When your mission is cut short / by Martha Keyes

No one ever plans to return early from a mission. I sure didn't. And yet, I found myself on a plane home from Bolivia less than 3 months after I had entered the MTC. I don't know that there are many feelings more overwhelming than the ones I had at that time. 

I wanted to go home.   --   I absolutely couldn't go home. 

I dreaded it.  --   I longed for it. 

I was terrified.   --   I was determined. 

I wanted it to come faster.    --   I never wanted it to come.

I have never felt more confused, alone, or worthless in my life. 

I had prepared so diligently for my mission. I had studied the scriptures and Preach My Gospel every day for months before I left. I had memorized the First Vision in English and Spanish. I had prayed my little heart out. I had attended the temple at least once a week. I had treasured my time in the Provo and Lima MTCs. Why, then, had I failed?

Just prior to my departure home, my sweet mission president's primary concern for me, he said, was that he didn't want me to feel like I had failed. Despite his Christlike concern, that is absolutely what it felt like. Plain, undeniable, hard-and-cold-as-ice failure. Just before leaving to the airport, my Zone Leader called and said to me, "Siga adelante, Hermana" ("Press forward, Sister.") There was concern in his voice, like he had little hope for me. I'm sure he meant well, but to me it was confirmation of my worst fear--my going home early meant that my spiritual valor was in question. People were worried that I would fall away. To them, I couldn't possibly return early and be a faithful Latter-day Saint.

And then I was home. And self-doubt gnawed at me day and night.
I had ruined my future. I had decreased my potential. I had forfeited blessings. I hadn't tried hard enough. I had failed investigators. No one would want to marry someone who had returned home early from their mission. 
These thoughts and feelings were constant, and they were excruciating. I wanted to either disappear or completely obliterate the past few months of my life from my own memory and from the memories of everyone around me. When I met with a member of the Stake Presidency, he was kind and encouraging. He told me I was being honorably released from my mission. But I felt anything but honorable. I wasn't asked to speak in church or report to the High Council--probably out of concern for the turmoil I was going through--but I took that as another indication that my spirituality was in question. Those were some very dark days full of all-encompassing thoughts and emotions. I tried to live normally and present an appearance of placid confidence, but inside I was a mess.

It's been 4 and a half years now. And my life is wonderful--so very wonderful! But you know what? Sometimes it can still be tough. It's tough because I still have a hard time answering people's questions. It's tough because it's an incredibly personal thing that becomes public knowledge. It's tough because I still struggle with feeling inferior to missionaries who served the expected 18 or 24 months, to those who returned home due to a physical rather than an emotional/psychological issue, to those who returned to the field, even to those who returned home after having served longer than my 3 months. It's tough because, when people ask, "Did you serve a mission?" I feel like I can't just confidently say, "Yes," because that would be deceitful--it would be like usurping an unearned title. So I qualify it and say, "Yeah, but I wasn't out for very long." And then the questions start, and my cheeks get hot, and my blood pressure starts rising because how in the world can I convey the absolute tornado of mental and physical events that led to me coming home? I know people want a clear-cut answer they can understand like, "I got a parasite." How many times I have wished that I could give them such a socially- and culturally-acceptable answer! But I can't. And it's tough. And sometimes, it brings it all back. 

In fact, I have had to and will continue to face questions about my return more frequently than most other missionaries who returned early. Why? Because my husband and I actually met in the MTC. When we were dating, I actually thought to myself many times, "But if we get married, I'll never be able to leave my early return behind me! It will come up for the rest of my life." And it's true.  Anytime people ask how we met (it happens all the time), there's a good chance that my early return will come up. 

Them: "Oh, cool! Did you serve in the same mission?"
Me: "No, he served in Spain, and I served in Bolivia. We were just in the same MTC zone for a couple weeks."
Them: "Oh! So you both speak Spanish!"
Me: "Kind of! I actually had to come home early, so my Spanish isn't that great."
Them: "Oh, what happened?!"

I've scrambled with how to answer that question too many times to count. I've had that exact conversation thousands of times, it seems. It has forced me to confront the emotions related to my return on a very regular basis which, though difficult, has actually helped me overall. Due to such frequent conversations, and despite the fact that I'm still figuring everything out, I have learned so much in the last few years.

If you are a missionary who came home early as I did, please consider these things:

1. Be gentle with yourself. I promise you that no good at all will come of you hashing and re-hashing the past. No good will come of asking "What if?" 

“All of us can waste precious time by saying, ‘What if I had not done something or other?’ Brothers and sisters, ‘What if’ is not an appropriate question if we really want to start again. Let us face head-on where we are and where we want to be, and not dwell on the ‘what ifs’ of yesterday.” Hugh Pinnock

2. Don't feel obligated to explain or justify yourself. You don't owe your acquaintances explanations. Please don't feel like you do. These are matters for you, the Lord, your ecclesiastical leaders, and close family. When people seem to pry, they generally do so unthinkingly and without bad intentions. You don't need to give them details or justify yourself, even if they ask kindly. These are very personal matters. Just as you wouldn't show your journal to just any curious person you run into, you don't need to open up healing or healed wounds to inquirers--innocent or otherwise.

3. Don't compare yourself to other missionaries--not even to others who have returned early. Don't compare how many months you were out. Don't compare what brought you home--I don't care if it was mental, physical, or spiritual. This has been such a hard one for me. Every mission is different. Every missionary is different. Every life path is different. Comparison can only lead to one of two things: feeling below someone or feeling above someone. Both of these are damaging to our spirits. Thankfully, our eternal salvation does not depend on where we are in comparison to those around us. It depends on our individual relationship with the Savior, and THAT is something we have complete control over.

What can you ever really know of other people's souls--of their temptations, their opportunities, their struggles? One soul in the whole creation you do know: and it is the only one whose fate is placed in your hands. -C.S. Lewis.

4. Don't be afraid to ask for help, whether that's from a bishop, a professional, both, or someone else entirely. There are a lot of emotions to process and unravel when you return earlier than anticipated from a mission. Prayer is essential, but Heavenly Father also wants us to make use of the resources around us. 

5. Do let Him in. Don't keep Heavenly Father at arm's length. In those last agonizing days on my mission, I prayed harder than I had ever prayed in my life. My knees were bruised. My cheeks were constantly wet with tears. But once the decision was made to come home, I was terrified to face my Maker in sincere prayer. I prayed, alright, but I was scared to fully open myself up to Him because I was ashamed, and I thought He was ashamed of me. I regret this so much. He is your Father. All He wants is your eternal happiness. Lay your burdens at His feet. He can make them light or strengthen you to bear them.

"It is when we are lost in the mists of darkness and cannot find our way that we most desperately need the influence of the Lord. Nowhere in all of the scriptural injunctions on prayer do we find the suggestion that we must first be perfect in order to communicate with God." M. Russell Ballard

6. Do forgive yourself.  When the Lord says we are required to forgive, He means we must forgive ourselves as well as others. Don't, as Elder Maxwell said, let yesterday hold tomorrow hostage. Remember this from Elder Holland: “God doesn't care nearly as much about where you have been as He does about where you are and, with His help, where you are willing to go." Remember that the principles you studied and taught as a missionary--this amazing, real, beautiful gospel with an incredible, enabling atonement--apply to YOU.

7. Do love yourself. You are loved, you will continue to be loved, and you are still you. I was so worried that no one would want to marry a missionary who came home early. I worried that I had shamed my family. This is absolutely false and a message from Satan. He uses it to make you feel of less worth so that he can keep you from your potential. Yes, some people who lack understanding may say hurtful things or treat you differently because of your experience. I promise you that this says more about them than it says about you. So many other people will recognize the inner beauty and depth that makes you who you are, including your mission experience! Returning home early from my mission has increased my empathy ten-fold and made me a more compassionate person.

8. Do keep on serving! When I got home, I decided I would request to serve as a temple worker because I was sorely missing being a missionary and I wanted to make sure I stayed in tune with the Spirit. This made all the difference for me. It kept me close to Him and focused on others. However you decide to do it, keep on serving others! It will help shift your focus from yourself to others. It will nurture your spirit. It will bring you joy. 

“The key to overcoming aloneness and a feeling of uselessness for one who is physically able is to step outside yourself by helping others who are truly needy. We promise those who will render this kind of service that, in some measure, you will be healed of the loss of loved ones or the dread of being alone. The way to feel better about your own situation is to improve someone else’s circumstances.” --Ezra Taft Benson

9. Do reach out to others like you. One of the great blessings of this life is that our struggles place us in a position to lift others. Elder Maxwell said, "Empathy during agony is a portion of divinity!" Similarly, a Swedish proverb says, "Shared joy is a double joy; shared sorrow is half a sorrow." One of my very closest friends was made when we discovered that we had both had to return early from our missions. We have been able to strengthen and lift each other in ways that wouldn't otherwise be possible. There are people who understand much of what you are feeling.

10. Do believe that your future is still as bright as your faith. STILL. And your faith IS bright. Your faith was bright enough to take a leap and do what only a fraction of a percentage of the people on this earth do--serve a full-time mission for their Lord and Savior. Did it go how you planned? No. Does life ever go as we plan? Not in my experience. Are your days as a missionary over? Absolutely not--if you choose for them not to be. Full-time mission work is but a fraction of the missionary work going on on this side and on the other side of the veil. When I was in the MTC, Elder Holland came and gave the most incredibly moving and life-changing talk with a focus much broader than full-time service. Similar to his General Conference talk a couple of years ago to the entire Church, he said this to the missionaries: 

And Jesus says, really in effect, “Okay,” for the last time, “do you love me more than these? Than what you do? And what you’ve just been doing?”
And that is the moment that Peter became the great apostle. Forget the denials, whatever they were. Forget the cut off ears. Forget the impetuousness. Forget the confusion. Forget not knowing more than to come back to fish. Right here, face-to-face, again from the honesty of his heart he said, “I do love you, more than anything.”
And to that, the Savior of the world said, “Then feed my sheep! I have asked you before to leave your nets. And I’m asking you again, and I don’t want to ask you a third time. When I said, ‘Leave your nets,’ it was forever. When I asked you to follow me, it was forever. When I asked you to be an apostle, it was forever. When I asked you to be a Missionary, it was forever. When I asked you to see this through to the end, it was because it’s not over ’til it’s over. Now forget your nets, and forget the fish, and jettison your boat, and throw those oars away for the second time, and feed my sheep. We’re in this ’til the end.”
You need to decide tonight whether you’re on a course that’s committed to the idea that you really do love God. You really do love the Savior. And if you do, and I know you do, and I pray you do, and we’ll all do this together, we’ll all march into the future together, but when you do, and when you say that, and when you believe that, then your call is to feed His sheep, forever.

Your call to labor as a missionary is not over. It will never be over. Your full-time service may have been shorter than you planned. But your call as a missionary and representative of Jesus Christ remains in effect. So we must leave our nets--whatever those nets may be, whatever is keeping us from loving and serving the Savior. There are opportunities to serve everywhere, and YOU alone determine how your future plays out. When I returned home, even though I hurt that people could doubt my faithfulness, I knew that what happened next was up to me--I could let my early return shape my future, or I could shape my own future and build on the experiences I had had. I looked around myself and asked, "How might Heavenly Father want me to serve here at home that I wouldn't have been able to do in the field?" 

Would you want someone you loved to let one difficult experience determine the rest of their life? Of course not. And no one wants that for you. Take time to process or grieve--I'm a huge advocate of writing feelings out--but make sure that you determine at what point you will move forward, building on what you have learned and felt, holding onto and seeking out the positives and letting go of the negatives. In short, leave your nets and keep serving your Savior however you can. 

I know that it is incredibly difficult and overwhelming to return early. It seems like that is your new identity--a missionary who came home early--and that nothing else matters. It seems like you'll never feel normal again. Please don't believe that. Take your future back into your hands and mold it to be what you want it to be, one choice and one day at a time. Life holds so much for you if you will continue in faith! 

To anyone reading this who did not return early: if you know a missionary who did return home early, please be aware of the emotional turmoil that missionary has passed through. Realize that, although you may ask out of genuine concern, questions about the reasons for an early release can trigger some very painful memories and difficult topics. As curious and desirous to help as you may be, your job is not to unravel the complexity of an early return, it is to love that missionary regardless of what happened. I realize that it can be awkward for you, too, to navigate the conversation. Most missionaries who returned early just want to feel normal and to be treated normally. 

So why would God call someone on a mission only to return early? My grandpa often provided a scriptural answer for such difficult questions. When the angel asks Nephi whether he knows the condescension of God, Nephi answers, "I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things."