– 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.
It was about two weeks later that I started my first study. I first attended a screening where I had my blood taken, my heart rate and blood pressure recorded, underwent a drug test, a breathalyser, a smokerlyzer, and, finally, had another brief medical with the doctor. Once again I passed with flying colours and was admitted to the clinic for the trial. The trial involved taking a medicine that treated some condition called ‘Neutropenia’ – a white blood cell disorder that was a side-effect of chemotherapy. The medicine was supposed to increase your white blood cell count – a response to the condition which typically lowered it, causing people to be more susceptible to diseases and infections due to weakened immune systems. I wasn’t totally sure what the whole thing was about if you want to know the god’s honest truth. I guess like everyone else I was blinded by the money – four and a half thousand pounds for twenty-two days in the clinic. Ha! It seemed absolutely ridiculous thinking about it – so much so that I was willing to get sick for it, even though the doctor made it clear many people had taken the drug before and the only real side effect was some ‘bone pain’. A bit of bone pain? That sure trumped the pain that came from the alternative. In particular I thought of what was required to earn four thousand pounds in that pet-food warehouse – the back pain, the stomach pain from the smell, the mental pain from the monotony. It was a good trade in my books and I was ready to get to work. I unpacked my things and prepared myself to be experimented on. It was go-time. (Oh, if you’re wondering why I was trialling a drug for a condition that I didn’t suffer from, it was because they didn’t want people who actually suffered from the condition. All the trials there were not to see if the medicine actually worked – that research had already been done – it was just to see how it was taken up by a healthy person and if there were any side effects.)
So there I was: unpacked and preparing myself for twenty-two days of lounging around, playing games, daydreaming, writing and laughing at the situation I had found myself in. I sat on my bed and got comfy. At the bottom of it I saw a piece of paper beside it. ‘Subject 55355’ – my guinea-pig identity for the next few weeks. I then looked around at my surroundings. I was staying in a shared ward with another eleven volunteers. It looked a lot like a normal hospital ward – there was no real privacy and all our beds were about two metres apart with no curtains around them. With the room being my home for the next three weeks, I was naturally curious to see what other types of people I would be living with. A cursory look revealed it was a diverse range of ages. The youngest volunteer looked about twenty and the eldest was a man in his fifties. It was mostly men, with three women who would no doubt be sick of us by the end. They all appeared surprisingly normal on the surface of things, although I believed that couldn’t be the case. The fact that they were doing these trials meant they weren’t normal by default. Not everyone with a regular job could just drop out of life and check into a clinic for twenty-two days to test some pills. The very nature of the whole thing was unconventional and consequently I was expecting to meet fellow outcasts, oddbods and outsiders. That was one of the things I had loved about my travels over the past years. When you venture out from the realm of ordinary life, you were sure to find those who were a bit weird and interesting. I thought of all the wild-eyed and undomesticated souls that I had crossed paths with on my travels – a retired army sergeant with no home who walked around Spain; a female circus-performer who hitch-hiked around the world on her own; a middle-aged engineer cycling through South America after a divorce. They were all people full of flame and fire; people with the spark of passion burning bright in their eye. Yes, if you want to find where the colour is in life, you have to head to the edges – almost always, that is where the magic is found. Throw a jar of ink at a wall and you will see that in the middle it is dense and black; however the further out you go, the more complicated and interesting the patterns become. It was the same with society and I avoided the core as much as I could. To me, it was a black hole for the soul.
Anyway, the first day came and went then we were getting dosed. Nurses wearing red tabards which read ‘DO NOT DISTURB – DOSING’ would come round our beds one by one. They would check our details and then give us the meds with a glass of water. A quick chat with the resident doctor to ensure everything was okay then you were all good to go: you’d swallow those pills down and know that whatever happened from then on, you were guaranteed to get paid four and a half thousand pounds. Ha! I had to laugh once again at the thought of it. Even if you got sick and had to be taken off the study as a precaution after two days, you’d still get the full payment. In a strange way, I kinda hoped I did get sick. I’d take a skin rash or a bit of vomiting to get out early. Maybe even a heavy fall from fainting. Perhaps a mild seizure? But no, everything went smoothly from the off and – after a morning of relentless procedures – I was able to get up and enjoy some well-earned leisure time. I watched TV, read some newspapers, and then played some pool. For the first time I interacted with some of my fellow test subjects. You were all in it together and naturally there was a sense of brotherhood between you all.
The first person I got speaking to was the eldest person on the trial. His name was Darren and he had recently quit his job as a store manager for an Ikea. He seemed reluctant to talk more about it so I spoke about my life to him – about all my adventures and odd jobs and writing aspirations. “I tell you what son, good on ya,” he said. “Do it while you can. Bricks and mortar isn’t all it’s cracked up to be you know.” It was something I had heard from a few middle-aged people before. You could always see regret in the eyes of older people whenever you spoke about things like travelling, and they were usually those who had ended up disenfranchised with the life they were living. In the case of Darren, this was true once again. Finally feeling on good terms with me, he began telling me the real reason he had quit his job. He told me how his best mate had also been a store manager for Ikea and had ended up working seventy-hour weeks until it ruined his life. At first came the rapid aging due to the stress and lack of sleep. Then came the alcoholism. Then the weight gain. Then the breakdown of his marriage. Then the loss of contact to his kids. And finally? Suicide. Yes, after twenty years of being a high-earning retail manager, the poor bastard hung himself in a hotel room. He died a rich man apparently, but not in spirit. His mate had completely neglected everything else in his life aside from work and finally it drove him over the edge. Darren had seen this happen and realised he was heading the same way. He quit his Ikea job almost immediately with no real plan other than to not kill himself. A few weeks later, here he was: in a medical trial research facility playing pool with a twenty-seven-year-old traveller and failing writer. Well, it seemed like a good start to me.
The second volunteer I met was one of the girls of the group – a twenty-two-year-old recent graduate of environmental conservation. Like me, she had quickly learned that having a degree meant absolutely nothing and was enduring the post-graduation crisis which gripped hundreds of thousands of young people out there. She was currently surviving by walking other people’s dogs occasionally and living off £150 a week. With her also not having a fixed schedule, she was able to come and take part in these studies. She joked about the state of her life and I also shared with her my shambolic situation. I told her that I was unemployed and also had a useless degree which I only got because I was pressured by my school tutors to go to university. Hearing my story, she smiled and seemed to feel better about herself.
Next up was Jamie – a gym buff who had recently been made redundant from an engineering job at the age of thirty-two. He was now trying to figure out his next move while in the clinic. He had recently applied to be a fire-fighter but had just failed some online test which had swiftly put that dream to bed. Now he could be seen scrolling through some textbooks while he researched what other profession he could unsuccessfully try to break into.
To many these stories were tragedies but oh how I loved them. I loved being around people who didn’t have it together and whose lives were in a state of crisis. I guess that’s because I was one of those people too. But things just felt more alive, more vibrant. Talk of television and jobs was replaced with existential ponderings. Ultimately people only got philosophical when things weren’t going how they were supposed to; that was something I learnt over the years. When things were going how they were supposed to, you could switch off your mind and ride the cultural conveyor-belt through life until the grave. It was only when you were off it and having to figure out a new way for yourself that you stopped and questioned things. You needed to justify the fact you were a beatnik and philosophy was the natural go-to. Yes, it was a madhouse in there and I looked around at my fellow guinea-pigs realising this was where I belonged – locked up with other people pushed out to the edge and testing drugs because there was no room for them in the centre of things. There was no room for me out there either. But it was okay; I had found a new way. Test drugs, travel and write. I saw my path slowly unfolding before me. I was happy with it.