Student author turns mission blog into book

Scan of the cover of the book.
Honestly, I'm Struggling is published by Review and Herald Publishing Association and available at the Union College Bookstore and Adventist Book Centers both online and locally.

Returned missionaries and international volunteers quickly learn to tell the stories their audiences want to hear—stories filled with triumph and divine leading—and filter out the rest. But when they get together, the experiences they share are filled with both more laughter and more sorrow. These stories of cultural gaffes and inescapable self-doubt are the cathartic release of intense loneliness and longing. In her book, Honestly, I’m Struggling, Heather Bohlender breaks down the wall between the sound bites shared with the uninitiated and the complex realities reserved for confidants.

Now a senior English education major at Union College, Bohlender based the book on blog entries she wrote as a volunteer teacher in Cambodia during the 2007-2008 academic year. With a gift for introspection, she leads the reader through her journey of becoming a teacher and mentor in a devastated country while fighting her own battles against an eating disorder, a sexual assault, and the inability to fit into the society around her.

Despite the difficult subject matter, Honestly, I’m Struggling is a book filled with hope. Amid Bohlender’s loneliness and depression are many small victories—finding a counselor, building friendships, finally reaching students. Throughout, she maintains a frank dialogue with God and discovers a new perspective on life.

“I am so proud of Heather for her brave honesty,” said Rich Carlson, campus chaplain. “Each volunteer sent oversees has a unique experience, but the themes of Heather’s story are universal—from culture shock and feelings of inadequacy to the disconnect from their familiar support and constant reminders of being an outsider. I believe her testimony will help us better prepare future volunteers and their families for the enormity of what lies ahead.”

Interview with Heather Bohlender

This summer, I had the opportunity to read Honestly, I'm Struggling and ask Heather a few questions in preparation for the short news release above. Her answers were too eloquent to chop down into quick quotables. - Scott Cushman 

Cushman: Chris Blake, associate professor of communication, is credited as a co-author. What role did he have in the writing/editing/publishing process?

Bohlender: I never intended to write a book. I was merely writing a blog to keep friends and family up to date about what was happening in Cambodia. Mr. Blake read a few of them and started sending them to a friend at Review and Herald Publishing.

One day he sent me an email saying, "Hey, what if we turned your blog into a book?"

My basic response was, "Yeah right."

But he was serious. Apparently the publisher expressed interest in the story while I was still in Cambodia, so Mr. Blake asked me: if current reality were turned into a book, how would I want it to end? He was of course talking about a physical book, as well as my personal story. It’s a good question for all of us to contemplate. How do I want my story to end?

After I returned from Cambodia, I started picking which blog posts to put in the book and which to cut. I changed names. I changed a few details so the story line made sense. I added. I subtracted. Mr. Blake helped me edit, and we sent it back and forth several times before the final copy was sent to the publisher. All in all, Mr. Blake thought of the idea and then supported me along the way. I'm incredibly grateful for all of his help.

Cushman: What is your goal and target audience for the book?

Bohlender: My book falls in the category of young adult devotional, but of course, it started as letters home. My main goal of blogging was reporting news, but it was also cathartic. Writing is good for my soul. So those posts were a substitute for the counseling I desperately needed. In writing this book, my goals changed a bit. Now I had a purpose in mind in choosing what made it into the book and what didn't.

Specifically, I wanted to make room in mission stories for flawed humanity. Too often we avoid the fact that we've all got problems: addictions, abuse, heartache. I wanted to tell an honest story to prove you can be both human and spiritually connected to God. We also have this generalized idea about what being a student missionary "should" look like. I wanted to dispel those myths. It's not all butterflies and roses; it's hard, challenging and often painful. Those realities don't make me less spiritual; they make me human.

Cushman: You share a lot of very personal struggles. Were you tempted to whitewash or skip over certain points? How did you decide what to include?

Bohlender: I chose to write the blog first. I wrote it because I was in such a painful, desperate place; I no longer felt the need to hide my “dirt.” The pros at that point far outnumbered the cons. I came to the point in Cambodia where I had absolutely nothing to lose because I so desperately needed help. I suppose that’s the point many people come to before they decide the risk of self-revelation is worth it. I was at the end of my rope.

Putting the information in a book wasn’t hard because I had already spilled my guts into cyberspace; it was already up for grabs. My blog was read and forwarded to at least a hundred people, and that helped me gain the confidence that it was okay to share my story. Plus, I received such an overwhelming response from supportive people, I felt that it was worth it to say it. When I was able to say, “I have an eating disorder,” or “I have doubts about God,” emails flooded my inbox with the simple response, “Me too. Thanks for saying that out loud.” Accepting what makes me human is possibly one of the most radical things I’ve ever done. I’ve never regretted it.

As far as privacy for others, I changed many of the names in my book, especially of my students. I wanted to respect their privacy and preserve their anonymity.

Cushman: In my experience, most student missionaries feel pressure to develop a sound bite about their experience for the public and bottle up the immensity and complexity of the real experience. Why is it important to resist that pressure?

Bohlender: We are doing each other a disservice by pretending to be something we aren’t. If we answer “Good” to “How are you?” and we aren’t really good, we are reciprocating these lies. This may seem unimportant, but I think the little things matter. We have to be more authentic with each other. Otherwise, what’s the point? We have stereotypes for a lot of identities in life: mothers should have all the patience in the world and dinner on the table by 6pm, pastors don’t sin, therapists don’t need therapists, men don’t cry … and lastly, student missionaries "should" go on great adventures with God in which they minister and change lives. Missionaries "should" live in a jungle and meet a few witch doctors.

We have all kinds of ideas of what student missionaries should look like, but in the end we will probably should ourselves to death. I suppose that many missionaries leave out the rough times when telling their stories because most people don’t want to hear it, and they feel bad when they didn’t live up to the missionary stereotype. We may feel that people only want to hear about jungles and witch doctors, so instead we stuff it inside and try not to talk about it because that implies weakness, inadequacy or doubt.

There is a great lack of education surrounding the student missionary experience. There isn’t always enough preparation or training provided to properly equip a young adult to travel the world alone. After the sexual assault I encountered in Cambodia, I started talking to other female student missionaries and found a startling link: I was not the only one. I was just the only one talking about it. Some went to Kenya or Albania, others to Nicaragua or Japan. Sexual assaults are not uncommon, just unreported. If for no other reason, I am motivated to continue telling an honest story to better prepare women before they travel abroad. Being an American woman doesn’t guarantee that it will happen, it only guarantees that you may stick out in a foreign country and be a potential target. There are many things women can do to protect themselves, and we need to be talking about this.

Several months ago, an acquaintance became upset with me for my honesty and said that if everyone knew what missionary life might really be like, no one would go. If they had all the details, our numbers would drop, and I was only harming the program by being so honest. If anything, this encouraged me to keep talking. We have to share our stories. We owe it to each other.