A MISSION IS AN EMOTIONAL ROLLER COASTER! You will probably never experience so many highs and lows in your entire life—and all within the first month! Just when you think you can't go on, something happens and you are floating on cloud nine. You are so sure this is the beginning of a string of successes, and then boom, you hit the bottom. This is all normal. People who you thought would be investigators forever all of a sudden decide to be baptized. Your spirits soar. But a golden family you have grown to love nearly as much as your own family informs you they have decided not to be baptized. Your spirits plummet. You get transferred from the perfect area, and you're sure no other area will measure up. Your spirits drop. You receive a long-overdue letter from that special someone at home, and your spirits climb. Will it ever end? Probably not while you are serving a mission.
If you know this is going to happen, then you won't be surprised when it does. Experiencing emotional swings does not mean that you are in serious mental trouble and need professional help. It would be helpful if there were a simple gauge for measuring emotional swings so that you could tell whether what you are experiencing is normal. Unfortunately, there is no such gauge. How are you to judge whether you need help? There are two fairly reliable ways: check how other missionaries are reacting, and follow the Spirit.
By being sensitive, you will discover that everyone does not have their acts perfectly together and that you are not the only one who is struggling. One of the tactics of the adversary is to tell you that everyone else is successful and that they never have any problems. It was almost comical to listen to missionaries' expressions of unbelief when they shared the struggles they were having. It was not uncommon to hear comments like, "I can't believe you're struggling. I thought you had a handle on everything!" Or, "I thought I was the only one that felt that way. What a relief to know I'm not cracking up!" Or, "Why didn't you tell me you were having a tough time too! I thought I was the only one who was falling short of perfection." You can see how Satan tries to isolate each of us by letting us draw false conclusions. When we communicate our feelings, we soon discover that everyone goes through some rather painful growing experiences.
Often missionaries are too hard on themselves. The slightest mistake throws them into a tailspin. As it should be, we sometimes ignore the weaknesses of others and focus on our own. That brings us to the second method of evaluating our mood swings: "What does the Spirit say?" Even though we may not be perfect, we can qualify to enjoy the presence of the Spirit if we are doing as much as the Lord expects. That is the real key. If you're a perfectionist, you will find it nearly impossible to measure up to what you know to be right. Consider how the Lord describes those who inherit the celestial kingdom: "They shall overcome all things" (D&C 76:60). He did not say they "have overcome all things." It is sometimes surprising to realize we may not be the best judge of how well we are doing! You live so close to yourself that every weakness gets blown out of perspective. A simple demonstration will illustrate the point. Take a penny, close one eye, and hold the penny about one-half inch from the other eye. What can you see! Almost everything but the penny is blocked from view. Do you actually believe that the penny is larger than the entire world! That would be nonsense. But when viewed close up and with only one eye, it takes on giant proportions. If you put the penny on the wall and stand back ten feet, you would see how insignificant it really is. If you moved one hundred feet away, you would not be able to see the penny at all. Move ten miles away and you couldn't even see the wall! That is the way our problems are. They seem large and insurmountable when they are right on top of us. When we stand back and view them from a broader perspective, they become much more manageable.
The Spirit knows all things (see D&C 42:17). He is totally honest. If he is still with you, you are doing okay. If the Spirit is not there, you are kidding yourself to believe everything is all right. It is difficult but necessary to rely on reinforcement from above rather than from your peers. There may be a time when those around you accuse you of being out of touch with reality. These people may even be so loud and vocal that you begin to doubt yourself. That is when your ability to honestly evaluate whether the Spirit is there is essential. If the Spirit is there, your fellow missionaries, members, or others are wrong. Conversely, if everyone is telling you you're doing great but the Spirit is not there, you need to improve. Horizontal approval is only helpful while we are learning to "be taught from on high" (see D&C 43:15-16).
Sometimes when we are still learning to walk by the light of the Spirit, we are confused and unable to determine whether we are doing all right. Consulting your companion and other missionaries may not bring the peaceful assurance that you are coping appropriately. That is the time to consult your mission president. He has seen many missionaries and has a much broader base to judge from than the missionaries. Also, he is authorized by the Lord to receive inspiration in your behalf. Be honest with him. It does absolutely no good to try to sugarcoat your condition. Tell him how you are feeling and what you are going through. Tell him what you have done to try to control your mood swings or depression. Let him counsel you. Then follow his counsel. It does no good to have the best advice in the world if you don't follow it. The counsel may not be what you want to hear; you may not even have confidence in what you are being asked to do. Do it anyway! To another unsure leader thousands of years ago, the Lord promised, "Open thy mouth, and it shall be filled, and I will give thee utterance, for all flesh is in my hands, and I will do as seemeth me good.... Behold my Spirit is upon you, wherefore all thy words will I justify" (Moses 6:32, 34). The president's counsel may not be the most professional you have ever heard. He probably does not have a degree in counseling psychology, but the Lord will bless his counsel, and it will work for you.
If the mission president, by the Spirit, determines that you should see a professional counselor, it does not mean that you are going crazy. It means the same thing that going to a medical doctor means. When you have a pain in your stomach, you may first begin taking certain over- the-counter medicines. If that doesn't work, then you consult a doctor. No one thinks you are weak for having an expert diagnose your sickness and prescribe medications that will help your body fight the disease. The same is true of a psychologist. If you have tried some of the standard remedies to overcome your depression or anxiety and they haven't worked, no one will call you weak for going to a professional. Because of their professional training, psychologists can often diagnose the problem and teach you coping skills to overcome the problem. That doesn't mean you don't have sufficient faith or you're not approved by Heavenly Father. It merely means you are wise enough to get the help that may enable you to continue doing the work of the Lord.
Sometimes, past events that you have been successful in suppressing come to the surface as you serve your mission. Perhaps your Heavenly Father determines that you are now strong enough to process those events so they will not come back to haunt you later. Instead of looking at the problem as a sign of weakness, try viewing it as a compliment fromthe Lord on your increased strength. Satan is the doctor of misdiagnosis. He will make you think you're having the flashback because you are unworthy. He was and continues to be "a liar from the beginning" (see D&C 93:25), so naturally he takes the dismal, negative point of view.
Problems can be overcome. Some very good men and women have experienced awful things. Even Abraham, the father of the faithful, had a father (Terah) who turned from his righteousness and started worshipping idols. Terah degenerated so far that he tried to kill Abraham by having the priest of Elkenah offer him as a human sacrifice (see Abraham 1). That kind of family life would certainly not be looked on as contributing in a positive way to good mental health! Abraham could have wallowed in self-pity and used that experience as an excuse for not rising to his full potential. Instead, he squared his shoulders and went on to secure for himself and his posterity all the rights of eternal family blessings.
You can do the same. Bad things that happened in the past do not mean you are a bad person or that you can't achieve all you were fore- ordained to do. It does mean that you must be wise enough to use all available resources to put the bad things behind you after having put them into proper perspective. A continuing dialogue with your mission president or a counselor will help you come to understand yourself better. After all, coming to know ourselves is one of the primary purposes of life. Be courageous enough to face your problems head-on. With help from above, you can and will be stronger because of your experiences. From an eternal perspective, all these struggles will seem not only natural but necessary to help us achieve our eternal destiny.
Taken from the book: Serve With Honor, 1995, by Randy Bott, former mission President in Fresno, Calif., and currently teaching Missionary Preparation classes at BYU