickly that if I screwed up, it was much better to own up to it than to lie about it. Because of this, I've never really been a fan of lying or lies.


Until now.

"A man is never more truthful than when he acknowledges himself a liar."
-Mark Twain



Let me be honest with you: I have, I do, and I will lie to you. Those lies vary, but they tend to be along the lines of "I'm doing great." or "Everything is awesome!" I tell people those lies, including myself. Because sometimes, I'm not great. Everything is not awesome. In fact, even on this blog I lie sometimes. I act more positively than I feel. But I'm going to keep lying to you.

Why?

I lie to you because, as I do, those lies turn into truths for me. Slowly but surely, I start to believe the lies that I am great and that everything is awesome. I start to believe in myself and feel better. I become more optimistic, hopeful, and happy...all because of a lie. "Fake it til you make it" is a real thing, and it works.

Are those really lies?

Yes, technically they are lies. They are "falsehoods" and "intentional untruths". You might call them "white lies." I call them self-encouragements, and I'm okay with them. Don't get me wrong--I don't believe in manipulation or destructive lies. I believe in the kind of positive "lies" that can become truths if you keep telling yourself them. Or, sometimes there are truths that you don't believe like "Everything is going to be okay." It's a truth--you really will be okay! You just don't believe it. Yet.

So go ahead. Lie to yourself. Tell yourself that everything is going to be okay, even if you don't believe it. Push yourself. Tell yourself the lies until they become realities. Because sometimes, being a liar is the best thing you can be.