Learning to be Free
By Alison Gerads

My name is Allie—but nobody knows that. I am an unwilling spy, forced to blend in to a role that I am honestly horrible in. You see, my body is male, but don't let that fool you because I am not a man. In my twenty-six years of life, I have never been anything other than female. I don't know what it's like to one of the guys, to be a devoted boyfriend, or be anything other than myself—no matter how much I desired it. I stumbled through life listlessly, unable to form goals because I was denying something so core to myself.

It all started at the beginning of April in 2010. I was sitting in the Quarry of the student union. It was a basement outfitted with a bunch of neon lights on the ceiling and a small stage. It looked a lot like that hangout the kids went to from Saved by the Bell. That horrible 1980s look, even though it was just remodeled a few years ago. People usually used it as a cafeteria during the day, though. Students buzzed with excitement around me, but I just sat there with my laptop open staring at the university's counseling center's website. This wasn't working anymore. I knew that something needed to change. Putting only a meager amount of effort into my classes was catching up with me as the difficulty increased. It wasn't that I didn't want to try more, but trying to concentrate on something creative like graphic design while depressed was almost impossible.

Was I afraid? Was I angry? I was just numb. A numbness that tingled on the back of my skull and made my eyes felt hollow and lifeless. It placed a scowl on my lips and made my hair dry and limp. I just didn't care anymore—that was what scared me most. I was so scared that I turned to the one person I thought I could: my sister, Jenny.

Limply, I pulled out my cell phone and found her number in my address book. As I waited, I went through all of the possible things I could say to her. I thought about how I would begin telling her everything. Dull tingles of fear poked at my toes as I heard the click of her picking up.

"I need to tell you something," I said, skipping any needless greetings.

There was a pause before Jenny asked, "What's wrong? You sound upset."

Was I upset? Is that how I sounded? I wasn't sure. "I can't do this anymore."

"I think I know what's coming." I heard her sigh over the phone.

She knew what was coming? Really? There was no way that she could see this coming. I sat there in silence for well over a minute before I heard her clear her throat. I felt sick. My stomach was churning and the world was dimming around me. Before I knew it, the words were coming out of me. "For as long as I can remember, I've wanted to be a girl."

As soon as the words were out, there wasn't any way to take them back. Something warm and wet was running down my cheeks. Tears of relief and bitterness combined with an odd, refreshing coolness in my chest.

Finally, Jenny said, "I… I thought it was something like that. I just thought that you might be gay because you act so feminine, but I had no idea it went that far."

Looking back to my laptop's screen, I said, "I'm thinking of going to the university's counseling center to get help—I'm…not in the best shape right now. I'm not sure I want to live anymore."

"That's a good idea. You should get help right away." She waited a moment, I was out of things to say. "Tim," she said. The dreaded t-word. "You know that we care about you, right? Please don't hurt yourself."

I gave a mumble and hung up. Folding my arms on the table in front of me, I leaned forward and rested my chin on my forearm, staring at the contact section of the website. Fuck! I sat up and dialed the number.

"Hi, I'd like to make an appointment. I need help…"

Two weeks later, I was riding in my dad's truck with him and my mother. I didn't tell them what the sessions with Dr. Walker were about these last few weeks; likewise, I didn't tell them what today was about either, but I did tell them that I needed to tell them something. A few times, my mom turned to look at me in the backseat and asked, "If there's something you need to tell us, you know that you can, right?"

Her dark blue eyes were staring at me, her lip twitching with worry. She had short, brown hair. She was a short but intimidating woman. An aura stretched off of her body that let everyone know that she would not be putting up with any of their crap. An admirable trait, but a trait that often got her into trouble—this trait that is also genetic.

My father just stared at the road ahead of him. I got my brown eyes from him, I could see them in the rearview mirror. He wasn't wearing one of his usual, worn-out baseball caps. Instead, you could see his white-gray hair in all of its aged awe. It grew more wispy toward the back like snow blowing off the top of a summit. I could tell he was just as worried as Mom because he was just staring at the road ahead. He usually looked around and it made me nervous.

I thought back to all the times my mom asked, "Is there anything you want to tell me?" She had asked that question many times in the last few years especially, but she never pushed the issue beyond that.

Like in the past, I just mumbled a reply, "Just… Wait until we get there."

We pulled up to the courtyard between Stewart Hall—the building we would be going to—and the student union. As I got out of the truck, I watched the other students scurry through the courtyard. I found myself envying them a lot. I have always wanted to be normal, to be anything but me. My thoughts turned inward as I took a deep breath and gathered what little strength I had.

Once inside Stewart Hall, we found Jenny, my sister, waiting for us in the entryway. She smiled and put her hand on my shoulder and I attempted to smile back. She got her blue eyes from our mother, but hers were always warm and soothing, with a certain playfulness in the way her lower lid arched when she smiled. Her dirty blonde hair was brought up into a ponytail. We continued down the hall together, I led the way down to the counseling center, which seemed to be exceptionally close to the entryway today for some reason.

Standing before the door to the counseling center, I felt my throat get tugged as my stomach gave a lurch of sickness. Despite this, I pushed the door open to meet Dr. Walker; he had been waiting for us. He was a thin sprite of a man but was about as tall as my father. He did not mirror my father's stern silence, though.

"Hello, I'm Dr. Walker," he said with a smile as he extended his hand to my parents. They both took turns shaking it and he continued, "As you may know, I have been working with Tim the past few weeks. He has something he would like to share with you today." He was a good man, as far as I could tell after two weeks. He seemed to genuinely care, even though he did not seem to know what to do with me. After all, I was one of the few cases of gender dysphoria that he had personal experience with.

"It's nice to meet you," Dad said.

"Thank you for taking care of Tim," my mother said, looking at me after. "Not sure what it is that he felt he couldn't tell us in the privacy of our own home, though."

I frowned at my mother, but didn't say anything.

Dr. Walker guided us back to one of the few conference rooms the office had. His body language reflected composure that I wish I had at the moment. My body felt rigid and nearly immovable as I walked into the room and took my seat. Jenny sat next to me and my parents sat opposite us as Dr. Walker took the head of the table.

He was saying something, I knew he was. My parents and sister exchanged some conversation, but I honestly don't remember what was being talked about. My head was in a fog. Nervousness and fear were pushing me down into the murky depths of my depression. I felt myself come to the surface a few times, gasping, but I would just be pushed back down. Finally, someone reached down and grabbed my hand and pulled me out. Snapping out of my episode, I noticed Jenny's hand on mine.

"Just say it," she said and my consciousness snapped back to my body like a rubber band.

She was just smiling at me. Anger filled me inside as I shot a glare at Jenny, but she didn't seem to notice. I felt my face soften as I took in her concern, seeing her for the first time. When was the last time I looked at someone, really looked at them? Most of the time, my eyes were fixed on the floor. A sob escaped from my mouth and I realized there were tears in my eyes.

"Yes, please. Just tell us what's going on," Mom said.

Both of my parents were watching me with expectation. Looking at her, my heart began to thunder against my ribs as blood crashed through my veins like the waves of a hurricane against a levy. At that moment, it occurred to me: this moment had played out in my head countless times before, but this was not some fantasy—it was really happening.

My parents patiently waited through a few minutes' worth of stammers and failed attempts to collect my thoughts before I managed to start speaking, "I… I'm… You see, on the inside—no, that's not right."

I growled with frustration, but the room remained quiet. The silence of that room drowned out the rest of the noise of the world. It was just us at that moment and nothing else existed.

Finally, with a sense of stupid bravery, I sat up and said, "Mom, Dad… I'm a girl." Just as disbelief was beginning to flood my mind, I continued, "I've never been a guy. I've tried, but I'm done pretending to be something I'm not."

"I know," Mom said. Finally, the attention of the room was focused on my mother instead of me. It didn't faze her like it did me. She just kept looking at me. "I've known ever since you were little."

Dr. Walker asked, "If I may, how did you know?"

"I work at a hospital. Over the years, I noticed a few transgender patients come through. It always interested me, so I did some research on it, but I noticed some of the signs showing with him. I did some research to learn more: I watched movies, read books, and even found some magazine articles." She answered honestly, but her eyes were distant.

It was true that she worked at a hospital, but she processed bills—a world apart from being a medical expert. Still, knowing that she cared enough to educate herself made my heart give a beat of hope.

Jenny and I looked at each other. Our faces mirrored each other: utter shock.

My father looked passt me and glared at Dr. Walker as he asked, "How does something like this even happen?"

Dr. Walker said, "Well, there's plenty of theories out there, but no real consensus, except one: it appears to be biological in origin and not psychological."

"I've known ever since I was five," I said, attention regrettably back on me. "I didn't accept it until I was thirteen, though. Ever since then, I kept it hidden—even when I suspected that Mom knew."

Folding his hands in front of him on the table, Dr. Walker asked, "What made you suspect that she knew?"

"She made me join football without asking me first," I said, bitterly spitting the words out of my mouth. "She woke me up one day in August and told me I had to go to football practice. I hated it. She always seemed obsessive about how long my hair was too and making it a point that I could only wear dark colors."

My sister grabbed my shoulder and asked, "Was this so hard?"

"Yes," I answered quickly.

Everyone in the room laughed, including me. It was a relief, but it honestly was the hardest thing I have ever had to do in my life. For the first time in years, I felt genuinely good about myself, I accomplished something.

As my parents and sister gathered things up to leave, I walked up to Dr. Walker and said, "Thank you for setting this up—I don't think I could have done it alone."

"I'm just glad that you did it and that was all you. I was just here to see it happen." He said and led us out of the room back into the office.

As we all walked out of that building together, I took a moment to admire the budding trees, the sun in the azure sky. The colors. I could see colors again instead of just hazes of gray fog. The real world is so much more beautiful than my imagination.