Participant 96645: My Life As a Baltimore Lab Rat

Aside from infecting myself with a deadly disease, I was open to everything.

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Feb 22 2015, 4:11pm

Photo via Flickr user cobalt

Baltimore is a dying city. Long past midnight and in any kind of weather, you'll find kids chugging 40s on dilapidated stoops. For two years, I taught those kids, kids who held oranges in their hands and asked, "How do we eat these?"

After a falling out with my principal at the close of 2013, I decided to quit teaching to pursue writing full-time. It would have been a fine plan except I had rent to pay and little savings. Uninterested in another career, I decided to call a toll-free number in the back of my local paper promising " quick cash for healthy adults between the ages of 18-30."

After a series of screening questions— How many alcoholic drinks have you had in the past month? Do you smoke? Have you ever or recently heard voices?—the young man on the other line deemed me eligible for the study. He explained that I would help researchers develop a drug for malaria, a word he used so flippantly you'd think we were discussing the common cold.

"Yes, you'd be infected with malaria," he said. "You might feel ill for a few weeks, so you need to have an open schedule."

While I declined to participate in the malaria study, I realized that I lived in the Silicon Valley of medicine. Baltimore is home to Johns Hopkins University, with the National Institutes of Health and National Institute on Drug Abuse nearby in Bethesda; there are plenty of well-paying research studies available for young, healthy women. Every morning, I scoured ClinicalTrials.gov and took part in so many initial screenings I quickly learned how easy it was to manipulate the system. For a study on caffeine addiction, I was eliminated due to my ADD diagnosis, a fact I would later omit in future screenings. I always lied about how often I drank and did drugs. It never ceased to amaze me how simple it was to con some of the smartest, most capable people in the country. After years of failure as a teacher, it felt good to finally do something well, even if my work flourished on lies.

Besides infecting myself with a deadly disease, I was open to everything. After signing a stack of legal documents I pretended to read, I suffered through whatever the study called for: my skin burnt with capsaicin, my hand submerged in ice water, my shoulder stabbed with a probe until I broke from the pressure.

My longest running study was an experiment designed to test an anxious person's reaction to pain in contrast to a healthy participant. As the anxious patient, each week I drove to the National Institute of Health in Bethesda to be electrocuted by a 20-something intern. The process was often tedious; to ensure proper adhesion of the electrodes to various parts of my body, I endured 45 minutes of said intern meticulously exfoliating my skin until it was raw.

After my skin was properly primed for electrocution, the intern would wheel an old desktop in front of the chair where I was strapped. The procedure was simple: a series of questions would flash before me (Is the sky blue, y/n?) and while I answered them I sat at risk for electrocution.

The electrodes measured my heart rate, sweat excretion, and the number of times I blinked. Though the questions were a distraction, they weren't enough to divert my awareness of the electric buzzer underneath my nails, a whole new level of pain.

During four intervals of eight-minute sessions, I was always acutely aware of the poorly obscured camera affixed to a far corner on the ceiling. My pride silenced my desire to cry out in pain.

Post electrocution, the cheery intern would remove the constellation of electrodes from my body, then instruct me to fill out a survey on my current levels of anxiety. I'd rush through the form, circling random numbers to rate my anxiety because I always found it difficult to assign a concrete measurement to a feeling.

Once I completed the survey on my levels of anxiety, my medical study liaison, an older woman named Marilla, would walk me to her office so we could debrief. Marilla always greeted me with two Hershey's chocolate nuggets. In those moments, I played the role of a small and desperate child, my eyes bright at the sight of chocolate in her outstretched palm. As the candy dissolved in my mouth, Marilla asked me questions, many of which weren't related to the study.

How's your writing going? Have you told your parents that you quit your job as a teacher? You look a little tired—are you feeling depressed?

At each debrief, I wanted to tell Marilla this would be my final task for the study, my final debrief, my final day as a lab rat. But the words never came. Every time, something inside of me refused to break. At 24 years old, I had become fluent and comfortable in the languages of humiliation, shame, and pain. Despite everything, I refused to quit.

My first glimpse of reality occurred after an MRI, when a lab technician showed me a scan of my brain, which looked like an elaborate series of Rorschach blots. At first, the technician politely indulged my questions about the functions of my brain, answering in short and scientific terms that I pretended to understand. But my desire for reaffirmation was, at that point, insatiable. I had to take it one step further; I asked the technician if he noticed anything different about my brain, anything strange, unusual, or unique. Despite his agitation and attempts to brush off my questions, I continued to probe for the answer I wanted. Eventually, the technician threw up his hands and hissed, "A brain is a brain. What do you want me to say? Your brain looks like everyone else's. It's just a brain."

At home that night, I watched the complimentary DVD of my brain scan, embarrassed and a bit sick. What did I expect to see in the grainy images on my computer screen? Would I have been satisfied with a brain tumor, if it meant I could be special?

I'm special and important was my mantra. I chanted it while a nurse struggled to find my vein. I chanted it from the cold interior of the MRI machine. For a study on the influence of alcohol on sexual arousal, I clung desperately to my delusion while a lab assistant in ill-fitting khakis sat me behind a thin partition and instructed me to think of past erotic experiences for ten timed minutes. Now, a year later, I don't have to try hard to recall the sound of the lab assistant's breathing, the slow march of the timer, or the long silence which followed after the timer was up.

Why did I stop my career as a lab rat?

At one of our final debriefs, Marilla asked me to sign a packet of documents. At the top of each page, in bold print, was "Participant 96645." My participant number was never hidden. I had seen it many times before. This time, the print seemed larger.

Our whole lives can be ascribed to numbers. To the federal government, I'm a student loan. To my former employers at Baltimore City Public Schools, I am no more than my students' test scores. I'm not unaccustomed to my identity stripped down to numbers. Why this moment moved me to never participate in a study again, I attribute to a new respect for my body. For years I focused solely on my mind, strengthening it with education. I spent a great deal of money on mental health professionals and the medication they prescribed.

My final sit down with Marilla showed how once again I had forsaken my body for my mind, this time at a much higher cost. To satiate my desire to be loved, I put my body through senseless pain. My participant number was the ultimate evidence.

I degraded my body and myself for what at the end of the day amounted to a number. I can never take those experiments back.

I signed each document and handed the packet back to Marilla. Everything was different. Her voice sounded distant. Marilla mentioned something about returning to the NIH for free therapy. I said I'd consider it but I think we both knew that was a lie. We said our goodbyes, wished each other well. I know I'll never see Marilla again.

In the past year I've extracted myself from Baltimore's ruin. In my new home of Los Angeles, I have the blueprint of a full life. There are days when my past is barely recognizable. But I've exposed myself emotionally and physically to so many strangers in white coats that any real intimacy I experience now feels cheap. There are strangers who know every secret of my body and mind. Doctors with spouses and children I'll never meet know my deepest fears. An anonymous grad student possesses knowledge of my disastrous childhood. How do I forge genuine connections now when for so long I faked intimacy?

Evidence of my pain and humiliation will be preserved for anyone with the proper credentials for decades. Sometimes I imagine the medical conferences where my secrets will be presented for public consumption. Does anyone in the audience attempt to imagine Participant 96645?

I made around $3,000 dollars as a lab rat. None of the money is left.

Follow Gillian Walters on Twitter.

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