I spent the year after I dropped out of college working as a lab tech. It was an hour drive to the building with the parking lot and the stairs to the second floor and the badge and the cubicle next to Matt and the lab bench and the window where I would stare out at the trees on the other side of the hill. In the room across the hall they kept mice, fat ones, they all were bloated and obese with patches of skin slowly flaking off from dermatitis. The first time we had to sac our mice—which is short for “sacrifice,” and easier to say than “kill them and harvest the organs”— I cried so hard I thought my chest was going to split open. Then came a week of nightmares about tiny arms with skin sloughing off and fat, lumpy bodies struggling to breathe before their necks were snapped.
Our mice had their ob gene knocked out when they were still fetuses. As a side effect they never produced any leptin, the protein that makes you feel full when eating. They ate until they were tiny, swelling balloons with failing hearts. Once a week they had EKGs done, and when they were sick enough, we killed them and harvested every organ. At least, we killed the half of the mice that got fat, the other half got sad and died on their own. Those ones stayed skinny the whole time because they never ate at all. They just sat by themselves and wouldn’t ever move until the day the shaking started and they fell over dead.
It happens with people too: the Journal of Affective Disorders published a study in 2004 where doctors sampled leptin levels in women that had just attempted suicide. As it turns out, many of them didn’t produce any leptin at all. By 2006 almost a hundred other studies had been published on the link between leptin and depression, and a bunch of hospitals started up clinical trials to test new antidepressants since 50% of the people treated with the current generation of happy pills weren’t getting any better. It made sense then, that the mice would rattle my conscience so fiercely. Both of us existed in the same space, at the same time, with the same dilemma of the inevitable: they can’t stop themselves from eating and I can’t stop myself from wanting to die.
Around the time I got really sad, I stopped eating. It is like this sometimes— the easy way out, that is. I became one those no longer capable of opening the bloody door out of this room. So, instead of attempting suicide again, I found myself firmly believing that if I were to die in a way that wasn’t actually killing myself, eventually I would be forgiven by everything I had left behind. This is why I stopped eating, or rather stopped forcing myself to eat.
I became well-acquainted with hunger, and not-hunger: the feeling of being so hungry you’re not hungry anymore. This is what my life felt most like. Which is to say, I was neither hungry, nor yearning for any kind of thing capable of getting me from one day to the next. There were whole weeks I managed to subsist only on water and afternoon naps, and slowly my body began to fade as traffic does at the tail end of rush hour. There was something pleasurable about the sensation of water splashing around in an empty stomach. There was something pleasurable, too, about the light-headedness that climbed atop my shoulders and sat there for hours. Now every time I looked in the mirror, something becoming more and more strange would greet me. My cheekbones became sharply visible, while my eyes sank into my skull like heavy pebbles dropped to the bottom of a well. Standing naked in front of a mirror, the twelve curling fingers of my ribcage reached through flesh, pressing against skin.
Over time, I found the whole ordeal of wasting away to be odious and guilt-inducing, so it was odd when my loved ones began to celebrate this destruction: “You drink so much water now,” or “Wow! Skinny! Have you been running?” or “You look good, you’ve lost weight.” It was strange that they would applaud my disappearing act before it was complete. Much like a crowd cheering as the magician saws his assistant in half. Maybe this is because they know what they are about to witness: the miracle of survival in the face of certain death; but to the magician it seems they applaud the brutality of the moment. I have, too, been the magician’s next trick: stepping into a box and knowing that when it was opened again, the audience would applaud, and I would be gone.
J.David is from Cleveland, Ohio; likes Phoebe Bridgers; and hopes to one day become lovely.