lab rat

Lab Rat (Chapter 31, 32 & 33)

medical

– 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.

Chapter Thirty-One

I had lasted six weeks on the course until I was back to being unemployed and out of education. Reflecting on my latest dropout, it quickly became apparent how foolish it was of me to go back to university. I considered that perhaps there was a part of me still clinging onto some form of normality; maybe the fact I was back in institutional education would take pressure off the fact I was essentially a drug-testing bum. But now that final finger had slipped from the ledge and I was freefalling back into the abyss of the unknown. I was feeling a bit confused about everything, to be honest, and when my friend said there was a job going at the call centre where he worked, I did something out-of-character and took it up. That job lasted a whole two weeks, all of which was the training for the role. I spent that time learning how to take calls and the information I would need to adequately answer them. By the time the first day on the actual job came around, I got ready, walked to the office, then felt some overwhelming force inside of me preventing me from entering the building. It was something far beyond my control, and that force instead pushed me to a park full of deer where I chilled all day while ignoring the calls from work trying to find out what had happened to me. Like my tutor, I couldn’t be bothered to give them an explanation for my erratic behaviour, so I just kept ignoring them while hanging out with the deer and wishing I could become one of them. What a simple life it would be. Roam around, eat grass, and fuck. Yes, oh yes. That was the life for me.

After a while of wishing I was a deer and getting drunk and failing to get much down on my novel, it was time to get back into that clinic again. With the student loan and the payment for the last trial (and even the two weeks of actual work payment), I was richer than I had ever been. With another trial under the belt I would be able to disappear for a prolonged period of time. Truly, after ten months, I was done with being back ‘home’. It was time for one last cash grab then to resume the travelling life with my newfound riches.

This time the trial was a short one – ten days of testing some medicine for Parkinson’s disease. By now it was business as usual. I was an intermediate guinea-pig, and it was one of the few things that now made sense to me in this world – as well as one of the few things I was actually good at. I passed all the usual tests on screening, lied about my alcohol intake, then a week later I strolled back into the facility to recommence my life as Subject 55355. Unpacking my stuff in the ward, I felt a strange joy inside. It now actually felt good to be locked up away from society. In a way, I felt like I endured more tests and trials just trying to exist in everyday life than I did in the clinic. The life of a lab rat was almost as easy as a deer’s and at that point I probably would have traded six months of the year in the clinic for six months of freedom. That was a sweeter deal than most got. No doubt my life expectancy would keep dropping with all the experimental drugs going into my body, but after my latest episode, there was only so much more of life’s bullshit I could endure anyway.

Anyway, I lay there back in the clinic bed, having procedures, dreaming of what I could do with all the money I’d have after the trial. The trial group was a quiet one and for once I wasn’t really feeling like chatting and getting to know my fellow guinea-pigs. It was more of the same anyway: one girl back from Australia trying to get some money for her next trip; a guy who taught English in Thailand and came back in between terms to do a trial; some other guy who had his own business converting vans into living spaces for other people. They seemed interesting, as always, but I was in a reclusive and reflective mood. I just worked on my book and emailed Christina and dreamt of what life had in store for me while on this next adventure in the states. Somewhere inside, I knew it wasn’t going to go to plan. Speaking to my girl in America, it was evident she was just like me: manic, unpredictable, erratic – unable to live in this world for a certain period of time without having a breakdown or going completely off-the-rails. No doubt us travelling together would be a chaotic experience. I envisaged us having an explosive argument two weeks after our trip and going separate ways on a rainy night somewhere in North Dakota. Still, I was ready to roll the dice and see what madness was in store for me this time on the road.

Another person I was speaking to while on the trial was my French friend Tim. I had met him on my last trip to Nepal in a bar in a lakeside town. “I knew that you are one of my people when I saw you sitting there,” he had told me. “You are a thoughtful person who reflects deep on life. We are from different country, and speak different language, but we are similar souls.” He was now back living with his parents on the south coast of France, just outside of Cannes. I had been messaging him occasionally the last two years, but during the trial we started speaking a lot more. I attributed this to the fact he was clearly feeling nostalgic about our trip. This no doubt came from the depression of being jobless and living back home with his parents. The things he said reminded me of myself when I had lived at home after my two year round-the-world trip. I understood how he was feeling, and when he invited me to stay with him for a few days, I knew what I was going to do. After the trial was finished, I’d come out, leave my place, then travel to Cannes for a week before flying to the states to meet Christina. The wheels were in motion and I went onto the flight websites to book those one-way flights once again. I entered my card details and used my medical trial millions to pay for the tickets. It was always a joy to do. Something in you just awakened when you hit that enter button. The confirmation of booking email told you that you were leaving it all behind again: the monotony, the bullshit, the routine. Life’s doors were flung wide open for adventure, exploration, and everything else that made life worth living. I sat on my guinea-pig bed and looked around the ward at the nurses and my fellow test subjects. For once in my life everything felt in the right place. The drugs were flowing in my bloodstream, the money was going into my account, and a plane would soon be taking me away from my home country once again. Life was good.

Chapter Thirty-Two

I was out the clinic and the world was my oyster. I was feeling pretty great, although I wasn’t looking it. A side effect from the medicine was acne and my face looked like it did when I was a puberty-ravaged thirteen-year-old. Still, I had nowhere to be for the next few days and I was hoping some rest would help make me look normal again (I didn’t want to meet Christina for the first time looking like something from a horror movie). I was also feeling pretty wealthy. I now had over ten grand in my account despite working only a month in the last year. I sat back and thought about the reality of my financial situation. There was no way around it: I had cheated the system. I had made money for nothing and I walked smugly down the streets while watching the people in the morning commutes on their way to work. No doubt many of them would have despised me if they knew how much money I had while living a slacker lifestyle. Sometimes I felt like running up to the cars at traffic jams. I would spot the most stressed looking person and bang onto their window shouting “There’s another way! There’s another way!” Of course, I never did. The secret life of the lab rats had to be protected, only to be exposed in my great novel. And besides, I had just come out of being locked up in one facility; I didn’t need to be locked up in another straight away.

I spent the next few days preparing my trip, restocking my supplies again for when I lived my life out of a flimsy backpack once again. I told the landlady I was leaving and arranged the end of my tenancy. “Off on the road again,” she said. “Good on you. Do it while you’re young.”

I was a little sad to be leaving in all honesty. The house had been a comfortable nest for the last year. But too much comfort was bad for the soul and I knew inside it was time to leave. I hadn’t ended up dwelling there for ten years like the alcoholic woman who previously lived in my room. I was moving onward to another place, no doubt with some alcoholism involved anyway. I stroked the cats one last time, drank a last glass of wine with Thea, and then got up to leave my latest residence behind. Rahul looked at me as I left through the front door: he had seen me living there for a year while unemployed, and now I was about to jet off around the world for a prolonged period of time. At first, I thought he saw me as a degenerate loser, but now I had a feeling he thought I was some sort of strange genius. I knew he wanted to travel too and I had hoped I had planted a seed in his mind. Who knew, maybe soon it would blossom and he would be quitting his corporate job and joining me in the lab rat lifestyle. There I would come across him, somewhere on a beach in Mexico, lying in a hammock with a hot latina and sipping a Cuba Libre cocktail. “What was I thinking?” he would say to me.

“What were you thinking?” I would say to him.

Chapter Thirty-Three

I landed in France. After one year of being home, I was back out in the world in a foreign country. Tim was coming to pick me up from the airport and I stood outside the arrival lounge waiting for him. I waited for twenty minutes until suddenly his car pulled up with a skid. It was an old car full of smoke and random junk on the backseat. He got out to greet me with a kiss on the cheek, then I got into his car as we drove around Cannes. It was the place where the famous film festival was and we found some bars along the beach-front to catch-up properly and toast my arrival. We sat down and straight away he ordered two pints of strong beer. “Are you able to drink and drive?” I asked him.

“Sure, no problem,” he said confidently. “I always do this. My parents’ house is far away from town, in the mountain, and taxi here is very expensive.” He then proceeded to knock back the drinks in a steady fashion. It was quickly obvious to me that he was going through a bit of an episode. That had become clear through our recent messages, but now I could see it before me with my own eyes: the excessive smoking, the drink-driving, the bloodshot eyes, the non-stop talk about his ex-girlfriend. “Fuck, I am still in love with my ex,” he kept saying. “I am missing her. I need to go to Russia to see her. I make a mistake. I make a big mistake.” Tim was three years younger than me and probably just as screwed up as I had been at twenty-six. Although most of my life had been a crisis of some sort, that crisis had never really been caused by a woman. Tim seemed to be experiencing the usual existential pain that came with being a disenfranchised man in your 20s, but with some heartache thrown on top. All in all, it was a potent combination: being unemployed, living at home, still in love with his ex-girlfriend. It didn’t take a Sherlock Holmes to figure out he was depressed as hell. Still, my presence seemed to be cheering him up, and the talk of travelling again put a spark in his eye which otherwise seemed dimmed by his current life circumstances.

Pretty soon after the fifth beer, he drove us back to his house, whizzing around corners at a quick speed as I tried to tell him to slow down. My words had little effect upon him and he kept that pedal pressed down. After holding on for my life, we arrived at his luxurious maison. It was at the top of a mountain, overlooking Cannes and the Mediterranean sea. It had its own swimming pool and was generally a bit of a small paradise. “You live in a place like this?” I said to him.

“Me? No. My parents live in a place like this. I stay here like a prisoner. I am twenty-six-year-old; I should be living in my own place, not staying here with my parents like a child.”

“Still, if my parents lived in a place like this, I think I’d be quite happy to live with them for a while.” How impressed I was with the house meant nothing to him. He had grown up here, and like any person, if you live in one place for so long, you just get used to it, no matter how nice it is. I saw it as a paradise; he saw it as a cage in which he was trapped – the same way I had seen my parents home after I had come back from my big trip a few years previously.

He showed me around the house and then we poured some drinks. We sat and drank them in the garden, overlooking that beautiful vista. I was enjoying it, but Tim clearly was still blind to the world around him. Like most, his vision had been blurred by the relentless thoughts inside his head. “Fuck, I am so lost man. What am I doing with my life?” He drank his beer and stared out at the surrounding hills. “No money, no girlfriend, living at home with my parents. I don’t know where to go next.” It was self-pitying talk – the talk of a person who sat around staring at contented members of society while wondering how he’d ever be one of them. It didn’t help that all around us were the fancy homes of accepted members of society who had ‘made it’. We looked at those finely groomed houses and lawns as he kept venting about his issues. I wanted to help him but naturally I didn’t want to offer any solutions to problems I suffered from myself. Fire could not put out fire, after all.

“And you?” he suddenly asked me. “How you feel about your life? Testing drugs and travelling – is this okay for you? Are you happy?” I sat there thinking of what to say; he probably thought I was just as hopelessly lost as him. I knew he was cynical about the drug trials already, thinking I was selling my body and soul to ‘the man’.

“I guess so,” I said. “Like I said, I just want to explore and write about my life. Medical trials help me to do this. To write my books I need to travel and see the world and experience life. And even if I don’t write anything, I still enjoy travelling more than any career or having a family.” He looked at me incredulously.

“And your books. You can make a lot of money with this, you think?”

“Probably not,” I told him.

“Then why do you do it?”

“I have to.”

“You have to? What you mean you ‘have to’?”

“It’s hard to explain, but I just have to. I don’t have a choice.”

“Okay, but for me, if I invest so much energy and time into one thing, I would want to make money from it. You always tell me you’re writing and working on a book, but how many books you sell?”

“At the moment, about six hundred. But I’ve only just started writing properly recently. It’s slow and steady right now. Besides, it’s not about the money like I said.”

“Then what it’s about?”

“You can have a lot of money and still be miserable. To me, it’s important just to do what makes you feel alive. I could be working as a lawyer, making a six-figure salary, but be miserable because my job does nothing for me. To me, I’d rather do what fulfils me and earn little. There’s where true happiness lies…. I think.” He continued sitting back and looking at me in a studious way.

“You are a philosopher man, but for me, stuck here in this prison, I just want money. As much money as possible for travel and women and beer and to live alone. To be free and to be happy! The good life!” I listened to his spiel while reflecting on our differences. We were quite similar in many ways, but it was clear he was more business-minded than me. He had even told me he was once a member of the freemasons for a short while. He told me some more about it before moving onto his business ideas. Since we had been speaking, he must have mentioned over five different business ventures, none of which he had made a start on. He was another confused young man, full of ideas and struggling to get to terms with the practical nature of making any of those ideas in his head a reality. At one point he was going to move to London to start a modelling agency; the next he was going to Paris to start a consultancy; the next Dubai to be a personal trainer.

“And what about the virus?” he suddenly asked, switching the attention back to me. “Many countries are now locking down because of the virus. Do you think you will still be able to travel with the lockdowns?” The issue was something I had been trying to ignore on the news. I tried to ignore most of the news anyway for the general sake of my mental health, but the recent virus outbreak in Asia was now hard to avoid. It was dominating the world news and social conversation. I had heard it all before: swine flu, bird flu, ebola, and the rest. I just figured it was another media panic over a virus which would quickly subside. But it had carried on growing and a recent outbreak in Italy had seen the north of their country go into a full military-style lockdown. Some were predicting it wouldn’t be long before the rest of Europe and even the whole world followed suit.

“I’ve tried to ignore it,” I told him. “If it keeps growing and I get locked down in the USA, then at least I will be in another country with a hot girl. It will be an experience. Surely it will only last a couple of months or something anyway.”

“I don’t know,” he said. “It could last a long time. It could last a very long time.”

“So be it,” I said. “At least something interesting will be happening for once.”

lab rat

Lab Rat (Chapter 28, 29 & 30)

medical

– 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.

Chapter Twenty-Eight

A few weeks into the course and my suspicions about the course being a complete waste of time were proving to be correct. Despite the course costing almost £7000, we were only in for about ten hours a week. The majority of time was independent self-study, and I was lacking the motivation to get most of that done. Some of the classes we did have were outright bizarre. In one class we did some spontaneous dance exercises which were supposed to ‘open up the doors of creativity’. I looked around at a room of badly-dancing, middle-aged people and imagined the great writers howling in laughter at the stupidity and foolishness of it all. On one course we had a best-selling author of a child abuse book come in and share her story with us. She was someone who had sold over a million books – an actual writer who had done the impossible and made a living from putting down some words on paper. Her book had just been turned into a Hollywood movie and she was no doubt loving telling us about her success. After that we had a poet come in to lecture us on how to write poetry as ‘publishable’ as his. I couldn’t listen to such self-congratulatory nonsense and I instead sat there daydreaming while looking out the window. I wanted the student loan and support to do my book, but there was only so much I could tolerate.

Things got worse in the seminars. We would all sit in a circle and read out our writing to the class. Then everyone from the class would interject with their opinion and the person reading would ‘take it on board’. I listened to the middle-aged marketer read out some of his dystopian novel, to which the group – all of a differing demographic and perspective – gave him feedback. He then adjusted what he had written to please and pander to the crowd (a sure fire way to middle-of-the-road mediocrity). The whole thing made me feel a bit sick. No writer worth his salt needed validation for what he was doing. He knew it was good enough and would never allow some strangers to distort his own voice –  a voice which was strictly his after a lifetime of walking his own unique path. Once again I realised there were no writers on this writing course and I refused to read out anything or even offer any feedback to anyone else. I just attended the classes and then went home to sit in the conservatory and work on my novel in the company of the cats – creatures I considered better writing companions than any of my coursemates.

One good thing that came was, of course, the student loan. The first installment came in: £3500. £2300 of that went to the first semester tuition, but I had another grand in my account to play with. With some more free money in my account, I started treating myself to expensive food and drink, sitting around eating steak and drinking whiskey while working away on my book. In the process of writing it, I also got speaking to this girl from the U.S. She popped up in the comments section of my blog one day and before I knew it we were exchanging lengthy pen-pal emails. We talked in detail about life and existence and all the strange things inside our heads. She was also a writer with her own blog, writing mostly about spirituality and philosophy. Reading through her posts and emails, it seemed we had the same thoughts and perspective on nearly everything in life. Things got even stranger when we found out we shared the same birthday. I did, of course, consider that she was actually an overweight, middle-aged man from Turkey trolling me, but a quick video call showed she was the real deal. Her name was Christina and she was a beautiful little thing from Rhode Island. She lived by the ocean and spent her days wandering the beach, collecting rocks, and working part-time at a little café. She also had no interest in anything sane or normal and wanted to travel indefinitely (although at that point she had never even left her own country). Separated by an ocean, I felt closer to her than any person who stood physically before me, and I considered our emails to be better literature than the stuff being shared in those seminars. After speaking for a couple of weeks, I was ready to jump on a plane and meet her like the hopeless romantic I was, but for now I was tied into a university course I had quickly discovered I had no real interest in. At that point I began to sense the desire for chaotic adventure was going to eventually make me cave in on my attempt to do something socially respectable. The masters certification and graduation ceremony was already looking ominous at best. The unknown was enticing me away from anything stable once again, luring me back out into it with its seductive stare – a seduction I had succumbed to many times before, and no doubt would succumb to many times again.

Chapter Twenty-Nine

After a while, the inevitable happened and I stopped going to the classes. They were making me hate writing and I needed something else to keep my fingertips firing on my novel. I sat again in the conservatory with the cats, sipping wine and writing away. I also exchanged emails with Christina and rudimentary plans for a road trip across the states had been drawn up. We were both pro daydreamers, so whether or not it would actually happen was questionable, but the idea of it was so exciting that I couldn’t help but let my mind run away with my latest escapist fantasy. Maybe we’d end up living in a cabin in the Rockies together. Maybe such an adventure would provide me with material for another book – the greatest American travel novel since On The Road. The delusional thoughts of it all filled my heart with joy, and I could sense that my stint of being back home was coming to an end. It had been ten months now – the longest I had stayed in one place for seven years, and like all hopeless wanderers, my feet were itching for the touch of foreign fields.

Besides imagining my new life in America with some girl I’d never met, I had also still been meeting up with Emily. However she had recently just gone AWOL on her latest episode and disappeared to see other part of the country. Would I ever see her again? I couldn’t say for sure, but I kind of had the feeling I wouldn’t. One girl I would see again was the young nurse Eliana from the clinic. We lived in the same city and I was still speaking to her since the last medical trial. One night she messaged me saying she was out in a bar in town with some friends and that I should join them. I was feeling spontaneous, so I downed some of my expensive whiskey and then went to meet her.

I entered the bar where she was with her student housemates, all fresh-faced and full of the sort of wide-eyed excitement that came with being around the age of nineteen. I introduced myself, sat down with them, and immediately felt like the crazy old guy I had encountered many times before in hostels. Her friends were talking about their studies and what job they wanted to get into after university. They were at the age where they still believed that twenty-five was when you were supposed to ‘have your shit together’. And thirty years old – something I was now one year off from – was when everything was totally completed and you settled down with kids and a spouse and a pension. Listening to me talk about my medical trials and my plans to run off to America to meet some girl I had met online, I wondered what they thought of me. Typically they said things like “oh that’s so cool,” and “that sounds exciting,”, but I couldn’t help but wonder what they really thought outside of those social soundbites. Eliana clearly loved it though, getting excited at the very mention of the word travelling, asking me more while looking like she wanted to pack her backpack and jump on the next plane with me.

“So have you decided what you’re going to do yet?” I asked her.

“Nooooo,” she said. “Well, I can start studying this September for a nursing degree. I have friends here now. But I would also like to travel until then, although right now that isn’t possible. I need some money first. I wish I could do medical trials like you but working there I am not allowed to. I don’t know. I just don’t know what I’m going to do.” It had been two months since I first heard her saying the exact same things on the trial. I don’t know how she coped with such a scattered mind, but it did occur to me that my mind was not too dissimilar from hers; the only difference is that she spoke out her relentless introspective dialogues, whereas I kept mine locked inside my head, only occasionally putting some of it down in the written word.

“Do you think this next trip is your last big trip then?” she then suddenly asked me.

“Ermmm I’m not sure. Why do you ask?”

“Well, you’re thirty next year aren’t you? I thought maybe you would chill out a bit soon with all the constant travelling.”

“I hadn’t thought about it really,” I lied. “I think I’ll always travel in some way. Maybe it will slow down at some point in regards to the length of trips, but I’ll always be seeking to live an adventurous lifestyle. Maybe I’ll buy a campervan at some point, or become a firefighter or something.”

“Okay, I hadn’t asked you before but are you not interested in starting a family? I always thought by the age of thirty, I’d be looking to settle down and have kids.”

“Definitely not,” I told her. “Besides, if I’m doing medical trials all the time, then I’m not allowed to get a woman pregnant, remember?” She laughed as she remembered the requirements of the medical trials – to be using two forms of contraception for ninety days after the last dosing of the drugs. It was a surprise to be answering the tiresome question once again; the settling down conversation was one I was now having regularly in my late twenties, but it wasn’t one I expected to be having with her. But it seemed even someone who loved travelling like her thought I was getting to the age where I would consider calming down a bit. Well, at least now she knew the reality.

We moved on from the depressing subject and carried on knocking back the drinks. Soon she and her friends wanted to go to a nightclub. It was a student club and I knew I’d be the oldest in there by a few years if I was to go. I thought I was unbothered by these things, but I started to get depressed about my age and how quickly my youth had fallen by while in the company of these kids. Still, at that point I was drunk and I went to the club with them anyway. Upon entry I bought a couple of drinks then headed to the dancefloor. I watched Eliana and the others run off into the crowd as I stood there on the side. Leaning against the wall, I looked around at all the eighteen to twenty-two year olds dancing and making out with each other. There were some in fancy dress and some looking like they just came out of secondary school. It was like looking into the past – a past that had become a past much too quickly. Those days were now visibly behind me; recently I had found a few grey hairs and even a couple of wrinkles had formed on my forehead. Facing your own mortality for the first time in the mirror was a striking experience, and it was tragic how fleeting and fragile a person’s youth was. Time was a tyrant and it spared nobody. I couldn’t take it much longer and I told Eliana I was going to the bar to get a drink and then made a dash for the exit. I no longer belonged in such environments and I started thinking what it would be like when I was back in the backpacking world again as a thirty-year-old man. There were certain hostels where anyone over the age of thirty was seen as a bit odd or out-of-place. Naturally, your crowd thinned out in such environments as the years went by. It was easy to live alternatively when you were young; doing it in your middle ages took something a little extra. Suddenly I felt really depressed about getting older and wondered how long it would be until the hairline receded, the posture went bad, and I started to vote conservative. It made me sad and I went into the nearest shop to buy an extra-strong beer. I opened it and started drinking it in the street while standing in front of a shop window. It was then, looking at myself in the reflection, that I saw myself getting truly old for the first time. My eyes looked tired and their shine was dimmed. This was the brutal reality of aging. In the eyes of children you see it all: everything good. The light, the love, the life. The joy and wonder of existence. As we get older all that stuff slowly fades away. Our souls get full of anger, anxiousness, bitterness. We become burdened with trivial things and made unsure of ourselves. Life clogs us down with its absurdity until our souls are stuffed and blocked. It only makes sense that we slowly decay and fade away. By the time we’re elderly life longs to be redone so something new comes along to replace us. Children and babies were necessary to see life through a new lens. Age was the corrosion of the self and in the end we all deserved to die.

Chapter Thirty

It had been almost three weeks since I had subjected myself to going to class. I finally decided to make an appearance after the tutor had emailed me three times warning me about my attendance. I went in to attend a lecture and then went to sit in one of those intolerable seminars. I sat through some of the reading from the woman writing her Elizabethan play. Something in me snapped and I decided to read out some of my from my novel I was working on. I told them about the medical trials to give a little context and then loaded an extract on my laptop. Before I started reading, she asked me what sort of writers I was reading for inspiration and I named people like Celine, Kerouac, Camus, and Bukowski. I could see from the look in her eyes that she disliked such writers and was probably thinking “here we go again: another angst-ridden young man who has read too much outsider fiction.” I began anyway. My hand was shaking and my voice trembling as I read. I felt like reading out my writing to people was the equivalent of coming out as gay or something. I was exposing myself for being a social minority – for being something that would cause people to see me in a different light forever. After I was done, I put my writing away and looked down at the floor, wanting to be anywhere but that room. The marketer guy who was having a midlife crisis and writing a dystopian novel seemed to enjoy it, but the tutor was far from impressed.

“I wanted to hear more about the people you mention,” she said. “You seem to be rushing through it. I actually didn’t like any of it.” She then went on to tell me how much she disliked all the other writers I had named. It was uncomfortable but ultimately her opinion wasn’t important to me; I had read some of her work online and knew that our view of good writing was different. It did suddenly occur to me the absurdity of taking a writing course led by someone whose writing you didn’t even like. Even for the free money, I knew it was no longer worth it. I waited for the seminar to finish then left the university for what I knew would be the last time. I wasn’t going to bother to tell them I wasn’t coming back.

lab rat

Lab Rat (Chapters 23, 24, 25, 26 & 27)

medical

– 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.

Chapter Twenty-Three

Half way into the trial and I was into the groove of things. After being hounded by the nurses all morning with the relentless procedures, I faced the mental health questions of the doctor. It was almost hard not to break out laughing when answering them. The doctor asking them was this big Czech woman with the most monotone voice I’d ever heard. There she would stand hunch-backed over the edge of my bed, reading through my test results before reciting the suicide risk assessment test. “Have you had any thoughts about killing yourself recently?” she asked, staring intensely into my eyes.

“No,” I would answer.

“Have you had any thoughts about hurting or harming yourself recently?”

“No,” I would answer.

“Have you ever had the urge to disappear or go to sleep for a very long time.”

“No,” I would answer. That one was slightly a lie. Listening to her speak while also feeling drowsy from the drug, I was ready to go to sleep until next year. After she was done ascertaining whether I still wanted to live, I was free to enjoy the day. I played some bingo and participated in some quizzes, testing ourselves against the guinea-pigs from other trials that were taking place in the clinic. I even won a few, meaning I was rewarded with a few £5 vouchers for various shops in the outside world. More free money – Finlay was loving it. I continued to chat some more with him as we played table tennis for whole afternoons in the courtyard. I learned more about his travels and his life. He was originally from the highlands and was currently spending his time back there at his parents before going to uni. He had a friend called Ciaran who lived in a van and also did trials while claiming the dole. After the trial, he was planning to do a road trip with him before commencing his studies which, as it sounded, he had no intention to finish. He was also working on some music projects, collaborating with a singer from Nashville in the states. He told me he sent her a track for her to write and sing some lyrics over. The lyrics she sent back were worse than some of the things I had heard coming from Sean’s bedroom. I told him I was a writer and so he asked me to knock something up to replace what she had written. I sat in my bed there listening to his track, thinking of what words would fit the beat. I had never written lyrics before but I was willing to give it a go. My daydreaming was as strong as ever and I imagined the possibility of us two wanderers creating chart-topping music. We could write a hit record and live off the royalties while travelling the world. It suddenly dawned on me that was what Finlay was trying to do – passive income through music production. All it took was one hit song, cheesy Christmas record, or background track to a BBC documentary. He mentioned his mate who was raking in a hundred thousand pounds or so every year after producing a few big dance tracks when he was eighteen. He now owned a big horse and just sat around all day smoking weed and playing video games. Yes, passive income was another way to avoid the tyranny of the rat race. It was something I had spoken about with others in the clinic, and many people I had met on the road. People looking to invest in crypto or stocks and shares. People looking to get into property. Everyone wanted to find the secret way to cheat the system – to never have to work again and sit on a beach in Thailand and wake up late and drink cocktails all day. Medical trials were a good start, but maybe I needed to branch out like Finlay and the others were doing. I thought back to that pet food warehouse I had suffered at for a few weeks. I thought back to the smell of rotting dog food penetrating my skin and soul. The trials were helping me to live and get by and maybe even save for a bit of travelling, but they were never guaranteed and I could have done with something else to stop me from falling back into that pit of depressing, dead-end jobs. Well maybe this song was going to be it. I sat there trying to write some catchy pop lyrics and dreaming of the royalties coming in. There I’d be drifting around India, sipping a beer in a hostel with some hot young German backpacker. “So what is it you do for work back home?” she would ask. “I’m a songwriter,” I would say. She would stare at me, suddenly with an increased attraction level. “A song writer??” she would ask again. “Yes,” I would say. “I wrote a few hit records and now live off the royalties.” After that it naturally wouldn’t be long until we ended up in bed together. Okay, perhaps the daydreaming was getting out of hand, but it had been two weeks in the clinic with another two to go. I couldn’t go far physically, so it was only natural my mind wandered to whatever far-out place it could.

Chapter Twenty-Four

After a while of debating alternative ways to make money, I came up with the idea to write a novel. Okay, not the most ground-breaking idea for a writer I know. So far I had written and published a book of thoughts and short stories, but as every writer knew, the real money was in novel writing. Most people preferred to read whole books rather than collections of prose and poetry. I had thought for a long time about what was worth writing a book on, and it suddenly occurred to me to write a book about the medical trial lifestyle. Whenever I told people I did the drug trials, they were usually fascinated and wanted to hear more on the subject. They were something that people knew existed, but had no real idea what they involved. It seemed like something that hadn’t been written about before, and yes, I would be the first to do it. I would write a semi-fictional, existential black comedy about what it was to be a lab rat, living on the edge of society, surviving by testing drugs, trying to make sense of the world while meeting strange and interesting people along the way. The writing would appeal to all the voyeuristic people out there who had considered dropping out their nine-to-five-jobs and doing something different with their life. The idea was blossoming in my mind and I started jotting down ideas from everything that had happened in my life in the last year. I was done with my blog for the time being and it was time to experiment with something new. The daydreaming was at an all time peak and I imagined my debut novel sitting in the front window of highstreet bookstores. I imagined myself giving interviews about the book to newspaper journalists. I imagined scores of people out there suddenly searching for the nearest medical trial clinic near them, wanting to get hold of some free money now the secret had been unveiled in the form of a best-selling novel. Perhaps I was ruining it for us all, but I couldn’t help myself. I fought off the drowsiness and wrote away like a madman. Sometimes I couldn’t hold off the side effects and fell asleep, but I soon came around and started striking those keys again. I was a man on a mission; writing a hit chart song and the opening to a generation-defining novel all at once.

After a while of writing, I got speaking to a nurse about what I was doing. Most nurses working in the clinic were friendly, but there was a point in which they wouldn’t let you cross to maintain their professionalism. This nurse was different. She wanted to hear all about your life and for you to hear all about hers. Her name was Eliana and she was a nineteen-year-old nurse who had been working there for about half a year. Originally from Colombia, she moved to Spain and grew up there until the age of sixteen, when she hopped on a plane all by herself to move to London. She was a wild-child, completely fascinated about life, entertaining a million ideas at once which she wasn’t shy to share with any of the volunteers in there. She did push it sometimes, spending an hour with us in the lounge and talking about travelling when she should have been working (I was later to find our she had pushed it even more after she had met Finlay on his last trial and gone on holiday with him and slept with him and was currently smuggling in chocolate for him). She had so many ideas for travelling and what she wanted to do with her life. At the age of nineteen, we were all at the peak of being crazy and confused about life, but she took it to the next level. “I don’t know what to doooo,” she moaned. “I like this job and my life here in Nottingham but I want to travel to so many places. I also want to go to university; I deferred last year and my parents think I should go this year and I kinda do want to go but when I meet people like you and Finlay, and hear your stories, all I want to do is travel. I want to go to Australia and Asia and places in Europe. I want to meet cool people and learn things that can’t be taught in a school.” She kept going on and on until I felt like I was in a therapy session. I knew what it was to be an over-thinker, but she made me feel like my mind was a relatively quiet place compared to the riot going on inside her skull. I noticed that a lot of riot was being caused by the classic fight between the heart and the head; between society and the self. It was hard to know what your own voice was when you had the echoes of other people’s dogma reverberating between the walls of your skull. As I had found out for myself, it could take years of self-discovery, sitting alone and meditating, standing on solitary shorelines, and staring into skies and sunsets, before the noise of society faded away and you were left with your own personal truth.

“Just go and travel,” I said, interrupting her rant. “That’s what I did when I was twenty-two. It was the best time to go and travel – when you’re young and energetic with an open mind and still forming your view of the world. You don’t need to go to university because your parents think you should; you’d only be going because you feel like you have to not because you want to. But you can go at any age and you’d be better off going when you’ve lived a bit and are interested in studying something in particular. It was going travelling that made me realise I wanted to be a writer, so go out there into the world and learn what it is you are here to do.” I carried on dishing out the grand advice, feeling like an old sage, and eventually realising I was basically talking to the nineteen-year-old version of myself. After my speech, she asked for my number and we carried on chatting over text messages. Reading her words, it was obvious her life was in a state of anarchy. Her plans changed day to day and it really was possible she could have been never returning every time she walked out the building. In a way, I envied her. I remembered being that age and feeling completely fascinated by the world, wanting to do a million things but not knowing where the hell to start. A good place to start was always buying a plane ticket to some far-off place – once that was in place, then the universe was sure to do most of the work for you. You’d step off that plane and begin a five-year voyage of self-discovery, meeting interesting people, doing crazy things, learning about yourself and growing as an individual. And, after a while, you’d eventually end up in a medical trial facility testing drugs for a living while trying to write a novel about it all.

Chapter Twenty-Five

We were on the home straight. Three weeks had passed and we were just clinging onto our sanity. There had been moments when people went a bit crazy. Such a moment included everyone starting to pull pranks on each other, moving their stuff around, spraying shaving foam in their beds. It got to the point where I saw my first fines being distributed by the nurses – £50 to two guys. Still, it was small change compared to the almost six grand we had just amassed during our hibernation. My body had gotten used to the side effects too and my sleeping had gone down from sixteen hours a day to twelve hours. Things were looking good and I also had gotten down a good amount of ideas and planning for my book. Not only was I putting in some solid work for my guinea-pig career, but I was now a man doing research for my main profession of writing. I knew that when I got out and was back in the conservatory and wasn’t drugged up, I’d begin properly on the book, launching fingers first into my first novel. Once again I’d be leaving Steven in the dust as he sat in his van still trying to get down the first line for his fantasy novel.

In the meantime, Eliana was still going crazy deciding what to do with her life and Finlay was still raking in extra money. He had also put down £100 on some crypto currency which had turned to £600, while making some extra pounds here and there from free bet deals on the gambling websites. Once again, I admired his sheer commitment and resourcefulness to get money by doing anything but working. All the nurses working those twelve hour shifts for £10 an hour would have hated him had they known the full extent. They were stressed and tired with bloodshot eyes. Finlay’s eyes shined like a child, enriched by his carefree lifestyle and all the adventures he had been on. It was a symbol of victory and a reminder that another way was possible; that one could live better and healthier without subjecting themselves to a job or career.

For a moment I thought of Finlay and Eliana and Steven and Lee and all the other drifters I had met on these trials. I considered myself a solitary person who would follow the heart regardless of anything else, but it was true that I often questioned my own sanity while on this strange life path. Knowing there were others out there gave you a little extra strength to keep on marching forward into the unknown. Where my life was heading, it didn’t really matter. I was alive and full of spirit like the others. Their very presence was one of power and energy and perhaps that was all that really mattered. The more people like Finlay I met, the more assured I felt in my own way of being. There were ‘others’ out there, and even if I only crossed paths with them every now and again, it was enough to keep you full of fire and running through the wilderness with courage in your heart.

Chapter Twenty-Six

I was out and I was a rich man. With the whopping inconvenience allowance now in my bank account, I now had over £7000 for the first time in five years. To my friends saving for mortgages and weddings it was a modest amount, but considering how little work I had done the last few years, and how much I knew I could do with it after my shoestring backpacking trips of the past, I felt like a self-made millionaire. I recalled the time I was sleeping in an airport in New Zealand with my bank account in the minuses and knew I had come a long way. I went straight onto the flight websites and looked at where I could catapult myself too via the explosive power of a jet engine. I flicked through the filters and destinations, experimenting with where I could go. South America? Asia? Somewhere new like the Middle East? I had been back seven months now; I hadn’t lived in one place for more than a year since I was twenty-two and naturally it was feeling like time to hurl myself off out into the world once again. But something was off; something was stopping me from nonchalantly booking that one-way flight that I had done so many times before. I sat back, thinking about what was stopping me and soon realised it was the desire to write this novel. I had the perfect writing space where I was living and the time just felt right. I knew that when I travelled, I rarely got any writing done. I was never in the right mindset and usually too busy, drunk, or distracted. All things considered, I went and did something crazy. Perhaps it was Finlay’s influence because his talk of going to university for the loan got me thinking about the same. I had recently heard the government had started a £10,000 loan for people to study a master’s course. In Nottingham there was a creative writing course being taught. Just like Finlay, I knew I didn’t need a university course to explore my passion. I had done that already, publishing my first book and selling five hundred copies and counting. I also knew I didn’t expect my writing to improve with some institution. Every great writer had gone out into life and found the words from the wilderness of experience, rather than sitting in some classroom, listening to some teacher, and reading some textbook. I thought of Hemingway driving an ambulance in Italy in world war one. I thought of Orwell scrubbing dishes while living in poverty in Paris. Kerouac drifting around America with just a backpack and a few dollars. Thompson taking a shit load of drugs and driving to Las Vegas. Indeed, such raw experience was what it was all about, but I felt I had enough life experience under my belt already. I could use this course as a base, and use the student loan and medical trials to keep funding my lifestyle as I wrote my immortal masterpiece. Being on the course, I could write the book as my year project, giving me motivation to keep at it. My other attempts at novels had fallen apart shortly after starting, but yes, this would finally be the push I needed to actually get the work done.

A bit more reflection was had while at home sipping wine and then I went and did it. I applied for the course, sent off my application, and it was just two weeks later that I was accepted for the January start-date. An unlikely turn of events had occurred and I was back to being a student. I could flash my student card and whenever that awful ‘what do you do?’ question came my way, I no longer had to say I was a lab rat. Or unemployed. Or a struggling writer. I was an academic, a scholar – an upstanding member of society with a promising future. It might even be enough to keep my parents off my back for a while. And, who knows, maybe even land me a second date.

Chapter Twenty-Seven

My first interaction with my class was an introductory night at a bar. It was a chance for us all to meet, hang out, and even recite some prose or poetry on an open mic. Instantly I knew I wouldn’t stand up and share anything with my new coursemates. In a way, I didn’t trust writers who were eager to get up to a microphone and shout out their words to an audience. For me, I wrote because it was a way to get down the words which I couldn’t say. I had this block within me that prevented my tongue from adequately speaking my truth in front of people. The merciless stares of my fellow humans filled me with anxiety and it was only when I was sitting alone before a blank page that I could spit out all the madness that stirred inside of me. Consequently I steered well clear of the spotlight, watching the others get up to read out their stuff. Straight away I realised that most people on this creative writing course weren’t really writers. They were fans of literature trying to get involved in what they enjoyed, but none of them seemed like they were getting the words out because they had to. I spoke to some of them including one guy who worked in marketing writing a dystopian novel; a twenty-one-year-old trying to write a script for a football-based sitcom; an elderly woman trying to write an Elizabethan novel; and another woman trying to publish a collection of cookbooks. I hadn’t had any hopes that doing a creative writing course would put me into contact with ‘my kind of people’, and that was quickly proving to be correct. I felt just at odds with these people than I did with everyone else. Then all of a sudden one girl got up to take the mic. She was nervous and unpredictable. Her eyes were darting all around the room and she looked like some kind of wild animal that had been put in the company of human-beings for the first time. After introducing herself awkwardly, she went ahead and read out some poetry. The poetry was bizarre, flamboyant, evocative. She wrote about nature and stars and sex and insanity. I wasn’t blown away by it, but she was the only person in the room that resembled a writer – the only person in the room trying to get their pain out in the form of poetry or prose. After she was done, she let out a shy smile then went and sat back in a dark corner of the room. I wanted to go over and speak to her there and then, but I waited until a few more drinks had been consumed and the readings were over. Her name was Emily and it turned out she had just finished the masters course and was now starting a PhD in English Literature. “I’m just trying to stay in education as long as possible,” she confessed to me. “I never last in jobs and I don’t see anything else for me to do in this world other than study and write about literature. It’s all I’m good for. Hopefully I can get a lecturing position after my PhD.” I admired her honesty. It was true that there were many people out there clinging onto academia to stop themselves from facing the toils of an actual job… me and Finlay arguably being some of them too.

“I liked your poetry,” I told her. “You were the only person I found interesting on the mic… the only person trying to say something.” She looked at me with a quick change of expression; her face went from solemn to joyful in an instant. It seemed like she had never received any praise before in her life and was probably more used to the daggers being stuck in her. We carried on chatting as I told her about my book and my life and why I was doing the course. She quickly realised that I was also a fellow misfit, studying a masters with zero intention of getting a job after. Recognising this, she opened up to me and told me more about her life. She was thirty years old and had just come out of an abusive relationship with a French guy who now had a restraining order against him. There were scars all down her right leg from when he had crashed his moped while driving drunk with her on the back. The scars weren’t just on her skin, but in her soul too. She was a wounded thing, perhaps more wounded than anyone I could remember meeting. Periods of depression were frequent and she told me about all the drugs she was on and how her parents had disowned and given up on her.

“My parents don’t talk to me anymore,” she said. “I’m from a very conservative family and they resent that I’m thirty and still don’t have a career. My sister is a high-earning lawyer and they always wonder why I can’t be more like her. They don’t realise I’m nothing like her, or like them for that matter, and every time we’re together we just end up arguing, so we don’t really see or speak to each other anymore.” I listened to everything she said while reflecting on my own life, spotting the similarities with myself that I always looked for interacting with others. There was an affinity between us and naturally it wasn’t long before we ended up kissing and going back to her place. We fell into bed, had drunken sex, and then lay there entwined, staring up at the mouldy ceiling of her cheap room. It was the early hours of the morning and we talked about poetry and writers. We talked about what it was to be creative. We talked about how writing could save us from total madness altogether.

“Do you think you’ll ever be able to make a living from your writing?” she asked me.

“That’s the current delusion but probably not if I’m being honest with myself,” I told her. “That is the dream of every struggling writer, of course, but I’m not sure that’s what would be good for me if it was to ever happen.”

“Why?” she asked.

“To me, it seems the writer’s natural equilibrium is to struggle against the weight of the world. Writing is a release and it’s only when your back is up against the wall and you’re struggling to survive that your words have the most force. Maybe having a reliable income from it will kill the magic. I wouldn’t ever want to be too comfortable anyway, or for creation to feel like a job. But it would be nice to call myself an actual writer one day… I guess you can do that when you’re selling a lot of books or making enough money to live off of it.”

“But if you’re not making money from writing, then how will you make money?” At that point, I thought about telling her about the drug trials, but for some reason I couldn’t be bothered to go through the conversation for the hundredth time. Instead I told her that maybe I’d drive a cab or deliver food on a bicycle. She laughed and smiled.

“You remind me so much of me,” she said.

“Really?”

“Yes. You don’t really have a place in this world, but you’re still doing your best to find your way.”

“Maybe I should just do what you’ve done then,” I said. “I’ll finish this masters then try and study a PhD and cling onto academia as long as I can.” She laughed and the conversation ended as we rolled over and started to have sex again. The course had gotten off to a good start and I had a feeling that that night was going to be more valuable to my writing efforts than the classes to come.

lab rat

Lab Rat (Chapter 21 & 22)

medical

– 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.

Chapter twenty-one

As usual, I looked through the list of drug studies and decided which one I was going to dedicate the next few weeks of my life to. It didn’t take long to choose. Amid the list of studies was a beautiful one that stood out from all the others. I hadn’t read the criteria or anything, but just simply seen the payment figure of £5750. It was the biggest payment I had seen on a trial so far, and it would help replenish my bank account which had been battered from my unsuccessful venture into the world of internet dating. Well, technically it wasn’t a payment but an ‘inconvenience allowance’. I was a fan of this terminology, especially considering that the fact it wasn’t classed as ‘pay’ meant that not a single penny couldn’t be taken from the taxman. And why should we have paid tax? Our contribution to society was already a great one – sacrificing our health and risking our lives for the sake of medicinal research.

Of course, the hefty ‘inconvenience allowance’ obviously meant there would be a larger inconvenience than the previous trials I had taken part in. This meant more procedures and a longer time in the clinic – twenty-eight days to be exact. It was the length of a small prison sentence, but it was the start of winter and I saw it as some sort of hibernation. The leaves on the trees were dying, the skies were darkening, and the frost was forming. It seemed like a good time to be locked up in a nice warm clinic while being fed and looked after.

Thankfully, despite the many ‘unwelcome drugs’ that had been in my system when Steven had visited, I passed the drug test. My system was clean and ready for some more substances of the legal kind. After the screening, I was aware that this trial was testing an antipsychotic medicine. It was used to treat conditions like schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder. During the talk with the doctor, I was interrogated about my mental health. It was thoroughly important that each volunteer had no history of mental illness. I thought back to the episodes of depression I had endured in my life. I considered the frequent anxiety. I reflected on the fact that I had often considered myself to be slightly schizophrenic or bi-polar. Perhaps these were things worth pointing out to the doctor, but I knew doing so would make me ineligible for the study and all that beautiful inconvenience allowance would be out of reach. So I did what every secretly-mentally-unstable person did. I said I was fine and had no problems and that I was the picture of a happy and healthy individual. We then did a ‘suicide risk assessment’ test which was basically the doctor asking if I had ever had thoughts about harming or hurting myself. I answered no to every question, of course. To be fair, I had never actually harmed myself physically in my life, unlike a lot of people out there. I remembered working at a bar and serving people; so many of the arms that handed me money or collected their drinks were riddled with self-harm scars. I was surprised just how prevalent it was – the secret scars of self-hatred and despair that filled the souls of so many in this society. But for me, my self-harm was done with things like drinking and making stupid decisions. I guess I was a masochist at heart, like every writer. The greater the pain, the greater the poetry after all. I didn’t want to die though – something I reassured the doctor with so I could get onto the study and take some antipsychotic drugs.

My wish was granted and a few days later I was walking through the front door of the clinic once again. Before entering I stopped and looked around. I breathed in the air and reflected on the fact it would be four weeks until I stepped back outside the building. Was I ready? Not really but my important work had to be done. I said goodbye to the outside world once more, entered the building, and made my way to the ward to settle into my second home. It was another study of twelve people – this time all guys. It hit me then that things might get a bit cagey after a while with a dozen sex-starved men all confined in a small space with no privacy. Well, there was always the shower and bathroom if someone couldn’t hold it any longer and needed to knock one out. I had to think of outrageous Lee; he had claimed to knock ten out in one day on our study. Well thankfully one of the possible side effects listed on the drug was a loss of libido, so hopefully we would all be okay. We would be temporarily sterile and sexually-sedated men. Perhaps that was the way to go. It certainly would have saved me a lot of money, thinking back to those fruitless and expensive dates.

Chapter twenty-two

The study began and I started to see why the inconvenience allowance was so high for this trial. Every morning I was being hounded by the nurses. We took the drugs and then we had procedures every fifteen minutes, including having to stand up for five minutes before having our blood pressure taken. Thankfully the loss of libido meant we didn’t have to worry about any morning glory incidents when we were made to stand up in a busy room of attractive nurses straight after being woken up. We also had to wear a ‘holter device’ – a piece of equipment which recorded your heart-rate and was attached to you at all times. On top of this, we also had to wear a blood pressure device which periodically tightened to take our blood pressure every forty-five minutes – including throughout the night when we slept. With all those cables and devices on me, I felt like Frankenstein’s monster, or someone had been abducted by aliens. After being relentlessly poked, prodded, and probed for five hours every morning, we were then free for most of the day. This time was spent mostly passing out or sleeping. The main side effect of the anti-psychotic medicine was ‘drowsiness’. Well, it had been listed as a few things: tiredness, drowsiness, fatigue, even dizziness. I saw the first example of this dizziness as one volunteer got up from his bed a little too quickly. A rush of blood to the head saw him take two steps before falling down like a rootless tree. A large thud echoed out across the ward and within seconds I could hear the running footsteps of nurses come to help look after him. I watched curiously as they helped him up; the first fallen soldier of this war we had apparently just entered. Apart from a small knock on the head, he was coherent and well. It made me cautious though, and every time I got up, I did it slowly, hoping I wasn’t going to be another one biting the dust.

Sitting down was much easier, and every time I sat down in the lounge, it took about two minutes until I started to drift off. The side effect of drowsiness was perhaps a little understated. We were essentially one-hundred-year-old men falling asleep every time we closed our eyes for more than two seconds. Still, being stuck in here for a month, perhaps it was a good thing we were passing out regularly. Sleeping for eighteen hours a day was basically a way to cheat the clock and time travel into the future. I wondered how people who took this medicine actually functioned in their day-to-day life. There must have been so many people out there in a numb, trance-like state due to the medicines they were taking. That definitely would have explained many of the zombies I encountered in the streets.

Whenever my brain was able to think and communicate, I got speaking to some of my fellow guinea-pigs. It was the usual mix of drifters and bohemians. Everyone had done multiple studies before and there was even one old guy who had done over thirty studies. I kept looking at him to see if he had any peculiar behaviours or features that could perhaps be attributed to a lifetime of testing pharmaceutical drugs. It was like staring into the future after all and I wanted to see how I’d end up after a long career in the human guinea-pig industry. Thankfully, he appeared a sound individual, apart from a few minor twitches and stutters. Aside from him was another traveller who was planning to walk across the Himalayas after the trial. £5750 was enough to live well for over a year in Nepal, and having visited the country twice before, I shared some stories and advice with him. He had this big map of the country which he studied every day and looking at it made the travel bug stir in me again.

I decided the most interesting person on this study was a guy from Scotland – Finlay. He was a year younger than me and also a backpacker. His travel lifestyle had been even more extreme than mine and it appeared he had been on the road for the last eight years. He told me about all the places he had travelled and lived in including a year in Mexico, a year in Asia, two years in New Zealand, and a year in Australia. He had been all over the shop, somehow managing to get around with rarely working. He had lived with his girlfriend’s family in Mexico, lived with another girlfriend’s family down on the south coast, and had lived for free in a house in New Zealand. It actually turned out we had worked for the very same labour agency in a town in New Zealand. It made sense that people working in that agency ended up doing medical trials. It was an agency full of people with no major trades or skills, looking for money to not be homeless, doing whatever crappy work was available on building sites. We shared many parallels and I also found out he was a creative too. He sat there on his laptop constantly messing around and producing music. He had uploaded a few things and shared them with the world, the same as I had with my blog and book. He was going on to study music production at university after the study. I asked him what he was hoping to get out of the course. “Ah I just love free money,” he said, referring to the student loan. His lifestyle made me laugh. I considered myself as someone ‘winging it’, but this guy was taking it to the next level. He had somehow gotten to the age of twenty-seven without hardly working at all, apart from some casual food delivery work and labour agency work while travelling. “When I lived in Brighton, I just stayed with my girlfriend’s family and lived off the dole and medical trials. When I lived in Mexico, I also lived with the bird I was seeing. Her family just paid for everything so I just stayed there for a year, going to the beach every day, drinking, having sex – the good life. It’s been three years now since my last job of any kind.” I had to sit back and think of a Bukowski quote. “Any fool can beg up some kind of job; it takes a wise man to make it without working.” Even though Finlay was currently raking in almost six grand on the trial, he also had another way to drum up some more free money simultaneously. He had two laptops with him, and on the smaller one he was doing some ‘online work’. This was through a marketing research company that paid people to fill out surveys and rate products. Finlay had downloaded a piece of software which recorded him doing the tasks for a short while, then replicated what he did on its own. There he sat on his bed: raking in £5750 for lying around and being fed, while also raking in $14 an hour as this piece of software did all the work for him. In a way, I was in awe: here was a man who was a walking insult to all the working folk stuck in the rat race. He made it through life, travelled the world, and worked on his passion without ever subjecting himself to some mindless and monotonous job. That was my idea of a successful man. I guess I was doing something similar, although he had taken it to the next level with the extra source of income and the sheer amount of travelling he had done. It was a sweet life in my eyes, but I did wonder if he was fulfilled and content. Although I hated work myself, I still had the existential urge to achieve something in life. I guess I sought to do this with my writing, and maybe he sought to do that with his music.

“I just don’t want to ever work,” he said. “After this trial I’ll have enough for a flat deposit. Maybe even two flat deposits. I live in Paisley and it’s one of the cheapest places in the country to buy. I’ll just buy a couple of flats after uni, rent them out, and then boom – more free money and no need to work. Along with medical trials, I’ll be sweet.”

“That’s the dream,” I said. “Do you not think at some point you might get craving a bit of purpose? Something to get out of bed and work at every morning?”

“No,” he said defiantly. “Work. A lot of people like to go to work because they have no other interests in their life. They’re boring and don’t know what to do with the free time. They don’t travel, they don’t have hobbies, they don’t sesh that often. Life is easy man. I remember when I lived in Mexico. I just cycled a bike to the beach every day, laid down and sunbathed and drank beers and just didn’t give a fuck about anything. I remember thinking then: this is what life is about. I’m going uni to study music production but I have no intention or expectation I’ll get a job after it. I don’t even need the degree to make music; I can do that anyway. It’s just to get the loan and hang out for a few years, meet people, get on the sesh and enjoy life.” I had to laugh at what he said. When I thought about it, even though I went to university because of social pressure, there was an aspect of going purely because of the loan and the social life. In a way, I estimated that was what well over 50% of students in the UK were doing right now. The government had made a push to get almost half the young population in university and it was clear to every young person who knew they’d never be able to pay back their student loan fully that there was going to be a huge deficit one day. Still, the going was good and it was time to ride that student loan gravy train to all the student bars – something Finlay planned to do soon after he was finished being experimented on by the pharmaceutical industry.

“I think I’m the same as you,” I said to him. “Although I do feel the need for a bit of purpose. When I’m travelling, there’s only so long I can sit on a beach getting drunk. I’ve noticed in the last years that I prefer to undertake some challenge: a big hike or a mountain ascent. Have you met the guy in here planning to walk across the Himalayas? I’d like to do something like that next I think.”

“I know what you mean,” he said. “But ultimately you just have to look at the reality of things. None of us are here for a reason. We’re all just transient organisms vegetating here, living on this rock and floating around the sun for a little while before dying. I don’t think there needs to be a purpose to anything. If I can make it through life without stressing, working shit jobs, and just chilling on a beach and kicking a football around and drinking beer and making some music and listening to some music then that’s sweet enough for me. Damn, talking about all of this is making me want to book a cheeky trip to Portugal before I start uni. Yeah, maybe I’ll do that. I deserve a holiday after this…”

lab rat

Lab Rat (chapter twenty)

medical

– 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.

Chapter Twenty

The time had come for Steven to finally leave. Well, that moment had already looked like happening a few times. Each day started the same: we’d be in the kitchen hungover, talking about how he needed to drive up to his parents near Manchester and ‘sort some stuff out’, then one of us would suggest going to the shop and getting a few beers. The next thing we knew we were eight drinks deep and chatting shit about life or society in the latest session. There was only so much more our aging bodies could take and, yes, we had hit the proverbial wall. He headed into his van headquarters to finally back it out the drive and sail off over the horizon, onward to the next episode of existential madness. 

“Will catch ya soon buddy, it’s been good. Let me know how it goes on the female front.”

“Don’t hold your breath on that one. You’ll have to let me know whenever you’re back in the area, or when you’re doing another medical trial.”

“Sounds good.”

He then drove off out of sight and I retreated to the darkness of my room. My brain was still a bit scrambled from the days of partying, so I took a few days to recover with some running and meditation. The age thing had started making noticeable effects and hangovers now lasted days instead of hours. Luckily for me, I didn’t have a job to go into. I had heard stories of my friends in ‘proper jobs’ – terrible, haunting stories of them standing in board meetings and giving presentations to prestigious clients while on a gnawing comedown. I figured that was how most Monday morning meetings across the country went – bleary-eyed people with existential dread, trying to be competent while hiding the void in their soul that came from another weekend of drug-fuelled debauchery and escapism. I guess that was another perk of the lab rat life – instead of wanting to crawl in a hole and die in some board meeting, I could want to crawl into a hole and die at home with a bag of doritos and a couple of cats.

After my body had recovered, I considered what I could do to kill the time between the next medical trial. I wasn’t feeling much like writing, and I decided that I needed to do some living to get the words flowing again. Ultimately you had to be continually getting beaten up by life to have things to write about, and I figured there was no better way to do this than interacting with the female kind. Maybe it was Steven’s influence, but my need for a woman had drastically increased (probably it also had something to do with the fact it had been months since I was laid). I considered the best ways to meet a woman after our recent failures in the bars. I had to think of Steven and his stories about the dating apps. I had never used such dystopian technology before – in fact, I was still getting the hang of my first ever smartphone. I saw those dating apps as heinous and dehumanising – things in which you nonchalantly swiped people in and out of your life based on a cursory glance. But the libido makes a man do strange things, including compromising his values and integrity. I did exactly that as I downloaded Tinder and made myself a profile. I threw some travel photos on there, wrote a short and witty bio, and completely avoided the job/work section, hoping I could dodge the fact that I was currently living off medical trials for a living. I did mention I was a writer in my bio and hoped there would be those women out there who saw that as desirable or mysterious. There would be some who might think I managed to make a living off it, and some who naturally knew those who called themselves writers were typically unemployed no-hopers with no practical skills or trades or talents. Either way, I figured it was a conversation starter at least.

I got into the swing of it, mindlessly swiping left or right on the human-beings that appeared before me on my screen. There were a few photos and a couple of sentences to decide whether or not this person was worthy of speaking to, dating, or potentially hooking up with. It did seem strange what our evolution had led us too. I thought of all the animals out there roaming wild plains and trying to impress the other sex with a song or a dance; nowadays the human species simply stared at a small screen and flicked their finger left or right to initiate the mating process. It was a brave new world and I figured that maybe my medical trial career wasn’t so strange after all; maybe in a few years we’d be lying in pods having things inserted and withdrawn from us in exchange for shelter, finance, or stimulation of some kind.

After a while I got some matches. Quite a few actually. Despite my many flaws, I was somehow blessed with the circumstance of being a good-looking guy. ‘Tall, dark, and handsome’ had been used to describe me before. Very often women got lured in by my traditional good looks, only to sprint away like scared deer the second I opened my mouth. With the apps they could only see what I physically looked like, and I could also hide my weird personality behind some well-written and thought-out sentences. This probably explained the attention I got. I even got matches with those women that frequented those posh cocktail bars – the ones who listed reality TV shows as an interest and had bikini pictures of them on a beach in Dubai. I figured I’d never get a shot with these women normally, so I spoke to them to see what would happen. I knew these were women who would be serious about dating – the ones looking for potential future husbands and fathers. Being good-looking was one thing, but most of them would want guys with a career – someone who could provide them with stability and security and who wasn’t shitting into a pot to get their latest rent money. The odds seemed against me in all honesty. Still, I figured it would be an interesting experiment to see if someone like me could manage to date someone like that. It would be the underdog story of the century; the peasant overcoming adversity to be crowned king. The sewer rat hooking up with the cute pet hamster.

The conversations started and typically it wasn’t long until the other person managed to steer the conversation towards what career you were in. For some, I was totally honest and explained my unconventional lifestyle, at which point the ‘ghosting’ came – internet dating slang for a person stopping replying to you without any comment. Some were curious though, especially when I told them I had sold books and that the medical trials paid thousands of pounds each time. After a while I got my first catch. I managed to arrange a date with a twenty-five-year-old account executive at some PR firm. We decided to meet at a bar in the West Bridgford area – the area known for being the posh, middle-class neighbourhood that was popular with ‘young professionals’. I arrived to meet her outside; we said hello then went inside to sit down and order some espresso martinis. She already knew some of my story and didn’t waste any time quizzing me about my life. I sat back swirling my drink and speaking openly about it. I told her about the trials and the travelling and the desire to become a great writer. “To write it well, you have to live it well,” I uttered once more – something that was quickly becoming the catchphrase to justify my existence. As I shared with her the mess in my mind, I watched her sit back and look at me with an analytical look. It seemed I was back to that same situation where people looked at you like you were a showpiece at some circus event.

“You’re a dreamer,” she said to me, finally.

“Yeah, and what’s wrong with that?” I replied.

“Nothing I guess. It’s good to dream. But you need to be realistic too.”

“How do you mean?”

“Well,” she started. “You want to not be shaped by the system, to live your own life and do what you love – I understand that and commend you for it – but you gotta keep one foot in the game, you know? You need a reliable way to make money, and some basic security. I’ve seen people end up in serious trouble when they just march against the system not giving a fuck.”

“Really? Like who?” I said.

“There was this one guy I once knew who had a bit of a crisis and quit his insurance job to pursue his passion of film-making. He lived off his savings and devoted most of his time to directing short films, hoping to break into the industry. Within a year he was jaded and depressed and trying to get his old job back, but unable to. He couldn’t keep up his expenses and had to move back with his parents. The recession then hit and he figured out he didn’t actually have what it took to live on the breadline while chasing a dream. Most people need that safety net. Perhaps you should find a way to have a stable career and do your writing in your spare time.” I paused and thought about it.

“Well, I’m not like most people,” I said finally. “I’m willing to live on the edge to do what I love and chase my dream. And besides, I have no idea what else I can do anyway. If I end up in the gutter then so be it; at least I gave it a try. That’s more than most people can say.”

“You say that now when you’re young and full of angst, but seriously you may start to crave a bit more stability. Things about the system you thought were traps, you may start to look at them with desire. You’ll see the value of routine and being able to plan your weeks and months. You’ll want to not worry about where the rent money is going to come from. I’m not saying you should give up your dream to be a writer and do your backpacking trips – I hope you live a life doing what you love, as we all desire to deep down – but just be aware not to be too gung-ho and burn all your bridges. Think about finding the middle ground. I think that’s the best way.”

“Yeah, yeah…” I stalled. I was starting to feel like I was being lectured. Still, it probably was one of the more interesting conversations being had on a first date. “I’ll think about it. But whatever happens, I’ll always be that wide-eyed dreamer running toward what I love. Maybe there is a balance, but you gotta make sure that chasing that balance doesn’t mean you essentially traded your dreams for comfortable mediocrity. I see that a lot; people giving up on themselves and justifying it by calling in ‘growing up’ or something like that. Ultimately, the people who achieved something special were those who had the guts to go all the way in the pursuit of their passions. Yes, that pursuit can take us to the edge, but some of us are born to live on the edge. It’s that edge which sharpens our steel; which puts force behind our fingertips. It’s that edge where our greatest work is done.” 

At this point I could feel the eyes of the surrounding people in the bar on me. She sat across the table and also stared at me, undoubtedly deciding there and then that things weren’t going to go any further than a first date. I didn’t blame her.

A few more dates were had as I continued my first experience of internet dating. One was even successful in that I ended up going back to the girl’s place. Typically it was a girl I had no interest in. Well, at least the months of celibacy had ended. There was another one with a girl I ended up making out with; she told the people on the table next to us that there was definitely going to be a second date. I liked her and was looking forward to it. After that, I didn’t hear from her again. I was confused – on that first date she was really into me, wanting to meet up again, discussing which overpriced bar we could visit next. It went from that to total radio silence. I remembered I had told her I was a writer and said the name of my blog. Maybe I was paranoid, but I decided she had visited that blog, read the existential musings that I posted there, and decided I was bad news. Either that or I was a terrible kisser. 

      The matches and chats carried on until I got speaking to one girl called Rosie. She was a beautiful blonde and worked in the head office for a big healthcare company. I don’t know what came over me, but I decided to be somebody I wasn’t. I went out and I bought some designer clothes and took her out for dinners at fancy places. I told her about how I had just gotten back from travelling and was trying to get back into the journalism field while currently doing some freelance stuff. I felt like a fraud in all honesty, but I figured it was the only way to get close to a girl like that. There was only so much I can fake being a real person though, and one night my house of cards came crumbling down. I had drunk a few too many espresso martinis and I told her the truth about my life. I looked into her eyes and felt some optimism in my heart. She would look past the fact I was a lab rat and allow me to be a part of her straight-laced life just for the sake of my character. But I was wrong. Her eyes slowly dimmed as I watched her mentally pack her bags and run off over the horizon in horror. I didn’t blame her; I had misled her for the sake of an experiment. She was also a young mum and no doubt was looking for a serious partner who could support her. I had wasted her time and I got the text the next day. “You’re really nice and I’ve had a fun time but I don’t think we should see each other anymore.”

      So there I was: now twenty-eight, still single, jobless, carless, careless, hopeless. My money was running low for all the dates I had been on and gotten nowhere with. The world was mocking me, taunting me, laughing at me. I needed to retreat from it all. Thankfully the clinic was there waiting for me. I scurried back to it once more, the sewer rat looking to shelter from the piercing daylight of the real world.

lab rat

Lab Rat (Chapter nineteen)

medical

– 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.

Chapter Nineteen

One day out of nowhere Steven turned up at the madhouse. He had texted me to let me know he was in the area then all of a sudden his big army-green van was making its way down the small close where I lived. It squeezed in between the parked cars and finally made its way onto the drive of the house, where it would be situated for the next few days, being stared at by the posh curtain-twitchers of my middle-class street.

“How you doing mate?” he asked, climbing out of his van. We chatted for a minute and then he showed me around his living headquarters for the first time. I got in the front passenger seat then made my way through a small door into the back. It felt like crawling into a cave, or perhaps the wardrobe to Narnia. In that space was the lair in which he had lived for the last four years. It was the size of a small bedroom and had everything a human-being really needed to survive. Shelter, a bed, a kitchen with a gas stove, a generator, a toilet, a fridge, a sofa, a collection of drawers and, of course, some speakers – which proceeded to play The Rolling Stones as we kicked back in his van with a glass of whiskey. The obvious absence was that of a shower, although I never asked what he did regarding such a basic necessity. I knew he had friends and family to visit where he could do that every few days, and there was always the option of wet-wipes. There was also no window as he liked to keep his living space as clandestine as he could when parked in city streets (people had been known to slash the tyres of van-dwellers for parking on their streets; ultimately most people were petty at heart and couldn’t bear to see someone living more freely than them).

“All that trial money went to my ex,” he told me, catching up over the last weeks since he trial finished. “She put a lot of money into the van and I was the one who kept it, so I’ve been paying her back. Money is pretty low, so I’ve been doing some odd bits of work here and there. I was stopping at the place of a friend called Nigel, helping him out with property. He’s a single old man and likes to go to the pub every night after work, so I’ve been hitting the sauce a bit too. I’ve also just sold a load of stuff on eBay so I’m waiting on the money from that to come in.” He continued to tell me about the events of his random life as we drank. He had a small bar in the kitchen space, filled with a wide range of spirits. “People love it when you’ve got a van at festivals and things like that. You can always invite people into it for a bit of an after-party.” A bit of a party it seemed to be as he told me about the diverse assortment of drugs he also had in the van. Everything from weed and MDMA to ketamine and DMT. Suddenly I felt like I was with Hunter Thompson myself, and I imagined undertaking a wild road trip fuelled by all the narcotics he had with him. That Steven was into his mind-altering substances came as no surprise; it was clear he had done a lot of psychedelics over the years – something that was noticeably common with those who led alternative lifestyles. Usually psychedelics seemed to unlock a different way of seeing the world; or those who had unlocked a different way of seeing the world were drawn to psychedelics. Either or. Not many people were smoking DMT or tripping on acid while living the corporate lifestyle, that was for sure. Instead they were doing medical trials and living in a van and trying to write fantasy novels.

Sitting there in that van and sipping that whiskey, I wondered if I could ever hack the life Steven was living. I had fantasized about it for sure, but I didn’t believe it was the great life many thought it was. Ultimately it came down to how much comfort and convenience a person was willing to give up to collect some more freedom. Was the discomfort of not having a shower, shitting in a bucket, and having to worry about people slashing your tyres worth the freedom that came with having a mobile home? In a way, I felt like it was. The idea of just moving your home to somewhere else at the flick of an ignition key was an alluring one. No annoying neighbours which you couldn’t escape from. Ever-changing environments. No council tax or rent to pay. Unlike Steven, I was throwing rent money away to an already rich woman who would die in the next decade or two, and then that money would go to a young grandson who had never worked a day in his life (the silver spoon of society in action). For now, that was how it was. I didn’t even have a driving license and the cost of buying/converting a van was a large one. Consequently, I figured it would be a few years until I would consider such an extreme endeavour.

After a while we headed into my place to carry on drinking. It wasn’t long before he had met my housemates, including Sean who proceeded to quiz him on his adventures before getting out some old photos of when he was a young man hitch-hiking around Mexico. “So where have you travelled my amigo?” he asked in his typically socially-awkward way. Steven proceeded to tell him about his road trips across Europe before Sean interjected to talk some more about Mexico, most specifically about the treehouse he lived in. I noticed that whenever Sean told the treehouse story, some of the details were different. After that he bid us farewell to return to his room and play the guitar.

“I expected you to be living with a bunch of young people in some student place,” Steven said. “Not like this. Everyone is old. But I like it. It’s different.”

“It’s like living in a very strange hostel,” I said.

“Seems that way.”

“It’s also a good environment to do my writing.” I showed him the area in the conservatory where I chilled with the cats and wrote my literary masterpieces. We then poured some more drinks, put some rock music on, and continued to chat about life – all the things we couldn’t speak to openly about in a ward full of people. Naturally it wasn’t long before the subject of sex came up. Becoming recently single after ten years, Steven was wanting to make up for lost time – hence why he was signed up to all the dating apps and chatting to a range of girls. I couldn’t blame him. Ten years of being in a relationship – especially when he had been travelling – meant he had missed out on a lot of promiscuous fun in his prime years. Although it seemed he had definitely had some fun before that as he told me about the sex clubs he frequented as a young man in London. It seemed quite a contrast to go from regularly banging strangers in depraved orgies to being shacked up with one girl for an entire decade. Typically, I couldn’t imagine what such a reality must have been like. I was just about to turn twenty-nine without ever having been in a relationship. I didn’t know what excuse to come up with first whenever people asked why I had been single all my life – the fact I had been so nomadic, the fact I was never really looking for a girlfriend, or the fact I was just a bit odd. Most women saw it as a massive red flag when they saw a guy near the age of thirty who had never been in a relationship. They obviously figured there was some terrible characteristic you possessed that had led to that solitary fate. But when I sat back and thought about it, the reason I hadn’t been in a relationship was purely out of circumstance – the circumstance being that I had always been on such a wild path of self-discovery throughout my adult life. I was a man breaking out of some prison, driving a fast car towards the horizon without a map or plan. I simply didn’t have any time or room for anyone to be in the passenger seat with me. I didn’t want or need it; other things were calling me and they still were as I continued speeding off into the unknown fuelled by some inner fire blasting out the exhaust pipes.

Okay, okay, don’t get it wrong – it’s not like I was celibate or something. Far from it. In some ways, I felt ashamed of the amount of women I’d slept with. I didn’t know the exact amount, but it was a lot. Women from all around the world. Women I’d met for one night in a hostel bar or a nightclub. Sometimes even on a bus (it was dark). The truth is that I couldn’t get enough of women, especially when travelling. Women of different cultures and different accents and ethnicities. The world was a treasure chest of feminine beauty and perhaps that was one of the reasons I was never interested in just being cooped up with just one. I was now at the age where people were looking for ‘the one’ though, and typically – as I was with everything else in life to my peers – I was at odds with how things were supposed to be. Beautiful women passed me in the street and I wanted to fall in love with them all. Steven was the same – a clear lover of the female kind – and it occurred to me how in all aspects of life we were both hopeless romantics chasing after whatever got our heart pumping. In a way, I was surprised he had stayed in a faithful relationship for so long. Whatever had kept him in it, it was now over. He was now a man looking to make up for lost time and naturally it wasn’t long until we headed out on the town to see if we could meet anyone.

Our first stop on our failure of a tour was a new cocktail bar. I got a drink from the bar and looked around at the women. It was the usual Nottingham crowd of beautiful women with fancy dresses, impeccable makeup, and well-styled hair. Women drinking expensive cocktails while Instagramming their drinks. Women that worked as solicitors and marketing executives. Women who watched reality TV and went to the races occasionally. We both knew in their eyes we would be seen as degenerates, but we didn’t care. We chatted to them anyway. Steven knew he couldn’t hide the fact he lived in a van, so he owned it. He didn’t look like a hobo or anything; he was relatively well-dressed and groomed – a handsome man – although still had his rough-around-the-edges look. Maybe it was a thing for some girls. He told a couple of girls we were chatting with about his unconventional living arrangements. They were interested but you could tell they saw us as spectacles – something to merely observe and study from a distance. I had noticed over the years that people living alternative lives were treated like showpieces at some circus event. People would stand back and marvel at them. They would be interested to hear the story. Sometimes they would even admire and respect them. But ultimately that was where it ended. There was still a fence between them that they were not willing to cross. We were wild animals of some kind, and there was no way they would come out to the dangerous space in which we roamed. That was exactly what happened as we reached the point of brick-wall conversation. After that, we headed to the next bar where the same thing happened again. After that, we headed to the bohemian bar where we figured we might have some more luck. It was the place where the skin-head had told me about medical trials – the place where you could sit down and be chatting to some vegan anarchist within a minute or two about politics and philosophy.

We sat down at a table with some rum and cokes. All around us were tables of hyper people, shouting, laughing, downing drinks. For the first time it hit me how young everyone was. Normally it was a diverse range of ages in there, but it appeared me and Steven were clearly the older ones in the vicinity. Well, maybe it was student night. Indeed, it only seemed like a couple of years ago I was at university studying a degree for the sake of it. The time had flown past in a blur of drinking, travelling, and general existential chaos. I was not far off thirty and in a way I felt a bit cheated with how quickly time had passed me by. I guess it was the same feeling everyone had and I wondered how Steven felt at thirty-three. It did seem like the age thing was noticeable after all. One girl sat down and started chatting to us, immediately asking how old we were. “How old do we look?” I asked.

“You look about twenty-six, and he looks… I’m going to say a bit older. Thirty-one?” It was a couple of years off for both of us, but it seemed it was the accepted rule to knock a year or two off when guessing someone’s age (this was to politely spare them the horrors of realising how much closer towards death they were getting). I told her my age to which she replied “oh that’s my brother’s age.” It turned out I was now at the age where attractive young women thought of their older brothers when weighing up whether or not they wanted to sleep with you. Well, at least she was maybe thinking about it. “Do you guys not want to have kids or anything?” she then asked.

“Not right now,” I said. “I mean a man can have kids until he’s sixty or something, right?”

“I guess,” she said. “I just always imagined I’d be getting married and having kids by the time I was around your guys’ age.”

“Well, it’s a brave new world,” I said. She carried on chatting with us until her mates left and she had to go with them. Next we got speaking to the table next to us – another bunch of students enjoying the temporary shelter from the working world that was university. We carried on drinking with them and talking about our lives until they invited us back to a house party. It was then, getting up to leave, that one of the girls of the group suddenly decided I wasn’t invited. Steven was, but not me. I hadn’t even said anything to her, and I was relatively sober. “He can come,” she said, pointing to Steven. “But him? No.” Her friends asked her why, to which she pulled them aside and whispered something in their ear. I had no idea what was said, but after they were all set on me not coming to the party. I had to laugh; this wasn’t the first time such a thing had happened. It appeared there was something about my presence that some people just didn’t trust. I told myself that ‘I had one of those faces’, but it did hit me that maybe there were people out there who saw me for the foreign creature I was. They knew I wasn’t one of them; they could smell it from my scent or see it in my eyes. I didn’t argue but resigned myself to the situation – I wanted to go home anyway at that point. Steven was curious though and kept asking them why I wasn’t invited and what I had done wrong. “You’re welcome; he’s not,” she kept saying. It was all she said. “You’re welcome; he’s not.”

After that we headed to get a kebab and walk home, musing at the situation. “Maybe it’s because she knew she would have no chance with you,” Steven said. It was a nice thought that I could possibly delude myself with, but no – I probably would have gone home with her if she didn’t hate my guts. “Maybe she mistook you for someone else?” It was another nice thought, but one that again seemed unlikely. I had decided in my head that it was just the way it was. I was just a black sheep – more of a black sheep than the guy who lived in a van apparently. Some could sense I didn’t belong and they wanted me out of their sight as quickly as possible.

It started to get me down but then we got back to his van and my feelings of sadness were quickly pushed aside as we reached into his drug drawer. He elected for some MDMA and some ketamine. We were very close to smoking some DMT as well, but perhaps fortunately there was no pipe around at the time. We turned the music back on, got the whiskey back out, then started hitting the substances. It was two in the morning and it would be another eight hours until we hit the hay. And it would be another five days until the partying stopped. Steven had turned up out of the blue and suddenly I had been thrown into a multi-day bender of excess and madness and female rejection. Well, at least the drugs we were taking were the sort of drugs that would be out of our systems fairly quickly. By the time the next medical trial came round we would be easily in the clear. Once again, ‘healthy volunteers’ who didn’t smoke, do recreational drugs, or drink more than twenty units of alcohol per week. Upstanding members of the guinea-pig society. Medical research heroes. Thoroughly decent guys.

lab rat

Lab Rat (chapter eighteen)

medical
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.

Chapter Eighteen

Two weeks later and a life box had been ticked. My book was published and people were ordering it. I felt like a real person; I felt like I could even call myself an author. Life was good and I imagined the books arriving through random letterboxes. I imagined them sitting on the shelves of old living rooms and bedside tables. I imagined little children picking up the books in a few decades and flicking through them, wondering who this great writer was. Yes, yes, yes. It brought joy to my heart. I was a man on the path to his destiny and there was no greater thrill. Well, I had only sold a few dozen books so far, but it was a start. I saw that money come in from the sales, not even a hundred quid, but still, it was something. It was the first time I had made any money from my writing. Even during my journalism degree, I hadn’t made a single dime. I was a victim of the ‘free work experience’ culture in which companies exploited students and graduates to work for free work so they could have something to put on their CV. Yes, it was now a world where you had to study for twenty years, then work for free for a year or two, just to have a chance of getting a job that wasn’t minimum wage. Anyway, I digress. No one becomes a writer to get rich, but it was priceless knowing that the things in your head – things you thought they’d put you in a mental asylum or on the guillotine for thinking – were of value to some other people out there under the ether.

I sat back and enjoyed the fact I was now a writer who could sell books. Even if it was self-published online through Amazon, it was good enough for now. At twenty-seven, I had done what Steven hadn’t done by thirty-three – I had actually finished and published a book. ‘The Thoughts From The Wild’ was out there in some shape and form. Hopefully it would eventually be out in top book stores. It was a romantic feeling and when I was in the city centre, I would walk into those book stores and imagine my creations sitting there one day. It hurt to see the Rupi Kaurs of the world take up the space on the shelves that should have been mine, but I knew one day true justice would be served. The Thoughts From The Wild and my future novel would be hailed as modern classics. Yes, yes, yes. My will and delusion was as strong as ever. I was nearing the age of thirty and still clinging onto my dream. I hadn’t given up and I wouldn’t accept anything else. My role was to write. My mission was to write.

One day I was at the house chatting to the landlady. I was telling her about my book for the first time while she informed me of the past tenants who also claimed to be writers. It seemed her house had attracted people of a similar ilk. She even got featured in a book a woman who had walked across the country had written. It was a total bore of a book and I hoped my book wasn’t being pulled out one day by people and mocked by future tenants. Nothing was certain. Maybe I was a hack like the others. Although Thea knew my creative passion was writing, she was always trying to get me to learn to play the guitar. She regularly hosted her folk music lessons and wanted to teach me too. With reluctance I started on the ukulele, learning two chords before giving up. It was true that music had been my first artistic awakening. At the age of thirteen I listened to alternative rock bands like The Verve and Radiohead and imagined myself being in a band. I always imagined myself as the front man – the one who would pour out their heart into lyrics and have the crowd in the palm of their hand. I wanted to be on that stage and have the same power that those people had over me. Sadly, this dream was cut short by the inconvenient fact that my voice sounded like a cat being drowned. My rock star destiny was not to be. But as I started writing, I realised I could get onto that stage in another way. With my instruments of syntax, metaphor and simile, I was able to jam out and create in another way. I can’t remember who said it, but poets and writers are frustrated singers. There is a truth to that, I think.

Anyway, I was living the retired life with Thea as usual, jamming out and sipping wine, when her son came barging in the house. “Mum? Are you there!? I need something.” Since I had started living there, I had quickly realised her son was abusive, manipulative, and downright insane. At almost the age of forty, he was the classic man-child. He regularly got kicked out by whatever girl he was living with and then came to scrounge off his mum. He would come steal her food and wine, even her car, and almost always some money. This time he wasn’t stealing her car, but asking for it. “I’ll just need it for this afternoon. You’ll have it back by this evening.” This was, of course, total bullshit. He was a master bullshitter, even trumping outrageous Lee, without the humour of course. Thea knew it was bullshit too but would convince herself that he was, for the first time in his life, being sincere and honest. I think the truth that her son was a scumbag was too much for her to face. After he had taken the car, it dawned on her she wasn’t getting it back any time soon. The last time he had taken it, it had ended up in a pound and she had to fork out £200 to get it back.

“What can I do?” she would ask, frustrated.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Get a restraining order?”

“I’ve tried that before, but it’s no use. And I can’t just cut him off. I won’t be able to see my grandson Henry.”

“He’s emotionally blackmailing and manipulating you,” I would tell her. “He does things like steal your car and money off of you, then he’s nice to you for a few days and you think he’s changed. Then the same process repeats itself.” I could see her sitting there, reflecting on those home truths. Of course, somewhere inside she knew this, but she had blocked it out.

“One thing is for sure,” she said. “He’s going to be in for a nasty shock when he sees I’ve left him nothing in my will. I’m leaving it all to Henry.” It was good to hear that, although I knew the son would try and find a way to weasel the money to himself. I was later to find out that he had already stolen over £100,000 off her over the years. Half of that he put into a house, which got repossessed during his time as a heroin addict. This was the same time in which he would regularly break into her house during the night to steal money off her for his next fix. The more I learned about the story, the more my mind was blown. That someone’s son could be so despicable to their mum, and then for the mother to keep on putting up with it. It was a strange world and once again my decision never to have kids was strengthened. This was an extreme case and really highlighted how detached from money rich people could be. Thea was a bohemian, but a rich one. She had been born into money and got even wealthier after renting out the house she bought for a mere £10,000 for over forty years. Every year she made that same amount of money through our rent and she no doubt had hundreds of thousands in the bank. Her son had been born into her money too, but he had ended up as a thoroughly screwed-up individual. It reminded me of all the rich kids I had met on my travels. Being born into wealth was no way to insure good character. People who are born with everything handed to them on a silver platter was an easy way for a person to get fucked up. I recalled one Jewish guy from L.A in a hostel in Cambodia, bragging about all the countries he had visited, how much drugs he was buying and taking on a daily basis, and how he hadn’t been home or worked for five years. Being the tender age of twenty-four, I wasn’t sure how much he had worked for his funds. Moments like that made me think that I never wanted to get rich. I wanted to struggle in a way, to have some humility and perspective on life. I didn’t want to idolise being poor either, but I felt relieved to see at a young age that money wasn’t the answer. Whatever the good life was, it came from doing whatever it was that set your soul on fire. That’s exactly what I kept doing while writing and dreaming of literary glory.

lab rat

Lab Rat (chapter seventeen)

medical
– 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.

Chapter Seventeen

Make it through we did. The days drifted by once again and soon enough it was time to leave the clinic. Another drug-testing assignment had been successfully completed and I still hadn’t grown a second head. I must have shitted into a pot over twenty times though, and I was looking forward to going back to the old traditional way of water and flushing. I got Warren’s contact and then headed back to the outside world, £3500 better off than I was when I walked in.

Coming out was always strange for the first day of freedom and I enjoyed that freedom by going for a long walk around a country park beside the clinic. The major negative of doing the trials was that you were unable to do any exercise while you were in there. I was someone who usually went running three or four times a week, but the most you could push it while doing a trial was having a rigorous game of table tennis in the small courtyard, and there were always a couple of strict nurses nearby who would warn you if you looked to be raising your heart rate too much. There was even one who would come out and tell you off for getting any sunlight on your skin (apparently any sunburn or damage to your skin could be a side-effect from the drugs, so they stopped you sunbathing in order to know for certain what caused it). Anyway, not being able to go outside and use your legs much, it always took a few days for the muscles to get used to not lying down and watching TV all day. So I worked myself back into it gradually with some walks before finally going for a run a few days after I got out.

One thing I hadn’t done in a while either was visit my parents – not since the start of the summer in fact. It was nothing out of the ordinary and I always realised how disjointed we were as a family when speaking to other people my age. Most contacted their parents at least once a week, some every day, but for me, I often went months with complete radio silence. When I had travelled in South America, I rang them once a month to update them that I hadn’t been murdered by some drug cartel. For me this was sufficient, but other travellers were shocked by the lack of contact between us. I guess we were a very introverted family. And a small one too. It had always just been me, my parents, my sister and brother. Our wide family was almost non-existent which perhaps contributed to how we were so detached and distant. My dad had been abandoned by his parents at a young age and raised by his grandmother. My mum’s family were from Ireland and I hadn’t even stepped foot in the country. And the grandparents all passed on by the time I was thirteen. All of this had created how we were. But it had been five months since I had seen them, so I headed back to my hometown of Coventry on the train to spend the weekend there.

Arriving at the house, I walked through the door, said hello, made myself a coffee, and then went to join them in the living room where they could reliably be found watching television. We then started catching up. By this point, my parents already knew I had done a couple of medical trials but I hadn’t told them in detail about it. I explained to them the nature of my guinea-pig career and how much money I was making doing them. Hearing my story, I was pleasantly surprised to hear my parents were okay with it. No doubt they had given up on me at that point and probably assumed I’d be homeless, so for them to hear I had some decent money in my pocket was good enough. It was a relief to see they were accepting of my new career choice, but naturally it didn’t take long for them to start raining on my parade. “It’s a good amount of money you’re making,” started my dad. “But you won’t be able to do these trials forever though. Are you not looking for a job as well?”

“Well, maybe something casual,” I said. “If I had a full time job I wouldn’t be able to do most of the longer studies. You can’t just get three weeks off to go and sit in a clinic. Maybe I need a job where I can work from a computer.”

“Like journalism,” my mum interjected. “Why did you go to university and get a degree if you weren’t going to use it?” Here we go, I thought.

“I went to university because I was pressured to go by my school. I was only seventeen at the time when I decided to go. Who the hell knows what they want to do at seventeen and why should I do something I don’t for the rest of my life just because of one decision I made when I was seventeen?”

“You don’t like working for a living like the rest of us do you?” It was my dad, coming back into the conversation. It was two against one and I felt like pointing out that I was happy for the time being, and how their jobs often made them miserable (my dad was a UPS delivery driver and my mum a cleaner at a local university). I also felt like pointing out how all they did was work then come home to sit in front of a flashing box all evening until going to sleep, whereas I was still working away on my dream. It was an argument we had had before, and I wasn’t feeling like opening up that can of worms again, so I sipped my coffee and changed the subject by asking how my brother was doing. I carried on having the debate in my head though, as I always did. I couldn’t help but think how my parents were always trying to pressure and influence me into doing things they knew I didn’t want to do. Humanity worked in mysterious ways and it seemed strange that people had children and then worked miserable jobs in order to raise them, and then encouraged them to do the exact same thing when they grew up. Every generation was sacrificing itself for the next generation, living a life of monotonous work for their spawn. It was a perpetual loop of misery and madness, and it was part of the reason I never wanted to have children. As my favourite philosopher Alan Watts had said: “It’s absolutely stupid to spend your time doing things you don’t like, in order to go on spending things you don’t like, doing things you don’t like and to teach our children to follow in the same track. See what we are doing, is we’re bringing up children and educating them to live the same sort of lives we are living. In order that they may justify themselves and find satisfaction in life by bringing up their children to bring up their children to do the same thing, so it’s all retch and no vomit. It never gets there.”

At one time my sister got these things too. She was like me in many ways and had spent her twenties in a soul-searching state of wandering, starting university courses, quitting university courses. Hell, we even lived and worked together in a small town in New Zealand for a while. She was unconventional and against the grain in many ways, but even she had recently started preparing for the traditional life. She was just finishing a physiotherapy degree and looking to settle down with her boyfriend, get a place somewhere in our hometown. Because she was two years older and had lived a similar life to me, she assumed she was one step ahead and that I was also going to abandon the wandering life for the traditional one.

“Have you not thought about what you want to do for a job?” she asked me.

“Well, I just want to do my writing and travel every now and again. I worked out that if I did a trial, worked an agency job for a few months, and then did another trial, I’ll always have enough money to live this kind of life.” I watched as she rolled her eyes.

“Come on – you need something stable. You can’t be relying on testing drugs all your life. What if you get a health problem that stops you from doing them?”

“I’m as healthy as they come,” I informed her. “Never had a health problem and I keep fit. Never smoked and, hell, never even broken a bone.” She rolled her eyes once again.

“Well your priorities might change in the future. You might meet a nice girl. She is going to want someone who offers her a bit of stability and security.”

“That’s not the type of girl for me,” I said. “I’ll stay single all my life if I have to. Most people end up divorced or stuck in loveless relationships these days anyway.”

“I get that you don’t want to sit in an office, but what about getting a trade or something? You can make good money with a trade and you might be good at it.”

“You know how useless I am with my hands and how little common sense and dexterity I have. I’m borderline dyspraxic. I can barely chop an onion or shuffle a pack of cards – I’m hardly going to be a whizz at fixing drain pipes or circuit boards. No, there’s only one thing I’m good at and that’s writing. And when I say writing, I don’t mean journalism as I know you’re about to say. I mean WRITING. Hemingway, Orwell, Bukowski. You know, all those heroes of mine. I have a gift and I’m not going to let it go to waste by living a mundane life. Ultimately to write it well you have to live it well. And that’s what I’m doing. I’m living it well and writing it well. I’ve got over ten thousand followers on my blog now and I’m about to publish my first book.” I could see her sitting there, thinking I was a lost cause – the classic starving artist who’d be washing dishes at some crappy restaurant in his forties while still proclaiming he was an undiscovered genius. But I could also see her showing some respect for my tenacity, no matter how insane and deluded I might have been.

“You’re a very strong-willed person,” she said finally. “I’ll give you that.”

lab rat

Lab Rat (chapter sixteen)

medical

– 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.

Chapter Sixteen

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.

lab rat

Lab Rat (chapter fourteen and fifteen)

 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.

Chapter Fourteen

The three months were officially up. It was time for me to get back into the clinic. The night in Sheffield had sent me off onto a bit of a bender. Wallowing in my self-pity, I carried on drinking heavily while hitting the pubs of Nottingham with Jake. Money was getting low again and I looked at the current list of medical studies on the website. It was like looking at a delicious restaurant menu. The studies paid anything from £800 to £5000. There were some trials for medicines treating asthma, some for Crohn’s disease, and some for that notorious old bad guy – cancer. There were even some trials that involved you being exposed to radiation. I was hungry for money but I considered where I would actually draw the line when it came to doing studies. Most studies involved you testing drugs which had already gone through one phase of testing before. Would I take part in a study where I would be the first person taking the drug? I thought not, but I also knew if I was offered a ‘first-in-human’ study with a hefty payment, I’d quickly change my tune. Ultimately I was just another person willing to put some digits on a screen before my own health. And relatively speaking, I didn’t think the trials were too dangerous, but it was true that very rarely one might go wrong. I’d only told a few people I was doing medical trials but those I told were quick to mention one infamous study which went wrong in 2006 in London. Some guinea-pigs were testing an antibiotic that would be used to treat Leukaemia and Arthritis. A short while after being dosed, the volunteers were left writhing in agony and projectile vomiting. Soon their immune systems crashed and they suffered multiple organ failure. It got continually worse as they were left fighting for their lives and one guy had to have some of his some of his fingers amputated. Some of them even had inflated heads – helping give the incident the notorious name: ‘the elephant man study’. All things considered, it was a colossal fuck-up, but it had been over ten years since that incident, and lessons had apparently been learned. The doctors assured us that there were new procedures and regulations in place to stop such a calamity happening again. It was reassuring, I guess. It did make me wonder though how much compensation each volunteer got. Would I lose a few fingers for half a million pounds? Maybe a kidney or a lung for a million? If you started down that road, then where would it end? You’d be slowly slicing yourself down to nothingness in an attempt to fill that bank account with as much money as you could. I guess it was nothing out of the ordinary for some people out there.

I had the usual screening and meeting with the doctor before being admitted onto the study. I passed with flying colours again, although he did stop to question the cuts on my body from when I got attacked in Sheffield. “Bike-riding accident,” I told him. “I was lucky to get off so easily; next time I’ll wear a helmet.” The doctor gave me an incredulous look. It was clear he knew I was full of shit, but he didn’t care – to him I was just another lab rat living off medical trials rather than getting a job like a normal person. No doubt he pitied me in a way. That would explain the slight delight in his voice when he informed me of the next bit of information.

“For this trial you will need to provide faecal samples.” I stopped and paused. 

“Faecal samples?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “Because this drug is a treatment for Crohn’s disease, it will be necessary to monitor your bowel behaviour. So stool samples will be necessary.” (They used words like ‘stool’ and ‘faecal’ to make it sound a little more scientific; really they were just telling you that they were going to be analysing your shit.) It wasn’t the most pleasant thought, but hey, at least it wasn’t me having to inspect it. And it could have been worse. A few weeks back I had checked the drug trial menu to see a study taking place in which ‘the drug would be administered rectally”. Having to provide a sample of your shit was one thing, but having some poor nurse shove drugs up your ass first thing in the morning was something else. Perhaps it was there where I would have drawn the line for which study I would take part in.

Chapter Fifteen

Back in the clinic, I got settled into my second home. This time I was on the biggest ward, along with thirteen other volunteers. It hardly seemed like three months had passed and in a way it felt good to be back on the inside. Perhaps I was getting institutionalised already on my second study, but the idea that for the next eighteen days I wouldn’t have to worry about a single thing was comforting. I could resume my feline ways, laying around, being fed, sleeping, and even – in this case – having my shit taken away by my owners. Hell, it even felt a bit like going into rehab after the heavy drinking I had done the previous two weeks to the study. 

This time the collection of fellow guinea-pigs looked a little more fitting to situation. There were some strange looking characters including a washed-up hippy in his fifties with dreaded hair who proceeded to walk around half naked wearing only a towel – much to the disgust of the female volunteers. There was also a girl who immediately asked for screens to be put around her bed and proceed to ignore everyone while playing her ukulele. There was one guy who sat on his bed playing Pokémon with the sound on full blast, and another who kept talking to himself while hitting his laptop in frustration (I presumed he was also a gamer). It wasn’t the most peaceful environment and things got noisier on the first night when one of the volunteers started snoring loudly – so loudly you wondered if he was being strangled to death. It was an annoyance, but not as annoying as the man who cursed loudly everything he started snoring. “Fucking snoring cunt!” he would shout. “You stupid fucking pig! Shut the fuck up!” It turned out it was the washed-up hippy. I had quickly deduced he was going to be the main problem man on the trial. He even would snap at the nurses walking past his bed if they were too loud, suggesting they wore some stealthier footwear. The ordascity was astounding. Here was a man getting paid £200 a day to lie around and shit into a pot, and he felt it was okay to snap at the nurses working twelve hour shifts for little more than the minimum wage. They must have hated him, especially when I later found out he had been reported on previous studies. It did make me wonder what a guinea-pig had to do to get kicked off a study. They had a list of rules you had to follow, and if you broke one then you could be issued with a £50 fine. But there were also some rules which would result in being dismissed from the study and taken off the panel. I wondered how far the washed-up hippy was going to push his luck. No doubt he was another bum living off these trials. Maybe soon he would be joining the homeless people in the gutter. I wouldn’t have had sympathy for him. Us lab rats had to count ourselves lucky we had been given this chance to make easy money and, for me, I followed the rules obediently, knowing full well that it was this facility which was saving me from the horrors of full-time employment in the outside world.

Anyway, after the first night I awoke to see the nurses standing there in their red ‘DO NOT DISTURB – DOSING’ tabards. It was time to get to work. I swallowed down those experimental pills and wondered what side effects I was going to have this time. After that came the usual procedures: ECG, blood samples, blood pressure, temperature checks. A few hours later the moment arrived where I needed to go to the toilet. I had seen some other volunteers sheepishly come out of the bathroom with their pots and place them on the tray in the ward. None of them appeared too comfortable doing it; ultimately it was hard to not look awkward while walking through a room full of people carrying your own shit. Well, at least I wasn’t the first to do it. I grabbed my pot and headed over to the bathroom. I also grabbed a chart from beside my bed; there was a picture chart of all the different types of ‘faecal samples’ and you had to write down on the pot which one your sample resembled. Was it runny, or was it sturdy? Was it long, or was it lumpy? Apparently this was of utmost importance to the people conducting the study.

Inside the bathroom I sat there and prepared to do my business. I crouched on the toilet and held the pot under myself. It was then, squeezing out last night’s dinner, that I had a bit of a moment. I looked in the mirror at what I was doing and realised my life path had led me to this. A few years back I was a young man with a promising future in the communications industry. Wide-eyed I left university with my degree, ready to get a proper job and begin a career. Like every good graduate, I was preparing for a middle-class life of stability, security, and suburban sanity. My CV was updated with all my skills and my parents were eager to see me make it as a high earner in a respected profession. Well the years had fallen by and here I was – squeezing out a turd into a pot in order to get money to survive. It was an absurd situation and I had to think of all my coursemates from University, and my friends from my hometown. No doubt at this moment they were in good jobs or further education. They would all be handing in important assignments or projects they’d been working on. Me? I was quite literally handing in a piece of shit.