Abroad and Abused: One Woman’s Journey toward Empowerment

TW: Domestic violence, language

READER POST: The spring after I turned 21, I took on the task of teaching myself Polish by listening to language cassette tapes, writing down terms, and practicing. My husband and I were moving to Poland for a month, where he had served an LDS mission. Because he spoke fluent Polish, he helped me with vocabulary. I made sure to ask him how to say, “Help me.”   He quickly answered, “Jestem kurwa.”  I added it to my list.  Learning Polish and traveling back to his mission area were efforts to strengthen my marriage. I wanted a healthy marriage so badly and the truth was that my marriage was in distress.   

I had little experience traveling outside the US, and wanderlust has always been a part of me. I was excited by the opportunity to travel and live in Poland for a month.  I would, however, be completely dependent on my husband there, and that sent shivers up my spine.  The man, who had made covenants to love me, to support me, even protect me–I wanted so badly to trust him. Coercion and manipulation were the methods he used to get his needs met.  Sometimes at great cost to me and others.  I put great trust in our bishop. He was aware of the violent history of our marriage and still encouraged me to go on the trip. He said, “Maybe this is just what you two need.” 

I am a powerful soul, with spunk, sass, and fire in my Scorpio heart.  A fire that isn’t easily extinguished.  I chose to travel.

Being in Poland was challenging. I could no longer find relief in a job or going to school.  A month in Poland started to seem like a very long time.  I faced the duress with the skill set I had at age 21. When I tried to assert myself, I was often mocked.  When I spoke my truth, I was belittled. This was not new, it had been going on since our marriage began two years earlier.  I learned by experience that if I didn’t agree with what my husband said, I had better shut up or I’d pay the price of speaking.

The unhealthy dynamics of our marriage and my safety were now complicated by my inability to speak the language and my isolation from my support network, which really had been just my bishop and the police. (My bishop had told me not to talk to my family about the abuse I was experiencing.)

We lived in a single boarding room on the fifth floor of an old building.  All tenants shared a dimly lit toilet on the first floor. As I honored the experience, I suffered the cultural acceptance of violence.

One morning, as we were eating breakfast in our boarding room, we had a disagreement.  I don’t recall the exact issue, but what I do remember is that it was important enough to me to take a stand for myself.  

I was overwhelmed and frustrated.  Still, I am Heidi, with a blazing Scorpio heart.  I chose to speak my truth and pay the price.  He began the usual coercion, then he started belittling me and calling me names.  I wasn’t having it.  I picked up my glass of orange juice and threw it. Right.  In.  His.  Face.  

Damn.  It felt good.  

The violence that followed was painful physically and, even more, emotionally.  I found a moment of escape and I ran.  Down five flights of stairs and disappeared into the city. 

Waiting at a bus stop I learned real meaning Jestem kurwa, the term I thought meant “Help Me.”

Kurwa–possibly the foulest word in Polish language–means “filthy, fucking whore,” and jestem: simply means “I am.”

I spent hours on the streets of Gliwice, Poland trying to figure out what to do next.  I didn’t know anyone. It was 1997, I had no cell phone, no texting, no email. No way to reach anyone who knew or cared about me.  And even if I could reach loved ones in the US, what could they do to help?  

With my dignity lost, and nowhere else to go, I returned to my husband. I survived the rest of the trip and made it back home.  I knew how to play his game, I swallowed any dignity I had left, I didn’t take up any space, I became a mouse, and I suffered 3 more years in that prison of a marriage.

Why is leaving an abusive marriage so difficult?  I am a strong, intelligent woman. Why did I put up with his behavior for any length of time?

Well, like most women in abusive relationships, I rationalized. I focused on the positive. I wanted to trust that he would change (like he promised).

And I blamed myself.  (“If I hadn’t made that remark,” or “I should have been more supportive.”)

The truth is there are so many factors that keep women in unhealthy relationships: financial dependency, a place to live, child custody, threats from their partner, bad advice from church leaders, the belief that they would be breaking temple covenants, fear of looking like a failure, not to mention all the cultural implications Mormonism has to offer.  One church member told me that if I left my abuser, no other man would want me because I would be “used goods.”

My emotions and my own words were twisted and used against me.  His gaslighting made me question my own reality. I really believed that, because he had never “hit me with his fist,” somehow he was not really abusive (even when he used his forehead and broke my nose).   

Making the decision to leave the marriage was a long process, beginning with educating myself and learning to believe in and then trust myself.  It was amazing, wonderful women who helped me, who stood by me, and guided me through danger.  They were a necessary blessing in my process of leaving.

I am so grateful for the women who supported me, women who stood as my examples, women who led the way for me to be strong, women who continue to inspire me every day. 

Thank you. I honor you. 


Heidi Lamb Castle, MS, teaches at the University of Minnesota in Education and Natural Resources. She is a mental health counselor and loves teaching yoga in her spare time. She is an outdoor woman and ancestral skills enthusiast whose hobbies include writing poetry, blogging, spoon carving, basketry, mushroom foraging, and travel.

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