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A hateful letter taught me to love myself

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CHALK Germany

The view from Rebekah Swank's apartment in Luneburg, Germany.

When I was a naive high school senior, instead of going straight to college, I was accepted into the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange program. I would attend a German high school, live with two host families, learn the language and soak up as much German culture as I could.

I arrived in Luneburg, Germany in August, where I would stay through the end of December with my first host family. It was a quaint town 30 minutes from Hamburg. I had only received a single letter from my host family-to-be, which contained a short description of the clan and three blurry black and white photos: one of my host mother, Cathleen, one picturing my 15-year-old host sister, Jule, and one of my 13-year-old host sister, Emma. It said they liked listening to music, going to concerts and riding bikes together. Having two sisters of my own, I thought it would be a great fit.

I wanted to connect with this new family the way I connected with my real family. I imagined the four of us listening to our favorite songs and dancing through the house, sharing secrets, becoming so close it hurt to think we weren’t linked by blood.

In their tiny European apartment, I shared a room with Jule. The room was large enough for two, but we all shared a single bathroom. It was a tight fit for four people — cramped at times — but I didn’t mind.

During the first month, everything was strange, stimulating, unfamiliar. I was still getting acquainted with my “family” and my new surroundings. I got along with my host mom and sisters well, but I didn’t exactly feel like their home was my home. Emma cooped herself up in her room most of the time. Cathleen did all of the cooking and cleaning, never allowing me to help like my program leaders instructed me to do. Jule was nice, but distant. She spent most of her time with her friends, speaking too fast for my elementary German to keep up with.

By my third month, I still felt like an outsider. Every move I made in the overcrowded flat seemed to come with judgement.  When I tried to start up a conversation, I received one word answers. I often left the apartment to explore alone. I went for jogs through the neighborhood and wandered along the city’s cobblestone sidewalks as an escape. Each time I returned, my possessions were misplaced or gone. A piece of jewelry here, 20 Euros there. Jule had no idea what I was talking about when I brought it to her attention, so I chalked it up to my own untidiness.

I could tell Jule disliked my being there. Despite my discontent in the house, I tried to force a sister-like connection so that I could feel like I belonged; I didn’t want to leave and feel like I had wasted four months of my life on a relationship that was never there.

At the end of the semester, I was to move to Berlin to stay with a different host family. The night before my departure, I could see Jule sitting in the kitchen from my twin bed, scribbling on a piece of paper. The next morning Jule and Cathleen accompanied me to the nearby train station. We hugged goodbye, but I knew they were both happy to see me go.

I arrived in Berlin later that evening. I felt like I could breathe for the first time since landing in Germany. I reveled in the feeling of having my own room again and began unpacking. I removed the last few items from my sack to reveal a blank white envelope. Reaching deep into the bag, I wondered where it came from.

I unfolded the stark white paper lip, and pulled out a handwritten note. It was Jule’s juvenile handwriting. I read all three pages. The first words that appeared on the page: “I hate you so much.” She told me I was ugly, stupid, fat, antisocial and undesirable.  She said I was useless to her and her family, that I was unwelcome from the start. “I read your whole diary from the beginning to the end,” it said. She cited things from my travel journal, using my private thoughts and feelings against me, demolishing my self-esteem.

“The bitch ambushed me,” I thought. I placed the letter on my bed, shaking my head in disbelief. I was living a scene from a bad high school flick. Could someone really be this hateful?

I finished unpacking and went back to the living room. Regardless of how hard I tried, I couldn’t scrape the abhorrent message from my eyes, couldn’t stop thinking about the disdain Jule had for me. I went to bed that night and sobbed softly, just like I did many nights the six months following.

My new host family saved me. I lived with a host mother and father who were affectionate, considerate, quirky and helpful — everything I desperately needed and desired. The bitter thoughts that previously clouded my head faded away with every board game, movie night and tight hug we shared. They became my second family, but I didn’t tell them about the letter until after I had moved back to Kansas. I thought if I told them, they would get the wrong impression; they might get the feeling I am not who they wanted me to be. I thought they might believe the things she said about me.

It’s been five years. Jule has sent me several messages on Facebook apologizing. It’s not clear if she’s sincerely sorry or just wants to assuage her guilt. Either way, as much as I wish I could, I haven’t been able to bring myself to forgive her. The harsh words in her letter still haunt me. At the tender age of 18, I was consumed with self-doubt. Her letter made me believe that I was worthless, undeserving and unlovable. I still think about the letter from time to time, and the same feelings of self-loathing come flooding back — feelings that I can’t shake off easily.

Although, in spite of it all — the unhappiness, the wallowing, the intense sadness — I regard my exchange year as one of the best of my life. I made friends who have made me whole over and over, and I got to know myself in a way I never thought I would. I can see myself differently than I did when I was a teenager. I recognize my imperfections and accept them affectionately. Without that year in Germany, I wouldn’t have learned to protect and reassure myself the way I do today.