Dear AAP -
I had a rough childhood and didn't make things any easier on myself by being the only punk girl in my fairly small town. That was years ago and I know all the psychology behind it now. I was protecting myself and my feelings by preemptively rejecting "them" whoever "them" might be at any given time; my parents, teachers, the kids at school, the lady at the donut shop, whoever. It was a classic case of "acting out" and I know that any kid doing the same way today, some counselor at school, or someone would notice the "cry for help" and would maybe do something constructive to help.
I'm not angry about that. I know we live in different and better times when it comes to identifying troubled kids. The thing that bothers me is that this understanding doesn't appear to be retroactive. When I go back home, the same new parents - people my age - who are so clued into this stuff NOW, still look at me and see see the angry weirdo bitch I was in middle school and high school. There is no understanding of what things might have been like for me then, even though they're now so understanding about "troubled kids." I know I was a jerk and maybe even a little bit scary, but I wasn't a criminal or a druggie, I was just an angry, mixed-up kid who dyed her hair too many different colors, made a spectacle of herself and then yelled at people when they dared to notice or comment on my attire, behaviors or attitude.
But it was a long time ago. I didn't make peace with my family, but I did declare a truce. I went off to school. I have a decent enough job and, although I still don't dress in wal-mart clothes, my personal style would probably be considered just a little modern and edgy, not crazy or scary. But every time I go home and run into people I know, I mean KNEW, they still have that same image of me. And yes, it does bother me that their opinions of me DO seem to still matter. How can I convince them I'm different or do I just let this stuff go? - Former Pariah.
If you've read even just a few of my previous posts, you'll know that my answer is: yeah, you have to let this stuff go. Unless you become nationally famous for rescuing babies from a burning orphanage, or discover the final cure for cancer, people who knew you as a kid aren't going to change their general opinion of you.
The good news is this: They don't spend much time thinking about you one way or another. Seriously. What is that old quote? from Ben Franklin or someone: "You would worry much less about what people think of you, if you realized how rarely they thought of you at all." ...maybe it was Oscar Wilde. I'm not sure, but you get the idea. Trust me, your old high school classmates and the people in your home town do not regularly gather to discuss what a weird bitch you once were. They're too busy driving their kids to soccer practice. On those rare occasions when you do "go home" you're the only one experiencing waves of nostalgia (good or bad.) To the rest of them, it is just another Tuesday. When they happen to run into you, unexpectedly, at the local big box department store, they have nothing else to orient themselves to you but your shared past, the past where you were the weirdo and maybe even were mean to them. Yes, they might have good reason to still be angry with you, don't forget that. Then, 15 minutes later, as they are loading their purchases into the mini-van, they're probably already thinking about something else. I'm not being a jerk here, this is a good thing.
If their opinions are that important to you, I guess you would have to move back to your town and go through the long, slow process of proving you're now different by being different, day-in and day-out where they can actually see it. ...and I'm guessing this issue isn't nearly important enough to you to bother doing that. It seems like you have the opposite of "survivor's guilt." You've survived a difficult start in life and now you have some "survivor's pride" about how far you've come, and you just wish these other yahoos would freakin' notice. Which, if you only make rare appearances on the home front, isn't going to happen.
So yeah, let it go. All of it. When you do go home, smile at people, and maybe even decide if a few apologies are in order - that could go a long way toward changing their opinions of you. You said yourself that you "acted out" a lot back then, you probably stepped on a lot of toes and wounded a lot of people's feelings. You have to take some responsibility for that too, even if they were the coping mechanisms of a wounded and damaged child. And then, heck, in 50 years (or less) none of it will really matter because, well, it never really did.