Monday, August 29, 2011

The Other Side of Missionary Life

I just discovered a new blog called Both Sides Now, published by Beatrice and Galdralag. (Beatrice and Galdralag are frequent commenters at Zelophehad's Daughters, so I'm excited to see their blog.) They're off to a great start.

Beatrice wrote an excellent post about emotional abuse in missionary companionships. This is a topic that is shrouded in silence, and I'm grateful that she is shedding some light on the issue. As I have alluded to before, my trainer was emotionally abusive. What follows is an expanded version of my already lengthy comment on Beatrice's post explaining my experience.

My trainer berated me on a daily basis. I stacked the dishes incorrectly, I came from the wrong kind of background, she hated that I had a head full of long curly red hair, etc. The second week of my mission, we were asked to speak in church. I gave a talk about a principle of the gospel (faith or something like that), and it was based around the scriptures and backed up with a lot of references. The ward members came up to me afterward and told me how much they enjoyed my talk. My companion spent the whole afternoon telling me that I had done it wrong. She said that a talk must consist of exactly one scripture, one quote, one personal story, a testimony and nothing more. When I told here there were many right ways to give a talk, she accused me of being rebellious. She spread rumors about me to the other missionaries and wouldn't allow me to talk to our district leader on the phone. (He called once while she was in the shower and she yelled at me for talking to him, even though all I did was take a message that the time of district meeting had been changed.) She would make up rules and when I would ask for clarification she would berate me for thinking too hard. The most ridiculous criticism, however, was when she told me that the testimony I shared in discussions was too Christ centered.

I kept the emotional abuse to myself at first because I had been taught in the MTC that every companionship assignment was inspired and that we shouldn't complain about our companions and that if we have a problem we should just pray for more charity. I had been taught that missions were hard. So I suffered in silence.

By about the 5th week, I was ready to just go home. The stress had made me physically ill, and I was a shell of my former self. I was convinced that I was the wrong kind of person to be a missionary and that God couldn't use me in His work. (I had graduated from college before leaving on my mission, and my companion had me convinced that that fact alone was disqualifying because God only uses the simple and uneducated.) That week, I had an interview with the mission president. Usually in my mission the senior companion was interviewed before the junior companion, but for whatever reason, the mission president interviewed me first.

I muddled through the interview giving the appropriate responses, kind of like a teenager being on the receiving end of a "how was your day?" question. Then he pointedly asked me how I was getting along with my companion. I broke into tears and told him everything. I don't remember what he said, but I left feeling emotionally better, and I decided not to go home. That afternoon, my companion was really upset at me and asked me what I had told the mission president. I said that the contents of my interview were private, and she proceeded to get more upset and blame me for the chewing out she received. The next week was the most miserable week of my mission, but when transfers came around, I got transferred. She got sent home a week later.

I have spent a lot of time reflecting on that experience, and it was terrifying how fast the change in me occurred. Before my mission, I was the kind of person who wouldn't take any crap from anyone. In just a few short weeks, I was turned into someone so frightened that it took a direct question from someone I considered to be a higher authority than my abuser before I would even discuss that there was a problem. It took me a few years after my mission before I regained my self-confidence.

I definitely think church culture contributed to the abuse. I don't hold the church responsible for my companion's behavior, but I think I would have spoken up sooner if it hadn't been implicitly communicated to me that speaking up without being specifically asked for feedback was unrighteous. (i.e. "steadying the ark")

One huge challenge I faced in healing from this scar was the way that the doctrine of forgiveness is preached. I had absorbed the (erroneous) message that forgiving my trainer meant that I was no longer allowed to feel the pain that had been inflicted on me. I assumed that I had to just "get over it". About a year into my mission, I had another interview with my mission president. At the end of the interview, he asked me if something was bothering me. I told him that I was having trouble getting over what had happened to me at the beginning of my mission.

He told me that healing would take time, but that it was possible. Just that acknowledgement that it didn't have to be instantaneous helped tremendously. He also said that if he had known what was going on sooner, he would have transferred me immediately. That really stuck with me. Church leaders aren't omniscient, and if there's a problem, the person with knowledge of the problem needs to speak up or the problem will persist. I doubt I was my trainer's first victim. I wonder how many more victims she would have had if I hadn't said something.

Through further reflection and scripture study, I learned a lot about forgiveness. I learned that forgiveness doesn't mean excusing hurtful behavior. It doesn't mean pretending that the behavior didn't cause pain. It doesn't mean avoiding the processing of that pain. It doesn't mean being friends with or having any sort of relationship with the person who caused that pain.

One scripture that struck me was in Matthew 18:15-17:
Moreover if thy [sister] shall trespass against thee, go and tell [her her] fault between thee and [her] alone: if [s]he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy [sister]. But if [s]he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if [s]he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if [s]he neglect to hear the church, let [her] be unto thee as an heathen [wo]man and a publican.
The people at the time of Christ didn't associate with heathens and publicans. So, God was giving me permission to completely cut her out of my life. I'm not going to pretend that her behavior was ok. But, I've gotten to the point where I don't wish any ill will on her and she has no more power to hurt me. In my book, that's forgiveness.


Jessica said...

Your experience was very much in line with (although much more extreme than) ones I and various relatives had. I am very glad that your mission president was apparently a wise and considerate individual. I agree that we do not do enough education within the church of how to deal with a problem/individual.

Erstwild said...

She got sent home a week later.

Was this an end of mission type of being sent home, or for a bad attitude, Keri?

Yikes, flashes of this remind me of my mission. I had companions with attitude & anger issues, but I don't know how much my first Mission President cared about that. And, my first companion in the field got picky about a number of things about me, some of them rather minor.

I also hope the Missionary Department of the Church is aware of these things, and does not write them off as being "sour grapes", or you being unfaithful, etc.

Erstwild said...

As I think about this further, I wonder how many missionaries resign & go home early, due to a companion that's really psychotic. Too many missionaries that quit are written off as being weak, I suspect, when things like this are at work, not that they miss Mom's cooking. There's a lot of screening for worthiness for perspective missionaries, but what's being done to find anger & control issues as well?

On the other hand, once when I was a DL on my mission, a new missionary that was in my Zone, not even under me, complained about my sense of humor to the ZL's, threatening to go home "if there were any more like me". Of course, the ZL's used that as another opportunity to beat up on me, I suspect that way they could feel better about their cheating on mission rules.

I hated mission politics.