Feature Friday: Brooke

Brooke and I went to high school together. She was a little quieter (and now I know more of why from her story), but was always super nice and smiley. Her story is just another confirmation to me that we truly have no idea what could be going on under the surface.
Brooke was born and raised in beautiful Utah, USA. She loves skiing, working out, and thinks having fun every day is a must. She has schizoaffective disorder but is choosing to learn how to deal with it better all the time. She loves her family, friends, dog, and yes she even loves you! “Let’s be kind, be real, and be there for each other today.”

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I was very humbled when I got asked to share my story of battling mental illness. I know that there are so many stories out there and so many priorities in life you have going on. If you choose not to take the time to read my story, I am not offended. It is long, probably too long, seriously sorry about that. But if anything just know that YOU are LOVED, you are WORTH and DESERVE every bit of love there is. If you need HELP, please please reach out to a professional, friend, or me. We can and WILL get through this together. Please DON’T GIVE UP. Don’t let your battle win, we will WIN, together we can through HIM.

I am just a normal girl, born and raised in Utah. I was oh so very shy growing up. I was timid talking to adults, I had a couple of best friends, but never really valued myself. I worshiped and envied people’s confidence, looks, and personalities. I grew up in a strict upbringing, which actually made me enjoy the different easy-going, fun, relaxed home styles my friends grew up in. (I love my family with all my heart, not trying to say I am not grateful for them, I did, however, struggle with some things in mine. No family is perfect right?) I am telling you this backstory to let you know for me my mental illness started young, there were many factors that affect who I would become and how my mental illness would develop. I’ll spare you most of the details, and try to keep it short. Just know, I have been the girl that seemed like she had a lot going for her. In reality, I had a track scholarship but was so hard on myself for feeling like I didn’t fit in with the team, and did not keep up at practice. I got asked to and went to I think every dance in high school, would research conversation topics to talk about, but I had crippling anxiety I wouldn’t even talk to my date. I seemed to have a lot of friends, but didn’t actually have any close friends at times, got jealous of my friends being better friends with other friends, and ate lunch alone often. Attended almost every church meeting and event, but still didn’t understand that God’s love was a choice and should bring joy. Instead, I couldn’t let go that I was not as “perfect” as I thought I should be.

A fast summary through college, I was relieved to be away from my strict upbringing but started making choices I knew weren’t the way I was taught and have affected me to this day. Thank goodness for the Atonement. I sucked at track, never ran my potential, but learned life lessons that I am so grateful for. I pushed away my family, tried to find value in relationships that devalued who I really was and let my studies be my last priority. My life definitely WAS NOT all negative, I had a blast at dance parties, being with roommates, and fun random “adventures” (yes I am a typical white girl, proud of it. Where my Instagram husband at ;)) I developed self-confidence, felt pretty for the first time in my life, and discovered what it felt like to get noticed. I am just trying to let you know both sides of reality, what really happened and what influenced the person I have become.

I decided to serve an LDS mission, there were so many reasons I was not ready to go. I realize those reasons now, but then decided to move forward with faith, and leave without being healthy personally, emotionally, physically, etc. I absolutely had good desires to serve the Lord, and find out who He wanted me to be, and I had absolutely no idea what was going to happen. Long story short I came home early multiple times, ended up in a psych ward and eating disorder facility. I have to say, I am so grateful for these trials that lead me to the help and knowledge I have now. At the time, however, I was absolutely devastated. I was living in fear, not trusting anyone, not trusting God. I developed psychosis and my anxiety acted up like never before. I turned inward and didn’t realize other people were struggling worse than I. I was told I needed to be on medication but thought I didn’t need it. I got frustrated going to counselors, felt like I didn’t have anything to talk about, or thought it wasn’t helping. I tried for four years to live a normal life, in denial of my mental illness and feeling bitter for the way my life had gone. I was depressed, felt alone, turned my back on the Savior, and questioned the purpose of life.

There is a saying that sometimes when we have trials and hardships they can either turn us toward the Savior or make us bitter. I am so grateful that the last time I hit rock bottom I made the choice to turn to the Savior. In the last two months, I have been to the hospital with the desire to get better. I finally accepted and saw my mental illness as something real and I knew I needed help. I have been transparent and honest with my family, friends, and doctors, so that I can be trusted and trust that they can help me. I have started to make choices to keep covenants I have made with the Savior and to take care of my body, mind, and soul. For the first time in a long time, I feel HOPE. I have started to let myself care more about others than myself, and want to genuinely care. I am going back to school, I feel like I have a second chance. I am blessed, I have a loving family, friends, and support system. I have had a change of heart.

Others, sometimes aren’t as lucky. It completely breaks my heart to see so much hurt and pain on the news. Too many deaths, too much violence, too many misunderstandings, and way too many suicides. My heart goes out to the loved ones of victims, and to well everyone because I know everyone is dealing with pain one way or another. We need to help. We need to help each other, love like He did. You don’t know who needs a smile today, maybe someone with a disability, someone who doesn’t have friends, someone you are jealous of because they seem to have a better life or someone who is happier than you. You REALLY don’t know what anyone is going through. Okay, I’ll get off my darn soapbox, and just hope that this helps someone in some way. I am seriously sorry for oversharing my story, sorry to those I have hurt because of my choices and not understanding my illness. But I hope this helps in some way, and whether we ever actually meet or talk, just know that I love you. More importantly, the Savior loves you. However you are, broken and beautiful, please DON’T GIVE UP. We need YOU to STAY. Have HOPE, you are not alone my friend. We are going to make it, let’s reach out and help each other today.

Feature Friday: Colie

I felt a special connection with Colie because she too came home from her mission in Texas because of medical problems. I’m grateful for her willingness to share about that.
Colie Jensen is 20-years-old and is currently a student at BYUI. She is passionate about dance, travel, and being in the moment.

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Photo by Amanda Photo Co.

One of the most humbling moments I’ve ever had was being faced with depression. For 19 years of my life, depression was an excuse for people to get out of situations they didn’t want to be in. It was “all in your head” and it was “made up”. Why couldn’t people just “snap out of it?”

There is something so real and dark about depression that I didn’t understand until I went on my mission.

My life made a complete 180 turn when I arrived in Texas. I went from a happy, outgoing, and bubbly girl to someone who hated looking in the mirror, never wanted to get out of bed, and dreaded putting on a “happy” face. There were days where I laid in bed for hours at a time because the darkness around me and inside me felt so real and overwhelming. There were days where thoughts of self-harm would come into my mind and it terrified me. These thoughts were not normal and not healthy!

Days, weeks, and months went by after I came home from my mission – 16 months early. It was HARD. There were and still are moments where I have PTSD after something triggers a dark thought I encountered on my mission. It’s been over a year and a half and sometimes, I question if it was even worth going in the first place. But, there is a quote that a recently heard that changed my perspective on my experience. it may not mean anything to anyone, but it was one of those phrases that sunk DEEP into my soul. “You’re too focused on where you’ve been to pay attention to where you are going.” (Mary Poppins Returns)

It can be so hard and damaging to live in the past and wish for things to change that can’t. Looking at an eternal perspective, this life is so short. My mission and my depression is only a blink compared to an eternity of love, laughter, and pure joy. For those struggling, there is always a light and the end of the tunnel. It may not be now, next week, or 12 years, but it will come. I’ve been walking through this tunnel with a flashlight (and some Dr. Pepper of course) for some time now, and who knows when I’ll get out of it. But, there is so much hope and joy knowing that it’s not forever, only a few minutes out of eternity. You can do it. WE can do it.

Figuring Out How The Atonement Works… For ME

I have been engaged in a wrestle for a majority of 2018. Something has been going on inside me that has made me unsure of the life I knew. It has been a quarter-life crisis of sorts. I feel I need to mention that my testimony hasn’t been at stake, it’s nothing like that. The best way I can think of describing it is a reconversion of sorts. And I haven’t had the words to explain it until an extraordinary aha moment I had in Sunday School back in November.

Our Sunday School lesson was from Isaiah, “How Beautiful upon the Mountains,” and we focused on The Atonement and how it applies to our lives. And sometime during this lesson I had this thought, “I’m trying to figure out how the Atonement works for me.” And since that thought has come into my mind a series of thoughts and impressions have followed and I feel like I have had this vast breakthrough into what I have been wrestling with.

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In order to explain this breakthrough, I need to give a little bit of background information…

Growing up in the Gospel I was always told that if I prayed, read my scriptures, went to church, served others, lived the commandments, kept my covenants, obeyed my parents, followed the Prophet, etc. that I would be blessed and that everything would work out. I do believe this to be true, BUT, I also believe that it is not that easy.

We all know by now that while I was serving my mission I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression. And those illnesses have forever changed my life and the person that I am. No, the illnesses do not define me, but they have changed me. And I won’t go into that tangent right now, but I need to say that because I was doing all the things that I was taught growing up that I was told would make everything turn out right. When I was diagnosed I was doing them more fervently than ever before. And yet, here I was… a representative of Jesus Christ and my life was not turning out right (at least in my eyes, I know His eyes saw something different).

I had become numb to everything and everyone. I could not see, feel, or hear my Heavenly Father anywhere. I knew my Savior was relying on me to bless His children and I did not care. I knew my companion needed me to go out and bless the lives of the people in our area but I could not get out of bed unless it was in the middle of the night when I was supposed to be sleeping but instead I was experiencing panic attacks and could not relax. Life was a real struggle. Things that I used to do without thinking now took all my focus and energy. And I couldn’t help but wonder why the blessings of living the Gospel were not coming.

I think that has been one of the most frustrating parts of living with a mental illness: feeling like my faith doesn’t overcome my anxieties and learning that those little things that I was told would bless me, haven’t in the way I want them to. Living with anxiety for almost 7 years now has also hindered my ability to receive personal revelation. I can still feel the Spirit, but trying to discern between my thoughts and things from God has become really difficult because my perception of what is real and what is not has become so distorted.

This is something that I already beat myself up for but then to have everyone around me continually say the same things, “pray, read your scriptures, go to church, serve others, live the commandments, keep your covenants, follow the Prophet, etc.,” knowing that it doesn’t work for me… it truly defeats my heart and Spirit. Why should I keep trying if it doesn’t work?! That has been my wrestle as of late. Still doing those things without feeling like Heavenly Father has been blessing me for it.

I want to give an example of what I mean by that, to hopefully help you understand more. When my husband goes out of town, and he has been gone quite a bit the last few months for med school interviews, I have a really hard time. At night I am in a constant state of fear and worry that someone is going to come into our house and take my girls or hurt us. This fear is so real to me that the last time he was gone I stayed at my parents’ 3/6 nights he was gone and the nights I was home I had my girls sleep in my room with me so I could lock the door and protect them more easily. I fell asleep thinking about what I would do if someone did come in.

I read my scriptures and prayed before going to bed. And I was constantly saying prayers that I would be calm and my fears would subside so I could sleep. I thought of the promises of angels coming to aid those who called on them, so I tried doing that and told myself that angels were watching over us. And yet I was still afraid. Why?! Isn’t my faith enough?! Do I not have enough faith if I am still afraid? Faith and fear cannot coexist so what is wrong with me? Why am I still scared?

(And I get that this is all in my head and I just need to think happy thoughts, be present, or whatever. That’s just another reason why all of this is so frustrating. I can’t just magically fix it. I can’t always override my brain, and yes, I’ve tried.)

I have experiences like this fairly often. I tear up just thinking about my lack of faith and how it doesn’t trump my anxieties. So why do I even bother to pray if it doesn’t (seem to) work?

Is this promise in Alma 36 not for me?

And now, O my son Helaman, behold, thou art in thy youth, and therefore, I beseech of thee that thou wilt hear my words and learn of me; for I do know that whosoever shall put their trust in God shall be supported in their trials, and their troubles, and their afflictions, and shall be lifted up at the last day.

And then I received some of the answer to my why that I have been desiring for years… figure out how the Atonement works for YOU.

I need more. I need to learn how to apply The Atonement more. I need to do the little things but I need to take it a step further. Life isn’t as simple as it used to be.

I believe Christ’s Atonement is a one-size fits all – it works for everyone. However, the way that size looks and feels is going to be different for each of us. And I am, and always will do the things that I was taught growing up because I know they are righteous and they will bless me somehow. But I have found that they aren’t going to take away or overcome some of my trials… The Atonement will. I need more.

And what works for me may not work for someone else, and what works for someone else may not work for me. If serving others is what makes you feel better and helps you overcome your hardships, that is wonderful and I am truly happy that helps you. But if that doesn’t work for someone else then please don’t look down on them for not doing it, or continually tell them that will make them feel better.

One of the beauties of the Gospel is that we can each find unique ways that it will help us. We are all so different and yet it is specifically catered for every individual.

And that is how I know that I will get through living with anxiety and depression. Because of Christ’s Atonement. I don’t understand it fully. I still wonder how, why, and when. But I trust in my Savior and my Heavenly Father, and I have faith in Them. I KNOW They sacrificed for me so that one day I will be able to overcome. The little things help, but they aren’t going to entirely overcome my silent struggles.

This realization has cleared up one wrestle and began another: now I need to figure out how The Atonement does work for me. But having my testimony rooted in the Savior will go deeper than the little things, as stated in Helaman 5:12.

12 And now, my sons, remember, remember that it is upon the rock of our Redeemer, who is Christ, the Son of God, that ye must build your foundation; that when the devil shall send forth his mighty winds, yea, his shafts in the whirlwind, yea, when all his hail and his mighty storm shall beat upon you, it shall have no power over you to drag you down to the gulf of misery and endless wo, because of the rock upon which ye are built, which is a sure foundation, a foundation whereon if men build they cannot fall.

How My Mental Illness Has Changed My Outlook On Life

October 3, 2012, was a Wednesday just like today. How do I know that? Because it was the last day I would be known as “Hermana Harris.”

The age change was announced the weekend I came home from my mission. I was shocked like everyone else, and that shock eventually turned into anger and fueled more of my bitterness of returning home earlier than anticipated.

“Are you kidding me?! You made me wait until I was 21, put me through Hell, and then the weekend I get home you announce that 19-year-old Girls can go?!”

It was a cruel irony to me. And now as I see these young girls get called and leave I struggle to be excited for them. I think negative thoughts like, “I hope your mission doesn’t ruin you like it ruined me. I was excited and wanted to serve all my life and look where it got me.” Etc. I feel like I’ve been ruined and I find myself envious of these young women who prepare and return with that missionary fire. (I feel like my flames were put out with 3 different fire hoses.)

But that’s not the only way I feel like my outlook has changed.

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I used to hear things like, “You choose to be happy,” or, “Serving others will help you forget about yourself,” or, “You create the life you want,” and agree completely.

Not anymore. I was so naive.

Now I listen to conversations, speeches, and sit in church meetings wanting to contest those types of statements. I get that there is good intention behind them, but that’s not sufficient anymore. Because I know that happiness is not always a choice. I know that serving others isn’t going to just take away pain and suffering. I know that you can’t always creat the life you want.

And my mental illness already makes me feel guilty for not having enough faith, I don’t need someone to add to it. Because I KNOW that doing the small and simple things will bless my life, but I still struggle.  I do believe in praying, reading your scriptures, going to church, etc. because all those things strengthen our testimonies and bless our lives, but when they’re used for the cure-all that’s when it bothers me.

Christ is the cure-all. The Atonement is the cure-all.

So the next time you’re giving a talk, a speech, or commenting in a church class and you want to tell everyone that life is all rainbows and sunshine if they just have more faith or pray harder or read their scriptures longer or serve others more… think about the lost sheep. The one that Christ went after. He didn’t scold the sheep or tell the sheep that it wasn’t doing enough, He just went to it and brought it back. Go after that sheep and think about what your comment will do to them.

I know that might be asking a lot, but that is another way we can set ourselves apart from the world. We have the opportunity to go after those lost sheep just like our Savior, and we need to do that now more than ever.

You might be reading this thinking that I now have a super negative outlook on life. I’ll be the first to admit that yes, I kind of do. I have become a little more bitter and cynical because anxiety and depression are pits of darkness, and although I feel like my pit isn’t as big as it used to be I can’t erase the memories of that larger pit. But at the same time, I know the pits that I experienced have helped me become an advocate for others who are feeling the same way. I can, hopefully, help others climb out of their own pits. I may have been too scared to say things in the past, but not anymore.

When Life Doesn’t Go As Planned: Lauren

Lauren and I met at my Galentine’s Day: Self-Love Event back in February. We went to dinner a few months later and were able to talk more there. She shared with me her story of coming home early, since we have that in common, and agreed to write a post too. She has become a dear friend and I’m so grateful our paths crossed.
Lauren is Mom to a 1-year-old boy, Jude, and “dog mom” of a Golden Retriever. She’s a graphic designer currently serving as the Creative Director of a startup branding agency. She’s a huge Harry Potter nerd (and a Slytherin, if anyone’s wondering). She also loves running, fantasy novels, and nature documentaries. She and her husband met in Orlando, FL and miss the weather, beaches, and lush, green landscape.

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I, like many, heard the historic “Age Change Announcement” and knew immediately that I had to go. I got my papers in within a week, received my call to Orlando, Florida 3 weeks later, and went into the MTC December 19th, 2012 with the first wave of 18 and 19-year-old missionaries. It was completely surreal to be a part of.

Despite a family history of mental illness and even experiencing depression my senior year of High School (not really recognizing that that’s what was going on or doing much about it until it lifted on its own), I had no clue I was primed for another depressive period until it hit me like a ton of bricks. Because there were so many sister missionaries coming out, we started splitting areas and that meant a lot of non-glamorous work and a lot of training. I trained as soon as my first 12 weeks were up, and opened new areas for sisters every 6 weeks after that – while continuing to train. I knew I was dealing with massive amounts of stress and change, and my body was being pushed to the limit, but like many, I felt confident that if I remained completely obedient and gave my whole heart and soul to the work, I’d have the strength to “run and not be weary, and walk and not faint.” And truly, I felt so much satisfaction and joy in the work that it was easy to ignore those warning signs. After running on fumes for weeks, all it took was some bad news from home to send me completely over the edge.

Over the course of three transfers, I went from being inexplicably tired and struggling with major stomach problems to only able to leave the apartment for a few hours a day. After seeing a couple of specialists, trying antidepressants, and meeting with the area therapist (who told me that just by looking at me and my positive demeanor, he was floored that I was battling suicidal thoughts), it was suggested I return home for treatment. Surprisingly, and thankfully, I felt at peace about the decision. I was convinced I’d be back out in a transfer or two, anyway.

My symptoms only worsened as I got home. Ward members had no clue what to say, especially because I’d always been “the perfect member” (read: perfectionist and people-pleaser). In the short span of 7 months, most of my friends had moved away, gotten married, or had generally “moved on.” I was too sick to go back to school, and too sick to work. I felt completely isolated, broken and lonely. Though I knew I’d given the Lord my all on the mission, I felt like I’d failed at coming home. The anxiety, insomnia, and depression were so bad, I hardly left my bed for an entire year. My stomach problems made it incredibly painful to eat.

Attending church was one of the hardest parts for me in coming home, and I wish this was talked about more. As is typical of that stage of life/living in Utah County, my mission got brought up constantly. And not just whether you served, but people always seemed to ask when you served and it inevitably came up that I returned home early – which meant I was always explaining why. I literally could not sit through any talk about missionary work – I got sweaty, my heart started racing, and I had the feeling that I had to get out of there NOW. I distinctly remember sobbing uncontrollably at my cousin’s farewell talk. It was only a few months ago, 5 years after returning home, that I realized I can now sit through (most) homecoming/farewell talks without feeling like I’m going to throw up. The social aspect of coming home early has gotten so much easier as time has gone on. The conversation about mental health in the Church has come a long way, and I’m out of the phase of life where a mission (and basically what you’re doing with your life) isn’t brought up in every. single. conversation. I’m learning how to really cultivate and utilize a support system, which is huge. I’ve made leaps and bounds in my ability to say “no” respectfully and not base my goodness or sense of self-worth on how someone else reacts to me.

Anyway, back to the story. A few months after my return, one of my dearest companions emailed me and told me she was coming home, too, to receive treatment for her foot after being hit by a car. She wasn’t released, and since she only lived about 30 minutes from me, I got to be her companion often – it helped me tremendously to talk and be with her. But I found myself feeling deeply hurt and confused by the fact that she didn’t get released, and got to go back and finish her 18 months. Her reason for coming home was also clearly visible, and people constantly told her how strong she was, and how much of a fighter she was to endure such a trial. And she absolutely was! She’s one of the best, most exemplary people I know. But I only ever heard encouragement like that from my immediate family. Mostly, people avoided the topic. I usually sensed pity.

A year and a half after I returned home, I went back to visit Orlando with that same companion. While there, I had the strong prompting to move back – the first time since coming home that I felt God speak to me through that fog of mental illness (and one of two times I’ve felt the Spirit guide me so directly). So, a month later, I found myself back in Orlando, living in the same apartment complex as I had my first area, incredibly. It was there that I met my now-husband. He’s also from Utah, and has absolutely no ties to Florida; he moved down there after grad school to work for The Golf Channel. Amazingly, it was through my husband that I was introduced to the doctor who FINALLY diagnosed me with hypothyroidism. My healing has not been linear whatsoever, and that has been beyond frustrating at times. We’ve been married for 2.5 years, and have a one-year-old boy that is perfect in every way and my bright light in the darkness.

When my son was about 4 months, I felt that dreaded dark cloud creep up on me. My greatest fear when I got pregnant was Post-Partum Depression because I’d had a decent handle on my health for about a year and this time I’d have a sweet, little human to take care of. Unfortunately, it got worse and continued for 7 months. I’ve finally experienced more good days than bad for about three weeks now. I’m afraid of getting my hopes up, but something in my gut tells me that the worst is over. I survived, and my son is thriving.

I experienced a lot of anger with PPD. I guess I hoped that I had enough resources and tools that if / when the depression hit again, I’d be able to fight it off. Especially because we knew about my thyroid problem. Yes, I had more help and more tools, and I can certainly say that my perspective was different this time around, but that didn’t mean I could just pull myself out of it (you’d think I’d know that already). It felt quite different because of my life situation and I experienced entirely new challenges and temptations. I’ve been angry that nothing I try seems to make a real difference. I’ve been angry at God because my son and my husband don’t deserve this version of me. I’ve been angry at myself because, apparently, I’m not humble enough or learning what’s necessary to move past this. I’ve cried to God countless times, “This is obviously not working. I’m not becoming more empathetic or gaining more knowledge and faith like I did those years after my mission. All this is doing is making me more cynical, more unsure about my worth in Thine eyes, more hopeless about my ability to create a meaningful life for my family, and more doubtful that I’ll be able to endure to the end and not turn away from Thee.” The adversary came at me so hard this time around, and for months I thought I’d completely failed and lost my testimony – until I read this: “There is a spirit of doubt that the adversary uses very effectively. It has more to do with temptation than it does with a lack of faith, though it can look and feel as though it is the latter.”

These days, I’m just trying to move forward and re-learn how to trust my Father in Heaven again. I’ve prayed a lot over the past seven months, but the cloud of depression disconnects you from everything – so I’m working on re-kindling relationships and doing things that help me feel like “me” again, like running and fun creative projects aside from working as a graphic designer. Worth the Wrestle by Sheri Dew has been a huge comfort, and taking a step back from social media (using it almost exclusively for connecting with close friends instead of work / un-following a whole bunch of accounts) has helped me give myself grace. I’m trying really hard not to worry about when another depressive episode might hit, and allow space for whatever feelings I’m experiencing at the moment.

Writing out my story like this helped me organize my thoughts and put words to my feelings – especially about the new challenges that the past 7 months of PPD brought. And because some of the most healing conversations I’ve had have been with almost-strangers who’ve shared experiences in similar trials, I’m going to throw this out there: I’d love to talk about everything or nothing with anyone who needs it. Trust me, I’m someone who would rather skip the small talk and have a real heart-to-heart (consistent with my INFJ personality, if you’re into the Meyers-Briggs personality types like I am). Find me on Instagram @laurenhessdesign. We can groan over frilly motivational quotes together.

When Life Doesn’t Go As Planned: Brooke

Brooke and I met at an Early Returned Missionary Group Meeting. She is the leader of the group and we attend it monthly. (These meetings are held for Davis/Weber, Salt Lake, and Utah counties. If you want more info let me know.) I’ve heard bits and pieces of her story as we’ve shared things from our missions. She is amazing and I’m so grateful to be developing a friendship with her.
Brooke has been married to her high school sweetheart and missionary for two years. They have a black lab mix named Hurley. She studies Social Work at Weber State University. She works at UTBS as an ABA therapist. She loves working with kids. She served in the Maryland Baltimore Mission. She loves to paddle board, listen to music, do yoga, meditate, and hike. The Office is her all-time favorite TV show. She loves musicals. Phantom of the Opera is #1. Her absolute favorite thing to do is spend time with family and friends. Relationships are everything to her. She was diagnosed with depression and anxiety in July 2015 on her mission and has become a huge mental health advocate ever since. She hopes to become a therapist for children and families, maybe at LDS Family Services because social work has changed her life.

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Photo by Photos by Kaylie

The Maryland Baltimore Mission was what I called home for 16 months. I was serving in Martinsburg, West Virginia at the time. The Richards have just gone home and here I was shotgunning for the third time with a very shy sister. I met President and Sister Christiansen that transfer who would be my new mission parents of the Maryland Baltimore Mission. Here I was as anxious as ever to explore another area to find, teach, and baptize. It all hit me that Martinsburg would be my last area. I wanted to serve with all my heart, might, mind, and strength just as in D & C 4.

One day, fear crept into my mind of coming home. I was afraid my past would catch up with me. I developed debilitating migraines that kept me in bed for the majority of two weeks. I would sleep in until studies. The only time we would leave the apartment was for our dinner appointment. Even after, I would feel as I did when I woke up. I felt like I had only slept for 5 minutes. Something as simple as smiling became to be an exhausting activity. Anxiety attacks became my daily ritual. I emailed my mom and asked if depression ran in our family. She said it did from both sides. My world fell apart within an hour on that Monday. I felt desperately hopeless. I called my mission president to see what I could do. He referred me to LDS Family Services and to speak with a therapist there.

My therapist asked me, “On a scale of 1-10, how bad is it to the point you need to be home?”

12 was my response.

I was hesitant about the idea of calling my mission president to even consider the option of going home. Going home was never an option in my book. Sister Donehue was going to serve a full-time mission no matter what! I prayed that I could stay. Whenever I did, I felt uneasy. One morning during studies, I knelt down in prayer with my elbows resting on my chair. I asked “Heavenly Father, should I go home?” If I had ever received a more clear answer from the spirit, it was as clear as a summer’s day. It hit me like someone poured a huge bucket of water over my head. It was the greatest comfort and serenity I had ever received during the past three weeks. It was the answer unwanted but it was the one I desperately needed. If I wanted to come home in one piece, this is how I would do it.

Early.

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I called President to tell him the answer I received. I knew God was speaking to me through him. He told me the Lord was very pleased with me and my service. I would bless the lives of others.

I was the first missionary the Christiansen’s sent home. They were so kind and graceful. They held such a confidence in me stronger than I held for myself.

“You need to promise me two things. Stay faithful and stay in touch,” President told me.

My heart was racing faster than I was to see my family at the airport. I’ve waited for this moment close to a year and a half. Ultimate joy overwhelmed me. There they were: my mom, my three younger sisters holding flowers and balloons waiting for my arrival. My family was so happy to see me. Mom told me that she needed me home. My YSA bishop, who was like a father to me, welcomed me home in open arms along with many others in the ward! My family and friends loved me just the same, if not, more!

The journey returning home was not an easy one. It took me almost two years to find closure. I found closure when returning to my mission to visit old friends and remember the good I found. It was a surprisingly serene experience.

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When going to church, I struggled with talking about the spirit and this concept of keeping the commandments. How could I feel the spirit when a mental illness such as depression was numbing my spirit? In my eyes, I was inadequate. Maybe even short from inadequate. I would never reach the kingdom of God with my imperfections.

When I came home, I felt like a huge failure. But coming home was NOT a mistake by any means. It was God’s will for me to get back on my feet and to face the hard reality of living with depression for the rest of my life. Every day I make mistakes. I am far from perfect. I’ve learned in this process that my Heavenly Father is a merciful and loving God. His love is completely unconditional. In the scriptures, we are taught “If you do this, then you receive blessings of so and so.” We call this the Premack principle at my job. Life happens. And sometimes I don’t do the “ifs”. And my Savior has given me so many “life happens” passes so I can continue to grow and receive blessings even when I don’t follow the if-then principle. Life will never turn out the way you want it to be. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have the capability to choose what makes you happy.
I think about the “what if’s” of staying on my mission. I came across a picture of the sisters I went out with who were at the DC temple ready to go home. I was not in it. But guess what? Their lives were not any better than mine just because they served a “full time” mission. I know some of these sisters battle depression and anxiety just as I do. Some married in the temple, just like me. Some go to school, just like me. I was not any less successful than these sisters. That is what I’ve come to realize is that if I continue to compare my life to “full time” returned missionaries, families that have a nice house, families that have children and seem to be happy, people who have met significant milestones before I did, I will continue to rob myself of happiness. For comparison is the thief of joy.

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What helped me to overcome these struggles was keeping in touch with friends in the mission. Whether it be members and converts who lived in Maryland or missionaries who served with me. I received many priesthood blessings. I went to my bishop’s house every week to have dinner and spend time with his family. I went to LDS Family Services for over a year after my return. Therapy really helped me tame the demons I’ve had to overcome. I was able to be made whole again. Mission Fortify is the glue that kinda keeps me together. I still have depression and anxiety. I still think of my mission and “what could have been”. I still have days where I lay in bed for most of the day and have no energy to help anyone, even myself. I still have those dark thoughts that tell me “nobody needs me”, “I’m not worthy of God’s love”, or “I don’t deserve to be happy”. I still struggle to go to church sometimes because I think of the things people have told me. “If you pray harder, you’ll feel better.” Or “Are you reading your scriptures every day? You must not be doing it right.”. But I have to remember that God has a place for me here, even when I feel I don’t belong.

For my friends who have returned whether early or not, here are my words to you. Don’t lose hope. Find your trust circle of genuine people. Don’t take it personally when a priesthood leader, friend, or family member tells you something you didn’t find comforting. They have the best intentions at heart but most of the time don’t know how to help during times like these. I’ve had some of those experiences. Don’t sell yourself short. You are NOT a failure. You have an older brother who has felt every single ounce of anxiety, misery, and pain. The Savior suffered it all. I think we suffer so we can understand His sacrifice and how much He truly loves us. Our burdens are not ours to carry. Jesus Christ has paid the debt. He is the One who brings true peace.

A good friend of mine once told me that if we don’t experience suffering, we are helpless to others. You are here for a purpose. You wouldn’t be living and breathing right now if that were the case. If you don’t have the answer right now, keep going. Stay the course. You may not feel it, but a loving, merciful God has been and will ALWAYS be there for you to the everlasting eternities. Your Heavenly Father is mindful of you.

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You mean EVERYTHING to Him.
Miracles happen every day.
A miracle is given by the hand of God.
And you are a miracle.

When Your Loved One’s Life Doesn’t Go As Planned: Susan

With Mother’s Day just having come and gone I asked my Mom if she’d be willing to share her side of me coming home early from my mission. I know children’s struggles can be just as hard for their parents as they are for them. No one wants to watch someone they love go through something difficult, life-changing, heartbreaking, etc. There can be just as many hardships for the parents who have an ERM as there are for the actual missionary.
Susan Harris is Ally’s mom… though she hasn’t gone by that title so much since Ally’s soccer days, haha! She’s a mom of three children who are very different from each other and keep her on her toes. Grandmother to two adorable girls and one more baby coming! That truly is a wonderful title and her favorite! She likes to read, sing, garden, play the piano (in her home), ride bikes and her new sport, pickleball. She was born on a cold, snowy day and she loves those kinds of days, and she’s far happier to be behind the scenes than ‘spotlighted’ like this. But the things one does for their children.

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Ally had asked me a while ago if I would talk to another parent who had a child come home early from a mission, that maybe I could offer something. I believe I said I would but that didn’t ever happen, and I have wondered if there really is anything to offer from my experience. And then she asked me to contribute to her blog which I had been thinking about doing so even before that. So. I guess here goes.

I come from a family of all girls, and my dad had served in the Army so no mission for him and so I can’t honestly say when that became part of my plan, it was just always there for me. I very happily served in the Canada Calgary Mission (remember that love of cold?!) and it was a huge blessing for me to do so. And I admit, I started the ‘brainwashing’ of my daughters serving a mission from very young, because it was such an incredible experience for me. And to have Ally want to do this was wonderful, I was so excited for her to have that opportunity. She is fun, outgoing, has a strong testimony and belief of the gospel, finds it easy to talk to people so it would be a win-win. I wasn’t sure it was always going to happen, Ally is a social butterfly and has always had many friends and plenty of those being male.

But she made it, not without some rocky times in there, and thus received a call, we waited for 4 months and then did the drop off at the MTC. I know I have spent more time at the bank than I did that day dropping off my daughter for her new adventure. It was in November and so she spent all the holidays in the MTC and was there for 10 weeks. Finally, off she goes to Texas, meets her Mission President and his wife, and gets assigned to her trainer and area.

Ally had been sharing that she was having some health issues and not feeling great a few months in and I had been trying to encourage her to forget herself and just go to work, to make sure she got to exercise for she had always been very active and that is a tough transition, to eat good, and to stay hydrated in the heat. And may I just insert here that I’m not really a warm and fuzzy mom, more of a tough love gal. I can cry at the drop of a hat about my kids or the gospel, but I’m the one that says, ‘walk it off’, ‘you’ll be okay’ or one of my staples – “Be a duck”. I don’t know the day of the week or the date that I received that first phone call from the mission other then it was in June. Our caller ID was hooked through the television at that time, I was putting some IKEA furniture together later in the evening and so when I saw my daughter’s mission come up on the screen, I figured ‘this can’t be good.’ My husband was out of town, this and every time they called actually, so when the President asked to speak to him I responded with that information and waited to hear why he was calling. They wanted to put Ally on some meds, having diagnosed her with anxiety and depression. To say I was stunned would be an understatement. As he and his wife described the Sister Harris they were working with, I wasn’t sure what to say. It wasn’t “my” Ally, and as they asked if there was a history of this, was she prone to it and I’m telling them, no, my heart ached and my brain reeled.

Another insertion, I didn’t care where Ally served – I teased her all the time that she would go to Columbia, I wanted my children to have a chance to see humble circumstances and hopefully improve their gratitude. But my one and constant prayer had been that their mission presidents would be what they needed. That is a huge responsibility, and one of the longest lasting influences ever, you always hear RM’s talk about how they perceived their mission president(s).

As I’m listening to this good man and his wife tell me what’s been going on, and they are seeking information from me as well, it was hard for all of us. They don’t know what kind of person I am, how Ally was raised if she has been pampered and this was an excuse if the history was there and we hadn’t revealed it during the initial interview process… they just don’t know. And I don’t know what’s truly going on and how she is doing. I asked if I could talk to Ally, I wanted to hear from her what was happening but they said they didn’t think that would be a good thing at this time. I didn’t agree, but that is their call. Ally and I had tried to go back and forth in email, but it just didn’t really work well, there was lagging in the service, I was working, it was tough to get an actual picture. She was trying to stay positive, and trying to do what she could, but was certainly struggling.

I had no basis for this kind of thing and everything is so different when you’re a missionary. There are many rules and restrictions of what you use for medication, you’re not seeing a consistent doctor, nor in Ally’s case one familiar with a mission and what that life is like, and you don’t have time to ‘rest and heal’. I’m trying to reconcile what Ally is telling me is happening to her and how she’s physically feeling with the Ally that left home and it was difficult to do. In hindsight, we both recognize some things from her past that showed she had some anxiety, but it had never been debilitating… at least that I knew. That tough mom thing. Everything is so pronounced on a mission, and Sister missionaries often get a bad rap… some certainly is deserved, some is not, and I didn’t want Ally to be ‘one of those’. I start going to the temple weekly, I try and write inspirational letters, adding humor and fun with less detail about home for I don’t know what to do to help at this point. I envision the scenario in my mind of flying to Texas and ‘happen’ upon her and her comp so I can physically see her and have a heart to heart chat about what’s going on. They call again and the meds don’t seem to be working for her, they want to try something else but it takes close to 3 weeks before any influence could be felt. They are trying so hard and I’m so grateful, I know they love my daughter and really are trying to help her. And help her stay.

I finally got to talk to Ally, about mid-August. But she is crying so hard that the conversation is difficult to hear and understand and we make little progress. Her mission president’s wife is present and Ally doesn’t feel like she can really talk to me. She mentions coming home and I tell her that’s not really up to her, you don’t “self-release”. They have brought her close to the mission home so they can keep an eye on her, and she has glorious companions. I don’t know what to think, feel, write… is it better that she comes home, or will that be harder on her, what is the answer? I have withdrawn into myself, I don’t talk to many people about it, I’m not out and about, I don’t want people to ask me about Ally as I don’t know what to tell them. There have been prayers, fasts, pleadings… it doesn’t seem to help Ally, she is like the ‘walking dead’, her letters are hard to read and how many times can you come close to sobbing in the celestial room?!

It became apparent that the only way Ally would get better was for her to come home. That just seemed to come calmly and we’d deal with everything else. We had about 2 weeks notice she was coming mid-transfer. My fear still was that I didn’t want this coming home early to define her, and to this day we have that conversation. We had a family trip planned that we hadn’t told her about, but with her coming home small miracles happened so she could come with us. It was a tough trip as she wasn’t “Ally”, but it was a beginning. A great counselor, a helpful prescription, time, rest. It wasn’t easy on her, and it certainly wasn’t easy on me or our family. Still isn’t as we come to understand how it is for her. And as this happens, you learn of others that struggle with the same, and your amazement grows to have been witness to how they function and now knowing of the struggle they travel with.

I keep things more inside and not on the stage as I call it, but she is trying to help others by her experience and that is a blessing. But it’s not her defining moment. Nor is her diagnosis. And I still don’t understand how, why, when and she gets frustrated. But hopefully, we’re all learning some patience and empathy for the different roads we each take in this life’s journey. I try to help when she needs me, and I’m still not warm and fuzzy, but there is progress. I don’t think anyone’s life turns out as they planned. I’m more of a pragmatist, and I believe that is the purpose, to learn HOW we act when things don’t go as we planned – that’s the point, it’s not our plan that we should want. And that is what makes us reach up, to remember that there is ONE who came and experienced all, that He may know our struggles and be there for us. We may not always notice when He steps in – at least I don’t, you are just ready for the next step somehow. The Spirit is a gift, our Savior is a gift, and I know I’m so grateful for both on the journey!