– 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.
As usual, I looked through the list of drug studies and decided which one I was going to dedicate the next few weeks of my life to. It didn’t take long to choose. Amid the list of studies was a beautiful one that stood out from all the others. I hadn’t read the criteria or anything, but just simply seen the payment figure of £5750. It was the biggest payment I had seen on a trial so far, and it would help replenish my bank account which had been battered from my unsuccessful venture into the world of internet dating. Well, technically it wasn’t a payment but an ‘inconvenience allowance’. I was a fan of this terminology, especially considering that the fact it wasn’t classed as ‘pay’ meant that not a single penny couldn’t be taken from the taxman. And why should we have paid tax? Our contribution to society was already a great one – sacrificing our health and risking our lives for the sake of medicinal research.
Of course, the hefty ‘inconvenience allowance’ obviously meant there would be a larger inconvenience than the previous trials I had taken part in. This meant more procedures and a longer time in the clinic – twenty-eight days to be exact. It was the length of a small prison sentence, but it was the start of winter and I saw it as some sort of hibernation. The leaves on the trees were dying, the skies were darkening, and the frost was forming. It seemed like a good time to be locked up in a nice warm clinic while being fed and looked after.
Thankfully, despite the many ‘unwelcome drugs’ that had been in my system when Steven had visited, I passed the drug test. My system was clean and ready for some more substances of the legal kind. After the screening, I was aware that this trial was testing an antipsychotic medicine. It was used to treat conditions like schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder. During the talk with the doctor, I was interrogated about my mental health. It was thoroughly important that each volunteer had no history of mental illness. I thought back to the episodes of depression I had endured in my life. I considered the frequent anxiety. I reflected on the fact that I had often considered myself to be slightly schizophrenic or bi-polar. Perhaps these were things worth pointing out to the doctor, but I knew doing so would make me ineligible for the study and all that beautiful inconvenience allowance would be out of reach. So I did what every secretly-mentally-unstable person did. I said I was fine and had no problems and that I was the picture of a happy and healthy individual. We then did a ‘suicide risk assessment’ test which was basically the doctor asking if I had ever had thoughts about harming or hurting myself. I answered no to every question, of course. To be fair, I had never actually harmed myself physically in my life, unlike a lot of people out there. I remembered working at a bar and serving people; so many of the arms that handed me money or collected their drinks were riddled with self-harm scars. I was surprised just how prevalent it was – the secret scars of self-hatred and despair that filled the souls of so many in this society. But for me, my self-harm was done with things like drinking and making stupid decisions. I guess I was a masochist at heart, like every writer. The greater the pain, the greater the poetry after all. I didn’t want to die though – something I reassured the doctor with so I could get onto the study and take some antipsychotic drugs.
My wish was granted and a few days later I was walking through the front door of the clinic once again. Before entering I stopped and looked around. I breathed in the air and reflected on the fact it would be four weeks until I stepped back outside the building. Was I ready? Not really but my important work had to be done. I said goodbye to the outside world once more, entered the building, and made my way to the ward to settle into my second home. It was another study of twelve people – this time all guys. It hit me then that things might get a bit cagey after a while with a dozen sex-starved men all confined in a small space with no privacy. Well, there was always the shower and bathroom if someone couldn’t hold it any longer and needed to knock one out. I had to think of outrageous Lee; he had claimed to knock ten out in one day on our study. Well thankfully one of the possible side effects listed on the drug was a loss of libido, so hopefully we would all be okay. We would be temporarily sterile and sexually-sedated men. Perhaps that was the way to go. It certainly would have saved me a lot of money, thinking back to those fruitless and expensive dates.
The study began and I started to see why the inconvenience allowance was so high for this trial. Every morning I was being hounded by the nurses. We took the drugs and then we had procedures every fifteen minutes, including having to stand up for five minutes before having our blood pressure taken. Thankfully the loss of libido meant we didn’t have to worry about any morning glory incidents when we were made to stand up in a busy room of attractive nurses straight after being woken up. We also had to wear a ‘holter device’ – a piece of equipment which recorded your heart-rate and was attached to you at all times. On top of this, we also had to wear a blood pressure device which periodically tightened to take our blood pressure every forty-five minutes – including throughout the night when we slept. With all those cables and devices on me, I felt like Frankenstein’s monster, or someone had been abducted by aliens. After being relentlessly poked, prodded, and probed for five hours every morning, we were then free for most of the day. This time was spent mostly passing out or sleeping. The main side effect of the anti-psychotic medicine was ‘drowsiness’. Well, it had been listed as a few things: tiredness, drowsiness, fatigue, even dizziness. I saw the first example of this dizziness as one volunteer got up from his bed a little too quickly. A rush of blood to the head saw him take two steps before falling down like a rootless tree. A large thud echoed out across the ward and within seconds I could hear the running footsteps of nurses come to help look after him. I watched curiously as they helped him up; the first fallen soldier of this war we had apparently just entered. Apart from a small knock on the head, he was coherent and well. It made me cautious though, and every time I got up, I did it slowly, hoping I wasn’t going to be another one biting the dust.
Sitting down was much easier, and every time I sat down in the lounge, it took about two minutes until I started to drift off. The side effect of drowsiness was perhaps a little understated. We were essentially one-hundred-year-old men falling asleep every time we closed our eyes for more than two seconds. Still, being stuck in here for a month, perhaps it was a good thing we were passing out regularly. Sleeping for eighteen hours a day was basically a way to cheat the clock and time travel into the future. I wondered how people who took this medicine actually functioned in their day-to-day life. There must have been so many people out there in a numb, trance-like state due to the medicines they were taking. That definitely would have explained many of the zombies I encountered in the streets.
Whenever my brain was able to think and communicate, I got speaking to some of my fellow guinea-pigs. It was the usual mix of drifters and bohemians. Everyone had done multiple studies before and there was even one old guy who had done over thirty studies. I kept looking at him to see if he had any peculiar behaviours or features that could perhaps be attributed to a lifetime of testing pharmaceutical drugs. It was like staring into the future after all and I wanted to see how I’d end up after a long career in the human guinea-pig industry. Thankfully, he appeared a sound individual, apart from a few minor twitches and stutters. Aside from him was another traveller who was planning to walk across the Himalayas after the trial. £5750 was enough to live well for over a year in Nepal, and having visited the country twice before, I shared some stories and advice with him. He had this big map of the country which he studied every day and looking at it made the travel bug stir in me again.
I decided the most interesting person on this study was a guy from Scotland – Finlay. He was a year younger than me and also a backpacker. His travel lifestyle had been even more extreme than mine and it appeared he had been on the road for the last eight years. He told me about all the places he had travelled and lived in including a year in Mexico, a year in Asia, two years in New Zealand, and a year in Australia. He had been all over the shop, somehow managing to get around with rarely working. He had lived with his girlfriend’s family in Mexico, lived with another girlfriend’s family down on the south coast, and had lived for free in a house in New Zealand. It actually turned out we had worked for the very same labour agency in a town in New Zealand. It made sense that people working in that agency ended up doing medical trials. It was an agency full of people with no major trades or skills, looking for money to not be homeless, doing whatever crappy work was available on building sites. We shared many parallels and I also found out he was a creative too. He sat there on his laptop constantly messing around and producing music. He had uploaded a few things and shared them with the world, the same as I had with my blog and book. He was going on to study music production at university after the study. I asked him what he was hoping to get out of the course. “Ah I just love free money,” he said, referring to the student loan. His lifestyle made me laugh. I considered myself as someone ‘winging it’, but this guy was taking it to the next level. He had somehow gotten to the age of twenty-seven without hardly working at all, apart from some casual food delivery work and labour agency work while travelling. “When I lived in Brighton, I just stayed with my girlfriend’s family and lived off the dole and medical trials. When I lived in Mexico, I also lived with the bird I was seeing. Her family just paid for everything so I just stayed there for a year, going to the beach every day, drinking, having sex – the good life. It’s been three years now since my last job of any kind.” I had to sit back and think of a Bukowski quote. “Any fool can beg up some kind of job; it takes a wise man to make it without working.” Even though Finlay was currently raking in almost six grand on the trial, he also had another way to drum up some more free money simultaneously. He had two laptops with him, and on the smaller one he was doing some ‘online work’. This was through a marketing research company that paid people to fill out surveys and rate products. Finlay had downloaded a piece of software which recorded him doing the tasks for a short while, then replicated what he did on its own. There he sat on his bed: raking in £5750 for lying around and being fed, while also raking in $14 an hour as this piece of software did all the work for him. In a way, I was in awe: here was a man who was a walking insult to all the working folk stuck in the rat race. He made it through life, travelled the world, and worked on his passion without ever subjecting himself to some mindless and monotonous job. That was my idea of a successful man. I guess I was doing something similar, although he had taken it to the next level with the extra source of income and the sheer amount of travelling he had done. It was a sweet life in my eyes, but I did wonder if he was fulfilled and content. Although I hated work myself, I still had the existential urge to achieve something in life. I guess I sought to do this with my writing, and maybe he sought to do that with his music.
“I just don’t want to ever work,” he said. “After this trial I’ll have enough for a flat deposit. Maybe even two flat deposits. I live in Paisley and it’s one of the cheapest places in the country to buy. I’ll just buy a couple of flats after uni, rent them out, and then boom – more free money and no need to work. Along with medical trials, I’ll be sweet.”
“That’s the dream,” I said. “Do you not think at some point you might get craving a bit of purpose? Something to get out of bed and work at every morning?”
“No,” he said defiantly. “Work. A lot of people like to go to work because they have no other interests in their life. They’re boring and don’t know what to do with the free time. They don’t travel, they don’t have hobbies, they don’t sesh that often. Life is easy man. I remember when I lived in Mexico. I just cycled a bike to the beach every day, laid down and sunbathed and drank beers and just didn’t give a fuck about anything. I remember thinking then: this is what life is about. I’m going uni to study music production but I have no intention or expectation I’ll get a job after it. I don’t even need the degree to make music; I can do that anyway. It’s just to get the loan and hang out for a few years, meet people, get on the sesh and enjoy life.” I had to laugh at what he said. When I thought about it, even though I went to university because of social pressure, there was an aspect of going purely because of the loan and the social life. In a way, I estimated that was what well over 50% of students in the UK were doing right now. The government had made a push to get almost half the young population in university and it was clear to every young person who knew they’d never be able to pay back their student loan fully that there was going to be a huge deficit one day. Still, the going was good and it was time to ride that student loan gravy train to all the student bars – something Finlay planned to do soon after he was finished being experimented on by the pharmaceutical industry.
“I think I’m the same as you,” I said to him. “Although I do feel the need for a bit of purpose. When I’m travelling, there’s only so long I can sit on a beach getting drunk. I’ve noticed in the last years that I prefer to undertake some challenge: a big hike or a mountain ascent. Have you met the guy in here planning to walk across the Himalayas? I’d like to do something like that next I think.”
“I know what you mean,” he said. “But ultimately you just have to look at the reality of things. None of us are here for a reason. We’re all just transient organisms vegetating here, living on this rock and floating around the sun for a little while before dying. I don’t think there needs to be a purpose to anything. If I can make it through life without stressing, working shit jobs, and just chilling on a beach and kicking a football around and drinking beer and making some music and listening to some music then that’s sweet enough for me. Damn, talking about all of this is making me want to book a cheeky trip to Portugal before I start uni. Yeah, maybe I’ll do that. I deserve a holiday after this…”