So there I was at the MTC, very dedicated and very serious about the business I was about. I was not a stupid person. I was not a thoughtless person. In fact I had thought a lot about why I was there, what my place in the Lord’s larger plan might be and the importance of the time in history I lived in. I believed what I had been told respecting the fact that I was from a chosen generation reserved for a very important time and for a very important cause. What life had not yet given me, however, was an experience that didn’t fit into all of that.
After I had been in the MTC for several days I was in a large meeting of all the missionaries where we were told that any unresolved sins would prevent us from feeling the spirit and from doing the work we were there to do. It was of critical importance that anything not resolved be taken care of at that time. That evening I left class and headed into a bathroom stall. I had begun to feel the strangest sickness and thought maybe I was going to throw up. I felt heat in my face coupled with an intense burst of energy in my mind that wanted to be released violently. I began to shake and felt like I wanted to tear the bathroom apart. In an effort to regain control I hit myself in the face so hard a trickle of blood came out of my nose. After a few minutes, it passed.
The only sense I could make of this was that the spirit was telling me that something was amiss in my life. But what? Then it came to me, I had masturbated before my mission. This was a problem I knew how to solve. The next morning I confessed to my Bishop, he told me not to worry and to get back to work. I felt better. For about two hours. Then the feeling began to return. For the next eight weeks that feeling would be my constant companion ever present, always increasing in intensity and punctuating itself with agonizing episodes every few hours.
I went back and confessed again. And again. And again. For things I had confessed long ago. For things I hadn’t even done. Before long confessing did not make me feel better and the anxiety I felt was intensifying. I slept less. I ate less. I began to wonder how I could live if this feeling never went away. All the while I studied day and night. Said all my prayers. Followed my schedule with exactness. I knew that if I did what I was supposed to that God would heal me. This was my test, the trial of my faith. I would lay in bed at night as the torturous feelings overwhelmed me, pleading for help. Pleading to know what to do. Eventually the tears would come and there would be a little sleep. But the moment I awoke it would return.
At some point my leaders had seen me confess enough and saw that their reassurances that I was okay were having no impact on me. They were right. What was happening was between me and the Lord and I would know I was forgiven when the torture stopped. I could not be told otherwise. They sent me to see a retired psychiatrist of some kind who assured me that what I was experiencing only happened to the best missionaries, that it was not spiritual in nature, but obsessive compulsive disorder. He contacted my parents who were very concerned about me and supportive of me. I was given a small dose of Prozac, which in 1994 had not been around all that long. I was told I would get better.
Now that I knew what was wrong I felt so good and so relieved. I just needed to hold on to let the medicine work. The good feeling lasted maybe two days. Then the near constant state of panic and anxiety returned. Why was the Lord not helping me? Why weren’t the priesthood blessings working? Was I not supposed to be there? By now I was within a week or two of when my district would leave for Argentina. I stopped sleeping. I stopped eating. I retreated into my own mind and began to fantasize about the release of death. I began to understand that I could not continue feeling as I did. I didn’t want to live the rest of my life with my minding literally pulling apart. The questions of what I had done to deserve it, why I could not get help, what it would mean for me not to complete a mission began to give way to questions like how will I survive, will I survive.
I lay on my bunk in the darkness with tears streaming down my face, completely alone. Help was not coming. The song “Homeward Bound” played in my mind and I knew the answer. I needed my parents. If anyone could help me, it was going to be them. The next morning I went to see the psychiatrist again and told him I was going home. He agreed that it was for the best. I called my folks and they wanted me home that minute.
I packed up all of my things. The two suits, the handkerchiefs, my Spanish scriptures, my white shirts and my Rockport shoes. I packed up my dreams of being a truly great missionary and of fulfilling the plan God had for me. I shuffled out to a bus in front of the MTC, fully defeated, and got on with a group of missionaries that was headed to the airport to board a plane for their mission. As I boarded the bus the Mission President came out and shook my hand. “Elder you have been honorably released but I hope to see you back here once you get your act together.” I had failed. But I wanted to live. And I wanted to die. But live, if possible.
As I flew to the east coast, the terror in my mind flew with me. It was there on the car ride home and there as I sat on the living room couch and tried to explain to my parents what was wrong with me. What I was experiencing. It is only now that I am a parent that I can appreciate how beside themselves with worry they were. The following day I was sitting in the office of a top psychiatrist in my area and then later in the office of a psychologist. I don’t remember all of the words of the doctor, but I will never forget when he said “Mr. Crowley, these are panic attacks you are experiencing. And we are going to stop them today.” And they were over, that day, with the proper medication. They have never come back.
For weeks that same medication also took almost any will I had. But it was so infinitely preferable to the terror that I barely noticed the passage of time. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but risking repeating that experience was out of the question. The questions of the social stigma of not completing a mission, how I would be received at BYU and whether any girl would want to date me would have to wait for another day.
What about God? What about my larger purpose? He didn’t seem to me at that time to be very interested in those topics, so I passed them off for another day as well. But I knew one thing very clearly. I had done what I was supposed to do with the very best intentions. I had given it my all. And I had begged for help from the depths of my soul and it had not come. That was not how things were supposed to work. And yet that is how things had happened. I was shattered. But at the same time, I understood a truth that had not occurred to me before: people sometimes suffer awful things and it isn’t their fault.
Five months later with the love and support of my family, who by contrast never failed, wavered or did anything but come through for me, I was ready to go back to school. Well, maybe not quite ready. Still on very shaky mental footing. I was still confused, still defeated, my confidence gone. And very faintly, I had begun to be angry.
Editorial Note: The condition I describe in this installment has now been described as scrupulosity. Excellent work is being done a Utah State University to better understand and treat this condition. To gain a better understanding of what it is and the work being done surrounding it, please listen to the Mormon Stories Podcast entitled “Understanding Scrupulosity Within the LDS Church.” I was lucky beyond words to parents who understood what was happening and acted decisively to, I believe, save my life. I love you Mom and Dad.