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My 17-Year-Old Self Came Back to Haunt Me

A cache of rediscovered letters written one summer long ago were embarrassing — but also enlightening


posted by Julie Shifman, May 12, 2013 More by this author

Reading letters from your teenage years can show how you've grown as an adult.

Julie Shifman is an inspirational keynote speaker, career coach and the author of Act Three: Create The Life You Want. Her website is actthree.com


Reading letters from your teenage years can show how you've grown as an adult.
iStockphoto/ThinkStock
Last month I traveled to Chicago to celebrate the 55th birthday of one of my oldest friends, Sherry. The various gatherings were really fun, with great food, wine and conversation, but there was one big negative. During my visit, I met a 17-year-old girl that I really, truly didn’t like. And I haven’t been able to get her out of my head.
 
This young woman was everything I’m not. She was shallow and quick to judge people for all kinds of superficial reasons. She was so catty, going on and on about how she was in a fight with one girl, was giving the silent treatment to another and thought a third one was a “capital B.” She talked about boys endlessly, making comments like, “did this cute one like me?” and “wasn’t that one a jerk?” Worst of all, she drank too much alcohol, which she proceeded to throw up on the cute boy.
 
You might be wondering why I even bothered to listen to all this juvenile nattering. I had no choice, really: This obnoxious, annoying teenager was … me
 
(MORE: Why You Can't Imagine Your Older Self)
 
Boy-Crazy Party-Girl Me

Unbeknownst to me, Sherry had saved all the letters I had written her the summer before we both left for college. She had been away working as a camp counselor, and I was at home in Cincinnati performing in the musical Oklahoma!.
 
“You’re not going to believe what I found in my old bedroom when I visited my mom a few weeks ago,” she said casually as she handed me a thick packet of letters. Actually, calling these communiqués “letters” is a gross understatement. They are more like treatises — pages and pages long. My embarrassment turned to shock and then to utter mortification as I read a blow-by-blow, minute-by-minute accounting of my summer of ’76.
 
We stayed up late that night poring over these epistles — rife with reckless partying and boy fixations — and I became more and more agitated. “I don’t like this girl at all,” I told Sherry. “How could I have been like that? This is not at all how I remember myself and certainly not what I’m like now.”
 
Lest you think I am overreacting, I will (embarrassingly) quote a few of the letters verbatim.
 
“Last night at rehearsal is when everything started to go bad. The whole problem is this girl named Betty. I can’t stand her. Betty has the eyes for Gary (remember he’s the guy I like that I told you about in my last letter). I will call her bitch Betty from now on.”
 
“I’m excited for Tim’s cast party. I told my mom that I was staying at one of the girl’s houses so I could stay out all night. I was at Tim’s party, and Kurt, the guy who plays Curly in the show that I have a super crush on, was really nice. We went to the back porch to talk and he suddenly goes, ‘What is it that attracts us to each other?’ I practically flipped. Anyway we started kissing grunt grunt. He really turns me on.”
 
”I think Tim is in love with me. But the way I’ve treated him, acting sometimes bitchy, sometimes flirty and then I ran off with Kurt at his party. … It is now two days later and so much has happened. Right now Julie and I are in a bitch fight. We both hung up the phone on each other and haven’t talked since. If she doesn’t call me, I guess I won’t ever talk to her again.” FYI, Julie was my best friend in high school and is still is today.
 
(MORE: Why Girlfriends Are Good for a Woman’s Health)
 
20/20 Foresight
 
Here we are, 37 years later, and I have been reintroduced to 17-year-old, lying, boy-crazy party girl me. I had so completely forgotten how it felt to be this girl that had I not recognized my own handwriting. I would not have believed I wrote those letters. Yet even when I accepted that she was me, I wanted to run in the opposite direction.
 
That’s the negative. But there’s actually a positive takeaway from these letters: They’ve given me a different perspective on the mature, capable and happy woman I’ve become. Today I am not the least bit catty. I probably haven’t had a fight with a girlfriend in 30 years. I’m not a partier (a nice glass of wine at night does it for me), and I have been happily married to the most incredible man for 28 years. 
 
This gave me cause me to reflect on how this dramatic transformation happened, and I have to say, I don’t have an easy answer. It wasn’t like I found religion or met a mentor who set me straight. I think a big part of it has to do with our natural evolution into adulthood and the leveling off of those out-of-control youthful hormones.

Finding a great partner certainly helped. And raising a family and launching my own business required me to get more serious and focused than my high-school self could ever have imagined being. But the shift happened so slowly and imperceptibly over the years that I never realized how much my personality and approach to life and people had changed until I read those letters.

While in the moment I found them embarrassing and disturbing, I’ve come to appreciate the gift Sherry gave me by hanging on to those artifacts from another time. But mostly I’m grateful to an immature, fatuous teenager for showing me clearly how much I’ve grown and wisened over the years. And I wouldn’t trade my badges of age for her blossom of youth for anything.