Today while cruising Reddit I saw a post about Mormon missions (yes, Mormon. This is the word I was raised with and I’m not going to submit to Russel’s 30 year old grief with Gordon), and I decided that I would go ahead and share my experience as I remember it. Obviously some details aren’t 100% remembered, and I left out some stuff that others may find relevant. Take this less as legal testimony and more as someone rambling about their subjective experience.
Ahem. Without further ado:
When I was a young man (18, because I did my mission before the age change), I was a freshman at BYU. I had struggled my whole life making friends in the Morridor, as, being a little bit neurodivergent, I was frequently told that I made no sense to my rural Mormon peers. At BYU I had found people I could connect with. They were smart, quirky, weirdos like me who, for the first time in my life, I felt really understood me. I even had a girlfriend (which isn’t a big deal for some guys, but for me it was a f*rking miracle).
It was in this atmosphere of contrasting loneliness and “at last” acceptance that the mission drum began to beat. It started in our student ward with the leadership organizing things like “missionary week” where we were supposed to live like missionaries for seven days. We even had little cards that we were supposed to mark off our “missionary tasks” on. I refused to do it, because I was a CS major and the workload was totally drowning me even without extra crap, but the pressure was there. All my new friends asked me how my missionary card was coming, and they would be flabbergasted and even a little upset when I told them I wasn’t doing it. The girls thought it was cute (and don’t try to tell me that doesn’t matter to an 18 year old).
Then you also have to take into account my family dynamic. My mother was a Utah Valley transplant to Box Elder County. She was raised in an extremely orthodox household with eight siblings. She was the Übermormon. We lived around a lot of rural people, as well as some townsfolk in Brigham City who had an over elevated sense of their own worldliness. In her mind, we were living in a fallen area, and it was up to her to bring the Light of Christ to these ruffians. We had to be more righteous than our neighbors, live up to every expectation with extra sugar on top, and so on and so forth.
Obviously this was destined to fail. My oldest sibling has OCD to this day, and another one of my siblings got teen pregnant. My older brother was preparing to go on a mission when Gordie B gave the “virgins only” talk, so that ended his mission before it started.
Then it was my turn. I was basically my mom’s best chance to get a kid who worked out “right.” I was unsuccessful with girls in high school (much to my chagrin, much to my mother’s delight), so I checked off the “virgin” box. I got pretty good grades, and understood church topics well. I was excited about the church when I was in high school, although this was mostly an attempt to get people to like me.
When the time for me to go on a mission rolled around, I had reservations. For the first time ever I felt like I had a group of people who cared about me without any strong expectations. Of course, this didn’t last. My roommates all became more and more interested with their mission preparations, and would frequently ask me what I thought about my own, and how wonderful it would be if I went on a mission. My girlfriend told me that we could keep dating if I didn’t go, but she didn’t really see a future for us unless I was an RM. My mother expected me to be a missionary; she had made that clear from about the time I could understand words. Basically anyone who mattered in my life would have been disappointed in me if I had not been a missionary. I didn’t have a single person who said “I will respect you just as much as I do now if you don’t go on a mission.”
So I put my papers in and went. I got called to Eastern Europe, like many people at the time. I was less than enthusiastic about this, and so I put off responding to my mission call letter for several days. Almost every day I was repeatedly reminded that I needed to respond to the call. While not explicit, it was obvious that the only correct response was to say that I was going to agree to go. And so I wrote back that I would go.
Almost immediately my faith problems started. In hindsight, this was just my subconscious mind trying to prevent me from doing something nonsensical, but at that point my shelf collapsed. Every issue I’d had suddenly lined up and it came into clear focus that the church was obviously not what it claimed to be. I even had an experience that I claim to be a theophany where I saw the expanse of creation and came to a higher knowledge of God (whatever that means to you; IMO, this was a purely subjective experience). It told me, unequivocally, that the church was “not true” (this is probably one of the few authentic spiritual experiences in my life, lol).
During this time of spiritual transition, I went and had my endowment done. It did not go well for me. To me, it felt like another chord laced about me in an ever tightening web that was binding me to an eternity of servitude to an institution that had glaringly obvious holes in its claims. Unfortunately, conditioning doesn’t just wear off the instant you realize that something is wrong, so I also still thought God was going to destroy me for having done the endowment without pure faith in my soul.
Despite all this, I felt that saying no to my mission was out of the question. Not only would I be disappointing everyone who cared about me, but I would have to explain why I changed my mind, which would reveal my lack of faith which would mean I could no longer attend BYU. While this might seem like something that’s not so bad, at the time it was the only places I had ever felt truly like myself in my own skin. It would have been like telling Harry Potter to leave Hogwarts.
The day finally came and off I went. I spent 11 weeks in the MTC learning Russian, and it was off to a part of the world I had never even thought of visiting, much less hoped to visit (since then I have learned to love my mission region. Slava Ukrajini!) It was difficult. If you haven’t caught on yet, I’m not really salesman material, and nobody in my mission area wanted what I was selling. It was mostly just unending boredom, loneliness, and rejection. I spent much of the time perfecting a skill I had used when I was younger of dissociating and imagining I was anywhere else. This got so bad that at one point I had to remind myself that I really was taking up space, in the way of somebody on the bus, and I would need to physically move for them. I felt like an actual ghost.
During my time, the mission got a new president, and he was a jerk. He was a metric grinding “businessman,” who’s first words to me were that his real estate development partners cut him out of the business. In that moment I had felt that they were just the worst people. A few weeks later, I would realize he probably deserved it. He would regularly make sister missionaries cry just for being women, and he drove the more faithful missionaries into the ground. They all began to take on a gaunt sleep deprived look that I had only seen in some of the more disturbing videos you might see in a history class.
In my case, his BS didn’t get to me as much because I knew he wasn’t actually anything special. He was aware of me and my lack of caring about him and his position. I wasn’t blatant about anything, but I didn’t do anything special to pad his numbers. I wasn’t “inspired” at all by his MLM-style presentations. This disturbed several of my companions who wanted to get into the spirit of it all and most definitely told on me in the weekly emails.
Then the obvious and what should be expected happened. My girlfriend back at BYU had found some new guy to love on. This was devastating for me, because I was performing the mission more than a little bit for her benefit. I had spent all this time doing this thing, deceiving people around me that I actually believed, sucking it up and performing so that everyone in my life would accept me as a human being, and she still felt like it was ok to do this (admittedly, it is ok for her to do this, but this is the kind of BS situation that the church creates). I felt completely betrayed and I collapsed. I found myself dissociated involuntarily. The best I can describe it is that I was watching through a window as a flesh robot walked around doing the stuff I was supposed to do. I stopped eating and nearly collapsed in the metro. I was in very rough shape.
My companion at the time was obviously very concerned by this state of affairs and called the mission president. The mission president decided to bring me in for a series of interviews in which several things happen. I’m going to avoid a gory play by play presentation, because, honestly, it’s still very upsetting, so here’s what happened in list form: he shamed me for being a nerdy virgin, he said I was like a dog eating vomit for wanting my girlfriend back, he told me that if I ended my mission I would be excommunicated, and, most importantly for him, he set up a system of accountability and expectations that I would have to meet in order to avoid that fate.
So for the last year of my mission I was basically his bitch. He didn’t necessarily use this as mercilessly as he could have, but he did have direct control over me. When he wanted me to jump I did. If you’ve played Crusader Kings, he essentially had an infinite supply of strong hooks on me, and he used them when he wanted to.
Finally, my mission was drawing to its end, and a couple months before that glorious day, the area 70 came to town. He went around asking all the missionaries how long they had been out, and I responded with something to the effect of “I’ve got 2 months left.” To that he said “Elder, you don’t decide how long you’ll serve, we do.” The mission president was right next to him and let out a shit eating toady laugh. I once again felt humiliated and terrified. I also very nearly punched him in the face. Rage and fear are closely connected in me.
A few weeks later and I was finally on my way home. Everything was going to be fine now. I had made it through the mission, I was going to go back to BYU and I could get back to the way it was supposed to be. Except none of that happened at all. I had changed; I was bitter and scared. The world had changed in significant ways (the 2008 housing market crisis happened during my mission); I had been separated from everything for two years and had no idea what was going on. My relationships had changed; my old roommates had other problems and my former girlfriend was now married. Nothing was the same and I’ve honestly never been able to find my way back to how I felt before my mission. I’ve never been that comfortable or at ease with myself again. I live with anxiety and an urge to escape from reality that I struggle with constantly.