A little over a year ago, we came home after an extended stay with my parents. I was battling severe anxiety and depression, compounded by withdrawals from a temporary anxiety medication my body had not responded well to. On my first Sunday back, we made a visit to the bishop’s house. He wanted to meet with us. My husband and I spent over an hour in his office. I sobbed. The bishop listened. Consumed and dismayed by my non-existent will to live, I asked, in total sincerity, “Is life really worth living?”
Of course I knew what he would say. “Yes!” There was no other answer he could give. But in that moment, I truly felt that continuing to exist much longer in my broken body/mind was an utterly horrific prospect to fathom.
Then my bishop did the last thing I expected him to do. He invited me to fill the position of secretary in our ward’s Phoenix Temple Youth Cultural Celebration committee. I was dumbfounded. I could hardly muster the strength to get through each day. How would I fulfill another church assignment? The bishop assured me that they had prayed and felt strongly that I was the person for the job. Despite my doubts, I said yes.
The night of my first stake cultural celebration committee training meeting, I was having awful withdrawals. I did not want to go. At all. My husband gave me a priesthood blessing. I was told that I had been given that assignment for a reason and blessings would come from it. And so I drove to the meeting. And I managed to stay calm as I learned about my new responsibilities.
As I walked through the hall back to my car after the training, I ran into a friend from another ward. She knew about my mental health battles, and she was shocked to see me there. Seeing the weariness in my face, she wrapped me in a hug. It was a tender mercy to have someone acknowledge what a monumental feat it had been for me to show up that night.
Several weeks later, still fighting for my will to live, I broke down and emailed the Phoenix stake cultural celebration representative over me (who mercifully happened to be in my ward and knew what I was going through). I confessed to her:
I didn’t sleep last night. I’m weaning off a short-term anxiety med and having some pretty miserable withdrawals. . . . My most important focus right now is survival and trying to meet the needs of my children. I feel like I can’t handle anything else. . . . I don’t know what more needs to be done to add our youth to the roster, but I’m hoping you can take care of that until I’m feeling better.
I am so sorry, Lani. I have been holding back on giving you the permission slips because I just didn’t feel right about it. I was really worried about you. . . . I’ll handle everything until you feel better. If anyone has a question for you just send them my way. When you feel better just let us know. You continue to be in my prayers everyday.
Now, over a year later, I’ve been thinking about my participation in that committee. My bishop and my husband both witnessed to me that I was given that secretary position for a reason. In the end, I only completed a small portion of the assignments I was supposed to complete. Someone else could have done a much better job, I’m sure. So why had it been so important for me to be given that assignment? With the added perspective of hind-sight, several possibilities come to mind.
Ultimately, however, I don’t think that church assignment was really for my benefit or that the struggles I endured were happening to teach me. Their primary purpose, I believe, was to benefit the people around me. These words from Sandra Ferrin Strange’s essay resonate:
As well as revealing and challenging our deep-seated attitudes . . . , others’ suffering and pain can also show us the depth of our compassion—or our lack of it. . . . My unexamined values shift suddenly when I face a friend’s prolonged pain. . . . Prolonged suffering in those around me forces me beyond easy answers and comforting platitudes (Source).
My husband shared with me a statistic from a recent stake priesthood leadership meeting: 10.1% of missionaries serving in the Phoenix mission go home early because of mental illness. Earlier this year, the Deseret News shared the story of Logan Groll. This strong young man began experiencing deeply debilitating anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder shortly after entering the MTC. “Despite exact obedience, a loving, patient companion and understanding leaders, each day was a struggle.” After a six-month medical release to seek help at home, Elder Groll re-entered the mission field. After a brief period of great success, once again the panic returned. He did all he could. “I prayed hard, so hard,” he said. “But I realized my body was done. I had nothing left to give. And it wasn’t fair to my companion any longer.” Elder Groll knew that the Lord accepted his offering, regardless of its size, and he was given an honorable early release. I can relate to Elder Groll’s experience, at least to some degree.
As I “failed” to fulfill the temple cultural celebration assignments I was given, I had an audience. Perhaps someone in that audience needed to know that it’s OK to say: “I can’t do this. I need help.” Perhaps someone in that audience needed to know that mental illness is real and intense and “service opportunities” can’t make it all better? Perhaps someone in that audience needed to see me fall short so that she could let go of her own guilt for feeling incapable of fulfilling her own church assignments? Perhaps someone in my audience needed to know…
A recent conversation with a friend keeps coming to mind. She had reached her absolute limit. She was utterly and completely spent and overwhelmed physically, emotionally, spiritually. She was battling real depression, but her weekend must-do list (including several church assignments) seemed impossible to complete. How many others are living similar realities every weekend? Or every day?
Elder Neal A. Maxwell spoke in a 1993 BYU devotional about the importance of wisdom and order:
Sometimes we make so many commitments, they become like the vines in the allegory of Jacob, threatening to “overcome the roots,” including the roots of family relationships, friendships, and relationships with God.
He went on to share these scriptures from the Gospel of Mark:
And he said unto [the Twelve], Come ye yourselves apart into a desert [solitary] place, and rest [cease from any movement or labour in order to recover and collect strength] a while: for there were many coming and going, and they had no leisure so much as to eat. And they departed into a desert place by ship privately. [6:31–32]
Elder Maxwell also observed: “Consider the spiritual poise of Jesus, our Exemplar, in all things. Jesus, who accomplished the most, was never hectically involved.” Jesus never ran himself into the ground in service. He often separated Himself for periods of meditation and solitude and rejuvination. President David O. McKay outlined several of the Savior’s solitary periods of respite in speaking of the importance of meditation.
We all need periods of rest when we can “cease from labor in order to recover and collect strength.” It’s OK to say, “I can’t do this right now.” It’s OK to take a break. It’s OK to not magnify your calling during times of intense struggle. It’s OK to live your reality, as bleak as it may be at times, without shame or stigma. There will be times in your life when you will be ready and able to serve, but there will also be times in your life when you will need to rest and be served. And that’s OK.