– 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.
One week into the study and things were going a bit rocky. The washed-up hippy had continued arguing with everyone he could and there was an uncomfortable atmosphere in the air. It became quite clear to me that he was another man encumbered with a lot of pain, and, naturally, when he was crammed into a small space with a bunch of other humans, he tried to offload it to them. This was how pain and anger worked when inside the heart of a human-being. The more torment and bitterness a person was stuffed with, the more they barged about trying to infect other people with it. It was weighing them down, killing them, sending them crazy. They needed others to bear the load of their own inner torment. I watched him in his volatile ways and considered what his life had been like; was he abused as a child, screwed over by a woman, made angry by years and years of stressful work? Was he made this way by all the drugs he had tested on medical trials? It could have been all of these things for all I knew, but I wasn’t going to find out. I avoided such a person like the plague. Conflict was draining and ultimately I had no room for confrontation in my life. Call me a coward if you wish, but all through my life I vacated environments where I could feel trouble brewing. In school, in bars, at family dinner tables. Life was simply too short to argue and fight over some petty thing. Ultimately we were all transient suits of flesh and blood, a little blip in the ocean of eternity. We were given this brief moment of consciousness before we died and disappeared into everlasting darkness. To spend that time arguing and fighting over something seemed like a waste of valuable time to me. I guess I never would have a politician, or a general. I often wondered what the world would be like if all the people in positions of power smoked a joint or took some ecstasy at the start of their day. Maybe we wouldn’t be as screwed as we were. Maybe things would be sane. They didn’t even need to use drugs; they could have just watched that video of Carl Sagan talking over an image of earth taken by the Hubble Telescope, in which the planet was a tiny dot suspended in a sunbeam. “Think of the rivers of blood that have been spilled so that in glory and triumph, some generals and emperors could become the momentary leaders of a fraction of a dot.” Hell, just staring up at the stars put it all in perspective – the absurdity and futility of our violent ways. For now I was locked up and there were no stars to look at, so I just kept my headphones in and had a nap whenever the walking disaster was around. The stars in my mind would have to suffice.
It wasn’t just him causing the drama on the trial though. At one point a woman was in the lounge on the phone to her partner when he and her son turned up by the window. Whilst in the clinic you weren’t allowed any visitors, and typically this meant you also weren’t allowed to have people come up to the windows. We were on lockdown and they couldn’t risk any contraband getting in to interfere with the results of the study. Things like chocolate and caffeine could affect the blood results and so, upon entry to the clinic, they searched our bags for snacks (you were only allowed to eat what they gave you). The windows were covered with a steel mesh on the outside, but there was still the chance you could sneak a chocolate bar through or something. Perhaps some McDonalds fries? Alcohol through a straw? Or even some of the more fun types of drugs? Anyway, the CCTV cameras had caught this woman’s family coming up to the window and ten minutes later a dozen nurses and a doctor marched onto our ward telling us there had been ‘a security breach’. They then got us all to empty out all our belongings onto our beds. Suddenly it was beginning to feel like an actual prison or concentration camp. Even a loony bin. Well, the shoe fitted I guess.
Another drama involved the Pokémon guy. We had quickly worked out he was a bit of a creep. No doubt he was another guy starved of sexual contact, made crazy by his rejection by the female kind, and for once he was in an environment where he could sit and talk to whatever poor woman was in close proximity. He had expressed creepy comments to all the women on the trial, and one night he had been caught standing at the end of one woman’s bed at 3am. “What are you doing?” she asked, rather shocked.
“Just going to the toilet,” he lied, rather poorly.
The arguments and the awkwardness – it did make me think what a social experiment these trials were. Here were a bunch of people who would never meet in ordinary life all confined in a small space for a short time. It was only natural that every now and again it was going to bring out the worst in people. Human-beings were tribal, primitive beings at their core and for most it was a good thing they didn’t get together. No matter what the multiculturalists or starry-eyed idealists said, when you got people from a diverse range of different backgrounds together – especially in a small space where they couldn’t escape each other’s company – then there was always going to be some conflict or tension over certain things. You’d have to tiptoe around in discussions about life and politics. I quickly decided that my tactic when coming into a trial was to sit back, be quiet and observe for the first couple of days. While in that ethnographic state of observation, I tried to work out which person was left-wing and right-wing, which person was religious or atheist, which person was angry and which person was actually a reasonable human-being. After that had been deduced, then I was able to know how to interact with each one. Or which people I was just going to avoid all together for the sake of peace and harmony. I figured this was a tactic I used anyway in the outside world, but one which is even more necessary in this intense sort of environment.
After a couple of days of such observation, I had realised there was one person on the trial who was ‘one of my kind’. I know, I know. The poor guy. His name was Warren and he was a guy in his thirties who lived in a van. He had long hair and looked like the sort of guy you would meet after midnight at a campfire in a rock festival. He had been living in his van for the last four years which you could see from the window. There it was parked in the car-park – a big, meaty, army-green van which resembled a furniture removal vehicle. Inside he had turned it into a mobile home complete with a bed, kitchen, sofa, solar panels, and toilet. Like me, he had spent his twenties wandering around the world and now he was trying to figure out how to navigate life as he approached the middle-age section of it. He had recently just slip with his girlfriend of ten years and consequently a lot of his talk was about women and sex. Speaking to him, it became clear he was another wanderer of life wondering where he fit into the system. The brutal fact was that these wanderers didn’t; they were square pegs in a society of round holes, hence why they wandered. Their isolation is part of who they are and you can usually see it in their eyes – a specific look which is often confused with someone daydreaming. Often, I wandered the streets looking for others with that wistful look. I searched for it as I scanned the faces of people waiting at bus stops, or supermarket queues, or the crowds that temporarily formed at the traffic lights. Sometimes I think I even spotted it, but I never did anything about it. I continued about my day and accepted my isolation from the rest of my species. Well here I was with one in front of me: another person who probably felt he had crash-landed on the wrong planet and roamed the earth staring up into skies wondering when somebody was going to come and take him home. For now his home was that van, and this clinic, and wherever the hell he was going to drive it after we got out.
He was a free soul to many, but I could tell he had anxieties about the life he was living. It was clear with certain things he said. “I’m thirty-three now and I’ve got nothing to show for it. I’ve got no savings.” “You want to be careful, one day you’re a young man full of promise, the next you’re a middle-aged man living in a van on your own”. He was relentlessly witty and would love to crack self-deprecating jokes, but under that comical persona, I could see there were some real concerns about the life he was living. I had to think of the Bukowski quote: “The free soul is rare, but you know it when you see it. Basically because you feel good, very good, when you are near or with them.” Okay, maybe Warren wasn’t totally free, but he was more free than most, and it still felt good to be around him. Ultimately not many people were truly free – hell, maybe no one was. There were only those who were good actors. Hippies, travellers, people living alternatively – they were always called ‘free-spirits’, but they were usually riddled with anxieties and inner conflicts. Ultimately human-beings were social creatures and it took a lot to live differently from the herd. To watch your friends buying houses and settling down while you shitted into a bucket in the back of a van was always going to cause some insecurity. Human-beings all had that innate need for social gratification, so it was only natural that when you wandered away from the herd, you felt some sort of anxiety. I knew this cause I had felt it myself during the last few years. Doing your own thing was often tiring and I knew there was comfort in the herd – but I also knew that the best things in my life had come from venturing away from it. That was something I sought to share with him.
“Not many people have the guts to live in a van,” I told him. “So many people say they want to do it, but so very few ever will. People like to talk to talk, but when it comes to walking the walk and living this type of life, most people will choose comfort and convenience every time. An easy shower, a steady job, Netflix, having things in common with people… It’s all a trade off. But life is so much more exciting when you choose a different path. Living in a van takes guts and you will no doubt inspire a lot of people. Like Hunter S Thompson said: “Weird heroes and mould-breaking champions exist as living proof to those who need it that the tyranny of the rat race is not yet final.”
“You love a quote don’t you,” he said, noticing I had quoted about four people in the space of half an hour. “But that’s true man. It takes guts to live like this. Everyone accepts the rat race so easily, but I couldn’t live that way if my life depended on it. For me, I’d just end up suicidal or depressed or something. I don’t want to be another victim of the rat race living a mediocre existence. Most people aren’t very interesting by the time they reach middle-age.”
“Tell me about it,” I said. “I hope I’m still living an adventurous life in ten years time. I’m at that age now where a lot of people who have been living adventurous lives begin to pack it all away. The backpack goes and sits in the garage gathering dust, the month-long travel trips become weekends away to the Cotswolds, and people generally filter down and suppress their spiritual desires in order to fit in some way into the system. Of course, you have those that momentarily wake up from their slumber and have the classic mid-life crisis. They get to their forties, realise their half way through their lives, and they haven’t done anything they ever wanted to do with their one life. To compensate for this they have a few years of hedonism and pick up some new eccentric hobbies, but by that point they are too burdened by responsibilities and too stuck in their ways to truly change to the version of themselves they wish to be.” I could feel myself getting into a big speech, and I had noticed one of the nurses listening in – no doubt, they regularly overheard these existential types of debates.
“You seem pretty switched on for a young guy,” he said.
I let out a laugh. “I’m just another angsty person who read too much poetry and philosophy. Probably I’m just another person full of shit.” I was joining Warren with his self-deprecating humour, but I really believed what I was saying and probably could have gone on for another ten minutes. Ultimately there isn’t a man or woman out there who hasn’t felt suffocated by their cultural reality. We all know it. We all stare at each other’s faces and let sentences of sanity exit our mouths, trying to appear normal, trying to fit in and be accepted members of society. It was a sham but we went along with it for our own survival in the herd. Being accepted among the crowd paved the way to an easy life, but god, like Warren, how I wanted everyone to just toss the mask aside, tear up the script, walk off the stage, and just start acting like who the hell they really were. The terrible thing is that I think deep down this is what the vast majority of people want; to actually just be themselves and enjoy their fleeting time here on this earth. But for the sake of convenience we all go along with the big charade. It’s the human desire for social validation. The comfortable place among the crowd. The small talk down the pub. The camaraderie at family dinner tables. The pats on the back. The likes on social media. It was simple how it worked from how I saw it: the bigger the crowd you tried to be ‘a part’ of, the more of your own individuality you had to kill. The dynamic of a group meant there had to be a shared connection for it to work, but the thing was every human being was a uniquely beautiful and complicated mess. This mess had to be ironed out so everyone could unite in the ‘middle ground’ – typically the dominant cultural values of the herd. As a result, the true individual was usually alienated, isolated, and often teetering on the precipice of madness. Or living in a van surviving off medical trials.
It was a few minutes later that I found out we shared another similarity. Like me, he was another person infected with the writing madness. He told me about his fantasy novel he had been working on for years. Progress was ‘slow’, as he put it. It sounded really slow in fact, and I had to wonder whether he was ever going to get it done. “I’m such a lazy piece of shit,” he told me. “I sit down to write and then end up procrastinating or finding some way to kill a few hours without writing a word. It pisses me off. I’m listening to some podcasts and trying some meditation in order to try and fix this brain of mine.” Although my idleness wasn’t as bad as Warren’s, I did resonate with what he said. Sometimes I sat down to write and would find myself going on a YouTube binge or exploring some strange rabbit-hole of the internet. I also aspired to write a novel. I had even given it a go in the past but all my attempts had crashed and burned by the time I got to the ten thousand word mark. One day I decided that I simply just wasn’t ready to write a novel. Ultimately I hadn’t lived enough and was better off writing short stories and honing my skills before I attempted the mountain of writing a novel. At least, that was how I rationalised it. Maybe we were both those cliché pretentious guys who went through their lives saying they were writing a novel, but never actually got round to doing it. In reality, we were just good for nothing bums. Well, not completely nothing. At least we were ‘helping advance the world of medicinal research’. If that would be all we contributed to society, then I guess it was still better than nothing. And hey, even if we didn’t make it by the time of our death, we could always use a bit of delusion and tell ourselves we were like Kafka or Van Gogh, unappreciated in our lifetimes but hailed as geniuses by future generations. Sadly I could see us both going insane and cutting off our ears, but perhaps our artistic success ever arriving was a fantastical daydream at best. Well, maybe that was all people like us really needed to make it through.