Friday, July 24, 2015

A generous explanation of why I came home

Mental health...

Over the years I’ve been attempting to crack the code. For example, I've found that my mental health is closely connected to my physical and emotional health. I also know for a fact that I was born anxious. Throughout my life, my anxiety has been a double-edged sword. When I've given myself good outlets for it, it's spurred me on to some of my greatest learning and achievements. However, at the end of the day, it's still mental illness. I haven't asked for help with it since I was seven. 

When I left for Argentina, I was on a quest. I began to overcome weird, compulsive behaviors and direct previously scattered energy to missionary work. After I adjusted, there were months of joyful, hard work ('Placentero nos es trabajar' #88 for those of you who know the Spanish hymn book!). The stress of the mission was high, but as long as I stayed focused, it was purposeful and gratifying. I no longer had time to think about old anxiety I’d brought with me, nor did I care to.

I learned that faith has no limits. As long as it's faith in a living, loving Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ, the only ones holding us back are ourselves. However, while faith has no limits, we ourselves do have limits. We’re watery bundles of cells and tissues and we’re actually quite perishable.... Every time something reminded me of old fears, I didn’t let myself react to it. I couldn’t. I had to advance. So I let my body 'absorb the shock' as it were, without thinking too much about it, and moved on. I may have lost track of how many times this happened. 

Furthermore, Resistencia is a physically demanding mission. There’s little way around that. In mid-June I started to tire out. I took it to be “mission fatigue”, which is common and should sometimes simply be put up with (within reason). When it got uglier than normal, we slowed down and started to take even better care of ourselves (to be fair, we were already sleeping 8 hours a night, eating a fresh and balanced diet, and doing 30 minutes of resistance exercise every morning). Hermana Badu had us focus on quality-over-quantity and an overall gentler approach to missionary work. But I just got sicker. I was tested for anemia, thyroid problems, etc. Nothing was showing up. By July I found myself in all manner of frightful illness situations, something that taught me a lot. I had the intention of fighting it off and staying out for the traditional 18 months, since I thought it was a physical problem which could be solved physically.

One day, President Franco had me talk over the phone with a psychologist who works in Buenos Aires. The pieces quickly started to fit together...It became evident that I was making myself ill. Or rather, my mind was unwittingly making my body ill. What. What? It was hard to believe at first. I look back on it now (and on most of my life, for that matter) and I can see how obvious it was. Long-term anxiety + mission stress = panic attacks. (I'm no medical school graduate, but in this link I found a list of symptoms that is descriptive of what I was experiencing. The anxiety symptoms were what I thought was mission fatigue, and the panic attack symptoms were when my body was telling me that I needed to slow down:

We worked through mission-related stress and anxiety, but by then I was already tracing my problems to their clear and unmistakable root. I knew there were things in the past that I need to sort out and I can't do it alone. Working hard on your mission is excellent because it can bring to the surface things you might need to fix, and give you the opportunity to take care of them. The church doesn’t provide long-term counseling for missionaries in the field since it can be time consuming and more successfully done at home. Furthermore, I had already pushed myself over the edge and wasn’t going to physically recover in Argentina.

Why did I get so physically sick? I have a few theories. In October 2010, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf said that "when distress appears. . . too often we attempt to keep up the same frantic pace or even accelerate, thinking somehow that the more rushed our pace, the better off we will be." I have certainly shown a lifelong pattern of this. My senior year of high school, I was already experiencing anxiety at impressive levels. What did I do at that time? Instead of keeping up a nice, reasonable daily running log which is great for mental health maintenance, I ran a marathon. I trained for it in the dead of winter. I worked even harder in school, and I began to complicate my social life and endlessly confuse myself to the point where I was going against things I already knew. And as a result of all this, I got very sick a few times. "For no apparent reason. . ." Later on, early in my college career when ugly events occurred, I dealt with it in part by diving into my classes and my job. This is a fairly useful habit to have, as it's kept me from feeling too hurt or sorry for myself. However, sometimes you're actually just hurt. Earlier this month when I prayed about going home, I got a clear answer that it's time. It's finally time to directly consider the psychological aspect of my well-being. I think it will help me to be a healthier, happier person. Also, I'll be better able to help my future children one day in the occasion that they end up with personalities anything like mine.

I like being a person who's weak, because it makes it harder for me to ignore the necessity to learn. Sometimes I am even compelled to learn. When unchecked or unprincipled, my over-earnest nature has nearly destroyed me several times. While it sometimes feels impossible to keep ourselves in balance, with the gospel it's quite attainable. The end purpose of living the gospel is to become like our Heavenly Parents. Heavenly Father is perfectly balanced, so it's got to be possible. Our success in this life and in the eternities is dependent upon how well we live his commandments, because if we don't live them all, we won't become like him. That's why he gave us them all. So in D&C 58:27, we are told to be "anxiously engaged in a good cause". Yet in Mosiah 4:27 we are told that "it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength," therefore we must direct our lives "in wisdom and order."

So my message for you today is: sometimes people have problems! It’s okay! The gospel isn’t true because of the things I saw or could have seen for the rest of my mission; it’s just true.

Was my mission a failure because it wasn't like other people's missions? Well, sure, if I look at it that way. But on Tuesday, a friend quoted a speech called “The Good News about Failure” by Dr. Eugene Bryce. He said that "failure is something we can avoid...only by doing nothing, saying nothing, and becoming nothing."

If I look for my shortcomings or a sense of loss in all this, I’ll quickly find it. Conversely, if I look for all the good that has come of this mission, l quickly forget any sense of loss. 

I close my eyes and it takes about ten seconds before I get a flow of cherished memories and a sense of sureness about the gospel of Jesus Christ.

In this whole process, I have felt an exquisite amount of love and support from fellow missionaries, humble priesthood leaders, family members, neighbors, and friends.

I have found hope and comfort in the words of the 2nd verse of "How Firm a Foundation". In going from healthy to ill, and in the sudden transition from Formosa to South Jordan, these words have come to mean a lot to me:

In ev'ry condition--in sickness, in health,

In poverty's vale or abounding in wealth,
  At home or abroad, on the land or the sea--
  As thy days may demand, as thy days may demand,
  As thy days may demand, so thy succor shall be.
          The 5th verse goes on to say:
  When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
  My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply.
  The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
  Thy dross to consume, thy dross to consume,
  Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.

In times when it's been tempting to despair this past month, I've also remembered what my L. M. Montgomery-loving mother taught me. "To despair is to turn your back on God." 

God hasn’t abandoned me--nor will he--so I won’t abandon him. Friends, family: I’ll get in touch with you all gradually as I have the energy. If I’m avoiding talking to you, it’s likely because talking to you would make me so happy and excited I would get overwhelmed and get really sick again. Also can’t remember my email or facebook passwords. Also my phone number was cancelled months ago! :D :) :)

For now, here are some pictures Hermana Badu and I took during the high points in my last couple of weeks in Formosa!


These posters in the 'downtown' centro area are constantly changing and morphing, being destroyed by the weather and people in the streets and being replaced. It has become a symbol for me of the transient nature of our earthly and socially motivated accomplishments. I think of the words of King Benjamin when he says "And I, even I, whom ye call your king, am no better than ye yourselves are; for I am also of the dust."         (Mosiah 2:26).


Sunset in barrio San Pedro

Final bus ride to Resistencia
I leave you with a video we took on July 12th. It was an afternoon where I was too sick to have missionary discussions, but too antsy to stay inside the pension. We went for a short walk.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Be Chill My Soul

Hello people,

I want to share some thoughts today about the true consequences of the full-time missionary work we do. The fact is, we have no idea what they are! Let me explain what I mean by that. On any given day, we may think that we are giving X number of discussions, jotting down X number of references, and inviting X number of people to church. And after the mission is over, we will have a neat list of X number of baptisms that were "ours" because we were there for them. All of these numbers are important and it's a handy way to try to measure and comprehend the results of our mission. However, I'm going to throw you all for a moment---I am the convert of a sister missionary, and I'm not anywhere on her list of baptisms. ("What?")

It's true! I met her in Mérida, Mexico. I talked to her for a total of 5 minutes, and I saw her a total of one (1) time in my life. She played a brief yet crucial role in my life story. While there had to have already been "fuel" for the fire, she was the spark. In a short conversation with her, I got excited about the possibilities of missionary service, and I felt that great spirit that full-time missionaries emit.

So maybe that day she turned in for the night and wrote down that she had 3 investigators in church, she taught 4 lessons, and she needed to buy some more oatmeal on p-day. She did not know she had just been a catalyst for my decision to serve a mission! And she still doesn't know that I came out here and only then began to have full confidence in my church! I don't even know her name!

I will give one more example. Further along in my curiosity to find out what "the mission" was all about, I found myself at the MTC to be trained up on what I would be doing. After my time there, I left with a group of missionaries for the airport by train. Our bus to the train station was late, and in my haste I got on a different part of the train than I should have, but I sighed and sat down anyway. A 20-something year old man sat across from me. He saw my shiny new name tag and asked me where I was going. "Resistencia, Argentina," I told him.
"That's where I served my mission," he told me.

We chatted for a while, and he told me about a province called Formosa. This is not very flattering to my geographical knowledge, but I'll admit I had not previously been aware that Formosa existed. He told me people are nice there. You don't have to exert yourself very much to get a discussion, because the people invite you in, he told me. I thought this sounded great. I was also tired and shy, so I didn't care much to keep talking. I ate a muffin. We got off the train. He wished me luck, and said "Resistencia is the best mission." I said "I know." I knew. I went on to the airport with my gaggle of missionaries.

A few days later I found out I was being sent to Formosa. Oh, good! I thought, thinking of sunny vacation spots and friendly community values. Not one week later, we were at the home of a member, Hermana Gonzales. She started telling me about the missionary who first introduced their family to the gospel, Elder Cifuentes from Chile. It took me about 15 seconds to find out that this was the man I'd met on the train just days before. The Gonzales family spoke (and still speaks) about Elder Cifuentes and his companion with much love, and they have an inexhaustible number of inspiring stories about those days. Hermana Gonzales would smile and look up at the sky and say "Tenía una fe incomparable". It soon became stuff of legend to me. Esoteric missionary legend...

I wanted to have that amount of faith. I wanted to have a contagious sublime joy to share with all who would listen, the way it sounded like Elder Cifuentes did. When Elder Cifuentes was serving in Formosa, do you think he knew then that he was going to make such an impact on my mission? I don't think so. I think he did it out of the natural desire to follow Christ and be genuinely good. And good is good. When you sincerely do a good thing according to God's will, it seems to shine through time and space to bless anyone else who is fortunate and receptive enough to find it. So, we are immediately aware of only a small slice of what we are doing. In missionary work and in most everything we do, there are more consequences radiating out from the moment itself.

I myself have been unaware of some of the physical consequences of what I've been doing, and my body has recently told me that it will tolerate no more. I have unresolved health issues which existed before I left, which I did not think would affect me the way they now do. My parents are going to feel strange receiving this email and posting it on my missionary blog, but the facts are the facts. Party's over...I have prayed and contemplated this at great length, and I am going home for maintenance.

I hope nobody feels anything unsavory upon reading this. I just wanted you all to know what was going on, dear family members and friends who read my emails. I continue to pray for you and be grateful for your prayers.

I came out here not exactly knowing why I was doing it. But I had faith, and goodness knows I had the intention of finding out what's what. It was March 30th--that exact day-- that I knew for sure that I'm not going anywhere; this gospel is where I now build my future. I don't know a lot of the specifics when it comes to what I'll be doing in the next few years, but I know for sure that I trust God, so I think everything will be just fine.


Hermana Tolman

Tuesday, July 7, 2015


Various people have asked me if "I am sick of my area" or "If I desire to leave Italia Centro". I have two answers to this question. One: sure, I would love to get to know somewhere else, but two: no. I am not sick of my area. I have discovered that if I am feeling sick of my area, I have forgotten the depth of human suffering in my area. There is always someone who could be relieved by the gospel.

I had a defining conversation a few weeks ago--it was the kind that seems like no big deal when it happens, but then later on as you think more about it you realize it that it changed the way you see the world. It was with Elder Peña from El Salvador--during transfers we and a few other missionaries were waiting around at the terminal for traveling missionaries to arrive, and we were talking about the way we work. I mentioned my tendency to buzz around relentlessly trying to knock a million doors and have a million discussions. Urgency is good, right? He smiled and basically said, "Good, but what are you urgent about?"

This was a very good question. I soon found that whatever I was urgent about I was "perfectly wrong" as a child Mara Wilson puts it in Miracle on 34th Street. I reached my physical limit and became exhausted. I have been thinking a lot since then about the meaning of the word urgency. I have urgency in the first place, but what am I urgent to get done? If what I'm doing is destroying me, I must not be doing it how God wants...
The fact is, as a missionary I need to have urgency, but urgency about the right thing. Urgency about the spiritual well-being of the people in this little slice of the world I've been given. Not urgency to have x number of discussions or to meet quotas. If I'm trying to meet a quota just so I can report it contently that night, I'm doing it for me and not for them. Urgency for these people and their happiness. Their understanding of Christ. Their salvation. So I've physically slowed down a little bit and everything's going a lot better for us.  Hermana Badu says hi. :)

-Hermana Tolman

Me and Miryan on the 4th of July. It was freezing cold outside ha-ha
Armoa Family on the 4th of July
Me and Olga and her youngest child and Hermana Armoa last night!