Hello, if you have followed my blog over the last year you will know I have regularly been posting extracts of a project called Lab Rat. I am now pleased to announce that I have finalised and published these in a completed book.
“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 for a living because there was no room for them in the centre of things. There was no room for me out there either. But that 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.”
‘Lab Rat tells the story of a young man surviving by taking part in medical research trials. Known only as ‘Subject 55355’, the anonymous narrator of this semi-autobiographical novel is an aspiring writer who has just returned home after a period of travelling. His natural contempt for the world of work causes him to quickly quit his first job back. It is then, on a night out, that a stranger in a bar informs him about ‘drug trials’ – medical studies where a person can be paid large amounts of money for testing new medicines. The protagonist immediately embraces the guinea-pig lifestyle, meeting fellow drifters along the way, all the while still chasing his dream of becoming a successful writer. An existential piece of social commentary filled with black humour, Lab Rat is a classic outsider story that will resonate with anyone who has dreamed of breaking free from the rat race.’
The book is my first full-length story I’ve published and is now available here on Amazon, either as an ebook or paperbook. The following is an extract from the book.
‘I looked at the current list of medical studies on the website. It was like looking at a diverse and 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 more 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 man blinded by my money, putting some digits on a screen before my 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 that happened 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 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, although it did make me wonder 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 many people out there.
I had the usual screening and chat 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 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, then, where I would have drawn the line for what study I would take part in.
Back in the clinic, I got settled into my second home. I was back to being Subject 55355 and 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, 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 during the previous two weeks. Yes, I thought. Get me locked up before I end up as disastrous and self-destructive as Owen.
This time the collection of fellow guinea-pigs looked a little more fitting to the situation. There were some strange looking characters including a washed-up hippy in his fifties who liked to walk around half naked – 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 proceeded 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 regularly 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 problem man on the trial. He was an angry soul and would even snap at the nurses walking past his bed if they were too loud, suggesting they wore some stealthier footwear. “Do you think you can wear some quieter shoes? I’m trying to sleep here.” The audacity 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 person 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. There were even some rules which would result in you being dismissed from the study and taken off the panel altogether. I wondered how far the washed-up hippy was going to push his luck. No doubt he was another bum living off these trials and 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 money so easily and, for me, I followed the rules attentively and 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. I knew the drill – 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 (I guess it was quite hard to not look awkward walking through a room full of people while carrying your own shit). Well, at least I wasn’t the first person 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 discharge’ 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 and optimistic, I left university with my degree, ready to get a proper job and begin a steady 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 with 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 a strange situation and I had to think of all my coursemates from university. 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.
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, typically, 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 fill other people with it. 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 I had no room for confrontation in my life – especially when I was locked up in a closed environment with that person for weeks on end.
It wasn’t just him causing the drama on the trial though. At one point a woman was on the phone to her partner when he and her son turned up by the lounge 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 such illegal gear. The windows were covered with a steel mesh on the outside, but there was still the chance you could sneak a chocolate bar or something through. 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 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 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. Ultimately human-beings were tribal, primitive beings at their core, and for most it was a good thing they didn’t get together. For me, I quickly decided that my tactic when starting a trial was to sit back, observe, and keep myself to myself for the first couple of days. While in that state of observation, I tried to work out which person was left-wing and right-wing, which person was religious or atheist, 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 accordingly; or which people I was just going to avoid all together for the sake of my own peace and harmony. I figured this was a tactic I used anyway in the outside world when interacting with humanity, but one which is even more necessary in this intense sort of environment.
After a couple of days of such observation, I realised there was one person on the trial who was ‘one of my kind’. His name was Steven 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, perhaps offering you some mind-altering substances. 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 something between a furniture removal vehicle and a horse box. Inside he had turned it into a mobile home complete with a bed, kitchen, sofa, solar panels, and a toilet. Like me, he had spent his twenties wandering around the world and was now 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 as a result a lot of his talk was about women and sex. Speaking to him, it became clear he was another wanderer of life probably 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 myself wandered the streets looking for others with that look. I searched for it in 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 was wondering when somebody was going to come take him home. For now his home was that van, and this clinic, and wherever the hell he was going to drive it to 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 except for some wrinkles. I’ve got no savings or prospects.”
“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 actual concerns about the life he was living. His words reminded me that in the end 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 full of 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 and lived off medical trials 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 because I had felt it myself during the last few years of my own life. 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 actually living this type of life, most people will choose comfort and convenience every time. An easy shower, a steady job, having things in common with people… It’s all a trade-off. But life is obviously 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. 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 something. I don’t want to be another victim of the system living a mediocre existence. Most people aren’t very interesting or even happy by the time they reach middle-age.”
“I hope I’m still living an adventurous life in ten years’ time,” I then said. “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 long travel trips become weekends away to the Cotswolds, and people generally filter themselves down 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 halfway through their lives and that they haven’t done anything they ever wanted to do. Then, 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 stuck in their ways to truly change to the version of themselves they wish to be.” I could feel myself getting into a big old speech, and I had noticed one of the nurses listening in – no doubt they regularly overheard these types of existential debates amongst us lab rats.
“You seem pretty switched on for a young guy,” he said.
“I’m just another kid who read too much philosophy. No doubt I’m just full of shit like everyone else.” I was joining Steven with his self-deprecating humour, but I really believed what I was saying. 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 and 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, how I sometimes 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 frustrating 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, most of us 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: 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 while surviving off medical trials).
It was a few minutes later that I found out me and Steven 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.” Although my idleness wasn’t as bad as Steven’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 it. Ultimately I hadn’t lived enough and was better off getting beaten up some more by life before I attempted the mountain of writing a novel. At least, that was how I rationalised my idleness. Maybe we were both those cliché pretentious guys who went through their lives saying they were writing a novel, but never actually got around 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 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 (or losing them on a trial), 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.’