Short Story Challenge Week 18: Small Steps

This week’s short story is very different, and very personal.

This week’s short story is quite different to my previous efforts. I usually don’t write particularly personal stories, though I have written a few across this challenge and my last set of 52.

I’d had this one mulling around in my brain for the past couple of weeks — because it’s only a couple of weeks old. Then this week, I read my way through Anna Spargo-Ryan’s excellent memoir “A Kind Of Magic”.

It’s a challenging read and journey through mental health issues, and one that I really do heartily recommend.

Go out, buy a copy, and read it. Maybe with a box of tissues nearby, or a box of chocolates.

It’s made me think about my own mental health, and the way that mental health is both thought of and treated in our society. It’s all too often not talked about, because who talks about having mental health problems?

A Kind of Magic is also not an easy read, because it’s rather brutally honest.

I’d like to reflect some of that honesty below, with a rather clear warning that this also has to do with my own mental health history.

Those who have known me a long time may find little surprising here; others might find it a touch more revealing. Let’s see.

Small Steps

steps leading up to a school building in black and white
I recently found myself in the city where I was born, back there for a school reunion.

Just writing those words probably brings all sorts of associations to mind for you. Some people love school reunions, others would rather drink neat bleach than go anywhere near them.

Just in case you were pondering the ups and downs of that, don’t drink bleach. Just don’t.

I have to point out at this juncture that I attended no fewer than three different high schools, and through a quirk of history, none of them actually exist any more.

The first, which I attended up to the age of 13 got merged with the third, which I attended from 16 to 18.

In the middle sits another school that used to be named for a poet, but isn’t any more and has been extensively rebuilt, including some very nasty gates around the property.

I still don’t know if that’s to keep the students in or the local populace out. Maybe it’s both?

It was a notably rough place when I was there. Mere steel bars and spikes probably aren’t enough.

I sometimes joke that because all three of my high schools don’t exist any more that my secondary qualifications are null and void. Thankfully, so far nobody’s called my bluff on that one.

However, before I can get to the reunion bit, I’m sitting in a cheap motel room, having a panic attack before breakfast. Most people would probably just have a vitamin or something.

The reason I’m panicking isn’t specifically to do with the reunion per se… well… at the time, I certainly didn’t think it was.

Right in that instant, I’m sure the reason that I’m mentally running crazed laps is because I’ve been asked by a couple of friends of mine from my university days to go on a park run with them.

It’s not the running per se; I do that on a very regular basis for both physical fitness and mental health reasons.

It’s the fact that I’ve inadvertently worked out that someone else who I’d rather not have to encounter is likely to be there as well.

All night long, my mind has bounced back and forth, back and forth, back and forth about whether I’ll go.

I want to run, I want to socialise, but… I also don’t want to start my day in an unpleasant manner.

And then, my body does something weird, because I get into the car and I drive — not far, because while it’s technically a city, this place is not particularly big — to where the park run is taking place, on the university grounds. My mind has little to do with it, beyond looking at street signs and obeying speed limits and such.

Inside I’m quaking, genuinely scared.

Which is dumb, this isn’t someone who means me harm, or (quite likely) would even recognise me or remember me.

I see my friends, we chat for a while…

and then the run starts, and none of that matters any more, because it is glorious.

The sensation, that is. The freedom of the running, and the exertion.

Not my actual running, because despite the fact I’ve been running or walking nearly every day for a couple of years now as specific exercise, I still run rather like a newborn giraffe.

I’m all knees and weird motions and stumbles, up and down hills and across plains that are unexpectedly muddier than I’d anticipated. I am bad at running, and I have accepted that I always will be.

Not my time, because one of my friends, who is slightly older than me runs the route a full ten minutes faster than I do. But I’m not in competition with him, or indeed anyone else doing this run at the same time.

I’m in competition with me, both in body — which often fails and has to walk parts of the hilly route, but that’s OK — and especially mind.

About half way around the route, my mind clears a bit and I realise that my panic earlier wasn’t really about that person, who it turned out either wasn’t there or wasn’t within my sight, but instead about the reunion to come — and specifically one part of it.

I finished the run, 33:42 for 5km, which is in my usual range, and go find some breakfast and start to properly steel my nerves.

But to explain why my nerves are shot, I’ve got to go back in time a bit.

You see, I started out at one high school in this town, but only lasted there for two years.

As I’d said above, that school got merged with the high school I finished up at, and it’s the latter I’m there to have the reunion with.

No big mental challenges at the latter school… but it no longer exists. The two were merged, and a new “big” school was built around and on the site of the first school.

Hopefully that makes sense. Often the things that go on in my head do not.

I left that first school aged 14, because I had a mental breakdown.

14 is no age to lose your mind, but there it is.

Or was.

It’s history, my own history.

There were a number of factors that led into that, but the basic gist of it is that one day, I simply stopped.

I can picture in my mind the spot at the school where I stopped, just near the library, not far from a set of toilets where kids (and teachers) would go to have a crafty smoke, down a little walkway near some small steps.

I collapsed, and I cried, and I could not stop crying.

All day long.

It’s a hard thing to explain to anyone else, and for the longest time I have viewed it as a defining moment, as well as something of a barrier in my mind.

The person I became afterwards was still “me”, but a different “me” to the one before.

The prior “me” was locked away, inside my brain, always remembering that walkway and that day, but rarely remembering large scale details from before that time.

Yes, if you’re wondering, that does mean that there are large swathes of my childhood that I simply don’t recall.

Brains are weird mushy gloopy things, and I long figured that it was my mind’s way of protecting myself.

Back in the 1980s, the resources for dealing with, well… me… were not great.

Again, I don’t recall too much of it, but I did have an escape route to high school number two, in a different country, no less, and I took it.

There’s probably some alternate dimension version of me out there that didn’t have that luxury. I sometimes worry that he didn’t make it. Grim thought, really, but then that’s what my brain is rather good at, it turns out.

Anyway, because of the number of years since my high school days — I’m ancient, folks — both school’s cohorts have decided to have a joint reunion, because it was both a small town and the numbers are low. It’s been arranged that we’ll have a walkthrough the new super school during the day, before the predictable evening drinks occur.

This is where my panic attack comes from, because I genuinely don’t know if I can face that walkway and those small steps.

It’s stupid to type it.

It’s a collection of concrete paving, a small brick wall and some grass.

It doesn’t give a solitary single flying fuck about me, and it’s not even capable of doing so.

But still, I am genuinely scared of what my mind will do when we go past it.

And then, once again, something glorious happens.

I’d not expected too many folks from the third high school (my third, also in this same city, keep up) to attend this walk through.

None of them went to the old high school that had been there, so why would they?

I’d worried that I would be walking around with a group of strangers, on the verge of another collapse more than thirty years later.

Instead, I see one familiar face. Then another, and another, and we start the tour around the new, freshly rebuilt school. I’m so busy chatting and catching up and sharing old stories and thinking about old times that I can do this.

For now.

At least.

The freshly build school, constructed on the bones of the old school is a weird design, and the child-of-teachers within me doesn’t like all of it.

Still, I can feel the pressure building up inside my head as we start to move towards the area I’ve been dreading all this time, round past a new sports stadium, past agricultural classrooms, through what used to be called home economics classrooms until finally I see…

That it isn’t there any more.

At all.

When they did the rebuild, they knocked down pretty much everything except one listed building, and that includes all the walkways as well.

I tried to work out the geometry in my head, and even checked with some of the ex-students to get it clear. I think maybe I have stood on the spot, or maybe it’s now part of a brick wall… but above all, and most importantly, it is gone.

Demolished. No longer present.

And just like that, my mind opens up, and the stress washes away. I wobbled a little, and nearly collapsed for a very different reason before grabbing a handhold and steadying myself.

I’ll never know who drove the forklift, or ran the piledriver that has demolished my fear, but in in an instant, it is gone.

And the release is glorious.

Ever since then, I can hear my mind reaching out to me, with tiny fragments of memories long left in the past from before that time.

Which in itself, too, is glorious. Just fragments of my memories, reassembling themselves in tiny, significant, pleasing ways.

This did take some work.

Not just from those who did the rebuilding, helping me (though they’ll never know it) through my own mental anguish.

But also the work and support of friends who were there. It’s reminded me that I should make time for my own friends, because even if I don’t know it, maybe I’m helping them along on their journeys too.

Also, it took some steps.

Small steps, one at a time, but each step leads onwards in a positive way.

And that, too, counts for a lot.

About the author

Alex Kidman is a multi-award winning Australian technology writer, former editor at Gizmodo, CNET, GameSpot, ZDNet, PC Mag, APC, Finder and as a contributor to the ABC, SMH, AFR, Courier Mail, GadgetGuy, PC & Tech Authority, Atomic and many more. He's been writing professionally since 1998, and his passions include technology, social issues, education, retro gaming and professional wrestling.

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