CHAPTER ONE

What made a man? What made a woman? What caused the shedding of adolescence to show adulthood's permanence? What was the age where teenagers were recognized as adults? Some individuals assumed that the answer was the age of eighteen for that was the age of consent in general and when individuals could purchase cigarettes and sign up for the Army. So, in that case, would our choices determine our maturity or was it a designated number? These questions ran through my mind when I was at the age of eighteen and wondered what was there for me as an adult when I wasn't certain there was an ideal future for the kind of person that I was.

My name is Casey Hamilton, my best friend Al Anderson called me Case, and the cynical part of me thought it was because I was a nutcase, but the rational part of me knew it was a term of Al's affection. Despite my troubles with self-esteem in my childhood, I considered myself a good-looking girl with mousy brown hair, hazel eyes, a sharp nose, plump lips, and a round face. I struggled with my weight as I grew up, but puberty evened out my appetite, and I lost some pounds, now my BMI is normal for my body shape and my height of five feet five inches. I went through puberty with a minimal amount of acne, but if you looked closely at my face you would see a few faint acne scars on my left cheek. Despite my approachable appearance, I was a shy person that kept to myself and that didn't talk much unless you knew me personally because of my personality there were a few people that I communicated with daily.

I lived in a small city in northeastern Ohio on Lake Erie. My mother said I was born in a hospital on the West Side, but when I was a baby, my parents moved us to a house on the South Side. I lived on a street with single-family sized houses on each side of the street, with backyards enclosed in either wooden or chain-link fences and front yards either freshly cut or left to grow by neighbors who didn't bother to maintain their lawns. Even in the winter, some neighbors wouldn't bother to shovel snow off their driveways and sidewalks, which led to a tricky path to the bus stop when I took the bus to school during my freshman year of high school. Nevertheless, the neighborhood was quiet, and people minded their own business. In the city, there was the occasional sound of police sirens, but our house was never broken into or robbed. All in all, it was a city that had seen good days when I was younger, but the steel mill closed and when I got older, I saw stores that I used to visit go out of business and the streets became peppered with potholes. Some sections of the city were better than others, depending on where you were going and where you lived.

About the nutcase crack that I made earlier, that was because psychological test results showed that I had PDD, or Persistent Depressive Disorder, with anxious distress. In basic terms, I had two or more symptoms of depression that had exceeded two years and I had symptoms of anxiety. My depression was present since I was diagnosed with it when I was ten years old and it followed me into the present. I went to therapy on and off, in the beginning, I was stubborn and didn't think it benefited me because I believed that it was tiresome, so I stopped after a year but when I entered high school, I shaped up and went back to counseling because I knew I needed it. The medication prescribed to me helped uplift my down moods and my sleep schedule adjusted to a normal one. There were still bad days, but they were manageable and not as frequent. I still struggled with personal issues even though my High School graduation was some time ago but doubts about my future filled my mind.

For the past few years, Al, my best friend, was my rock, he understood when I asked for some alone time or when my moods would change. Al and I met in the fifth grade when the teacher sat Al and me next to each other, although I was and still am an introvert, it was easy to open myself to him. There was something about Al that expelled comfort, perhaps it was his boyish good looks. The girls liked to admire Al's acne-free face, his blonde and blue eyes, and his dimpled cheeks, the opposite of how he looked before puberty. I remembered the girls that Al confessed to turning him down harshly, which I never understood, Al approached those girls politely, but they treated Al as though he was below them. However, in high school when Al became handsome the same girls who rejected him wanted him but of course, Al saw how fake those girls acted before and after his puberty.

If you met Al and got to know him, you would think that he was a goofball, but that was his charm; the ability to make you laugh. In the beginning, when I was closing myself off to him, he confessed that he was rather nervous about making friends which made me at ease since we were kids it was easier to shake hands and become friends then it was for us as teenagers. Al used his humor to talk to people, making others laugh helped Al hide his nervousness when he met strangers. I, however, struggled with maintaining eye contact and introducing myself to new people. I didn't do well with small talk, but I knew that for deeper conversations with a person you must get to know him or her a bit better. Although I envied Al for the group of friends he made in school, I knew that someday there would be a time for me to gain more friends and I could trust Al to always be there for me as I was for him.

There was a moment when the thoughts of 'always with Al' saddened me because he would attend Ohio State University in Columbus after the summer of that year ended. I knew that it was a bit melodramatic to think that he was leaving me forever, but that was how my heart felt at that moment. Al said that the university was just two hours away and that he would come to visit his parents on the occasional weekend and winter holidays, so he would still see me. I was mainly nervous that Al would make new friends, possibly a girlfriend, people who would be better for him and Al would forget about me, like a childhood toy that was left in the attic. I irritated myself with those types of thoughts because I knew my best friend better than that, and what kind of a friend was I to distrust him when Al was there for me even when I pushed him away during my bad days? Al was continuously trustworthy, his parents treated me like I was their second kid, and yet I was afraid.

I was afraid of a lot of things, like insects and deadly snakes, but some of my fears were intangible, for instance, the thoughts of being alone plagued me. I've never stood on my own, I lived in the same house I grew up in with my parents and I had Al, who lived a couple of blocks away. I thought that I wasn't prepared for a future that required a person to be independent and self-sustaining. Was I ready for the workforce when the thought of working with others made me anxious? Was I ready to live on my own when I was uncertain if it could negatively affect my mental health? Or should I have taken it easy and gone to a college as my father wanted me to?

It was the first Saturday of June, which meant it was graduation day. The day before, the graduating class participated in a mandatory practice for commencement. The ceremony took place at a sports field not far from my high school, and the stage was a raised walkway and a platform. I woke up around eight in the morning, the graduation ceremony wouldn't start until three in the afternoon of that day and I wasn't in a hurry to get dressed up. I texted Al a good morning, and he was probably still snoring away in his bed. My father was already up, he was a farm boy who had woken up early since childhood. I gave my dad a hug and a kiss in the kitchen, then we conversed over a cup of coffee. My parents were happy that I was a graduate, they told me since the last day of school how proud they were of me.

I wasn't as excited as my parents and Al was when it came to graduation. I was more relieved that I was done with high school, it felt like the last two years were longer than the first two years of school. I was glad that I was done with worrying over test results and the constant stream of homework, although in retrospect, high school would probably be the easiest time of my life. Mabel, my therapist, said that it was quite common for seniors to feel like they've went through the wringer. However, I was nervous about going up to the podium to retrieve my degree in front of my fellow graduates and their family and friends. I was the type of person who shied away from people's attention and avoided eye contact with people that I didn't know. At least the thought of my fellow classmates focusing more on their degrees and waiting for the ceremony to end eased my anxious thoughts. I wasn't eager for the next step in my life, whether it meant going to college or getting a job, and I wondered if I should take a year break, perhaps I would be ready to decide by then what would be the best fit for me.

Around one o'clock, I readied myself, despite the fact I wasn't the type of girl to wear dresses I wore the one my mom bought for me, a plum knee-length dress with thin straps, the week before this special occasion, then I pulled my hair into a ponytail and did my makeup. I sent some photos of myself wearing my cap and gown to Al, and he sent back some of his own set of photos. My parents and I arrived at the field's parking lot an hour early so my parents could find good seats before the stands got too packed. I met with Al and his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Anderson, at the gate entrance to the field and they each gave me a hug and a greeting.

"Hey, sweetie! Congratulations! You look so beautiful. How are you feeling?" Mrs. "Call me, Ma" Anderson joyfully said. Ma, as she wanted me to call her since I was part of the family, was a tall blonde with blue eyes and a bright smile. When Al introduced me to his parents, Ma welcomed me in with open arms and ice-cream for dessert. Ma was the person that I went to when I was unable to talk to my own parents or even Al about certain stuff, she let me rant and rave until I was blue in the face, then she gave me comfort by wrapping me in a warm embrace and cutting me a slice of pie that she bought from the local bakery.

"Thanks, Ma. I'm as good as I usually am." I smiled slightly. I felt out-of-place as I saw more people gathered around the field and people filling the sitting area.

Mr. Anderson, whom I called Pops, turned to Ma, "Well, honey, let's leave the kids and find us some seats." Ma and Pops left to find a place to sit for the ceremony.

Al suddenly grabbed me and screamed in my ear in excitement, "We're finally graduating!"

I playfully pushed him off me with a wide grin on my face, "That was my ear, loser. I'm surprised you're even here, and I thought you would have slept through the ceremony."

He laughed, "I almost did, but never underestimate Mom's power to pinch off your ear."

I winced in sympathy, I've received Ma's pinching fingers before when Al and I were roughhousing and gave her a hard time. Momentarily, I saw the suit Al had on, navy colored with a white shirt, the photos he sent earlier could not compare to reality, he looked like the star singer in a jazz club that was ten seconds away from crooning like Sinatra.

Suddenly, the voice of the principal came through the speakers settled by the podium, she told students to find their assigned seats because the ceremony was soon to begin. Al and I embraced each other quickly, and we went to our respective seats. I didn't recognize the students that sat around me, and a wave of loneliness washed over me.

The ceremony started, and I was stuck in the mud of my thoughts as I watched the students, who graduated with honors, received gold cords to wear around their shoulders. I wondered if I could've done better than the 3.0 GPA I received if I haven't had numerous absences in my sophomore year and low midterm grades that senior year, would I be one of those students? For unknown reasons, I often compared myself to others when it was about achievement, the thoughts of should've, could've and would've ran through my mind and I drove myself crazy. My father said that when those types of thoughts haunted me, I should step away and distract myself with something that I enjoyed. Personally, it was just my low self-esteem running its course and had nothing to do with envy or jealousy, it was a way that my mind operated that I found entirely inconvenient. Sometimes, I wished there was an on/off button on the part of my brain that operated my thoughts that I could push when I started to have thoughts that brought me down to bad waters.

"Aldred L. Anderson." The sound of my best friend's name called out by the principal took me out of my thoughts and I chuckled softly at his first name, I was surprised that Aldred was the name he had the principal to call out instead of his nickname. I admit Al looked cute when he walked up with a grin on his face to the stage, he shook the principal's hand and retrieved his diploma. I admired his attributes, e.g., charming, good with people, and a bright smile that I believed he inherited from his mother. Al was a person with a good heart, and I was thankful for all our days of friendship and despite my occasional insecurity about our friendship, I hoped that in the future we were still close and that I haven't pushed Al away.

In the middle of the ceremony, my mind veered into unwanted territory, thoughts of Al were usually happy, but in the last days of senior year, those thoughts were touched with solemnity when I thought about the fact that that summer was the last season that I could see Al every day, even after he graduated college, he would be busy with any employment that he found. I was used to seeing Al every day, I knew that it would be tough to adjust to him being two hours away instead of him living two blocks away. I confided in Al about my secrets and my deepest fears, and he was the only one that I trusted to know everything that I thought about. There were topics related to my depression that I couldn't talk about with my parents, Al's parents, and sometimes, there were things I couldn't talk about with Mabel.

I knew the person that I was, the kind of person that kept emotions bottled up because I wanted no one to worry about me and my parents didn't really understand why I felt the way that I did sometimes, honestly, I couldn't explain exactly how I felt or what caused the periods of sadness when only hours earlier I felt fine. Unfortunately, the emotions I bottled up would end up overflowing and my day would turn upside down as I burst into tears and hyperventilation, when I held things back it led to a panic attack. My changing moods frustrated me and made me think that my progression towards stability took two steps back and that wasn't an easy thing to admit not only to others but also myself. My emotional outbursts were less now because of my confidence in Al and he was patient enough to wait for me to talk my thoughts out. Al may not have understood what I went through, but he was here for me through thick and thin. Sometimes, I wondered about the dependency I had on Al, I wondered how much my mental health would change with Al living far away, and I wondered how I would go day to day without hearing his voice constantly in my ears. Despite the whirlwind of my emotions, I was genuinely proud of Al and his accomplishments.

When I came out of my thoughts, I noticed the students that sat the row in front of me were up to retrieve their diploma and I was ready to go home. I was happy to receive my diploma, but I was also bored with the ceremony and I was ready to go home and watch TV for the rest of the day. I wasn't a fan of crowded events, I tended to get uncomfortable and I always felt like someone was staring at me since graduation was an event with viewership, I was nervous that I would trip or make a fool of myself when I went up to the podium. I couldn't stop moving my right leg; I noticed my hands are sweating as I wrung my hands. I saw movement in my peripheral vision, I moved my head to see Al waving at me and my chest felt lighter. I smiled and waved back at Al, and I appreciated his support.

Too soon, my row was up to form a line on the right side of the walkway, and everyone waited for their name to be called before they walked up to the podium to receive their diploma. My body moved from side to side as the line got shorter and it was almost time for my name to be called. I couldn't see my parents from where I stood, but I had a feeling that they cheered when my name was called. My stomach felt like there were butterflies flying in it, it was a sign of my nervousness, and I kept wiping my sweaty hands on my gown. I took a deep breath when my name was called and I put up the front of 'my head held up high' as I walked to the podium, I shook the principal's hand then I received diploma, before I returned to my seat I stopped a few feet from the end of the walkway to stand under a garden arbor to allow the photographer to take a photo of me.

I spent the rest of the graduation ceremony spaced out, occasionally Al and I locked eyes and smiled at each other. Even though high school sometimes stressed me out and drained me of energy, it wasn't all bad and I enjoyed most of it especially the fun I had with Al when we had the same classes together. I never made new friends during the four years of school, but no one bothered me, and I had classmates ask me for help on certain math questions. I mostly kept to myself, but I still did my part when it was time to participate in group projects and I answered questions in class when the teacher randomly picked me to respond. I knew that high school wasn't the hardest step of my life, it might be one of the easiest parts of my life, but I knew that the thing I would miss most about high school was the simple routine e.g., learning, turning in homework, and taking tests.

The ceremony ended with a final speech from the principal and the tassels on our caps were moved from right to left to signify that we had graduated. I stayed in my seat as I saw Al surrounded by a group of his friends, they congratulated each other from what I could tell, and I was reluctant to go to Al because of the people around him. I didn't mind Al's friends, they were nice and had tried to invite me in, but I was always left feeling awkward and like an outsider. Unfortunately, I couldn't control how I felt but Al was kind enough to explain any misunderstandings between me and his friends, they didn't fully understand but they never held it against me for that I was grateful.

"Casey!" I heard the call of my name and I turned my head to see my parents happily heading towards me. I stood up as my parents reached me and they each gave me a big hug with spoken congratulations. I felt the warmth from their affections, personally, I was afraid to disappoint them, so I spent my senior year studiously to pass my classes with high grades. My parents were important to me and it would cut me deeply if they ever disapproved of me. I was grateful for their patience and their care when my depression held me back from being the best I can become as a person.

Al and his parents walked towards my parents and me, the day before the event we decided to eat dinner together after the ceremony. Al was the first to give me a hug, then Al's parents embraced me together in a group hug, and we also took the time to take photos while Al and I posed with our diplomas. Afterward, when the crowd was thin, and people began to leave, Al and I, and our parents made our way to our respective cars, then we drove to the restaurant we mutually chose together. Frankly, the graduation ceremony wasn't as bad as I imagined, and that day was filled with relief and pride, and I knew that that evening would be the same because I was surrounded by the people who loved me.