Tuesday, May 12, 2015

there and back again

Sometimes, things don't go the way you want them to.

For example: I am the first full-time missionary in my family. So when I sent in my mission papers, I thought I'd get a nice comfy mission call in North America. Maybe South America, although even that was a little out of my comfort zone. I figured if I got really, really lucky, I'd get placed in the Midwest and only be a few hours away from my family, where I'd still be able to keep in touch with everyone and I'd never get too homesick because, well, I'd be home.

Then I got a call to Thailand. It's over a year since I got the call and it still amazes me that the Lord called me there. It was completely mind-blowing. Getting to Thailand was a long, hard process and being in Thailand was even harder. But it was the best time of my life.

And now I'm back, several months earlier than I expected, on medical release.

Once I got my call and it started to settle in, I researched Thailand, started teaching myself Thai, and tried as best I could to prepare myself for what it would be like.

Unfortunately (but really fortunately), Thailand was so far away and so remote to me that I had absolutely no idea what the freeeak I was getting myself into. I just didn't know. And so once again, I had to put aside my perfectionistic, independent tendencies and just rely on God.

It was really hard. I had no idea what would happen to my family, or me, or really what I would be doing. I had the good fortune of meeting Emily Brown and Tessa Herrmann, who were going to Thailand with the same MTC entrance date as me (Tessa ended up as my first companion!). But even knowing them only confirmed that none of us actually knew what we were doing.

Soon enough, that fateful MTC entrance date came.

Apparently, most districts are small. Like, two to four companionships, usually not more than 10 people.

My MTC district had 14 total. And I love every single one of them like they're my own flesh and blood. We spent two months together, bugging the crap out of each other, strengthening each other, growing together...and trying to learn Thai along the way.

A week or so into the MTC, my dad went into surgery and I started really suffering. I couldn't focus, and I started to question whether I was really supposed to be there. That all changed with a priesthood blessing from one of the elders in my district. That blessing is seared in my memory, especially one phrase: "God has complete confidence in your ability to serve a complete 18-month mission."

Whoa. And that whole time I'd been thinking there was no way I could do any of it.

I don't believe it was an overnight change, but I found a lot of strength in that blessing and I started to adjust to the whole "being a missionary" thing. I started to get more comfortable in my role and have fun with it.

I owe so much to the sisters in my MTC group. Tessa, my first companion, was such a good example to me of patience and love and while we didn't see eye to eye on a lot of things and we definitely had a rough patch that ended with us changing companions, I always knew how good of a missionary she was (and is). I adore her and am so grateful that despite our past issues, we got over it and are better friends than ever now! My second MTC companion, Brecklyn Nethercott...is my soul sister. It was just kinda one of those companionships where we never had to say anything, we always knew how the other was feeling and how to help.

I could talk for forever about my MTC experience and the things I learned, but I think the most important lessons can be summed up in the missionaries in my district. I learned so much from them and several times I remember the impression that I was in the presence of spiritual giants when we were gathered in the classroom.

But it was a long two months, and we were more than excited to actually get to our destination and hit the ground running!

The flight was miserable, the jet-lag was death, and before we knew it we'd sat through our first transfer meeting and we were all getting shipped off to our new areas with our new companions. It didn't take me long to realize that I was one of the only sister missionaries not being trained in Bangkok. Instead, I was getting shipped off to Kalasin, a province in the middle of the Isaan, which for the most part is just rural towns and rice fields.

And my companion and I were going to be the other two missionaries in the province.

My trainer, Kara Ladle, was an incredible missionary. She was completely baller at the language, exactly obedient, and knew how to talk to everyone. Coming out of the MTC, I was amazing at the language for a greenie, loved the thai people, and was willing to do whatever was asked of me. Killer team, right? So why didn't we see a crapload of success and growth and happiness like I'd found in the Missionary Training Center?

I'm not inclined to blame the area, even though the area was tiny and brutally difficult as far as finding investigators went. We spent a lot of time standing in front of Big C (the thai equivalent of walmart pretty much) holding pictures of baptism, asking people if they wanted to "wash their sins." Buddhist people don't really have a concept of sin, so...nobody was really interested.

But despite the fact that we were lucky if we got 40 people to church on Sundays, I don't think that was the problem. I think the problem was taking place inside of me. I'm not really sure what changed or when, but by the time I got to Kalasin all I could feel was that I'd made a horrible mistake and that I was suddenly cut off from feeling the Spirit in teaching, studying, and praying.

It felt like hell. I cried for an hour every day during personal study and cried myself to sleep every night as soon as daily planning was finished at 9:30 (normally missionaries go to bed at 10:30). I felt absolutely awful all the time and while I felt I was doing everything to draw closer to God, I was completely blocked. I felt no love for anyone, myself included, and as time went on I learned to just swallow the awful feelings and not feel. Leaving the house every day filled me with dread. I closed off because I didn't know what was wrong and so, of course, nobody knew.

When it rains, it pours.

By some complete miracle I survived the first six weeks, all the worse for wear. We picked up another companion at the next transfer meeting and became a trio, even though I was still being trained. I remember wondering how the heck that was going to work.

The new companion was Brittany Lam, and she brought a whole different perspective to my mission experience. She was spunky and funny and goofed off and had fun and was happy, which is something that, trudging along in my own misery, I'd neglected to do. I learned a lot from Lam about that. She injected energy and spirit and it was just enough to get us going for another month.

It was during this period that I first started exhibiting symptoms of the health problems that eventually sent me home. It started as heat exhaustion and lack of appetite from working myself too hard and not allowing myself to relax or enjoy myself. I had this mentality that I needed to do everything and be perfect, because missionaries are superheroes, right?

I was working hard but I wasn't working smart.

By the time our mission president called to tell us that all three of us would leaving ("white-washing" in mission terminology), I don't think any of us were surprised. The branch was falling apart and we were all emotionally dead from the stress and drama of a lot of different things that had occurred. Despite the relief of leaving, I was also terrified to leave because Kalasin was all I'd ever known, and the idea of going anywhere else (specifically Bangkok) was not appealing. My occasional heat exhaustion had turned into consistent nervous appetite loss and even stomach pain.

And so all this led me to sitting on the floor of the hallway outside the transfer meeting, feeling completely broken in spirit and body. I didn't know how I was going to make it through that day, much less the next year. I told God that I could do six more weeks, and if something didn't change I was going to go home.

It wasn't meant to be a threat, just a desperate plea for something to give.

I got through that day on a fist bump.

I knew my limits, but God knew them even better. I found out that day I'd be serving in Pakkret (the same church building where we did transfers) and I'd be serving with Jessica Ellis. I remember our first night, after we'd said goodnight, I told her everything. That I was on my last six weeks and that I was miserable and wanted to go home. I wondered if I was making a mistake opening up to her like that, but she spent the next six weeks confirming that being open was the best decision I could have made.

She nursed me back to health. Not just physically bringing me to the hospital and making sure I took all the weird medicine the doctors were throwing at me, but she talked to me and she listened. We took breaks, we went at my pace and sometimes I felt frustrated because I knew I could be doing more, but she helped me realize that I was important. My health was important. In fact, I was just as important as the people we were teaching!

I started to fall in love with Thailand again! I didn't feel dread every single morning when I woke up for fear that I wasn't doing enough or working hard enough. I understood that I was doing my best without killing myself, and I actually started to feel better physically.

There was one P-day (preparation day) when some of the Elders in our area had the idea to go to Lopburi (an area a few hours north of Pakkret) to climb a mountain. We left the house at 6am and took a van for a few hours to our destination.

The mountain we hiked...I wish I remembered the name of it because it had such a profound impact on me. 4000 steps carved in the side of the mountain led to the top, where there was a small temple. Monks had made the trek for decades, a pilgrimage that helped solidify their dedication to their work.

Apparently monks are in much better shape than I was. I remember being around 1,000 steps in and deciding I was done. I apologized to my companion (we'd already been going slower than everyone else) and sat down on a step and just looked down the mountain. It wasn't the top, but it was nice enough. I wasn't going to beat myself up over not getting there.

My companion waited a few minutes with me and then she started to push. "Just a little bit more," or "let's just get to the next rest stop." And so slowly, we continued. The steps got steeper, and as we got higher I was really not doing well. My lungs hurt and the repetitive motion of climbing steps was boring and didn't seem to be making much of a difference in climbing the mountain.

The other missionaries were crazy supportive, too. Elders slowed down to stay with us, kept us joking and laughing, brought us water and the Thai equivalent of Gatorade. I remember wondering why it was so important that I got to the top of that mountain.

But I made it. I was the last one up, and I was out of breath, embarrassed, and exhausted, but then we had a devotional on the top of the mountain that changed my focus on the mission.

Most of our zone at the top of the mountain

It was about the temple. Our zone leaders led a discussion and taught us about the temple. About why it mattered. I think I always knew, but that devotional brought out a lot of understanding that I hadn't consciously processed before. These people needed a temple. It wasn't a luxury. It was a necessity. These Saints here in Thailand needed the blessings, the peace and the ordinances in the temple like nothing else. We all knew members or families in Thailand who'd died without an opportunity to go to the temple. And that day I caught the vision. What I was supposed to be doing in Thailand. I wasn't just standing outside or walking around asking people to wash their sins or go to a Christian church, I was helping to build a temple.

It's only now that I get why it was so important for me to get to the top of that mountain.

Actually, that mountain has become a metaphor for the mission in countless ways. I talk about that day all the time because it had such an impact on me. After that, I started to really catch the vision, the fire, the why of the work we were doing.

Which became my inflection point.

I was so sad to be separated from Sister Ellis. We spent Thanksgiving and Christmas parties together, survived a heckuva lot of crazy Sundays taking care of three wards, and she taught me so much about valuing myself and being myself. I realized that God called me to serve the mission. And I figured out how to work hard and work smart.

I figured out that this is supposed to be a joyful work!

I didn't know how things could keep getting better after having a companion like Jessica Ellis. But my next companion did just that. Sister Yanisa Mansiriphaiboon (I'm so proud that I can say and spell her name without thinking about it) and I actually went on a switchoff in my first area. We were companions for a day, and ever since then, I'd always thought it'd be awesome to be companions with her, because we were so alike, loved to have fun, and she was an incredible teacher.

But I never thought it'd actually happen. Dreams do come true, folks. I'm a witness.

Yanisa is a convert of two years, but you'd never guess that from the way she understands and teaches the gospel. I can't remember how many times I just sat there in lessons, listening to her teach and explain things better than I could have explained them in english! My testimony and understanding of the doctrine of Jesus Christ grew tremendously when I was serving with her.

It's worth mentioning that my health problems continued for the first bit of our time together. I had a medical procedure and after that and trying countless drugs and consultations, I was told that the root of the medical problem was simple stress from the lifestyle I was living. In the opinions of the doctors, I needed to go home, take a break from the lifestyle, go back to "normal" life.

But I couldn't. I felt like I had to stay, and Yanisa was with me every step of the way. With her relaxed approach to everything, she helped me eliminate a lot of the things that were stressing me out and, eventually, get me out of a negative physical cycle. I started feeling better and being able to work at the level that I wanted to.

We could do anything together, even contacting long hours in the hot sun. We never got bored, and we never got frustrated with each other. Okay, I can recall maybe three times in our three months of being companions when I actually got frustrated with her, and they were all for dumb reasons that were actually my fault. When the hour of frustration had passed, I wanted nothing more than to make up and spend more time (goofing off) with her.

We served together for two transfers. I worried at first that I would tire of her or get more frustrated but we only grew closer and as my thai improved, our conversations began to increase in length and topic and complexity. She is without a doubt one of my best friends and I can't imagine my life not knowing her. If that was the only reason I was sent to Thailand, it still would have been completely worth it.

In every way, I was thriving. I started getting answers to prayer easier and faster and feeling the Spirit stronger. I was at my peak; Yanisa and I could easily cover the challenge of working in three units (a thai ward, thai branch and international ward) and our workload was insane but we managed to do it every week. Around this time I started saying the "superman prayer," which goes a little like this:

Heavenly Father,
There is no freaking way I can do everything that's being asked of me right now.
But you can do this through me.
I know I'm not superman, but please qualify me to do what you need me to do today.

And so forth. And it worked! Every time I said a prayer like that, I found my capacities expanded, my abilities increased, and everything that needed to get done, was done. Maybe that wasn't everything, but it was always enough.

But all things must come to an end, and our almost four months of perfect balance ended when I got a call saying that I would be training the next transfer.

I'd always wanted to train. It was a dream of mine ever since I arrived in Thailand, though I'm not really sure why. Over time, I understood that training was less about when I was ready and more about when "my girl" came. When I got the training call, I felt unsure and even wrong. As much as I wanted to train, I wanted to do it for the right person, the person I was supposed to train.

My fears dissipated when our names were announced together at the transfer meeting. Sister Tara-Ann Teriipaia. I quickly discovered that we were nothing alike, which surprised me since my trainer and I were very alike. Sister Teriipaia was energetic and rambunctious! I really needed her energy and persistent optimism.

I'm not sure when it happened, but that transfer I put a lot on my plate and I started paying the price for it physically, mentally and emotionally, just like I had before. I was clocking out before we even left the house every day. I loved the area and the work but I was getting worked up about nothing and everything started to feel wrong. I tried so many things. We switched up studies, tried new routes, switchoffs, and endless conversations about the problem. It wasn't going away.

That's when my mission president started talking to me about going home. I violently rejected the idea; it simply wasn't an option to me. I didn't sign up for anything less than an 18-month deal. To me, anything less was failure. I'd rather die than go home early.

And so I pushed on, believing that, along with all of my other trials and ailments on the mission, it would go away through more work and dedication. There was one day where I had a fever of at least 39.5 Celsius (around 103 Fahrenheit). I was delirious. And I spent the rest of that week in bed. I was losing weight, never ate, perpetually in pain of some kind, and every day I felt more and more dead inside. Sometimes I'd even think about just walking into the middle of the street and letting it be over because it was so hot and I just had nothing left to give.

And somehow, I refused to admit what was happening to me. I was working myself to death.

Two weeks before transfers, I got a call from my Mission President. The call ended something like this.

Prez: "Well Sister Zoller, if you're going home I'd like to send you home with the missionaries going home next week. I'll let you think about the decision tonight and you can get back to me tomorrow morning."

It was already after 10pm, and missionaries are supposed to be in bed by 10:30. I don't think I went to sleep for a few hours that night. I was so torn up. On the one hand, I thought going home would be healthy -- to be able to rest from my labors and regenerate. But then again, I'd told myself I was only going to make the round trip to Thailand and back once on my mission. And this isn't what I'd signed up for! I was convinced that my Heavenly Father was just looking down at me waiting for me to make the right choice, and that choice was to stay. After all, the mission wasn't about me, and I'd be making a mistake if I did what benefited me the most, even though my companion and mission president both counselled me to follow that course.

So I chose to stay. I was very resolute about it and felt committed as ever. I was going to make it work. Somehow. "I'm staying, President." And click, I hung up the phone.

And then I was seized by a horrible feeling. It felt like death. I felt like I'd just signed away my life. But this is what I wanted! I needed to stay. So I fought that awful feeling, for almost six hours. And that whole day I couldn't focus, I couldn't invite, and I couldn't teach.

I knew I was making the wrong decision. It was the hardest phone call I've ever made, which is saying a lot because making phone calls has always been a source of anxiety in my life. I had to work myself up to doing it for somewhere in the ballpark of 10 agonizing minutes. But I knew I couldn't keep fighting God. My mission president knew, too. I think that's why he'd gently urged me to consider going home in the first place.

When I hung up the phone, I still felt that pit in my stomach, but I knew I was doing what God wanted me to do.

A week before transfers I moved to the office with all my stuff and did miscellaneous office tasks and finalizing logistics. I loved that week. I saw so many missionaries and was the recipient of so many acts of generosity and kindness. I will never forget that week.

On my last P-day, I took a field trip with the senior couples to the Kanchanaburi Province, which includes among other things the site of the Bridge Over the River Khwae. For those of you who don't know what that was or haven't seen the movie by that title, it was a Japanese prisoner torture camp during World War II for British, Australian, American and Dutch prisoners. We went to a museum and war cemetery, among other places, and it was overall pretty eye-opening and sobering. At the cemetery, we walked among rows upon rows of graves of officers who died in the camp, ranging in age from 22 to 47. I saw a few graves with the following inscription on them:

"Greater love hath no man that he lay down his life."

Isn't that what I was doing? I was willing to give my life to this work, and in some ways, dying seemed like a better option than going home. I was miserable. I was already homesick for Thailand and I took in every sight and sound and 7/11 snack like it was my last. The Lord knew I had given everything to the mission and there was a growing spot of peace in my heart where the heartbreak of leaving had been. That scripture on the grave made me begin to understand.

I got to spend another day at the office (and out of the office) with Rina Grover and Brynne Woodbury (in the picture), one of my many heroes on the mission. I tried not to tell people I was going home, but when they inevitably found out, they only responded with genuine love and concern. I still felt so ashamed of myself. Why couldn't I just serve for 18 months? What was wrong with me?

left to right: Elder Webb (my "son"), Elder Batey (my last district leader), me, and Sister T (my "daughter")
That transfer meeting was hard. That last week is all a blur but I remember specific moments in slow motion. I remember the last time I sang a closing song to a meeting in Thai, I remember saying goodbye to Brecklyn Nethercott in the van on my way out, I remember the airport at 4am, I remember sitting on the plane just terrified of leaving a place I'd once been terrified to go to.

my last night in Bangkok

As it turns out, there's nothing wrong with me. I served a complete mission in God's eyes. I just couldn't see it. With time, and some really supportive, convincing friends, I've started to see things for how they really are. An 18-24 month mission is relative. What really matters is what happens after it.

God allowed me to come home for a lot of reasons, probably. I know one of them is that He cares about me the same way he cares about my investigators and the members that I was giving everything for in the mission field. And I think that's pretty cool.

The mission is the best thing that's ever happened to me. It's still hard to think about it sometimes, but every time I do I always get this feeling that I did was I was supposed to. My full-time mission ended. But I realized about six months into my service that if you do the mission right, it never really ends. It leads to a life of consecrated service to the Lord. It's more than putting on a name-tag every day and adhering to a bunch of rules in a little white handbook. It's about the way you wake up every morning and approach every day. It's about the way you interact with people, from your family to random people on the street.

Sometimes, things don't turn out the way you want them to. They almost always turn out better. And it can only go up from here.

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