I have been asked to write my life history, which is something I seem only able to tackle in small chunks. The piece below is an autobiographical fragment from my first year at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice. This may be triggering for readers with a history of suicide ideation and or suicide attempts.
I stand in front of the open window of my one bedroom apartment in my building which is simply named “Graduate Tower B.” The building is as generic and bland as the name would imply. It is not an uncomfortable apartment—maybe even a little big for just one person—but it is white on beige on white and screaming institutional. Much more functional and efficient than homey.
My apartment is on the 13th floor and the windows span the entire exterior wall of my small living room. They start about waist height and go almost to the ceiling. They slide open on cheap aluminum tracks, which provided some relief during the week and a half of the hot, humid Indian summer we had in October after the University had already shut off the air conditioning for the season. Too many nights I tossed and turned above my covers, my thin sleep shorts and tee slicked to my skin with sweat, my hair damp, the nape of my neck hot and wet and uncomfortable.
There are no screens on my windows, a curious thing I often think to myself. This once led to a very interesting morning when I came out of my bathroom wrapped only in a towel to discover that a pigeon had flown into my apartment while I was in the shower and was looking at me curiously from my living room carpet. It took more than a little gentle persuading to convince this errant avian to fly back out the way he had come in. I am sure that I was quite the sight holding my towel up with one hand while clutching a frying pan in the other, trying to shoo the bird out before he shat all over my apartment. I am not a big fan of birds.
The scenery outside of my apartment windows has little to recommend it except for its voyeuristic view of the Sheraton’s roof top swimming pool diagonally across Chestnut Street and the occasional exhibitionist guest at the hotel who is generally flashing more than I want to see. There is a very busy Wawa directly below my apartment and my block of University City never truly sleeps. I have already grown used to the nocturnal noises, which include yelling students, cursing taxi drivers and frequent ambulance sirens given my building’s close proximity to both HUP and CHOP’s emergency rooms. For the most part, I can block these noises out. They already exist just below my consciousness.
Standing in front of my open 13th story window has become a bit of ritual these last few weeks. Always at night when the unholy trio of loneliness, anguish and desperation coupled with insomnia nip at my heels. It has been a surprisingly hard adjustment to graduate school. I knew no one in Philadelphia when I arrived and the tendency of graduate students to keep their doors closed coupled with only two days of classes on campus a week has made it hard for me to connect with others. I have been homesick for the first time in my life and struggling with an unnamed Epstein Barr-like virus that leaves me so fatigued that I am tempted to lay down in 30th Street Station to rest on my way back from my field placement and sometimes this feels like a reasonable idea. The fact that I am sleepless despite this overwhelming fatigue seems deeply ironic. I am haunted during the hours between midnight and 6 am by my demons and ghosts.
I have thought a hundred times over the last few weeks how easy it would be to just pull up my desk chair, climb on it, and step out the window into nothingness. How much would it hurt I wonder? I am probably not high enough from the hard concrete to lose consciousness before I hit ground which feels unfortunate. Of course, I am deeply concerned that my body hurtling from the height would inadvertently harm an innocent bystander on the sidewalk below and this, probably more than anything else, keeps my desk chair firmly pushed in at the long built in counter that serves as my desk, dining room table, bookcase and TV stand. Still, I like the idea that I could walk out at any moment. I don’t have to keep living with this never ending pain if I slip further into the darkness. Oblivion is easily at hand.
I stand for who knows how long looking out into the night at my open window, looking out into the abyss, realizing that standing here has become a game of chicken that I play with myself. If I have no intention of stepping out off of that ledge I should close the window, close the curtains, turn on the TV or go call one of the few friends I have finally made here. Otherwise I am just playing a sick game with myself, mesmerized like a moth by a flame, knowing the danger in the back of my mind of remaining here but unable to step back to safety.