– The following is an extract from a semi-fictional novel I’m working on. It is based on my experience of taking part in medical trials as a lifestyle and tells the tale of a disenfranchised young man living on the edge of society and finding his place in the world while meeting fellow drifters along the way. It is still a work in progress and one that will keep being developed as I continue living this way and collecting more material for the book, but for now I will post extracts on here. Previous instalments can be found here.
I got started with the job, my first task stacking tins of dog food onto pallets after they had been relabelled. While waiting for the cans to amass at the end of the conveyor-belt, I stood there watching some young Polish girls sit and strip the cans of their old labels. They stared out the window with emotionless expressions as they robotically picked up and sliced the labels without looking. They did one every three seconds before shoving it back onto the conveyor-belt. The girls weren’t beautiful or anything, but I couldn’t help but stare at them. Such young women with such little enthusiasm who had appeared to have done a task so much they had turned into machines themselves. They worked in silence and I wondered what they were thinking, and whether or not this was the sort of thing they had envisaged when coming to this country. Was this the better life they were hoping for? Did they have plans that stretched beyond the walls of the warehouse? Were they actually secretly fulfilled and content? As always when studying my fellow human-beings, I couldn’t be sure what was really lingering inside their skulls.
Once the newly-labelled cans made their way to the end of the conveyor-belt, I had to grab them and stack them on the pallets. It was physical work, and repetitive work, but I didn’t mind it. The speed was okay for it not to be stressful and the mindlessness of the work allowed me to daydream the hours away. Daydreaming often was a disability in life when it came to things that required focus, but when it came to situations like this, it felt like more of a superpower. I was able to pass the time away while going on some introspective adventure through the galaxies of my own mind. I thought about my travels and what other adventures I could go on in the future; I also thought of things to write about when I got home. Yes, I thought – truly the last refuge of freedom was in the mind. They had my body confined in that place for the time being, but my mind was free as always to wander wherever the hell it pleased.
After a while, my daydreaming was interrupted when another guy came to work with me. He was middle-aged, about fifty, with a bad posture, grey hair and glasses. He was friendly and started asking me about my life and how I had ended up in that warehouse. I liked him and told him everything without feeling the need to hide anything. He listened to me with interest, praising my lifestyle and encouraging me to get back on the road as soon as I could. After hearing my tale, I started to ask him a little about his own tragedy; about how he also had ended up in such a terrible job while seemingly being an intelligent person. He told me how he had worked in software development down in London for the last ten years until he was suddenly made redundant. Trying to get a new position in the industry was hard for someone his age, and for now he had been demoted from developing computer systems for big tech companies to stacking out-of-date tins of dog food. “All these companies want young graduates,” he complained to me. “They want people they can train up and have a future in the company, not some fifty-something man at the end of his working life.” The classic decay of value which awaited us all. His story was a sad one but I took solace in the fact he hadn’t given up; like many toiling away in these depressing and dead-end jobs, he had a grand plan to break free. After work everyday, he went home and devoted his leisure time to developing a computer game. He spent five hours a night working on it before getting whatever sleep he could. His plan was to upload it as an app and hope the success of it would allow him to break back into the software industry. The smell of the rotting pet food had spurred him on and there he was: another dreamer fighting for something more than he had. His story made me think of my writing and encouraged me to go home and hit those keyboard keys until the early hours of the morning, my fingertips fighting for freedom – my soul scratching and clawing for something more than what life was offering me. In my heart I felt my writing aspirations were nothing more than pure delusion, but like everyone else I was guilty of needing a little delusion to make life tolerable. Religion, love, dreams, the future – yes, delusion was the universal drug and it was just a matter of time before I wrote my masterpieces. Soon enough I would be sitting in a Rolling Stone interview telling some journalist how I crawled through the swamps of life to come out clean on the other side. I imagined the book signings, the woman knocking on my front door, the paychecks coming in for me. I imagined young writers asking me for advice and me telling them it was just a matter of following your gut and going out and living life with your heart on your sleeve. “To write it well you have to live it well,” I would say to them. “Be the centre of your own experience.” Yes, it was only a matter of time; only a matter of time before the world knew my genius. The delusional daydreams continued as I gazed out the window and suddenly began to understand the look on the faces of the young Polish girls a little better.
I carried on at the job for about four weeks until I had had enough. Getting up early and riding that one hour bus everyday; breaking my back while stacking out-of-date pet food; coming home stinking of dog biscuits. The paychecks came in and seemed pitiful for what I had sacrificed. The job itself had taken me to some new lows. At one point I had been reduced to emptying and cleaning out the waste buckets. The foul odor of that rotting pet food penetrated my lungs, almost causing me to vomit, and at that point I knew the absurdity of the job had gotten too much. I rang up the agency and told them that I had decided to quit. They didn’t seem too happy but I felt that the boss of the warehouse probably understood; he no doubt figured that an intelligent young man such as myself had moved onto something better, but no, there I was once again – a useless, unemployed graduate with little options in a recession-ravaged world. I couldn’t even work up the energy to go and search for another job; it was all simply too much for the time being. Instead I reflected on my travels and longed for some adventure. It was summer and I figured there were always places to explore around Nottingham, so I popped back to my parents to get my old bicycle. Going back to my parents was always a tedious affair and they were always keen to know how I was doing. We were a working class family and my parents only knew life as getting a steady job and settling down as soon as you were an adult. As a result, they hadn’t been encouraging of my travelling lifestyle in my twenties and were always keen to point out to me that I couldn’t be relying on them all my life. They pointed that out because a few years ago I had come back from a trip with a few thousand pounds of debt; what followed was a year at home, staring at the walls of my old childhood bedroom and feeling like they were closing in on me. I had to take my old job back at the local supermarket and suddenly my whole two-year world trip seemed like it never happened. I felt trapped, caged, suffocated. A period of depression followed in which I regularly argued with my parents. I knew that having to go back there for another stint would be too much for me, and I looked at my money dwindling down and felt a knot in my stomach. I was now in my late twenties and although there were many out there living with their parents due to the state of the economy, I knew such a thing for me would break me, as well as give my parents the gratification they wanted for seeing me fall flat on my feet again. Ultimately they wanted to see me suffer for choosing to not swallow the normal nine-to-five lifestyle like the majority of people my age were. “Why can’t you be more like your friends,” they would say. “They all have proper jobs…” “Why did you even get a degree if you’re not going to use it?” “When are you going to grow up like your brother?” Ahhh, the great questions of life.
Anyway, with my bike back in my possession, I took it out to the local countryside. I rode it around the small towns and villages, getting lost and enjoying the freedom that I had for the time being. Sometimes I would just pick a spot in a field, sit down with a 4-pack of cider, and write some poetry in a notebook. I played Bob Dylan on my phone and imagined myself in his shoes, wandering about America in the fifties meeting strange and interesting people. Aside from the cycling trips, I went to bars in town, hoping to meet some strange and interesting people myself. There was one bar in particular where all the bohemians seemed to congregate. The few times I had been in there I had met artists, musicians, travellers and homeless people. I was pretty much a bum myself at that point and I figured it was the place for me. I’d go there with Jake some nights and a few times I just went on my own. There was a smoking area at the side of the building that was packed with tables of people all crowding and conversing together. You only had to take a seat somewhere and it wasn’t long before you were chatting with some vegan anarchist about philosophy or politics. It was the perfect place for a cliché failing writer like myself and it was nice not to feel like an absolute alien for once (as I did among the socially-sane and steadily employed people that frequented the other bars).
One night I was there and got hit with the ‘what do you do?’ question. I always resented that question. Most likely because I was unemployed and didn’t have an answer to it, but also because you were expected to justify your existence with some job title as if it was the primary reason for your existence. Anyway, I got hit with the depressing question by some skin-head and just told him the truth – that I had been travelling a lot the last years and had now come home and was unemployed and aspiring to be a writer but not really being a writer. He sat there smoking his cigarette and nodding, seeming to understand the tragedy of my situation. It was then that I was informed of something which would change my life for the foreseeable future – something which seemed too good to be true in this world where people suffered to make a living.
“Have you ever considered doing one of those medical trial things?” he asked.
“Medical trials?” I said. “You mean being a human guinea-pig?”
“Yeah, clinical research studies. I’ve got a friend who does them. He normally makes around fifteen thousand pounds a year doing studies. It sounds like a pretty sweet gig too. You just go into a clinic, take some pills, have your health monitored for a bit, and then you come out with a load of money in your bank account. It’s all tax-free too.” My interest piqued with the amount of money he quoted; after tax, that was more than a full year’s wage at the pet food factory.
“Sounds good,” I said. “But isn’t it dangerous?”
“Well, he’s done loads of studies and never had any side effects. In fact, he loves going in to do them ‘cause it’s a chance to just lie around and do nothing for a bit. I’d do them myself if I could get the time off work. You need a flexible schedule to do them, but if you’re not currently working then you could look into it. There’s a clinic here in Nottingham. You’d be able to do your writing in there too.”
I sat there listening intently. The idea of testing drugs for money seemed strange at first, but the more I thought about it, the more I was willing to do it. Essentially every job required you to be locked away and sacrifice your time and health for a financial reimbursement; medical trials just seemed more direct about the whole thing. “Look you need money and we need your body, so come in and sacrifice your freedom and health for a set period of time and we reimburse you with a monetary payment into your bank account.” If anything I had to admire them for their honesty. I thanked him for the recommendation and told him I’d think about it. In reality I was already sold and I spent the rest of my evening thinking about when I could get into the clinic, take some experimental drugs, and begin my career in the human guinea-pig industry.
The smoking skin-head was right; there was a clinic here in Nottingham, in a business park beside a small village just outside the city. I went onto their website and checked them out. They were an independent company conducting a variety of studies for various diseases and conditions. The current trials paid anything from one to five thousand pounds, involving anything from three to twenty-six days in the clinic. To qualify for taking part in a trial you had to be between the age of eighteen and fifty-five, have a healthy body mass index, be a non-smoker, have no serious health issues, and have no history of drug or alcohol abuse. The history of alcohol abuse was questionable, but ultimately nothing they would be able to prove. I looked at everything they listed and realised I was good to go – finally, a role I was actually qualified for and interested in doing.
I registered and entered in my details, including my doctor who they would need to get a medical report off. Within a few days, they were on the phone and inviting me to come for an induction. I attended as soon as I could. The induction involved a medical examination, a chat with the doctor, and a tour of the facilities. Speaking to the doctor, he looked through my medical history with approving nods. On paper I was as healthy as they came: no conditions, allergies, past surgeries or major injuries. I was a natural. On the mental health side of things, I had definitely had some issues over the years, but typically I told him that I hadn’t. The way I figured it, there was no such thing as a person who had no history of mental illness; every man or woman out there had their own demons and had spent at least some time in the darkness. Ultimately there was no way for a human-being to live in this society without having their brain scrambled a little bit. After chatting for a few minutes, he began inspecting me over – shining a torch in my eyes, checking my reactions, listening to my breathing. He asked me about some scars on my body; they were all from drunken alterations, but I explained them away as bike-riding accidents. Next he lifted up my sleeve to examine the veins on my arm. For each study they would be taking multiple samples of blood, and hence you were required to have ‘good veins’ – aka veins which could be easily penetrated and drained by the nurses’ needles. Luckily, I passed with flying colours again. My whole life I had these big juicy veins that snaked down my arms. I attributed them to the cardiovascular exercises of running and cycling, as well as my general genetic make-up. In particular there was this one huge vein which protruded considerably around the underside of my elbow. This river of blood was a lucrative commodity and would be sure to get me onto a trial. This was it: my one money-making ability. Some men had marketable skills, team-player qualities, practical trades and talents. Me? I had a big vein which would secrete blood at any moment, making me an ideal candidate to test experimental drugs on.
After the medical I was given a tour of the facility which was located just across the road in a separate building. It looked more like a business headquarters from the outside than a medical facility. Walking through the reception and into the hallways, I soon saw the volunteers who were currently checked in for whatever study they were doing. They wore matching polo-shirts which identified them to their study via their colour (there were six wards in total which meant there were up to six studies taking place at any one time). Some of the volunteers were playing table tennis, some were playing pool, others were playing darts. Some sat down on beanbags and played on the Xbox; others sat in the lounge watching movies. I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing. I watched them all relaxing and hanging out while taking home about £200 a day. Of course, they did have to be in their beds at some points for procedures, but for most of the day they were free to do as they pleased. I was even informed that there was bingo and quizzes which came with prizes. The cherry on the cake? The time spent here was completely free. You paid for nothing, all your meals were brought to you, and hell there was even a laundry service. It was like staring at the great secret I had hoped always existed when working those soul-crushing and tedious jobs. I thought of all the people out there spending money on their commutes, working for awful wages, struggling to save anything more than a few hundreds pounds a year. Fools! Here you could walk into the clinic, lay around, scratch your balls, play games, watch movies and have meals brought to you before walking out the front door a few thousands pounds better off. It was the ultimate life-hack and the big vein on my forearm was already pulsating at just the thought of it.