In 2013 I served a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I was called to serve in the Ohio Cleveland Mission. I have talked about it a little in this blog, but I have never really dived into it. So why am I sharing this now? I am sharing this because after 8 years I finally sat down and made a mission scrapbook. I had tried many times to do that, but I felt so much pain and sadness that I couldn’t stick to it.
In the fall of 2012, I started college at Utah State University. While there I decided to take a marriage preparation class through the church. I had my life planned out, I was going to go to school, get married, have kids, and serve a mission with my husband. The Lord had different plans for me though. I didn’t feel the spirit in my marriage preparation class, I felt out of place. One day my friend invited me to a mission preparation class and as I was there I felt inspired. I thought why not take this class instead. The night before General Conference I prayed to know if I should serve a mission when I turned 21, the next day the church announced that the age would be lowered to 19 for young women, I called my parents right then and the rest is history.
The next few months were hectic. I had doctor appointments, interviews, and shopping. On April 3, 2013, I entered the Missionary Training Center (MTC) in Provo. As I left my family I remember crying and feeling fear. I had never been away that long and called my mom at least 3 times a day. I knew it was what I needed to do but I was terrified.
My MTC experience was filled with amazing experiences as well as a lot of hardship too. I ended up needing a blessing and went to the doctor while there for physical pain brought on by stress. I had many emotions throughout the 2 weeks I was there. I met awesome people and loved my district with all my heart.
Then the day came. I got on a plane and headed to Michigan and then boarded a smaller plane and landed in Ohio. I couldn’t remember a time where I didn’t see mountains. I felt exposed without them. I remember feeling excited and driven to share the gospel.
In my mission, they take the new arrivals and let them sit in the school of prophets at Kirtland. We are encouraged to say silent prayers about what we wanted out of our mission. At the end of your mission, you would have the opportunity to go and sit in the school of prophets again to ponder on how you did. My goal was to overcome my anxieties by myself.
After meeting my trainer we headed to my assigned area, Lima Ohio. We ended up in Columbus by accident due to a member taking a wrong turn, but eventually, we got there. The first few weeks were filled with fun and joy. My companion and I really clicked and I enjoyed getting to meet the people in Lima. I had a few struggles along the way, but overall I was in the groove.
After that things slowly started to take a turn. Nothing too serious, I just started feeling my anxiety heighten. Homesickness started setting in and my companion and I didn’t see eye to eye on things. There were times of tension and feeling overwhelmed because I couldn’t have space. I loved my companion, we just had very different personalities.
I remember a few different experiences where I had intense anxiety. Things I had never felt before. I had never seen a big rain shower with a mission-wide tornado warning. My companion assured me that Lima would be okay, but I couldn’t help but see these images of destruction around me. One night I fell asleep against a yoga ball praying for safety and comfort. The lightning was crazy and I felt so alone.
I started having these uncomfortable thoughts about various things. Scary or intrusive thoughts started to make me wonder if I was going crazy or allowing Satan in. I even began having nightmares each night about my family members who had passed away.
Now bear in mind that as I share these specific examples that while experiencing these things I was also having spiritual experiences and meeting wonderful people. I felt honored to be a part of many spiritual experiences on my mission. I was able to watch someone get baptized into the church after leaving for a while, I got to be a part of helping a beautiful couple get to the temple, and I met so many awesome people with uplifting stories.
The next transfer happened and I became a trainer to a new missionary. This meant that I was now the driver of the mission-owned car and that it was my responsibility to teach this new missionary the ropes. Things went okay at first, but after the first week or so I started to struggle. I started to get dizzy and anxious everywhere we went. I couldn’t eat and had non-stop panic attacks. I honestly can’t remember any moments I had where I was not in a panic attack. I remember driving to zone conference one day just praying for strength to get there safely. I chewed on the Mamba candies, pointed cold air at my face, and drove with white knuckles 2 hours there and back.
After talking to my mission president I went to Cleveland to meet with a therapist that met with missionaries. I remember having suicidal thoughts, feeling sick all the time, having horrible images of all these things I could do to others or myself. I spent a day in bed watching church videos on a little portable DVD player while my companion studied in the living room. We then got me to the doctor and he decided to adjust my anxiety medication which made things significantly worse.
One day I received a letter from my mom that said I love you over and over. I remember opening it at a park and not feeling anything at all. I was completely numb to everything. After receiving a few different blessings, my mission president felt like it was time to have a phone call with my parents.
That is a phone call I will never forget. I think I knew what was about to happen, but I dreaded it. After talking about all the things we did to try to help me feel better, we recognized that it wasn’t working. My mission president didn’t feel like it was something that required me to be sent home, so he wasn’t going to ask me to leave. It was my choice. I felt panic as I thought about how hard I worked to get there. All the people that contributed and supported me. Was I giving up? Was this a test from the Lord? Did He want me to push through it? What would people think? Would my parents still love and respect me? Would I respect myself?
And then my dad said this, “Niki, I want you to answer this without thinking… do you want to come home?” To that, I responded “yes”. We decided that was the right choice and that I needed to get professional help. My parents and mission president assured me that they were not disappointed in me. They made sure I knew that they just wanted me to receive the help I needed. I hung up the phone and went into the living room where my companion was. I told her I was leaving and she sat with her arm around me while I cried.
The next day I traveled with the senior missionaries to Cleveland, did some work with the Cleveland sisters, and stayed one more night. The sisters brought me to an activity that night where the youth were acting as if they were on their own missions. I remember them asking me how long I had been out and it broke my heart to stand there knowing that after that night my mission was over.
The next day was a day that I will remember always. it was the day where I know angels were carrying me. I had two bags filled with books and shoes and two pieces of luggage with 5 months worth of mission clothes and memories.
I said goodbye to my mission president at the security line and then waited as I boarded the first plane by myself, name tag and all. I traveled to Minneapolis and with what little strength I had (and angels walking beside me), walked from one end of the airport to the other with my bags in tow. I boarded a plane to Salt Lake and sat in between a pilot on his return flight and a lady who decided alcohol was the best coping strategy for the flight.
The flight was extremely uncomfortable, but I didn’t care. I wanted to get home. I can’t begin to tell you the peace I felt seeing the mountains around me. As I got off the plane and descended on the escalator I felt a sense of excitement and relief. I then saw my anchors, there they were, my big brother, my dad, and my mom. I ran down the escalator stairs refusing to wait and embraced my mom tighter than ever. Followed by my dad and brother.
The day before I came home, my family and I were blessed by the sweet arrival of my niece, so instead of going home from the airport, we headed to Idaho. We stopped in Logan to see one of my brothers and then I was welcomed home by the most precious little girl. My homecoming was definitely not what I expected, but I was just thankful I made it home.
I don’t share this to scare people about serving a mission. I share this to help people understand that every mission is different. I had no idea at that time that I had OCD. In fact, it took another 3 years before my diagnosis and another 4 years to get to a somewhat level state. I often wonder if I would do it all over again… and honestly, I don’t know. Without my mission, I would have never ended up on the path I’m on now. I might not have received the right help. I might not be an advocate or living in the best place I’ve ever lived.
I was mad at God for years. I didn’t understand how He could put me through these things over and over. You hear people say missions are the best 2 years (or year and a half for sisters) and that if you are doing what’s right the Lord will do the rest. For a long time, I wondered why the Lord didn’t bless me (at least in the sense of getting to stay on my mission). I was following the standards encouraged by the church, I was reading my scriptures, saying my prayers, and had set aside time in my life to serve.
I wanted to change, I wanted those experiences. I humbled myself and kept going. What was wrong with me?
It wasn’t the best 5 months of my life. It was the hardest 5 months of my life. I felt alone and scared and physically weak.
But you know what? 8 years later I am able to say that my mission was just a small chapter in my life. I have grown more than I ever imagined. I didn’t know who I was until the last 9 months.
Because of my mission, I met wonderful people. I traveled, I taught, I did things I never imagined I could do. I got to go through the temple with my whole family. I got to spend so many more years with my dad. I got to be at my grandpa’s funeral.
I look forward to the day where I can go sit in the school of prophets and say I achieved my goal.
I have a testimony of the gospel. I know God is real and that Christ suffered and felt all my pain both physically and emotionally. I know that each path is different and that you need to trust yourself to walk along yours. I know the Book of Mormon is true doctrine and that no matter what life throws you, you can get through anything.
As always remember You Got This!