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.

lab rat

Lab Rat (chapter thirteen)

 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 Thirteen

The weeks went on as my days settled into a steady routine. I’d awake about 10am, have breakfast, meditate, go running, have lunch, then spend the afternoon writing. I put a little more money into my blog and had amassed over five-thousand followers. I was beginning to feel like an entrepreneur or something, apart from the fact I was spending money and not making any. Still, the interaction was rewarding and I was getting messages from people from all corners of the globe. One person asked if I had a book available, and so came the idea to collate all my writings on the book into a singular book. I started working on that, creating the book and looking to self-publish it. I had pretty much turned the conservatory into my writing den and I sat there with the cats, typing away as the summer rain banged on the roof. No one in the house asked me if I was looking for work or anything anymore; they just accepted that I was the third cat of the household, sitting around, eating, doing my own thing. At one point I did actually apply for a job the agency offered me; I sorted out all the paperwork and was almost ready to go, until I realised at the last minute I was only applying because I felt like I should have. It was a little pressure, I guess, bowing to constantly being asked whether I was working or not. At one point it just struck me and I stopped and thought to myself: “Why am I agreeing to do this job I don’t want to do? Sure I’ll have a few extra savings, but my living costs are low, and I’ll be able to do another medical trial soon. Why don’t I just use this time to keep writing before I start my next drug-testing assignment?” After that, the insanity of my behaviour became clear to me and I decided to stay unemployed.

In my writing routine, I had admittedly become a bit of a social hermit. Only the cats were my allies as they sat on the chairs next to me while I wrote my masterpieces. Like any social outcast, I did enjoy my solitude, but too much of it had you going funny. Next thing you knew you’d be living in a treehouse in Mexico while slowly losing your marbles. I hadn’t been out in a while and so when I got a message off of outrageous Lee to come visit him in Sheffield for a night out, I was ready to go. I caught the train that evening and went to meet him in a bar near the station. It was my first time in Sheffield and I was eager to see if it was what I had imagined when listening to the tales told in Arctic Monkeys’ songs.

“Ey up lad,” he said as I entered. He had a pint waiting for me. I sat down and started drinking it. “So how you been since we finished the trial?”

“Ahh you know, taking it easy and enjoying the summer. How about yourself?”

“Well if I’m honest with you, not too great. I’ve been stuck in a bit of a rut.” I looked at him, wondering if he was winding me up. A deeper look revealed he was telling the truth; he had black rings under his eyes, had put on weight, and was just generally looking a bit worse for wear.

“What’s up then mate? I thought you’d be living it up since we got paid from the trial?”

“That’s the problem,” he said. “I’ve been living it up too much! I’m off the rails. I’ve pretty much blown all the £4500 from the trial. Well just the other day I went in ta’ casino and blew £600 in one go. I’ve asked them to bar me but I’ve done that before and they’ve let me back in. The next night I went ta’ brothel and did five prozzies in one night. That was another £200 down the drain…” I sat there trying not to laugh at his misfortune – truly the guy was something else. “But it’s not just that,” he continued. “I’ve been out on the piss every day pretty much, throwing my money down the drain. I’ve stopped going to the gym and piled on the weight. I’m just in a bit of a slump and don’t know what to do with myself.” I sat there, sipping my pint, nodding my head. I felt like some sort of therapist. I knew I was supposed to say something comforting, but it wasn’t coming to me, so I kept that pint pressed to my lips while looking contemplative. My initial thought was that I myself often felt like a walking disaster on this earth, but when I met someone like Lee, it made me think perhaps I wasn’t as self-destructive and hopeless as I thought I was. It was a comforting thought for myself naturally, but perhaps not so much for Lee. I continued racking my brains for something to say to him when it occurred to me what was the route of his problems. The poor bastard had too much freedom. As I discovered in the trial, he was a guy who had never seemed to work, living off medical trials and some other form of riches he hadn’t told me about. Like many, when he had that time and freedom, he didn’t know what to do with it, so ultimately he went crazy and lived a life of hedonistic excess. It reminded me of those stories you hear about lottery winners blowing all their winnings in a few years of revelry only to end up broke and stuck in a miserable job once again. Perhaps man was never meant to taste such freedom I thought; perhaps I was also heading in the same direction as Lee and going to end up killing myself in a cocaine-fuelled brothel orgy. Putting everything together, my mind came up with a suggestion. “You could get a job,” I said. He looked at me as if I’d suggested having a sex change. “It seems to me you’ve got too much time on your hands; if you had a job, it might give you a bit of structure and order. You wouldn’t be able to go down the pub every day and get drunk. A bit of work might be good for you.” I couldn’t quite believe the words coming out of my mouth; I was beginning to sound like my parents.

“I’ve thought about it,” he said. “It’s just so easy with the medical trials you know. I wouldn’t be able to do them if I had a job. Well, maybe I could but it’d be a lot more difficult, especially to do the bigger studies. But you’re right. If I was busy, I wouldn’t be tempted to go get smashed down the pub every day. I think I need to get back in ta’ gym. That would keep me busy. I used to be a boxer you know. I had a few amateur fights and won most of them. When I was doing that, I wouldn’t even drink! All my friends were going out but I was down the gym six days a week. I don’t know what’s up with me at the moment. I just need to get myself together.” I carried on nodding like an idiot in an attempt to show some understanding. I quickly realised the extreme idea of getting a job had been dismissed.

“I know what you mean,” I said. “I’ve not done any work since the trial either and I do wake up some days feeling like I should be doing something. I’m not sure if it’s a natural feeling or it’s just letting myself be influenced by society. But I think the difference between me and you is that I have something to work on which is writing. I’m always working on some book or blog. I think it’s important to have something to get out of bed for – something that keeps you from spiralling off into alcoholism and madness.” Suddenly I actually really was feeling like a therapist. It amused me that I often ended up giving people life advice, even though mine was in a perpetual state of chaos. I continued the pearly wisdom as Lee sat opposite me with a pensive look.

“You and me – we’re old souls us,” he said, after a short silence. “Other people don’t understand us. We think a bit deeper about things and don’t want to swallow the same lifestyle everyone else does. There’s more to life than being stuck in some job, but at the same time, I want some connection with other people, and I guess I find that through the pub and going out. Even with going to the brothel – which is a bit sad thinking about it. I think what I said to you on the trial was true. Maybe I do need to find a nice girl to settle down and have some kids with. That would stop me from going off the rails all the time.” I thought about mentioning the fact that you couldn’t exactly support a family by only taking part in medical trials, but I decided not to dampen the poor guy’s spirits anymore. Instead, I turned to blind encouragement. I was as guilty as everyone else when it came to not telling people the harsh truth.

“That’s the spirit mate! Perhaps you’ll even meet that lucky lady tonight…” At that point we clinked pints and said cheers. There was then a sense of brotherhood between us and I could see where the evening was heading. After just a few moments after addressing his drinking problem, Lee ordered some more drinks. And with outrageous Lee being outrageous Lee, they were treble bourbon and cokes – with the bourbon being the most expensive in the bar. We knocked them back and headed to the door.

The night progressed on as we did a pub crawl through Sheffield city-centre. Lee wasn’t the biggest guy at 5’5. However, despite his small stature, I’d never seen someone knock back the drinks in such an excessive fashion. It was treble after treble, and we were doing rounds, so I was sucked into his self-destructive madness as the world began to blur around me. I saw him pull out a roll of cash at one point which again made me think what his secret was. I considered that he was a drug dealer, but quickly decided he wasn’t the type. At some point we ended up in one of the casinos he hadn’t banned himself from. I managed to squander £20; he blew a casual £150. Not bad for his standards. After that we returned to the bars, still smashing back the drinks, and naturally it wasn’t long before we started chatting up any female within close proximity. At that point, we were far too gone to close the deal, but it didn’t stop us from trying. One point it always got to when chatting up a girl was the dreaded ‘what do you do?’ question. It was a question which could cause a lot of women to mentally pack their bags in front of your eyes. Were you in their league? Did you have your shit together? Were you making enough money to take them out to fancy cocktail bars? With me and Lee essentially being bums who occasionally tested drugs for money, I was eager to see what bullshit Lee was going to feed them.

“Construction,” he said, with a confident nod. He was chatting to some blonde in a green dress, the sort that looked like she wouldn’t go near anyone like us. “I like to work with my hands, get a bit physical you know. So construction was the natural thing for me. It pays well too.” As I had realised on the trial, Lee was a proficient bullshitter and could confidently invent some story from nowhere and stick to it. For me, I wasn’t good at faking it, so I chose a half-truth when chatting to her friend.

“I’m a writer,” I told her.

“A writer!” Oh wow, that’s so cool. What sort of stuff do you write about?”

“Well I do a bit of freelance content writing, but I also dabble in a bit of fiction. I’m currently working on an adventure-romance novel.” (I was taking a leaf off our Lee’s book – feeding them some Grade-A bullshit myself). She then proceeded to ask me about the plot, at which point I realised I hadn’t thought my bullshit story through. I wasn’t a natural like Lee. Or anyone. Half the words being spoken in the average pub on a Saturday night were total crap, but here I was unable to join in on the act. I spoke softly, mumbling some words, hoping the music would drown out what I was saying. After that, I raised my voice again to ask her about her life. She went on talking about her job as I stood there, trying to seem interested as the room spun around me. Things were getting wavey and I thought we were in but our delusion was swiftly squashed as they left and told us they were going home.

After that I’m not sure what really happened. The drinks kept sailing back, the money went down the drain, and then sometime around 4am I was stumbling through Sheffield city centre with blood running down my face. I was meant to be staying at Lee’s but I had gotten separated from him at some point. I later found out he had also been attacked and mugged which explained why his phone wouldn’t answer. At least he had his bed to go home to though; for me, it was a long wait outside a closed train station until I was able to get the first train back to Nottingham. I got on that train and sat there as families stared at me in my gory state. My face looked like I had gone ten rounds with Mike Tyson and my t-shirt was covered in blood. I felt like humanity was finally seeing me in my true state for the first time. I had been exposed for the freak I was and little children stared at me with frightful looks. Things got worse when I realised my ticket wasn’t valid for the train I was on. I bought a new one from a conductor keeping his distance, and then got a taxi from the station. I had managed to squander over £200 in a night. Me and outrageous Lee, there we were – flying high, feeling on top of the world, knocking back the expensive bourbons. Reality had quickly caught up with us and as Sunday morning dawned, we were two losers, beaten by the world, dying of a hangover. I stared into the mirror and saw the cuts on my face which were sure to leave more scars on my already scarred body. It was a horror show, but my misery soon subsided when I looked at the date and realised I was just two weeks from the washout period being over. Things were looking up. Soon me and Lee would be back where we belonged: locked up away from this violent world, living the easy life, getting rich once again as pretty nurses fed us experimental drugs. Yes, yes yes – it was time for my next assignment in my guinea-pig career. It was time to be a lab rat again.

lab rat

Lab Rat (Chapter Twelve)

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 Twelve

After a while, I did actually decide to do something productive. I started a blog. I had failed to get any writing done in the clinic due to the lack of solitude, but now I had no excuses – my room and the conservatory were there for me to type away in glorious isolation. Solitude was important to a writer and I always saw those people sitting in busy cafes writing their novels as mere posers. To me, writing was an intensely private art. It was a chance for a person to retreat from the world, collect their thoughts, and try to make sense of what the hell was going on. Naturally, it only made sense that a person was best positioned to do this while alone in a room. Now my medical trial money afforded me both time and solitude, I figured it was the time to fulfil my literary destiny. I sat alone at my work station, my old laptop on the desk, the blank page ready to be assaulted by the genius my brain possessed. Yes, sure, I was technically unemployed, but in my head I was a man with important work to do. Even when I was out roaming the world, getting drunk with strangers, scratching my arse and staring into space, deep down I knew it was all research for my true profession of writing. I was a man soaking in the human experience only to reap it later when I put words to paper. However, try to explain this to peers or parents when they see you without a stable job, wandering around the world, living out of a backpack, experiencing life but not “putting any roots down”, then you were sure to be met with rolled eyes and raised eyebrows. And then, of course, there was the unfortunate fact that less than one percent of writers made enough money to live off. It was a fool’s crusade and truly you had to be a bit insane or deluded to want to be a writer primarily in this life. I think a bit of both and then you were really in Kafka or Bukowski territory. But ultimately in my eyes the true writer didn’t have a choice; once that bug had bitten and you were infected with the madness, it was either you got the words down or died trying.

Like every other creative person, I was a thief, and the blog I started was inspired by ‘Humans of New York’. It was a blog that uploaded photos of New York residents and some dialogue about life there in the big apple. I guess a part of me liked the personal nature of it – the everyday person being able to share their introspective thoughts on the world around them. I had an idea to do something similar related to my past travels, so I found a website where I could get copyright-free images of people hiking in nature. I’d then upload them to the blog alongside some sort of internal dialogue about life or society. The concept was that people would share their thoughts on society while outside of it – as if that was the space to make sense of the world and see it through sober eyes. It only seemed fitting then to name it ‘The Thoughts From The Wild’. Unlike the Humans of New York blog though, it was really just me writing and pretending to be these people in the pictures. I liked the anonymous nature of it, almost Banksy-esque, and I only uploaded photos of people without their face visibly to maintain the innominate vibe. The thought did occur to me that maybe I was just too cowardly to put my name and face to the words. Yeah, probably it was a bit of that too.

Anyway, I went live with it and started posting my musings to the internet world. My work had begun and it was after a week or two that I started getting visitors to the blog. I sat back at that keyboard like a man of purpose; like a man of importance. For the first time in my life, people were reading and interacting with my writing. Even just a few likes, comments, and shares was like spiritual heroin to me. People thanking you for your words; people sharing them and getting emotional about something you’ve written. It was a rare and strange feeling to see something you’d created be of emotional worth to people; it was even enough to remind you that you weren’t totally batshit crazy for having these thoughts in the first place (social gratification…. yeah, I guess I was as guilty as the next man). Although there was a part of me which identified with the purposeless life, I also knew there was a yearning in my soul to create or leave something behind in this tortured world. Having a mission or purpose was commonplace to most, of course, but mine – like every artist – was a crazy one. I wanted to create art. I wanted to affect people through my words. I wanted to change lives and inspire people to live fearlessly and unforgivably. I knew from an outside perspective a lot of people would look at me and see me as an unemployed, unmotivated bum with no drive or ambition, but to me it wasn’t like that at all. It’s just my ambition was different from most people. I didn’t care about status, or material goods, or stability and security. To me that was all corrosive to the soul. All I cared about was what my heart was guiding me towards – whether that was to a mountain top in the Himalayas, or to writing a book, or even just having some understanding of who you really are. These things were what I craved and I was relentless as any sociopathic businessman in pursuit of my desires. But unfortunately the world had a rigid image of what success was and for that I was seen as a loser by many people. But I accepted that. I had my own philosophy and to me success was any human who managed to go out into the world and live their best life. Ultimately, success was living life so that if you were to die at any moment, you could sail off into the abyss with no regrets, knowing you’d lived your life as true and as pure as you could. 

That was one of the key themes of my blog and I typed out such ideas alongside those images of people hiking in nature. I quickly realised the anonymous nature of the blog allowed me to write more fearlessly than I ever had before. Not thinking about what people would think of me, I was able to let rip and spew out all my deepest thoughts and feelings. I had to think of one of the Greek philosophers again: “Give a man a mask and he’ll tell you the truth.” It was exactly that, and without my name attached to the writing, I was able to write from the heart and not from the ego. My words flowed out of me and I was soon racking up followers – two-thousand in the first few weeks to be exact. I sat back at that desk feeling like old Shakespeare himself. Finally I had a voice and the excitement of it propelled me on and on. I even went as far as investing some of my medical trial money into advertising on social media. This soon started getting me even more followers. In they came from all across the world: America, Australia, Europe, Asia. I could see it now: writing my way to the big time while living off medical trials. I’d never have to work again; just test drugs and write until writing was enough to just live off. Finally, I’d found my place in the world; finally, I’d have an answer to the awful ‘what do you do?’ question. Okay, maybe the delusion was sweeping me away again.

One day I was writing in the conservatory when Sean came stumbling in. He saw me sitting there with my laptop and asked what I was up to. “Just a bit of writing mate,” I told him as I carried on typing, hoping he took the hint to leave me alone.

“Oh yeah, what sort of thing are you writing about?” It was no use. For a moment I considered telling him and even sharing some of my writing with him. He was a man who had just lived in a treehouse in Mexico for ten years while playing his guitar and teaching English – a man who had clearly taken a few too many psychedelics through the years and was completely out of loop with mainstream society. No doubt the things I wrote on the blog would appeal to him, but for some reason I couldn’t be bothered. I was still secretive about it, I guess. “Ahh nothing important. Just a few short stories,” I finally said. 

“Well it’s good to have a creative passion,” he said joyfully, snapping his finger at me. “You know, I’ve been playing the guitar for over forty years now and, for me, I do it because I love it. But I believe I am great at it because I have put in the hours, and if you put in enough hours with your writing, you can be great at that too. Have you read the ten thousand hour theory?” I knew what he was on about straight away. A man had once written a book claiming that if you devoted ten thousand hours to anything, you could master it. For some reason I told him I hadn’t though; I think I just wanted to hear him explain it in his own awkward way. He did exactly that as he explained the theory and encouraged me to keep on writing until I had amassed those ten thousand hours. He went on for a few minutes, telling me what a great guitarist he is, and that I could be as great as he is one day if I persevered with my writing. He then left, but not before giving me a copy of Game of Thrones. “A little inspiration for you,” he said, not knowing I had zero interest in writing fantasy novels. 

After he left, I sat there staring at my screen and thinking about what he’d said. He’d been practising and playing his guitar all his life, writing his own songs. No doubt at some point he probably thought he would be the next Bob Dylan. His guitar playing was good, but unfortunately his singing was atrocious, and I didn’t care what anyone said: you either have the talent or you don’t. The voice, the words, the vision – it cannot be taught or learned or stolen. Naturally it made me reflect on my own abilities. Here I was at twenty-seven thinking I had something inside of me – some talent that would lead me to my destiny as a writer. It was probably just the same feeling he had when he was young. Hell, it’s the same feeling every artist, writer, singer, actor or whatever has. Everyone thinks they have the special magic but, of course, it wouldn’t be special unless only a few people out there actually possessed it. No doubt in thirty years time, I’d be just like Sean – approaching the retirement age, unemployed with no savings, living in a shared house with no friends or partner. A madman or freak to the rest of the world. It was almost enough to make me think about packing it all in and getting a career, but the bug was simply too strong. There was no way to stop myself from heading down the same path as Sean had. And even though Sean was a bit crazy and annoying, he had a purity about him that was rarely found in someone past the age of thirty, let alone sixty. With that I mind, I kept on strumming away on that keyboard. Even if I was going to end up destitute, or starve in a ditch, my words would keep raining down on those pages. Nothing was going to stop me. Nothing was going to make me give up the delusional dreams inside my head. Yes, I thought, looking at a Van Gogh painting on the conservatory wall, maybe – just maybe – I was crazy enough to actually make it.

lab rat

Lab Rat (chapter eleven)

 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 Eleven

I was out. My first stint of being a guinea-pig was over. I had helped advance the world of medicinal research and now was ‘the washout-period’ – a period of three months in which I wasn’t able to test any more drugs for safety reasons. This meant no more trials until the Autumn, but that was okay; the payment from the trial would sustain me plentifully until my next drug-testing assignment. I had to wait a week or so for the payment but there it came: a singular payment of £4580 into my bank account. I’d never seen such a large payment go into my account and I sat there staring at it, touching the screen, wondering if it was real. It seemed surreal to acquire that sort of money in such a short space of time – especially for basically having a relaxing retreat from society. In a way I felt like I had cheated the system, and I kept refreshing the page to see if it was still there. It was and naturally I started wondering how I could spend it. I could have just jumped on a plane straight away, but I had my contract with the room and, if I was honest, I wasn’t feeling like going away again so soon after getting back from a big trip. I could have invested it, but that was essentially gambling in my eyes, and my luck hadn’t been in since around birth. In the end, I figured I’d just take it easy and enjoy the rest of the summer doing my bike trips, drinking and writing.

For a few days I just did nothing. I walked into town with no real mission or quest. I felt like a Buddhist monk while roaming those streets. Sometimes I got a coffee at a café; sometimes I got some beers to sit in the park and sunbathe. It wasn’t long until I had a tan which made people wonder where I’d been on holiday (I’d explain to them that it wasn’t a holiday tan, but an unemployment one). I’d also go to the main square in the city centre and just sit on a wall people-watching. Observing the human race was one of my favourite pastimes and Nottingham city centre was a good place for it. Often I felt like I was on safari in public places – merely an observer in an environment to which I was a visitor. I think it was the comedian George Carlin who said: “When you’re born on this planet, you get a ticket to the freak show; when you’re born in America, you get a front-row seat.” Okay so I wasn’t state-side watching some shotgun-wielding hillbilly tell me god hates fags, but I felt like I had a pretty good view from where I was as I sat in that square. I saw all the crazy people – cursing alcoholics sitting and drinking their bottles of wine at midday; preachers telling us that we were all going to hell; a washed-up hippy hitting some bongo drums while singing to the pigeons; a man who rode around on his bike with an amp blasting nineties’ dance music. Occasionally a fight would erupt and the police would turn up to calm things down. It was a solid show with riveting performances all round. Aside from all the madness, I watched all the regular people go about their day: the shoppers, the teenagers, the mums, the people going to and from work. With those people I saw the faces of society: some scrunched up and worn down from life, some still looking great as they strode proudly with purpose and passion. They were the faces of the winners and the faces of the losers. The faces of those who were top of the pile and the faces of those who were being trampled underfoot. It was all a big game and I wondered how my face was going to look in twenty years time. I figured if I kept on doing medical trials, I’d be able to live this stress-free lifestyle, get plenty of sleep, and have time to exercise. Maybe I wouldn’t grow old with a twisted face full of tiredness and despair. Maybe the light would still be there inside my eyes. Maybe there was a chance.

Meanwhile at my house I was still living with an odd collection of people. At first, it did feel strange to live with the landlady, but it turned out she was quite a bohemian character, very gregarious and laid-back. Her name was Thea and she was a retired nurse spending her retirement baking cakes, hosting folk music lessons, drinking wine and just generally living the good life. Her house was her castle and it was a big one with a sprawling garden, brimming with different types of plants and trees. A pond full of frogs. A greenhouse where she grew tomatoes and potatoes. There was a conservatory with a load of instruments in and a big kitchen where she baked a new cake every day. She was in the final chapter of her life, watching the sun set of her one existence, sipping that wine as she soaked in the final years of the human experience. I had always assumed the best years of your life were when you were young and full of fire, but seeing her living that way made me rethink things. I had to even admit I was a little jealous of her, but I knew that such a decadent life was far out of reach. She had bought the house in 1973 for £10,000 and now its value was over half a million pounds. Even with inflation, the value of the house was many multiple times worth what she paid for it. Owning a place like that was simply impossible now with renting prices, low-paying jobs, and the general cost of a house these days. We were the first generation to be poorer than our parents and affording a home was simply a pipe dream for most. I had to think of the girl from the trial currently living off £150 a week while walking dogs. Or Jamie struggling to get another job after just getting made redundant. No, there was no point even imagining such a life. Even the idea of retirement for most was unrealistic. Our generation would be working until we were dead. Personally, I didn’t expect to live until my retirement age anyway, whatever that was going to be, so I didn’t worry too much about it. I figured I’d go out in a blaze of glory on one of my trips, or maybe overdosing in Vegas on my 60th birthday. Maybe even on a medical trial. Who knew. For me I wanted death to embrace me before I was some senile old man having my ass wiped clean by a carer. To die with dignity was a rare thing.

Anyway I was enjoying living there and I spent time there relaxing in the garden, working out, reading, sunbathing, relaxing, drinking. In a weird way I was living the retired life with the landlady. The employed one of the household, Rahul, would occasionally watch us with a contemplative look. He was twenty-six years old, at a similar stage of life than me, and was working hard in his graduate job. He regularly worked fifty-hour weeks. He was growing into his career, climbing the ladder, working hard to become a real person. In the meanwhile he watched me sitting around stroking cats and sipping wine. It was hard to know whether he was thinking I was a degenerate loser, or whether he had it all wrong and that I was some sort of genius. I wasn’t too sure of the answer myself to be honest and I guess I was interested to know his thoughts on the whole thing.

I wasn’t the only slacker of the household. There was the sixty-year-old Sean who spent his days in his room playing his guitar and singing the same awful songs again and again. Having just spent ten years living in a treehouse in Mexico, he had come home for some surgery and gotten stuck here. He didn’t seem to have much money and he was looking for work. Occasionally he even found some, but it never lasted long. A week or two after starting he’d be back in his room strumming on that guitar once again. I couldn’t help but look at him and wonder if that was what awaited me in old age. I tried not to think about it really; it was an uneasy thought. I knew my path was far more likely to end his way than Thea’s. Apart from him there was Simon – the fifty-year-old conspiracy theorist who lived in a shed at the bottom of the garden. Now Simon did have a job as a sound engineer at a bar in town, but work was so sparse that he was rarely in. He had some other odd jobs that he worked here and there, but if no work could be found then he’d be in his shed smoking weed and watching YouTube conspiracy theory videos. At times I had to think, what was more of a madhouse – the clinic or the house. It was a close call and it did make me pause and reflect that I always seemed to end up in such environments. No doubt I was just another inmate in the madhouse too.

lab rat

Lab Rat (chapter ten)

 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 Ten

The days drifted by and suddenly I was two weeks into the study. The bone pain they warned us off had come, but it was nothing that couldn’t be cured with a few more pain-relief pills. Drugs upon drugs; my body was working overtime. Other than that, things were going smoothly and I was well-adjusted to the guinea-pig way of life. I’d be awoken about 7am every morning when the nurses switched on the blinding lights of the ward. Then we’d have some procedures, take our pills, and then have some more procedures. Breakfast was at nine, lunch at noon, and dinner at six. The meals were the highlight of the day and in between came the games, the movies, the naps, and the general chit-chat with my fellow test subjects. It was groundhog day in there and after a while we were all close enough to know each other’s story. There were two people I tried to steer clear of – both were devoutly religious. One was a mormon and the other was a fundamentalistic christian. Both were, of course, completely insane. They’d sit in bed constantly reading their holy scriptures while occasionally glancing over at the other with judgmental looks – the sort of look which said “poor lost soul, soon you’ll find the way…” Everyone was waiting for them to erupt into an argument, although they never did. The mormon was quick to inject his opinion on every topic under the sun though, shutting the other person down and speaking for ten minutes, but everyone had quickly realised this and learned to not toss out the bait when he was around.

I had deduced that the most interesting person on the study was Lee – a twenty-nine-year-old guy from Sheffield. Some people in life you just wonder how they came into existence and Lee was one of them. The guy had absolutely no filter in a social environment and from the off he was regaling everyone with his outrageous stories. Nothing was off topic: masturbation, sexual encounters (complete with videos), gambling addiction, fights. His most outrageous tale was about how he had borrowed money from a loan shark and had ended up shagging his wife. While owing money to this man, he’d be having his wife over and “giving her a ‘reet good seeing-to” – as he so eloquently put it. It was all fun and games until the loan shark went through his wife’s phone and read their messages. He text Lee to let him know he was coming around to, presumably, beat him to death. Shit had hit the fan and there was old Lee – pacing up and down his flat, fearing for his life, not knowing what to do next. His situation seemed hopeless until he was suddenly struck by a divine stroke of luck. The loan shark – presumably speeding while in a fit of rage – had got pulled over by the police just before he reached Lee. The police then breathalysed him to find him over the limit, and then searched his boot to find a load of gear in the back. Old Lee – it seemed he had the gods on his side that night. The loan shark was taken to the police station and was charged then later thrown in jail for one-and-a-half years. I had to laugh thinking about it. I imagined this guy sitting in his cell spewing with venomous anger. This guy owed him money, had slept with wife, and had now indirectly got him imprisoned for over a year. It was an outrageous story from an outrageous man. I say that because I never heard of anyone living as outrageously as Lee. He told us how he drank a crate of beer every single night and lived off takeaways. The luxury didn’t stop there. Expensive designer clothes, massages, prostitutes, tanning salons, Waitrose steaks, frequent taxis – not to mention his own flat. This would all be fine except for one little hiccup. Lee didn’t work. In fact, he had never seemed to work. We asked him how he afforded such a flamboyant lifestyle and he, of course, said it was due to medical trials. But a quick calculation of his lifestyle made it clear that he was spending far more than he could earn in a year doing trials. I suspected parental support, but he was out of contact with his dad and his mum lived in shared housing – indicating she wasn’t exactly rolling in it. I then suspected the loans, but he claimed he only borrowed a few hundred pounds. Either way, he was a mystery, a maverick, a madman. Unlike any creature I’d ever met. The sort of person you’d only meet once in a while. And I guess that’s why we became friends.

One day we were sitting in the lounge. Lee had just pretended to ‘see the light’ with the christian and had a prayer with him. He came in laughing and telling me about it. I guess he was in a philosophical mood and he started asking me about life. “So do you see yourself carrying on travelling in the future then? Don’t you want to settle down at some point mate? You know, the wife and the kids and all that. I think I’d love that. I think it’s what I need, you know, to keep me a bit grounded.” I had to let out a smirk; there was no force in this universe that could keep this bastard grounded.

“Well never say never,” I told him. “But for now I just want to go on adventures and write my books. I want to live a life of experience; a life to tell stories about. I tried to do the whole traditional thing. I went to university, got a degree, applied for some jobs. But I always felt it inside that it wasn’t what I really wanted. There was this force inside of me, a feeling in my gut telling me it was wrong. So I’ve been travelling on and off since then. I still can’t see myself settling down. I’d like to have a partner, sure, who wouldn’t, but I’m not interested in spawning some more humans into this world. You have to have faith in humanity to bring kids into the world and right now that faith just isn’t there for me.” He looked at me, nodding with a look of familiarity. Maybe he had experienced some similar misanthropic feelings before.

“I see your point mate. Not everyone is made for that lifestyle, but give it a few years yet mate. You never know, you might meet a woman and it’ll change you. I’ve partied a lot and been about a bit as you know, but I think I’m looking to settle down now. I never thought I’d want kids, but I think I do now. What could be more rewarding than raising a little version of yourself?” I looked at him for a second, analysing his expression. It was hard to know when he was being serious; half the time in here, he spent winding people up.

“Well like I said, maybe one day I’ll run out of steam. You like gambling don’t you? I feel like life is a lot like being in a casino, especially when it comes to settling down. When you get married and have kids, it’s like you cash your chips in. If you don’t do that then anything is possible in life really. Yes, you might end up dying alone in a ditch, but who knows what else could happen? You could become a mountaineer, an artist, a sky-diving instructor. You could do so many things, start a new life in another place. Once you settle down you remove all that possibility. You’ve cashed in your chips and walked out of life’s casino. The writing is on the wall from there on in. A steady, predictable path to the grave is what awaits.”

“That’s a good analogy,” he said. “But I think getting married is a risk too. Lots can still happen. My mum has been married twice already. Now she’s speaking to some guy in Turkey who wants here to go and move there. So you never know. And besides, sure there may be more possibility in life if you don’t settle down, but will you be happy? Isn’t that what it’s all about? There’s a reason the vast majority of people settle down. It’s because it gives them happiness.” I sat there and thought about it.

“I don’t necessarily see it as people settle down because they think they will make them happy. I can’t remember who said it exactly, maybe Plato or one of the Greeks, but whoever it was said something like: “men get married because they are tired; women get married because they are curious. Ultimately both are disappointed.” Lee laughed and took a sip of his decaffeinated coffee (normal wasn’t permitted in the clinic). He nodded and seemed to think about the quote, no doubt analysing whether his desire to settle down stemmed from a lust for life or a tiredness from it. He looked like he was about to say something but then the rest of the group came into the lounge to watch the football. Philosophy time was over for the day.

The rest of the trial came and went. Soon we had stopped getting dosed and it was the home straight towards discharge from the clinic. Towards the end of the trial I did start to experience some cabin-fever. The main frustration stemmed from not being able to do any exercise. I’d stare out the windows at the July sunshine and just want to go on a run or a bike ride. I could feel my body weakening and my mind becoming restless. However, I had to remind myself that it was still a much better trade of time than the minimum-wage jobs that awaited me out there. I had had a little holiday while earning a lot of money and I was looking forward to coming out back into society as a free man. A man with money, not chained to a job or a wife or children. A man who was still young with a world of possibility before him. Oh yes, life was looking glorious as the summer sun continued shining. Perhaps I’d finally get writing my literary masterpieces, I thought. 

lab rat

Lab Rat (Chapter Nine)

 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.

medical

Chapter Nine

It was about two weeks later that I started my first study. I first attended a screening where I had my blood taken, my heart rate and blood pressure recorded, underwent a drug test, a breathalyser, a smokerlyzer, and, finally, had another brief medical with the doctor. Once again I passed with flying colours and was admitted to the clinic for the trial. The trial involved taking a medicine that treated some condition called ‘Neutropenia’ – a white blood cell disorder that was a side-effect of chemotherapy. The medicine was supposed to increase your white blood cell count – a response to the condition which typically lowered it, causing people to be more susceptible to diseases and infections due to weakened immune systems. I wasn’t totally sure what the whole thing was about if you want to know the god’s honest truth. I guess like everyone else I was blinded by the money – four and a half thousand pounds for twenty-two days in the clinic. Ha! It seemed absolutely ridiculous thinking about it – so much so that I was willing to get sick for it, even though the doctor made it clear many people had taken the drug before and the only real side effect was some ‘bone pain’. A bit of bone pain? That sure trumped the pain that came from the alternative. In particular I thought of what was required to earn four thousand pounds in that pet-food warehouse – the back pain, the stomach pain from the smell, the mental pain from the monotony. It was a good trade in my books and I was ready to get to work. I unpacked my things and prepared myself to be experimented on. It was go-time. (Oh, if you’re wondering why I was trialling a drug for a condition that I didn’t suffer from, it was because they didn’t want people who actually suffered from the condition. All the trials there were not to see if the medicine actually worked – that research had already been done – it was just to see how it was taken up by a healthy person and if there were any side effects.)

So there I was: unpacked and preparing myself for twenty-two days of lounging around, playing games, daydreaming, writing and laughing at the situation I had found myself in. I sat on my bed and got comfy. At the bottom of it I saw a piece of paper beside it. ‘Subject 55355’ – my guinea-pig identity for the next few weeks. I then looked around at my surroundings. I was staying in a shared ward with another eleven volunteers. It looked a lot like a normal hospital ward – there was no real privacy and all our beds were about two metres apart with no curtains around them. With the room being my home for the next three weeks, I was naturally curious to see what other types of people I would be living with. A cursory look revealed it was a diverse range of ages. The youngest volunteer looked about twenty and the eldest was a man in his fifties. It was mostly men, with three women who would no doubt be sick of us by the end. They all appeared surprisingly normal on the surface of things, although I believed that couldn’t be the case. The fact that they were doing these trials meant they weren’t normal by default. Not everyone with a regular job could just drop out of life and check into a clinic for twenty-two days to test some pills. The very nature of the whole thing was unconventional and consequently I was expecting to meet fellow outcasts, oddbods and outsiders. That was one of the things I had loved about my travels over the past years. When you venture out from the realm of ordinary life, you were sure to find those who were a bit weird and interesting. I thought of all the wild-eyed and undomesticated souls that I had crossed paths with on my travels – a retired army sergeant with no home who walked around Spain; a female circus-performer who hitch-hiked around the world on her own; a middle-aged engineer cycling through South America after a divorce. They were all people full of flame and fire; people with the spark of passion burning bright in their eye. Yes, if you want to find where the colour is in life, you have to head to the edges – almost always, that is where the magic is found. Throw a jar of ink at a wall and you will see that in the middle it is dense and black; however the further out you go, the more complicated and interesting the patterns become. It was the same with society and I avoided the core as much as I could. To me, it was a black hole for the soul.

Anyway, the first day came and went then we were getting dosed. Nurses wearing red tabards which read ‘DO NOT DISTURB – DOSING’ would come round our beds one by one. They would check our details and then give us the meds with a glass of water. A quick chat with the resident doctor to ensure everything was okay then you were all good to go: you’d swallow those pills down and know that whatever happened from then on, you were guaranteed to get paid four and a half thousand pounds. Ha! I had to laugh once again at the thought of it. Even if you got sick and had to be taken off the study as a precaution after two days, you’d still get the full payment. In a strange way, I kinda hoped I did get sick. I’d take a skin rash or a bit of vomiting to get out early. Maybe even a heavy fall from fainting. Perhaps a mild seizure? But no, everything went smoothly from the off and – after a morning of relentless procedures – I was able to get up and enjoy some well-earned leisure time. I watched TV, read some newspapers, and then played some pool. For the first time I interacted with some of my fellow test subjects. You were all in it together and naturally there was a sense of brotherhood between you all.

The first person I got speaking to was the eldest person on the trial. His name was Darren and he had recently quit his job as a store manager for an Ikea. He seemed reluctant to talk more about it so I spoke about my life to him – about all my adventures and odd jobs and writing aspirations. “I tell you what son, good on ya,” he said. “Do it while you can. Bricks and mortar isn’t all it’s cracked up to be you know.” It was something I had heard from a few middle-aged people before. You could always see regret in the eyes of older people whenever you spoke about things like travelling, and they were usually those who had ended up disenfranchised with the life they were living. In the case of Darren, this was true once again. Finally feeling on good terms with me, he began telling me the real reason he had quit his job. He told me how his best mate had also been a store manager for Ikea and had ended up working seventy-hour weeks until it ruined his life. At first came the rapid aging due to the stress and lack of sleep. Then came the alcoholism. Then the weight gain. Then the breakdown of his marriage. Then the loss of contact to his kids. And finally? Suicide. Yes, after twenty years of being a high-earning retail manager, the poor bastard hung himself in a hotel room. He died a rich man apparently, but not in spirit. His mate had completely neglected everything else in his life aside from work and finally it drove him over the edge. Darren had seen this happen and realised he was heading the same way. He quit his Ikea job almost immediately with no real plan other than to not kill himself. A few weeks later, here he was: in a medical trial research facility playing pool with a twenty-seven-year-old traveller and failing writer. Well, it seemed like a good start to me.

The second volunteer I met was one of the girls of the group –  a twenty-two-year-old recent graduate of environmental conservation. Like me, she had quickly learned that having a degree meant absolutely nothing and was enduring the post-graduation crisis which gripped hundreds of thousands of young people out there. She was currently surviving by walking other people’s dogs occasionally and living off £150 a week. With her also not having a fixed schedule, she was able to come and take part in these studies. She joked about the state of her life and I also shared with her my shambolic situation. I told her that I was unemployed and also had a useless degree which I only got because I was pressured by my school tutors to go to university. Hearing my story, she smiled and seemed to feel better about herself.

Next up was Jamie – a gym buff who had recently been made redundant from an engineering job at the age of thirty-two. He was now trying to figure out his next move while in the clinic. He had recently applied to be a fire-fighter but had just failed some online test which had swiftly put that dream to bed. Now he could be seen scrolling through some textbooks while he researched what other profession he could unsuccessfully try to break into.

To many these stories were tragedies but oh how I loved them. I loved being around people who didn’t have it together and whose lives were in a state of crisis. I guess that’s because I was one of those people too. But things just felt more alive, more vibrant. Talk of television and jobs was replaced with existential ponderings. Ultimately people only got philosophical when things weren’t going how they were supposed to; that was something I learnt over the years. When things were going how they were supposed to, you could switch off your mind and ride the cultural conveyor-belt through life until the grave. It was only when you were off it and having to figure out a new way for yourself that you stopped and questioned things. You needed to justify the fact you were a beatnik and philosophy was the natural go-to. Yes, it was a madhouse in there and I looked around at my fellow guinea-pigs realising this was where I belonged – locked up with other people pushed out to the edge and testing drugs because there was no room for them in the centre of things. There was no room for me out there either. But it was okay; I had found a new way. Test drugs, travel and write. I saw my path slowly unfolding before me. I was happy with it.

medical trial

Medical Trial (chapter 6, 7 & 8)

 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 Six

I got started with the job, my first task stacking tins of dog food onto pallets after they had been relabelled. While waiting for the cans to amass at the end of the conveyor-belt, I stood there watching some young Polish girls sit and strip the cans of their old labels. They stared out the window with emotionless expressions as they robotically picked up and sliced the labels without looking. They did one every three seconds before shoving it back onto the conveyor-belt. The girls weren’t beautiful or anything, but I couldn’t help but stare at them. Such young women with such little enthusiasm who had appeared to have done a task so much they had turned into machines themselves. They worked in silence and I wondered what they were thinking, and whether or not this was the sort of thing they had envisaged when coming to this country. Was this the better life they were hoping for? Did they have plans that stretched beyond the walls of the warehouse? Were they actually secretly fulfilled and content? As always when studying my fellow human-beings, I couldn’t be sure what was really lingering inside their skulls.

Once the newly-labelled cans made their way to the end of the conveyor-belt, I had to grab them and stack them on the pallets. It was physical work, and repetitive work, but I didn’t mind it. The speed was okay for it not to be stressful and the mindlessness of the work allowed me to daydream the hours away. Daydreaming often was a disability in life when it came to things that required focus, but when it came to situations like this, it felt like more of a superpower. I was able to pass the time away while going on some introspective adventure through the galaxies of my own mind. I thought about my travels and what other adventures I could go on in the future; I also thought of things to write about when I got home. Yes, I thought – truly the last refuge of freedom was in the mind. They had my body confined in that place for the time being, but my mind was free as always to wander wherever the hell it pleased.

After a while, my daydreaming was interrupted when another guy came to work with me. He was middle-aged, about fifty, with a bad posture, grey hair and glasses. He was friendly and started asking me about my life and how I had ended up in that warehouse. I liked him and told him everything without feeling the need to hide anything. He listened to me with interest, praising my lifestyle and encouraging me to get back on the road as soon as I could. After hearing my tale, I started to ask him a little about his own tragedy; about how he also had ended up in such a terrible job while seemingly being an intelligent person. He told me how he had worked in software development down in London for the last ten years until he was suddenly made redundant. Trying to get a new position in the industry was hard for someone his age, and for now he had been demoted from developing computer systems for big tech companies to stacking out-of-date tins of dog food. “All these companies want young graduates,” he complained to me. “They want people they can train up and have a future in the company, not some fifty-something man at the end of his working life.” The classic decay of value which awaited us all. His story was a sad one but I took solace in the fact he hadn’t given up; like many toiling away in these depressing and dead-end jobs, he had a grand plan to break free. After work everyday, he went home and devoted his leisure time to developing a computer game. He spent five hours a night working on it before getting whatever sleep he could. His plan was to upload it as an app and hope the success of it would allow him to break back into the software industry. The smell of the rotting pet food had spurred him on and there he was: another dreamer fighting for something more than he had. His story made me think of my writing and encouraged me to go home and hit those keyboard keys until the early hours of the morning, my fingertips fighting for freedom – my soul scratching and clawing for something more than what life was offering me. In my heart I felt my writing aspirations were nothing more than pure delusion, but like everyone else I was guilty of needing a little delusion to make life tolerable. Religion, love, dreams, the future – yes, delusion was the universal drug and it was just a matter of time before I wrote my masterpieces. Soon enough I would be sitting in a Rolling Stone interview telling some journalist how I crawled through the swamps of life to come out clean on the other side. I imagined the book signings, the woman knocking on my front door, the paychecks coming in for me. I imagined young writers asking me for advice and me telling them it was just a matter of following your gut and going out and living life with your heart on your sleeve. “To write it well you have to live it well,” I would say to them. “Be the centre of your own experience.” Yes, it was only a matter of time; only a matter of time before the world knew my genius. The delusional daydreams continued as I gazed out the window and suddenly began to understand the look on the faces of the young Polish girls a little better.

Chapter Seven

I carried on at the job for about four weeks until I had had enough. Getting up early and riding that one hour bus everyday; breaking my back while stacking out-of-date pet food; coming home stinking of dog biscuits. The paychecks came in and seemed pitiful for what I had sacrificed. The job itself had taken me to some new lows. At one point I had been reduced to emptying and cleaning out the waste buckets. The foul odor of that rotting pet food penetrated my lungs, almost causing me to vomit, and at that point I knew the absurdity of the job had gotten too much. I rang up the agency and told them that I had decided to quit. They didn’t seem too happy but I felt that the boss of the warehouse probably understood; he no doubt figured that an intelligent young man such as myself had moved onto something better, but no, there I was once again – a useless, unemployed graduate with little options in a recession-ravaged world. I couldn’t even work up the energy to go and search for another job; it was all simply too much for the time being. Instead I reflected on my travels and longed for some adventure. It was summer and I figured there were always places to explore around Nottingham, so I popped back to my parents to get my old bicycle. Going back to my parents was always a tedious affair and they were always keen to know how I was doing. We were a working class family and my parents only knew life as getting a steady job and settling down as soon as you were an adult. As a result, they hadn’t been encouraging of my travelling lifestyle in my twenties and were always keen to point out to me that I couldn’t be relying on them all my life. They pointed that out because a few years ago I had come back from a trip with a few thousand pounds of debt; what followed was a year at home, staring at the walls of my old childhood bedroom and feeling like they were closing in on me. I had to take my old job back at the local supermarket and suddenly my whole two-year world trip seemed like it never happened. I felt trapped, caged, suffocated. A period of depression followed in which I regularly argued with my parents. I knew that having to go back there for another stint would be too much for me, and I looked at my money dwindling down and felt a knot in my stomach. I was now in my late twenties and although there were many out there living with their parents due to the state of the economy, I knew such a thing for me would break me, as well as give my parents the gratification they wanted for seeing me fall flat on my feet again. Ultimately they wanted to see me suffer for choosing to not swallow the normal nine-to-five lifestyle like the majority of people my age were. “Why can’t you be more like your friends,” they would say. “They all have proper jobs…” “Why did you even get a degree if you’re not going to use it?” “When are you going to grow up like your brother?” Ahhh, the great questions of life.

Anyway, with my bike back in my possession, I took it out to the local countryside. I rode it around the small towns and villages, getting lost and enjoying the freedom that I had for the time being. Sometimes I would just pick a spot in a field, sit down with a 4-pack of cider, and write some poetry in a notebook. I played Bob Dylan on my phone and imagined myself in his shoes, wandering about America in the fifties meeting strange and interesting people. Aside from the cycling trips, I went to bars in town, hoping to meet some strange and interesting people myself. There was one bar in particular where all the bohemians seemed to congregate. The few times I had been in there I had met artists, musicians, travellers and homeless people. I was pretty much a bum myself at that point and I figured it was the place for me. I’d go there with Jake some nights and a few times I just went on my own. There was a smoking area at the side of the building that was packed with tables of people all crowding and conversing together. You only had to take a seat somewhere and it wasn’t long before you were chatting with some vegan anarchist about philosophy or politics. It was the perfect place for a cliché failing writer like myself and it was nice not to feel like an absolute alien for once (as I did among the socially-sane and steadily employed people that frequented the other bars).

One night I was there and got hit with the ‘what do you do?’ question. I always resented that question. Most likely because I was unemployed and didn’t have an answer to it, but also because you were expected to justify your existence with some job title as if it was the primary reason for your existence. Anyway, I got hit with the depressing question by some skin-head and just told him the truth – that I had been travelling a lot the last years and had now come home and was unemployed and aspiring to be a writer but not really being a writer. He sat there smoking his cigarette and nodding, seeming to understand the tragedy of my situation. It was then that I was informed of something which would change my life for the foreseeable future – something which seemed too good to be true in this world where people suffered to make a living.

“Have you ever considered doing one of those medical trial things?” he asked.

“Medical trials?” I said. “You mean being a human guinea-pig?”

“Yeah, clinical research studies. I’ve got a friend who does them. He normally makes around fifteen thousand pounds a year doing studies. It sounds like a pretty sweet gig too. You just go into a clinic, take some pills, have your health monitored for a bit, and then you come out with a load of money in your bank account. It’s all tax-free too.” My interest piqued with the amount of money he quoted; after tax, that was more than a full year’s wage at the pet food factory.

“Sounds good,” I said. “But isn’t it dangerous?”

“Well, he’s done loads of studies and never had any side effects. In fact, he loves going in to do them ‘cause it’s a chance to just lie around and do nothing for a bit. I’d do them myself if I could get the time off work. You need a flexible schedule to do them, but if you’re not currently working then you could look into it. There’s a clinic here in Nottingham. You’d be able to do your writing in there too.”

I sat there listening intently. The idea of testing drugs for money seemed strange at first, but the more I thought about it, the more I was willing to do it. Essentially every job required you to be locked away and sacrifice your time and health for a financial reimbursement; medical trials just seemed more direct about the whole thing. “Look you need money and we need your body, so come in and sacrifice your freedom and health for a set period of time and we reimburse you with a monetary payment into your bank account.” If anything I had to admire them for their honesty. I thanked him for the recommendation and told him I’d think about it. In reality I was already sold and I spent the rest of my evening thinking about when I could get into the clinic, take some experimental drugs, and begin my career in the human guinea-pig industry.

Chapter Eight

The smoking skin-head was right; there was a clinic here in Nottingham, in a business park beside a small village just outside the city. I went onto their website and checked them out. They were an independent company conducting a variety of studies for various diseases and conditions. The current trials paid anything from one to five thousand pounds, involving anything from three to twenty-six days in the clinic. To qualify for taking part in a trial you had to be between the age of eighteen and fifty-five, have a healthy body mass index, be a non-smoker, have no serious health issues, and have no history of drug or alcohol abuse. The history of alcohol abuse was questionable, but ultimately nothing they would be able to prove. I looked at everything they listed and realised I was good to go – finally, a role I was actually qualified for and interested in doing.

I registered and entered in my details, including my doctor who they would need to get a medical report off. Within a few days, they were on the phone and inviting me to come for an induction. I attended as soon as I could. The induction involved a medical examination, a chat with the doctor, and a tour of the facilities. Speaking to the doctor, he looked through my medical history with approving nods. On paper I was as healthy as they came: no conditions, allergies, past surgeries or major injuries. I was a natural. On the mental health side of things, I had definitely had some issues over the years, but typically I told him that I hadn’t. The way I figured it, there was no such thing as a person who had no history of mental illness; every man or woman out there had their own demons and had spent at least some time in the darkness. Ultimately there was no way for a human-being to live in this society without having their brain scrambled a little bit. After chatting for a few minutes, he began inspecting me over – shining a torch in my eyes, checking my reactions, listening to my breathing. He asked me about some scars on my body; they were all from drunken alterations, but I explained them away as bike-riding accidents. Next he lifted up my sleeve to examine the veins on my arm. For each study they would be taking multiple samples of blood, and hence you were required to have ‘good veins’ – aka veins which could be easily penetrated and drained by the nurses’ needles. Luckily, I passed with flying colours again. My whole life I had these big juicy veins that snaked down my arms. I attributed them to the cardiovascular exercises of running and cycling, as well as my general genetic make-up. In particular there was this one huge vein which protruded considerably around the underside of my elbow. This river of blood was a lucrative commodity and would be sure to get me onto a trial. This was it: my one money-making ability. Some men had marketable skills, team-player qualities, practical trades and talents. Me? I had a big vein which would secrete blood at any moment, making me an ideal candidate to test experimental drugs on.

After the medical I was given a tour of the facility which was located just across the road in a separate building. It looked more like a business headquarters from the outside than a medical facility. Walking through the reception and into the hallways, I soon saw the volunteers who were currently checked in for whatever study they were doing. They wore matching polo-shirts which identified them to their study via their colour (there were six wards in total which meant there were up to six studies taking place at any one time). Some of the volunteers were playing table tennis, some were playing pool, others were playing darts. Some sat down on beanbags and played on the Xbox; others sat in the lounge watching movies. I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing. I watched them all relaxing and hanging out while taking home about £200 a day. Of course, they did have to be in their beds at some points for procedures, but for most of the day they were free to do as they pleased. I was even informed that there was bingo and quizzes which came with prizes. The cherry on the cake? The time spent here was completely free. You paid for nothing, all your meals were brought to you, and hell there was even a laundry service. It was like staring at the great secret I had hoped always existed when working those soul-crushing and tedious jobs. I thought of all the people out there spending money on their commutes, working for awful wages, struggling to save anything more than a few hundreds pounds a year. Fools! Here you could walk into the clinic, lay around, scratch your balls, play games, watch movies and have meals brought to you before walking out the front door a few thousands pounds better off. It was the ultimate life-hack and the big vein on my forearm was already pulsating at just the thought of it.

medical trial

Medical Trial (chapter 3, 4 & 5)

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 Three

I set my bags down and looked around the room. My new strong hold. I had stayed in some shitty places over the years, but this was definitely one of the nicer ones. It even had its own fireplace, although it appeared to be out of use. The bed was king-size and covered with fresh Paisley sheets. Although I knew the joy of the drifting life, I also knew that every man needs his lair from time to time. For an introvert as I was, this was even more important. The world beats every man and woman down and sometimes it’s just those four walls that keeps it out long enough to hold onto your sanity; to not let that fire in your heart get snuffed out by all the relentless bullshit being thrown at you from every angle the second you walked out the front door. My kingdom of solitude was ready and I lay on the bed and looked up at the ceiling. I thought of nothing and did nothing for some minutes. I then got up, pulled my laptop out my bag and set it down on the desk in the corner. Already I liked the look of it. The window was right beside the desk and sunlight was creeping in through a small gap between the neighbouring houses. My workplace lit up like a spiritual place of worship. By workplace, I meant the place in which I would do my writing. Over the last few years of wandering the world and debating my place in it, I had decided that I was born to be a writer. Like many writers, I wasn’t compatible with much else in society, and living in my own world and writing down my thoughts was something that was not only enjoyable, but something that was necessary for my sanity and survival. There was so much going on inside my head that if I were to keep it all inside, I would implode, self-destruct, or even murder somebody. And on top of that, it seemed like writing was the only real thing worth doing. To me there was more glory in putting down a good sentence than in driving any flash car, or making a million pounds, or marrying some hot woman. Yes, the muse was the magic and I wanted to stain the blank pages of the world with the words in my heart. I wanted to shake people alive with my own passion and madness. I wanted my words to be read long after the life had slipped from my body and my bones lay gathering dust in the ground.

With that in mind, I opened up my laptop and faced down the blank page once more. For a while I tried to write but I couldn’t (the inspiration is either there or it isn’t; one cannot force it). Instead, I went online to check out the job adverts. It was something I had been dreading for a while; that moment when I’d have to go through the dehumanising and demoralising task of seeking employment. I sat there scrolling through the online search boards. I felt like a vegetarian looking for a dish in a steakhouse. Every job listing seemed so repulsive, so unattractive, that I felt my heart fill with hopelessness. The vast majority of jobs I wasn’t qualified for anyway, and the ones I was qualified for seemed abhorrent and inhuman. Marketing jobs, customer service jobs, sales jobs. They all involved things which made me want to vomit. Selling people shit over the phone. High-stress environments. Being a proactive ‘team-player’. Why was it so hard, I wondered, for a human just to live in a decent way. I just wanted a sane life and to not be reduced to doing mundane tasks that stole the light from the eye and the joy from the heart. I read those listings and longed for the days of hunter-gatherers roaming the wilderness and procuring their needs in a few hours before spending the rest of their day in leisure. Instead of gathering berries and materials while chilling with my tribe, I was expected to spend nine hours a day – plus commuting – doing something I had absolutely no connection to or passion for. Bossed around by people I couldn’t stand. Working for promotions I didn’t want. Earning money I couldn’t enjoy because there was no time to. If only there was another way, I wondered.

Chapter Four

After a while of half-heartedly sending out job applications and hearing nothing back, I took myself down to the nearest employment agency. There was one just down the street, so I gave them a quick ring then headed over. Upon entry I was given a form to fill out and told to wait in the reception area. I filled in the details then sat there waiting, watching another young guy across from me fill out his form. He looked to be about eighteen and stared at this piece of paper with dejected and disinterested eyes. I kinda felt sorry for him. I guess I should have felt sorry for myself, but I was almost ten years older; at eighteen he should have been enjoying his formative years, not sitting there looking sorry for himself while trying to get some miserable job.

After ten minutes, I was invited into a room by a recruitment consultant. “This way mate,” he said in a tone I instantly disliked. I entered his office and sat down as he also took a seat behind his desk. He was a young guy – about twenty-one – and had a smug look on his face. I could spot what kind of person he was instantly and within a minute I was listening to his spiel about how I could rely on him, how he loves his job, and how good he is at it. At one point he flashed his watch and told me he likes to get as many people into jobs as possible to earn the extra commission. “You see, me, I like to live well. I like to wear the best designer clothes and go to the best bars and drive a nice car – so it makes sense that I want to get as many people like you into work as possible.” I sat there with a blank look. “So tell me, what’s your situation and what are you looking for?” I began explaining my lifestyle and that I was looking for something casual (I also told him my underwhelming work history). “Seems you’ve done a bit of manufacturing and industrial work,” he noted with a nod. “Well, we have quite a few positions coming through at the moment around Nottingham. Do you own a car?” I told him that I didn’t own a car. “Well, that’s okay – it might just mean you have to take the bus or something, but if you’re willing to spend some time commuting then you should be alright. Does that sound good?”

“Sure,” I lied.

“Great. Well it’s Friday afternoon now, work is finished for this week, and we’re all going to be getting off soon down the pub. But don’t worry about it – like I said, there’s plenty of vacancies regularly coming in that would suit someone like you, and I’ll be in contact as soon as I can. You can count on me.” I then left and headed home, not really sure whether I was going to hear anything back at all. Or even if I wanted to.

Chapter Five

The following Wednesday I got a call off the big-shot himself. He had sorted me a job in a food distribution warehouse to start the next day. The location was in a small town just outside the city, so I would need to take that bus after all. I checked the address and saw that it was quite a fair way away. According to Google, it was a forty-minute bus ride, plus another five-minute walk to the warehouse. Add onto this the fifteen-minute walk from my place to the bus stop, then it was going to be at least an hour each way. That meant an eleven-hour day with commuting. I worked out the bus cost for the week and estimated it at around £25. The job was, predictably, minimum wage and this meant I was giving up fifty-five hours a week to take home about £280 after taxes and travel. Well, maybe I would like the job and make some new friends, I deluded myself with.

The next day I woke up early and began my first commute to the job. By then I had found out the place I was working was a warehouse for pet food distribution. It repackaged and reshipped pet food that appeared to have fallen off the back of a truck somewhere. I expected the place to smell and how right I was. Upon entry I was hit with a strong smell of dog biscuits that immediately ingrained itself into my clothes, skin and soul. I looked at the people working there and already knew that they had worked there so long that they had gotten used to it. I thought that smell was bad, but it was nothing compared to waste buckets I walked past. It was a smell straight from the merciless depths of hell – the repulsive odor of rotting dog and cat food that had split open and was infested with wriggling maggots. I thought of walking out but this was it: like every man or woman I needed the money to live, and thus I was reduced to these grim duties in order to not be in those gutters with the homeless and insane.

The manager saw me standing there contemplating my existence and came over to introduce himself. He shook my hand and invited me into the office to go through formalities. He told me about the job, the schedule, what I had to do, and everything else I needed to know. He seemed like a decent guy and as I carried on chatting with him, I began to see a sort of confused look in his eye. It was right after I worked out a quick mathematical equation about pay that he asked me about my education. I explained to him that I had been to university and had a degree in journalism. The confused look turned to a baffled one and I began to understand why. He explained to me – in as subtle a way as he could – that the agency usually sends people who “aren’t too bright”, so he was surprised for someone with a functioning brain to come through the door. I understood his confusion; I didn’t know how I ended up at a place like that either. The current society wasn’t exactly exploding with job opportunities for graduates with mediocre degrees and no work experience in their field, but it was clear that he thought someone of reasonable intelligence shouldn’t have been shoving around smelly dog biscuits for minimum wage via an exploitative job agency. Well, life works in strange ways, I told him.

lab rat

Lab Rat (chapter 1 & 2)

Lab Rat (opening two chapters)

The following is the opening to 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 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.  

medical

Chapter One:

I arrived at the station and stepped off the train with my backpack gripping my shoulders. In there were my total belongings: ten kilograms worth of clothes, a couple of books, some toiletries, and an old laptop. Despite the weight I was carrying, I felt as light as a man could feel. All my belongings in one bag, a new city and a new beginning. No attachments and no responsibilities. The world was open for me and I looked at the people on the street: the pretty girls, the dutifully employed, the pram-pushing mothers. Maybe soon I would also be strolling down those pavements, a civilised member of society, complete with a job, a partner, my own place to live, and a Netflix subscription. It was a strange thought, one that I quickly brushed off as delusion, most likely caused by the excitement of moving to a new town.

I started making my way into the centre. The backpack on my shoulders had become an almost organ-like feature of my body. For the last few years, I had used it while gallivanting around the world on various backpacking trips. The act of booking a flight to some far off country and drifting around for a while had almost become commonplace. I was bum or vagrant in some people’s eyes; a hippy or free-spirit in others. From the mountains of Nepal, to the bars of Spain, to the beaches of Brazil – many countries had played host to me stumbling and staggering through life, leaving behind me a trail of chaotic adventures, short romances and empty wine bottles – the blood and bones of my experience scattered in various ditches around the world. Now here I was back for a stint in my own country to see what madness awaited me close to home – whatever the hell that was anymore. For now, it was a city by the name of Nottingham, England.

I continued making my way through the city centre while mapping out the environment of my new place of residence. It was a Saturday afternoon and the crowds filled the squares and high-streets. The shoppers with their shopping bags; the kids running around by the fountain; the students sitting outside cafes. In particular, I noticed there were more homeless people littering the streets than usual. In the space of fifteen minutes, I had to apologise four times for having no change. The thought hit me that maybe things had just collectively gotten worse in this country in the last few years. Often I looked at the homeless people as a sort of ominous warning about where you could end up if you drifted too far from conventional life. A wanderer like myself was naturally at risk. Fortunately, I had arranged to stay at a friend’s place for now while I searched for my own place to live. A small sofa awaited me and I kept on trekking towards it. A bus would have been easier, but I wasn’t in the habit of paying for things I could avoid paying for. After all, the £1500 in my bank account was the only thing separating me from those homeless people in the gutter; with no real job skills or talents, I had to make my money go as far as possible until I figured out how to adjust myself to the requirements of regular life.

After about an hour of meandering through the city streets and neighbourhoods, I arrived at my friend Jake’s place. He was a guy I knew from school – someone I hadn’t seen much over the last years due to our contrasting lifestyles. Fortunately our friendship was strong enough that we could just pick up where we left off. We did exactly that as I dropped my bags, cracked open some beers, and got speaking about the last couple of years of our lives. Eventually we got around to what my plans were now I was in Nottingham. I wasn’t too sure of the answer myself to be honest. I racked my brain for something that sounded sane and logical. “For now, just get a place, do some writing, and save up for the next adventure. I guess that means I’ll need a job of some sort.”

“What sort of work are you looking for?”

“Anything I can get really.” (At that point I remembered he worked at a bar and asked if there was any work going).

“Nothing at the minute I think pal. But I can ask around if anyone knows anything else.”

“Sounds good.”

Naturally I knew that my job options would be limited; I was twenty-seven now and it had been five years since I finished university. Since then my CV was a pitiful read – a bloodied bombsite with huge gaps and short stints at low-skilled, menial jobs. Retail, bar work, factory work, farm work – the sort of work that was not classified as ‘real work’ and didn’t give you any fancy skills to list on that piece of paper. If you want to know the truth, a part of me was concerned with how out the loop I had become with the everyday man or woman. A great distance now stood between me and the majority of people my age. Indeed, I believed I was a man of intelligence, but there was a huge difference between being intelligent and being compatible with a certain system of society. Things like writing a CV, bullshitting a job interview, and just generally pretending that you cared to wake up early every morning to fight traffic and sit behind a desk doing something you had absolutely no interest in seemed to come quite hard to me. No doubt, it was that same indifference with the system which had led me to a lifestyle of bohemian travel. At the crossroads of young adult life, I decided that there was more value in getting off the road altogether and venturing off into the wilderness. After all, I had just completed two decades of institutional education and was expected to enter a new wild-goose chase – one in which getting a job in itself was a job, and when you got that job it was a perpetual slog toward the weekend while trying to move up to the next promotion, the next paycheck, the next hoop or hurdle. Then came the other goals outside of work: saving up for a house and retirement, finding a partner, settling down, spawning children. It was an uninspiring corridor towards the grave as far as I could see, and I guess my indifference with it all is what made me go off and see if I could find something else. Well, that had all been done and now here I was five years on with my tail between my feet and nothing to show for it except for some memories and maybe the fool’s wisdom on life. Still, there was something inside of me now that told me it was worth it, and I could probably see myself doing it again at some point, once I had some money in my account of course.

Chapter Two

I spent the first few days in town just lounging about, playing on Jake’s PlayStation, drinking beer, going for walks. It was nice to be settled in one place to catch my breath. The previous five months had been a whirlwind of relentless travelling, excessive partying and just general chaos. I liked to push it to the limit, but like every person I needed that time to recuperate before it all became too much for the mind, body, and bank account. In the quest to find my own place, I went on all the local websites and scrolled through the posts. My budget was limited so I was looking for a flat or house share rather than my own place. I was used to casual ways of life; to hostels, transient visits, and staying in places without any official contracts or paperwork. But it appeared that such a style wouldn’t be so easy now. Many places demanded ‘PROFESSIONALS ONLY’, as well as three month’s of bank statements, proof of employment, and satisfactory references – none of which I was duly able to provide. It appeared slotting myself back into society wasn’t going to be such a smooth task. I persevered on though, looking for someone who might take a chance on me. I sent people messages telling them what a laid-back guy I was, that I was tidy and friendly and considerate, and anything that might make me sound like the decent and wholesome guy I undoubtedly was.

Eventually a couple of people took the bait and I was able to arrange some viewings. The first viewing was a rundown house in a rough neighbourhood. After the neighbours watched me arrive and leave with a look of contempt – as well as the bedroom window looking out at a barbed wire factory fence –  I decided to give it a miss. The second viewing took me to an old Victorian house on a quiet street beside the river. The landlady lived in the property with her cats and three other male tenants – one of which was a middle-aged conspiracy theorist who lived in a shed at the bottom of the garden; another a sixty-year-old musician who had lived in a treehouse in Mexico for the last ten years; and, finally, a young guy who had recently graduated university and was working in environmental conservation (the only employed one of the household). She introduced me to them and then showed me up to the spare room in the attic conversion.

“The previous tenant lived here for eleven years,” she told me as we entered. “She was an alcoholic and didn’t leave her room much, so I’ve cleaned it and redone it completely.” At that moment I looked around the room and imagined that woman being myself – someone who had stumbled in here one day at a crossroads in her life and had then spent over a decade dwelling there while enslaved to the bottle. It was a grim thought and I looked at the bed in the corner. I looked at the old desk beside the window. The sombre atmosphere of it all made me feel a bit uneasy, but it was a room at a cheap rate and it was good enough for now. Besides, I didn’t need much; just a place to shelter myself from the world, write my stories, and maybe bring some poor female back to every now and again whenever I got lucky.

To celebrate my new place of residence, me and Jake went out on the town. It was the start of summer and the beer gardens were packed with English people doing what they do best: alleviating the existential emptiness by binge drinking booze, chain-smoking cigarettes, and bonding together over talk of football and weather. I had once had a chat with a Norwegian girl about what people in my home country did during summer. Apparently the big thing in Scandinavia was to go to the nearest lake and go swimming and have BBQs. Here there wasn’t much swimming taking place, and the national pass time on the rare occasion the sun came out was to descend on the nearest beer garden like crazed vultures. Those same cultural values hadn’t left my brain and I was eager to knock back the pints, talk shit to strangers, and momentarily forget who and what and where I was. Alcohol had been an elixir of life to help me navigate the tempestuous wilderness of adult life so far, and I sipped back those pints once again as I got drunk in my new home and wondered what awaited me next on my calamitous journey.

Chapter Three

I set my bags down and looked around the room. My new stronghold. I had stayed in some shitty places over the years, but this was definitely one of the nicer ones. It even had its own fireplace, although it appeared to be out of use. The bed was king-size and covered with fresh Paisley sheets. Although I knew the joy of the drifting life, I also knew that every man needs his lair from time to time. For an introvert as I was, this was even more important. The world beats every man and woman down and sometimes it’s just those four walls that keeps it out long enough to hold onto your sanity; to not let that fire in your heart get snuffed out by all the relentless bullshit being thrown at you from every angle the second you walked out the front door. My kingdom of solitude was ready and I lay on the bed and looked up at the ceiling. I thought of nothing and did nothing for some minutes. I then got up, pulled my laptop out my bag and set it down on the desk in the corner. Already I liked the look of it. The window was right beside the desk and sunlight was creeping in through a small gap between the neighbouring houses. My workplace lit up like a spiritual place of worship. By workplace, I meant the place in which I would do my writing. Over the last few years of wandering the world and debating my place in it, I had decided that I was born to be a writer. Like many writers, I wasn’t compatible with much else in society, and living in my own world and writing down my thoughts was something that was not only enjoyable, but something that was necessary for my sanity and survival. There was so much going on inside my head that if I were to keep it all inside, I would implode, self-destruct, or even murder somebody. And on top of that, it seemed like writing was the only real thing worth doing. To me there was more glory in putting down a good sentence than in driving any flash car, or making a million pounds, or marrying some hot woman. Yes, the muse was the magic and I wanted to stain the blank pages of the world with the words in my heart. I wanted to shake people alive with my own passion and madness. I wanted my words to be read long after the life had slipped from my body and my bones lay gathering dust in the ground. 

With that in mind, I opened up my laptop and faced down the blank page once more. For a while I tried to write but I couldn’t (the inspiration is either there or it isn’t; one cannot force it). Instead, I went online to check out the job adverts. It was something I had been dreading for a while – that moment when I’d have to go through the dehumanising and demoralising task of seeking employment. I sat there scrolling through the online search boards. I felt like a vegetarian looking for a dish in a steakhouse. Every job listing seemed so repulsive – so unattractive – that I felt my heart fill with hopelessness. The vast majority of jobs I wasn’t qualified for anyway, and the ones I was qualified for seemed abhorrent and insane. Marketing jobs, customer service jobs, sales jobs. They all involved things that made me want to vomit. Selling people shit over the phone. High-stress environments. Being a proactive ‘team-player’. Why was it so hard, I wondered, for a human just to live in a decent way. I just wanted a sane life and to not be reduced to doing mundane tasks that stole the light from the eye and the joy from the heart. I read those listings and longed for the days of hunter-gatherers roaming the wilderness and procuring their needs in a few hours before spending the rest of their day in leisure. Instead of gathering berries and materials while chilling with my tribe, I was expected to spend nine hours a day – plus commuting – doing something I had absolutely no connection to or passion for. Bossed around by people I couldn’t stand. Working for promotions I didn’t want. Earning money I couldn’t enjoy because there was no time to. If only there was another way, I wondered.

Chapter Four

After a while of half-heartedly sending out job applications and hearing nothing back, I took myself down to the nearest employment agency. There was one just down the street, so I gave them a quick ring then headed over. Upon entry I was given a form to fill out and told to wait in the reception area. I filled in the details then sat there waiting, watching another young guy across from me fill out his form. He looked to be about eighteen and stared at this piece of paper with dejected and disinterested eyes. I kinda felt sorry for him. I guess I should have felt sorry for myself, but I was almost ten years older; at eighteen he should have been enjoying his formative years, not sitting there looking sorry for himself while trying to get some miserable, minimum-wage job.

After ten minutes, I was invited into a room by a recruitment consultant. “This way mate,” he said in a tone I instantly disliked. I entered his office and sat down as he also took a seat behind his desk. He was a young guy – about twenty-one – and had a smug look on his face. I could spot what kind of person he was instantly and within a minute I was listening to his spiel about how I could rely on him, how he loves his job, and how good he is at it. At one point he flashed his watch and told me he likes to get as many people into jobs as possible to earn the extra commission. “You see, me, I like to live well. I like to wear the best designer clothes and go to the best bars and drive a nice car – so it makes sense that I want to get as many people like you into work as possible.” I sat there with a blank look. “So tell me, what’s your situation and what are you looking for?” I began explaining my lifestyle and that I was looking for something casual (I also told him my abysmal work history). “Seems you’ve done a bit of manufacturing and industrial work,” he noted with a nod. “Well, we have quite a few positions coming through at the moment around Nottingham. Do you own a car?” I told him that I didn’t own a car. “Well, that’s okay – it might just mean you have to take the bus or something, but if you’re willing to spend some time commuting then you should be alright. Does that sound good?”

“Sure,” I lied.

“Great. Well it’s Friday afternoon now, work is done for the week, and we’re all going to be getting off soon down the pub. But don’t worry about it – like I said, there’s plenty of vacancies regularly coming in that would suit someone like you, and I’ll be in contact as soon as I can. You can count on me.” I then left and headed home, not really sure whether I was going to hear anything back at all. Or even if I wanted to.

Chapter Five

The following Wednesday I got a call off Mr big-shot himself. He had sorted me a job in a food distribution warehouse to start the next day. The location was in a small town just outside the city, so I would need to take that bus after all. I checked the address and saw that it was quite a fair way away. According to Google it was a forty-minute bus ride, plus another five-minute walk to the warehouse. Add onto this the fifteen-minute walk from my place to the bus stop, then it was going to be at least an hour each way. That meant an eleven-hour day with commuting. I worked out the bus cost for the week and estimated it at around £25. The job was, predictably, minimum wage and this meant I was giving up fifty-five hours a week to take home about £280 after taxes and travel. Well, maybe I would like the job and make some new friends, I deluded myself with.

The next day I woke up early and began my first commute to the job. By then I had found out the place I was working in a warehouse for pet food distribution. It repackaged and reshipped pet food that appeared to have fallen off the back of a truck somewhere. I expected the place to smell and how right I was. Upon entry I was hit with a strong smell of dog biscuits that immediately ingrained itself into my clothes, skin, and soul. I looked at the people working there and already knew that they had worked there so long that they had gotten used to it. I thought that smell was bad, but it was nothing compared to waste buckets I walked past. It was a smell straight from the merciless depths of hell – the repulsive odor of rotting dog and cat food that had split open and was infested with wriggling maggots. I thought of walking out but this was it: like every man or woman I needed the money to live, and thus I was reduced to these grim duties in order to not be in those gutters with the homeless and insane.

The manager saw me standing there contemplating my existence and came over to introduce himself. He shook my hand and invited me into the office to go through formalities. He told me about the job, the schedule, what I had to do, and everything else I needed to know. He seemed like a decent guy and, as I carried on chatting with him, I began to see a sort of confused look in his eye. It was right after I worked out a mathematical equation about pay that he asked me about my education. I explained to him that I had been to university and had a degree in journalism. The confused look turned to a baffled one and I began to understand why. He explained to me – in as subtle a way as he could – that the agency usually sends people who “aren’t too bright”, so he was surprised for someone with a semi-functioning brain to come through the door. I understood his confusion; I didn’t know how I ended up at a place like that either. The current society wasn’t exactly exploding with job opportunities for graduates with mediocre degrees and absolutely no work experience in their field, but it was clear that he thought someone of reasonable intelligence shouldn’t have been shoving around smelly dog biscuits for minimum wage via an exploitative job agency. Well, life works in strange ways, I told him.

Chapter Six

I got started with the job, my first task stacking tins of dog food onto pallets after they had been relabelled. While waiting for the cans to amass at the end of the conveyor-belt, I stood there watching some young Polish girls sit and strip the cans of their old labels. They stared out the window with emotionless expressions as they robotically picked up and sliced the labels without looking. They did one every three seconds before shoving it back onto the conveyor-belt. The girls weren’t beautiful or anything, but I couldn’t help but stare at them. Such young women with such little enthusiasm who had appeared to have done a task so much they had turned into machines themselves. They worked in silence and I wondered what they were thinking, and whether or not this was the sort of thing they had envisaged when coming to this country. Was this the better life they were hoping for? Did they have plans that stretched beyond the walls of the warehouse? Were they actually secretly fulfilled and content? As always when studying my fellow human-beings, I couldn’t be sure what was really lingering inside their skulls.

Once the newly-labelled cans made their way to the end of the conveyor-belt, I had to grab them and stack them on the pallets. It was physical work, and repetitive work, but I didn’t mind it. The speed was okay for it not to be stressful and the mindlessness of the work allowed me to daydream the hours away. Daydreaming often was a disability in life when it came to things that required focus, but when it came to situations like this, it felt like more of a superpower. I was able to pass the time away while going on some introspective adventure through the galaxies of my own mind. I thought about my travels and what other adventures I could go on in the future; I also thought of things to write about when I got home. Yes, I thought – truly the last refuge of freedom was in the mind. They had my body confined in that place for the time being, but my mind was free as always to wander wherever the hell it pleased.

After a while, my daydreaming was interrupted when another guy came to work with me. He was middle-aged, about fifty, with a bad posture, grey hair and glasses. He was friendly and started asking me about my life and how I had ended up in that warehouse. I liked him and told him everything without feeling the need to hide anything. He listened to me with interest, praising my lifestyle and encouraging me to get back on the road as soon as I could. After hearing my tale, I started to ask him a little about his own tragedy; about how he also had ended up in such a terrible job while seemingly being an intelligent person. He told me how he had worked in software development down in London for the last ten years until he was suddenly made redundant. Trying to get a new position in the industry was hard for someone his age, and for now he had been demoted from developing computer systems for big tech companies to stacking out-of-date tins of dog food. “All these companies want young graduates,” he complained to me. “They want people they can train up and have a future in the company, not some fifty-something man at the end of his working life.” The classic decay of value which awaited us all. His story was a sad one but I took solace in the fact he hadn’t given up; like many toiling away in these depressing and dead-end jobs, he had a grand plan to break free. After work everyday, he went home and devoted his leisure time to developing a computer game. He spent five hours a night working on it before getting whatever sleep he could. His plan was to upload it as an app and hope the success of it would allow him to break back into the software industry. The smell of the rotting pet food had spurred him on and there he was: another dreamer fighting for something more than he had. His story made me think of my writing and encouraged me to go home and hit those keyboard keys until the early hours of the morning, my fingertips fighting for freedom – my soul scratching and clawing for something more than what life was offering me. In my heart I felt my writing aspirations were nothing more than pure delusion, but like everyone else I was guilty of needing a little delusion to make life tolerable. Religion, love, dreams, the future – yes, delusion was the universal drug and it was just a matter of time before I wrote my masterpieces. Soon enough I would be sitting in a Rolling Stone interview telling some journalist how I crawled through the swamps of life to come out clean on the other side. I imagined the book signings, the woman knocking on my front door, the paychecks coming in for me. I imagined young writers asking me for advice and me telling them it was just a matter of following your gut and going out and living life with your heart on your sleeve. “To write it well you have to live it well,” I would say to them. “Be the centre of your own experience.” Yes, it was only a matter of time; only a matter of time before the world knew my genius. The delusional daydreams continued as I gazed out the window and suddenly began to understand the look on the faces of the young Polish girls a little better.

Chapter Seven

I carried on at the job for about four weeks until I had had enough. Getting up early and riding that one hour bus everyday; breaking my back while stacking out-of-date pet food; coming home stinking of dog biscuits. The paychecks came in and seemed pitiful for what I had sacrificed. The job itself had taken me to some new lows. At one point I had been reduced to emptying and cleaning out the waste buckets. The foul odor of that rotting pet food penetrated my lungs, almost causing me to vomit, and at that point I knew the absurdity of the job had gotten too much. I rang up the agency and told them that I had decided to quit. They didn’t seem too happy but I felt that the boss of the warehouse probably understood; he no doubt figured that an intelligent young man such as myself had moved onto something better, but no, there I was once again – a useless, unemployed graduate with little options in a recession-ravaged world. I couldn’t even work up the energy to go and search for another job; it was all simply too much for the time being. Instead I reflected on my travels and longed for some adventure. It was summer and I figured there were always places to explore around Nottingham, so I popped back to my parents to get my old bicycle. Going back to my parents was always a tedious affair and they were always keen to know how I was doing. We were a working class family and my parents only knew life as getting a steady job and settling down as soon as you were an adult. As a result, they hadn’t been encouraging of my travelling lifestyle in my twenties and were always keen to point out to me that I couldn’t be relying on them all my life. They pointed that out because a few years ago I had come back from a trip with a few thousand pounds of debt; what followed was a year at home, staring at the walls of my old childhood bedroom and feeling like they were closing in on me. I had to take my old job back at the local supermarket and suddenly my whole two-year world trip seemed like it never happened. I felt trapped, caged, suffocated. A period of depression followed in which I regularly argued with my parents. I knew that having to go back there for another stint would be too much for me, and I looked at my money dwindling down and felt a knot in my stomach. I was now in my late twenties and although there were many out there living with their parents due to the state of the economy, I knew such a thing for me would break me, as well as give my parents the gratification they wanted for seeing me fall flat on my feet again. Ultimately they wanted to see me suffer for choosing to not swallow the normal nine-to-five lifestyle like the majority of people my age were. “Why can’t you be more like your friends,” they would say. “They all have proper jobs…” “Why did you even get a degree if you’re not going to use it?” “When are you going to grow up like your brother?” Ahhh, the great questions of life.

Anyway, with my bike back in my possession, I took it out to the local countryside. I rode it around the small towns and villages, getting lost and enjoying the freedom that I had for the time being. Sometimes I would just pick a spot in a field, sit down with a 4-pack of cider, and write some poetry in a notebook. I played Bob Dylan on my phone and imagined myself in his shoes, wandering about America in the fifties meeting strange and interesting people. Aside from the cycling trips, I went to bars in town, hoping to meet some strange and interesting people myself. There was one bar in particular where all the bohemians seemed to congregate. The few times I had been in there I had met artists, musicians, travellers and homeless people. I was pretty much a bum myself at that point and I figured it was the place for me. I’d go there with Jake some nights and a few times I just went on my own. There was a smoking area at the side of the building that was packed with tables of people all crowding and conversing together. You only had to take a seat somewhere and it wasn’t long before you were chatting with some vegan anarchist about philosophy or politics. It was the perfect place for a cliché failing writer like myself and it was nice not to feel like an absolute alien for once (as I did among the socially-sane and steadily employed people that frequented the other bars).

One night I was there and got hit with the ‘what do you do?’ question. I always resented that question. Most likely because I was unemployed and didn’t have an answer to it, but also because you were expected to justify your existence with some job title as if it was the primary reason for your existence. Anyway, I got hit with the depressing question by some skin-head and just told him the truth – that I had been travelling a lot the last years and had now come home and was unemployed and aspiring to be a writer but not really being a writer. He sat there smoking his cigarette and nodding, seeming to understand the tragedy of my situation. It was then that I was informed of something which would change my life for the foreseeable future – something which seemed too good to be true in this world where people suffered to make a living.

“Have you ever considered doing one of those medical trial things?” he asked.

“Medical trials?” I said. “You mean being a human guinea-pig?”

“Yeah, clinical research studies. I’ve got a friend who does them. He normally makes around fifteen thousand pounds a year doing studies. It sounds like a pretty sweet gig too. You just go into a clinic, take some pills, have your health monitored for a bit, and then you come out with a load of money in your bank account. It’s all tax-free too.” My interest piqued with the amount of money he quoted; after tax, that was more than a full year’s wage at the pet food factory.

“Sounds good,” I said. “But isn’t it dangerous?”

“Well, he’s done loads of studies and never had any side effects. In fact, he loves going in to do them ‘cause it’s a chance to just lie around and do nothing for a bit. I’d do them myself if I could get the time off work. You need a flexible schedule to do them, but if you’re not currently working then you could look into it. There’s a clinic here in Nottingham. You’d be able to do your writing in there too.”

I sat there listening intently. The idea of testing drugs for money seemed strange at first, but the more I thought about it, the more I was willing to do it. Essentially every job required you to be locked away and sacrifice your time and health for a financial reimbursement; medical trials just seemed more direct about the whole thing. “Look you need money and we need your body, so come in and sacrifice your freedom and health for a set period of time and we reimburse you with a monetary payment into your bank account.” If anything I had to admire them for their honesty. I thanked him for the recommendation and told him I’d think about it. In reality I was already sold and I spent the rest of my evening thinking about when I could get into the clinic, take some experimental drugs, and begin my career in the human guinea-pig industry.

Chapter Eight

The smoking skin-head was right; there was a clinic here in Nottingham, in a business park beside a small village just outside the city. I went onto their website and checked them out. They were an independent company conducting a variety of studies for various diseases and conditions. The current trials paid anything from one to five thousand pounds, involving anything from three to twenty-six days in the clinic. To qualify for taking part in a trial you had to be between the age of eighteen and fifty-five, have a healthy body mass index, be a non-smoker, have no serious health issues, and have no history of drug or alcohol abuse. The history of alcohol abuse was questionable, but ultimately nothing they would be able to prove. I looked at everything they listed and realised I was good to go – finally, a role I was actually qualified for and interested in doing.

I registered and entered in my details, including my doctor who they would need to get a medical report off. Within a few days, they were on the phone and inviting me to come for an induction. I attended as soon as I could. The induction involved a medical examination, a chat with the doctor, and a tour of the facilities. Speaking to the doctor, he looked through my medical history with approving nods. On paper I was as healthy as they came: no conditions, allergies, past surgeries or major injuries. I was a natural. On the mental health side of things, I had definitely had some issues over the years, but typically I told him that I hadn’t. The way I figured it, there was no such thing as a person who had no history of mental illness; every man or woman out there had their own demons and had spent at least some time in the darkness. Ultimately there was no way for a human-being to live in this society without having their brain scrambled a little bit. After chatting for a few minutes, he began inspecting me over – shining a torch in my eyes, checking my reactions, listening to my breathing. He asked me about some scars on my body; they were all from drunken alterations, but I explained them away as bike-riding accidents. Next he lifted up my sleeve to examine the veins on my arm. For each study they would be taking multiple samples of blood, and hence you were required to have ‘good veins’ – aka veins which could be easily penetrated and drained by the nurses’ needles. Luckily, I passed with flying colours again. My whole life I had these big juicy veins that snaked down my arms. I attributed them to the cardiovascular exercises of running and cycling, as well as my general genetic make-up. In particular there was this one huge vein which protruded considerably around the underside of my elbow. This river of blood was a lucrative commodity and would be sure to get me onto a trial. This was it: my one money-making ability. Some men had marketable skills, team-player qualities, practical trades and talents. Me? I had a big vein which would secrete blood at any moment, making me an ideal candidate to test experimental drugs on.

After the medical I was given a tour of the facility which was located just across the road in a separate building. It looked more like a business headquarters from the outside than a medical facility. Walking through the reception and into the hallways, I soon saw the volunteers who were currently checked in for whatever study they were doing. They wore matching polo-shirts which identified them to their study via their colour (there were six wards in total which meant there were up to six studies taking place at any one time). Some of the volunteers were playing table tennis, some were playing pool, others were playing darts. Some sat down on beanbags and played on the Xbox; others sat in the lounge watching movies. I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing. I watched them all relaxing and hanging out while taking home about £200 a day. Of course, they did have to be in their beds at some points for procedures, but for most of the day they were free to do as they pleased. I was even informed that there was bingo and quizzes which came with prizes. The cherry on the cake? The time spent here was completely free. You paid for nothing, all your meals were brought to you, and hell there was even a laundry service. It was like staring at the great secret I had hoped always existed when working those soul-crushing and tedious jobs. I thought of all the people out there spending money on their commutes, working for awful wages, struggling to save anything more than a few hundreds pounds a year. Fools! Here you could walk into the clinic, lay around, scratch your balls, play games, watch movies and have meals brought to you before walking out the front door a few thousands pounds better off. It was the ultimate life-hack and the big vein on my forearm was already pulsating at just the thought of it.

Chapter Nine

It was about two weeks later that I started my first study. I first attended a screening where I had my blood taken, my heart rate and blood pressure recorded, underwent a drug test, a breathalyser, a smokerlyzer, and, finally, had another brief medical with the doctor. Once again I passed with flying colours and was admitted to the clinic for the trial. The trial involved taking a medicine that treated some condition called ‘Neutropenia’ – a white blood cell disorder that was a side-effect of chemotherapy. The medicine was supposed to increase your white blood cell count – a response to the condition which typically lowered it, causing people to be more susceptible to diseases and infections due to weakened immune systems. I wasn’t totally sure what the whole thing was about if you want to know the god’s honest truth. I guess like everyone else I was blinded by the money – four and a half thousand pounds for twenty-two days in the clinic. Ha! It seemed absolutely ridiculous thinking about it – so much so that I was willing to get sick for it, even though the doctor made it clear many people had taken the drug before and the only real side effect was some ‘bone pain’. A bit of bone pain? That sure trumped the pain that came from the alternative. In particular I thought of what was required to earn four thousand pounds in that pet-food warehouse – the back pain, the stomach pain from the smell, the mental pain from the monotony. It was a good trade in my books and I was ready to get to work. I unpacked my things and prepared myself to be experimented on. It was go-time. (Oh, if you’re wondering why I was trialling a drug for a condition that I didn’t suffer from, it was because they didn’t want people who actually suffered from the condition. All the trials there were not to see if the medicine actually worked – that research had already been done – it was just to see how it was taken up by a healthy person and if there were any side effects.)

So there I was: unpacked and preparing myself for twenty-two days of lounging around, playing games, daydreaming, writing and laughing at the situation I had found myself in. I sat on my bed and got comfy. At the bottom of it I saw a piece of paper beside it. ‘Subject 55355’ – my guinea-pig identity for the next few weeks. I then looked around at my surroundings. I was staying in a shared ward with another eleven volunteers. It looked a lot like a normal hospital ward – there was no real privacy and all our beds were about two metres apart with no curtains around them. With the room being my home for the next three weeks, I was naturally curious to see what other types of people I would be living with. A cursory look revealed it was a diverse range of ages. The youngest volunteer looked about twenty and the eldest was a man in his fifties. It was mostly men, with three women who would no doubt be sick of us by the end. They all appeared surprisingly normal on the surface of things, although I believed that couldn’t be the case. The fact that they were doing these trials meant they weren’t normal by default. Not everyone with a regular job could just drop out of life and check into a clinic for twenty-two days to test some pills. The very nature of the whole thing was unconventional and consequently I was expecting to meet fellow outcasts, oddbods and outsiders. That was one of the things I had loved about my travels over the past years. When you venture out from the realm of ordinary life, you were sure to find those who were a bit weird and interesting. I thought of all the wild-eyed and undomesticated souls that I had crossed paths with on my travels – a retired army sergeant with no home who walked around Spain; a female circus-performer who hitch-hiked around the world on her own; a middle-aged engineer cycling through South America after a divorce. They were all people full of flame and fire; people with the spark of passion burning bright in their eye. Yes, if you want to find where the colour is in life, you have to head to the edges – almost always, that is where the magic is found. Throw a jar of ink at a wall and you will see that in the middle it is dense and black; however the further out you go, the more complicated and interesting the patterns become. It was the same with society and I avoided the core as much as I could. To me, it was a black hole for the soul.

Anyway, the first day came and went then we were getting dosed. Nurses wearing red tabards which read ‘DO NOT DISTURB – DOSING’ would come round our beds one by one. They would check our details and then give us the meds with a glass of water. A quick chat with the resident doctor to ensure everything was okay then you were all good to go: you’d swallow those pills down and know that whatever happened from then on, you were guaranteed to get paid four and a half thousand pounds. Ha! I had to laugh once again at the thought of it. Even if you got sick and had to be taken off the study as a precaution after two days, you’d still get the full payment. In a strange way, I kinda hoped I did get sick. I’d take a skin rash or a bit of vomiting to get out early. Maybe even a heavy fall from fainting. Perhaps a mild seizure? But no, everything went smoothly from the off and – after a morning of relentless procedures – I was able to get up and enjoy some well-earned leisure time. I watched TV, read some newspapers, and then played some pool. For the first time I interacted with some of my fellow test subjects. You were all in it together and naturally there was a sense of brotherhood between you all.

The first person I got speaking to was the eldest person on the trial. His name was Darren and he had recently quit his job as a store manager for an Ikea. He seemed reluctant to talk more about it so I spoke about my life to him – about all my adventures and odd jobs and writing aspirations. “I tell you what son, good on ya,” he said. “Do it while you can. Bricks and mortar isn’t all it’s cracked up to be you know.” It was something I had heard from a few middle-aged people before. You could always see regret in the eyes of older people whenever you spoke about things like travelling, and they were usually those who had ended up disenfranchised with the life they were living. In the case of Darren, this was true once again. Finally feeling on good terms with me, he began telling me the real reason he had quit his job. He told me how his mate had also been a store manager for Ikea and had ended up working seventy-hour weeks until it ruined his life. At first came the rapid aging due to the stress and lack of sleep. Then came the alcoholism. Then the weight gain. Then the breakdown of his marriage. Then the loss of contact to his kids. And finally? Suicide. Yes, after twenty years of being a high-earning retail manager, the poor bastard hung himself in a hotel room. He died a rich man apparently, but not in spirit. His mate had completely neglected everything else in his life aside from work and finally it drove him over the edge. Darren had seen this happen and realised he was heading the same way. He quit his Ikea job almost immediately with no real plan other than to not kill himself. A few weeks later, here he was: in a medical trial research facility playing pool with a twenty-seven-year-old traveller and failing writer. Well, it seemed like a good start to me.

The second volunteer I met was one of the girls of the group –  a twenty-two-year-old recent graduate of environmental conservation. Like me, she had quickly learned that having a degree meant absolutely nothing and was enduring the post-graduation crisis which gripped hundreds of thousands of young people out there. She was currently surviving by walking other people’s dogs occasionally and living off £150 a week. With her also not having a fixed schedule, she was able to come and take part in these studies. She joked about the state of her life and I also shared with her my shambolic situation. I told her that I was unemployed and also had a useless degree which I only got because I was pressured by my school tutors to go to university. Hearing my story, she smiled and seemed to feel better about herself.

Next up was Jamie – a gym buff who had recently been made redundant from an engineering job at the age of thirty-two. He was now trying to figure out his next move while in the clinic. He had recently applied to be a fire-fighter but had just failed some online test which had swiftly put that dream to bed. Now he could be seen scrolling through some textbooks while he researched what other profession he could unsuccessfully try to break into.

To many these stories were tragedies but oh how I loved them. I loved being around people who didn’t have it together and whose lives were in a state of crisis. I guess that’s because I was one of those people too. But things just felt more alive, more vibrant. Talk of television and jobs was replaced with existential ponderings. Ultimately people only got philosophical when things weren’t going how they were supposed to; that was something I learnt over the years. When things were going how they were supposed to, you could switch off your mind and ride the cultural conveyor-belt through life until the grave. It was only when you were off it and having to figure out a new way for yourself that you stopped and questioned things. You needed to justify the fact you were a beatnik and philosophy was the natural go-to. Yes, it was a madhouse in there and I looked around at my fellow guinea-pigs realising this was where I belonged – locked up with other people pushed out to the edge and testing drugs because there was no room for them in the centre of things. There was no room for me out there either. But it was okay; I had found a new way. Test drugs, travel and write. I saw my path slowly unfolding before me. I was happy with it.