I’ve been trying to write this blog post for some 6 years now. For 6 years the words to describe my feelings have escaped me. For 6 years everything I entered on the screen, wrote on a paper, mumbled to myself or thought in my head felt right. 6 years this has thing has been nagging at the back of my head. It’s been 6 years since I returned home dishonourably from my mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. 6 years, and the story only gets longer each year, but now I want to tell people about it. I think I’m ready.
Why now you might be wondering, well for one I think I’ve finally got the words together to speak to my experiences in the field. A big part of the reason I think I’ve found those words is an article I read from an old friend, Lucas Taylor, where he describes a couple of life-altering decisions and his own doubts about those decisions. It’s an excellent read and I recommend anyone checks it out here. As you might be able to work out one of those decisions for him was also about serving a mission. To read someone else’s words about those sort of struggles gave me inspiration to really push myself to find the words to tell this story. For this, I must really thank Lucas for telling his story. Alright, I’ve stalled enough, let me tell you about Fiji.
I’m going to start where things started to go wrong for me, and you’ll just have to take my word that until that point I was in almost every way a typical missionary. I struggled to put sentences together in a language I could hardly understand, I ate food I would have never touched in my life with a smile on my face because my mother taught me to be polite, I did my best to integrate with local culture, and I taught the gospel with determination. I had doubts about my ability to perform in the role, as I think any missionary does.
Thinking back now though, I wasn’t being honest with myself about all the doubts I had. I told everyone I was excited to go, and that I knew going on a mission was the right thing to do, but I was hoping that if I could convince them, maybe I’d convince myself. That doubt is really what did me in down the stretch. It’s in the past now though, and I need to get on with the story.
I woke up one day with a miserable itch, upon investigation I found what I thought were really big mosquito bites. My companion told me it much more likely that they were bedbugs, and so we should spray my mattress down with a pesticide and leave the mattress out in the sun for the day. So we did and then went about our day, I tried my best to not scratch where it itched, and for the most part, succeeded. We came home fairly late in the evening, put my bed back inside and then went to sleep.
In the middle of the night, I woke up with an even fiercer itch, so I went to the bathroom to take a look in the mirror. Even more bites than before. Frustrating the say the least, but I figured I’d slump over to a chair or something and consult my companion in the morning. The next morning my companion, him being just as stumped as me, made a quick call to the mission office to consult the mission nurse about what to do about the itching. He told us to come up to the office on the next P-day (Missionary’s preparation day/the one day of the week they get “off”) to pick up some cream. As for the mattress, something along the lines of going to town on it with the pesticide was suggested.
So again we set out for our day, but this time when we got home in the evening I had determined that the real problem was that I had put the old sheets back on the mattress, and so I broke out the spare sheet and laid it down. When I woke up later that night my entire body was covered in the bites. I was downright pissed at this point, but whose fault was it? No ones really, so back to the chair for another night. The itching was bad enough that I really didn’t actually sleep much at all though.
P-day arrived and even though I felt really exhausted I knew that some glorious relief was waiting for me. At this point, it was absurdly difficult to not scratch away at whatever part of my body was feeling the worst at any particular moment so it was safe to say I was really looking forward to getting my precious cream. I had sprayed my mattress down again and set it out in the sun just to be sure though. We get to the office and I get my cream. Praise be! Except uhh… the cream did not relieve much of the itch. It lessened it for sure, but not enough to really make a dent in the overall problem. Whatever, it probably takes some time to ramp up or something I assumed.
At this point I’m gonna stop doing a day by day retelling if things, and instead I’m going to move into a more highlight reel sort of thingie. I wanted to give a bunch of detail about the bed-bugs thing because as the story continues it’s important to note that the itching and sleeplessness continued and as it continued I became much angrier and I think it really was what wore me down. Everything little thing frustrated me to no end because if it, and as you can imagine when you are quick to anger like this trying to learn a language via immersion doesn’t go well. Days began to feel like ages, and I was shutting down. It’s one of my biggest problems is that when I struggle in these ways my first response is always to silently attempt to solve everything on my own, and then when I don’t find a solution I lash out at others, usually in mumbling, but sometimes I get loud and I’m not proud of that.
One such instance of this came after we had finished teaching a couple of teenagers, 13 or 14 years old, again I don’t remember the specifics. What I do remember was after our lesson their father arrived home from his job and asked to speak with us. I was nervous that we were about to get into a Bible bash-off but was surprised when he simply told us how happy he was that we were teaching his children about Jesus and the gospel. He remarked that even though he had no interest in learning from us because he had found truth in the Protestant church if his children were finding truth with the Mormons than they had his blessing.
I remember walking out of the house thinking what a wonderful attitude he had, but my companion made what was honestly an innocent statement about how he hoped to convince the father one day of the truthfulness of our gospel. My companion, of course, wasn’t wrong, it is a belief in the church that while many religions have aspects of the gospel only the LDS church was the fullness of the gospel, no matter how kind the father was from the LDS point of view he was missing parts of the gospel. How could he say something like that though? This father loved his children, loved God, worked hard, was kind, and in so many ways embodied what a good Christian is. What right did we have to come and try to change that for him?
At this point, I realized that I was not the behaving in the way a missionary should.
I decided that the best course of action was to ask God what the deal was. Was this a test? Was I being brought down so I could be rebuilt stronger than before? Why was I thinking this way? Why was I so angry? I wasn’t sure and it only seemed right to go straight to the source. So I prayed long and hard, and in the moments after my prayer, I was utterly struck by something.
The silence. It felt as though there was nothing around me, just the emptiness of it all. Had I been abandoned by my God? In this hour of my need had he simply left me?
No, I reasoned, he had not abandoned me. My doubts were realized. He was never there.
In that instant, I let go of my attempts to keep my spirit together and I just let it fall to the floor and break. My identity, my worldview, everything about me was built on the centrepiece of my faith and now that it was gone. Who was I? Just a guy stuck thousands of miles from home.
So what did I do? I tried to just get through the days at first, but let me tell you something if you’re heart isn’t in it, Missionary work is the most miserable work there is. And miserable I was, I didn’t know how to express it though. I couldn’t just start a conversation with my companion with, “I don’t know if I believe in God anymore” could I? What I did do was turn to pen and paper. Pages upon pages I filled in my journal, and all it just filled with enormous rage. My whole life I had been told by people about the gospel and how true it was and now, at least at that moment I felt beyond all doubts that I had been properly duped. I wrote terrible things in that journal and it never helped me feel any better. After about a week I knew that I had to go, I knew this because I remember thinking, “Maybe I’ll get lucky and get cancer. They’ll have to send me home then right?”
The next P-day we stopped by the office and I requested a moment of the Mission President’s time. In that minute I poured my heart out to him and then he asked me, “Elder Tollestrup, do you want to be a good missionary?”
No. I just told you I don’t think anything I’m telling people is real and I hate every moment of my existence. I’m not terribly concerned with being good at this anymore.
So the process began of sending me home. It would take a number of weeks which culminated with a phone call with my Stake President (local leader from back home) where I distinctly remember telling him that my heart had hardened, and I could no reason to change my mind about any of this. It was determined that I would be dishonourably released from my calling as a missionary and sent home. Before I left though I decided that the vicious things in my journal couldn’t come back with me and couldn’t be found by anyone there, so in the middle of one of those sleepless nights I quietly burned all the pages I had written on. There was something very cathartic about that. Maybe if I had started burning my writing earlier things would be different.
Not long after that, I returned to Canada. Seeing my mom at the airport nearly broke me all over again. You could just see it in her eyes. Confusion, disappointment, pity, sadness, but still love as well. I don’t think I said a more than a sentence at a time to anyone those first few days. They didn’t know how to talk to me and I certainly didn’t know what to say to them. I was basically waiting for a mob to show up and throw me out of town. To this day I still worry that the mark of dishonourably released stigmatizes me around other members of the church, that’s why I typically avoid the topic with all strength.
Very fortunately for me I got a visit from some friends (one of those being Lucas who wrote that article) and leading them at that moment was Samara, who had determined that the best course of action was basically to pretend like I had never been gone and none of it ever happened and therefore I should be treated exactly the same way as before I left. That let me know that somewhere way down the line existed a world where I wouldn’t be just a piece of gossip in town. So I got a job, and after a couple of months moved out on my own. All the while my blood was still boiling with the rage I had gained in Fiji.
Not long after that, the rage turned inward though. Maybe God was there and instead of him failing me the reality was that in every way I had failed him. Maybe that’s who I was, the identity I had lost could be replaced with the role of a failure. I could accept a life of mediocrity because the reality was that I was a mediocre person. The rage had now turned to emptiness and sadness. Even though I tried my best to put on the face of someone with dreams and aspirations I didn’t really.
Moving to Edmonton invigorated me with hope for a while, but not long. And so I bumbled about, having brief moments where I was lifted up out of my own depression, but also moments where I sank deep into it. In those moments where I escaped my own thoughts, I want to really point out to my friends I met in Edmonton that those were just the best times.
I tell people the reason I reapplied to BYU was that I overheard some co-workers at Toys-R-Us talking about how they were ok with this being their lot in life and I simply wasn’t, but I kind of was. I reapplied to BYU after staring at High-Level Bridge on a freezing winters night thinking about what would happen if I jumped off it. That night I determined that nothing good would come of it and I should just go home, but something absolutely had to change.
I have never spoken to a single soul in my life about that night staring at the bridge. I’ve never had the courage to admit to myself, or to anyone that I thought briefly about ending my life. I always thought that if I did bring it up that people would assume I’m panhandling for attention, begging for sympathy, or just making excuses for personal failures. I’m really not trying to do that, this blog really is the best medium in my mind to bring it up, and it’s directly related to everything about Fiji so I think the two things have to be told together. Now that I finally found the words to talk about Fiji I can bring it all out to bear.
I mention that specifically because I know that there will be some members of my family that read this and they might be upset that I never spoke to them about it, or saddened by the knowledge that someone they love suffered in silence all that time. I just want them to have an iota of understanding of why never said anything. Sorry for not telling you sooner. I’ll patiently wait for your FaceTimes to ask further questions, don’t be surprised though when I don’t have much else to add. I’m really trying to get it all out right here and now.
That being said, I think there’s really only one more part to this story. Why does a story involving a Mormon missionary losing his faith end with him returning to Brigham Young University?
Simple, in the years since returning from Fiji the question of my faith has been one I’ve tussled with. In my first year back I pretty much went entirely inactive in the LDS faith, attending just enough that they wouldn’t send anyone out to ask why I wasn’t coming to church. It might be something that’s just too deeply engraved within me to leave though because I couldn’t stay away. I needed to find out if I just participated in the LDS lifestyle because it’s what I knew, or because I actually believed in it. I decided the way to find that out was to dive right into the belly of the beast. BYU and Provo are so saturated in LDS culture and teachings of the church that if my faith was really gone this town would’ve driven me completely out of my mind. Two years later and I’m still here though. That says something right?
Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot about LDS culture that drives me wild and there are still things about the gospel I haven’t got entirely squared in my mind yet but I do feel as though I am steadily moving back into a position of faithfulness.
Thank you for reading this, and I hope this wasn’t too much of a bore for you. Later.
Wow. I actually did it, this thing is actually written! After all this time I’ve actually got all down in a way I think really tells the story. Wow. Now, what giant thing is supposed to nag at the back of my head?