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 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.

thoughts

~ The Same Old Feeling ~

lifee

Now I’m turning 30

I’m about to be an age where the average person is supposed to have it figured out. The career, the partner, the place of residence. In all honesty, things haven’t changed much since my 20th birthday. I look at the world I am supposed to be a part of and still feel nothing but total indifference with it. It’s all just so beyond me. The expectations, the traditions, the system of living. I still read the job descriptions and feel hopelessness in my soul. Is that what a man is supposed to become? A business analyst? A communications officer? A marketing manager? I could never bring myself to even engage in that world just cause the very sight of it filled me with despair. Even just writing a CV made me sad. The robotic nature of it; the notion that my intrinsic worth as a human-being came down to some bullet points on a piece of paper. The depressing thought of sitting in front of an employer with a fake smile and speaking insincere words just to get a job I didn’t even want. Then there was the idea of marriage; standing all-dressed up at a pompous ceremony, wasting money on that event while having to engage in small-talk with people you didn’t even like. Kids, well, I looked at how crazy the world was becoming and felt only the selfish wanted to bring more inmates into the asylum. Owning a property also had no appeal; I looked at houses and was disinterested with the idea of looking after them and paying council tax and being tied to one residence. No, all these things still confused and depressed the hell out of me. My mind disregarded it all and instead toyed with far-fetched ideas. Riding a bicycle to Asia. Hiking through the Himalayas. Working on a vineyard in France. Writing poetry under the stars. I imagined myself meeting a beautiful woman and residing in a quiet little village somewhere in Spain, sipping wine as the sun set across the fields every evening. I imagined hitch-hiking around Europe, working season to season while meeting strange and interesting people. My mind was a gateway to a better place and I imagined myself living a life of purity and beauty, far away from the suffocating reality of a society which had taken all the life out of living.

thoughts

~ What Am I Going To Do Now? ~

What Am I Going To Do Now?

Well, it seems I haven’t got much to say these days. I remember when I sat before this laptop, the words of passion loaded in my fingertips, waiting to explode onto the blank pages of the world. Now the ammunition is low, the gun is jarred, and the desire to pull the trigger not even there. I have my excuse: the collective madness of society losing its mind and collapsing over a virus with a 99.5% survival rate, leaving me locked up alone and unable to live life during my prime years. The coronavirus had inspired a new peak of human insanity: shutting down the world, locking children up, fining hikers for walking alone, not allowing anyone to live their lives to potentially prolong the lives of some elderly people who had already lived theirs. Ahh yes, it sounds harsh right? But just think about it for a second – many countries had crashed their entire society at the thought we could once again control a natural force (spoiler: we can’t). The countries who hadn’t locked down had shown had utterly stupid this whole thing was by having a death rate that was not too dissimilar from everyone else’s (and, in some cases, actually better – see Sweden, Nepal, and the state of Florida). Hysteria reigned supreme and I now lived in a country where McDonalds was open but gyms were closed; where smoking and drinking were legal but sitting on a bench in a park was deemed too dangerous for public health.

I knew the next ten years would slowly reveal how utterly insane and foolish these lockdowns were, and that people would lie about their support of them (just like people still lie about their support of the war in Iraq when figures show 80% of the public supported it at the time). The second-hand deaths from lockdown would far outweigh any potential elderly lives we managed to prolong (and these deaths would include younger people who still had their lives to live). Besides that, many people would have their life quality forever lessened by the poverty and mental health pandemic that was sure to follow. The youth were especially fucked and I essentially saw the whole situation as something similar to forcing young people to have kidney transplants to prolong the lives of some elderly people. This very notion sounds utterly insane and evil, but in reality that wasn’t far from what was happening. So many young people were having their insides tore out against their own will. Due to lockdown, I knew many who were depressed, stressed, anxious, lonely, jobless. Suicide rates were up and with a bleak looking future ahead of them, so many had nothing much to live for anymore. They had already lost an entire year of the best period of their lives due to the tyranny of a government and the docile nature of a public who swallowed whatever the media told them. And I was amongst those betrayed young people, hence my anger, and now the one thing in this stupid life that kept me going (travelling) was taken from me. At first, I had thought lockdown was the right thing to do, but now I had time to clear my head and actually think about it, I deplored it with every ounce of my being. I wanted to see heads roll over what had been taken from us. I wanted the people to awaken and go out and live their lives again with the knowledge of the fact that – shock, horror – they are mortal beings who will die and decay into cosmic dust. And that it’s okay – it’s okay to die; what is not okay is to not live in the first place when locked up living in irrational fear.

Okay, I can feel the virtue-signalling do-gooders sharpening their knives and shouting ‘granny-killer!’ The same people who never said a thing about the millions who die from starvation a year, the 500,000 who die from flu, the millions who die from smoking, from suicide, from obesity, from heart disease, from malaria, from road accidents, and not to mention who happily consume thousands of animals a year while turning a blind eye to the fact that all major disease/virus outbreaks of the last thirty years originated from the meat industry. The same people who go around supermarkets filling their trolleys with junk food that will cause them heart failure but feel outraged at the sight of someone not wearing a useless face covering. To be honest I was done with humanity to a degree, but this last year has cemented that. I always knew people were irrational and illogical, but I never knew it would be to this extent. I always knew people were willing to throw away freedom for illusions of security, but I never knew it would be to this extent. I always knew people were brainwashed by the media and public opinion, but I never knew it would be to this extent.

So yes, I have detached myself from the situation, but still, now in the prime of my life when I should be living life to the full – when I should be out meeting new people and experiencing things and dating women – I now have to reformulate and adjust to the tyranny imposed upon me. For a while I have been doing that: living the healthy life, getting my fitness up to new levels and meditating in my lair of solitude. I published a new book and even started learning how to drive before that was also made illegal. Now comes a time where no matter how much I meditate or masturbate or write, I can still feel the dissatisfaction brewing within me. Naturally it’s nice to believe that this will all be over soon, but it appears that society is only going more and more insane. Human rights are slowly being eroded and soon I will be forced to take a vaccine for a virus which poses no threat to me while also having to show a vaccine passport to go out to a bar or a concert or a cinema (despite the fact the people actually vulnerable to the virus had been vaccinated). We are on a slippery slope into the dystopian, totalitarian abyss and soon life will be something like Blade Runner or a Black Mirror episode. I always felt it would be that way, but I genuinely didn’t expect things to disintegrate into the realms of madness so quick. Well, silly me.

Anyway, I am twenty-nine and probably have another fifty or sixty years until I happily die of the coronavirus. That’s a lot of time, and with the world now changed forever, I have to sit back and stare at the ceiling and think: what the hell am I going to do now? Seriously. All that time ahead of me with a world that is taking away everything good about life. For the last decade I have based my life around travelling – around flying to new countries, meeting new people, exploring new cultures, dancing on beaches, kissing strangers, living wild and free and soaking in the sun and the sights. Now that world looks decimated at least for the foreseeable future, and probably even longer if this madness keeps unfolding. I mean, yes, writing is also my life passion; but my words came from that wilderness of travel and freedom, and I am not sure what exactly I will have to write about while living this new dystopian lifestyle which is insidiously being imposed upon me. I still have my running and cycling of course (they hadn’t taken that away from me yet), but I needed more of an adventure than riding my bike to the next town or jogging beside the river. I guess I could do what so many men do when they don’t know what to do with their lives: find a good woman, settle down, reproduce, and force myself into a steady and tracked existence for the next few decades. God, even just writing that sentence out makes me want to hang around unmasked on a covid ward. Maybe I could try and start a career finally? Ahh too bad – the economy is fucked, young people have no opportunities, and we are now about to enter an era of mass unemployment as small businesses crumble and psychopathic billionaire elites finally take full control of the world. 

Well yeah, things aren’t looking so good I guess. And yet I still need to go on – to keep breathing and feeding myself, to keep waking up in the morning and finding the strength to pull myself out of bed, to face the world, to talk to other human-beings and be a member of a society I can’t stand the sight of. Maybe there’s just no way around it anymore: I’ll have to become an alcoholic or drug user to make it through. A comfortably numb existence which so many have chosen to live just because the pain of being human in an unhuman system is all too much. God, now my sentences are crumbling apart. I used to write with such flow and fluidity, but look at these words now – plodding along, going nowhere, dissipating out. I can’t even be bothered to edit this shit anymore. This is what the lockdown has done to me. My one talent is now dying due to the suffocation of this tyranny as politicians and billionaires sit laughing, counting their profits, amusing themselves over the pitiful plight of the common man.

I won’t bore you with my jaded words and frustration any longer. I would normally finish a piece like this by trying to make some grand point, but there isn’t one; this is simply nothing more than a scream against the absurdity and insanity of the world. A howl in the wilderness from a wolf who has locked in a cage. A thrash of a shark who has been imprisoned in a tank. A tear of a soldier who has been deprived of his battle. I don’t know how it came to this, but one thing is for sure: no matter what society throws at me, I remain determined that this world will never take this fire from me without a fight. It may cage me and totally prevent me from living the life my soul cries out for, but I will not bend over and die like the rest. What am I going to do now? I don’t know exactly, but I will find a way to keep my soul alive, even when this world seems to want it dead and buried. Even when I can no longer distinguish society from a mental asylum, I will fight my fight and do whatever I can to keep something real and true inside of me.

thoughts

~ The Blessing of Madness ~

~ The Blessing of Madness ~

“As I got older and lived my life the way I did, I found that many people simply dismissed me as crazy. I didn’t take offence to this. In fact, I welcomed it. Once you were put in the ‘crazy box’, then you were free to just live life how you wanted, without having to answer or adhere to social norms. Ultimately people’s realities needed to be reinforced, and labelling people who saw things differently to them as ‘crazy’ was one way to do this. But those people didn’t understand just how fragile those realities were. Once the sane people believed the earth was flat; once the sane people burned women on the stake for being witches; once the sane people enslaved other humans thinking they were nothing more than their property. Sanity was just the dominant cultural viewpoint at the current moment – a collective hallucination that had about as much solid substance as the wind. Often I looked at the sane people of the world and felt sorry for them in a way. Did they not know how limited and constricted their reality was? Did they not know what wonders awaited them beyond the fences of conventional thinking? The sight of a completely sane person made me sad, and I hoped everyone was fortunate enough to lose their mind at least once in their life.”

short stories

~ Blocked ~

~ Blocked ~

Locked away alone in my bedroom, in the middle of winter, with the wind and rain howling outside the window. I sat staring at the screen waiting for words to come. Nothing did. It had been this way for a while now – racking my brain and having nothing new to put down onto the page. It was frustrating, but what can a writer really do when their creative well-spring has run dry? You feel incomplete, almost sick in a way, but ultimately you know there simply is no way to force inspiration or emotion; it has to flow out of you naturally, like blood coming out from a wound. And the reason nothing was coming out was because everything had been drained dry. I had written down all my experience up until now, and I now needed to go out and experience life some more. However, the lockdowns of the country over the last year had made that somewhat difficult. I was now in a strange state of being: stuck in one place, unable to take a trip anywhere, unable to do anything of any real excitement. On the flip side to this, I had recently discovered something novel to me; a strange sort of peace and harmony. I was living undisturbed, eating and exercising well, as healthy as I’d ever been, but the confronting truth – as I had come to realise  – was that deep down I needed the chaos and the adventure. I needed to go get lost, to struggle and to suffer, to elevate and overcome. I needed new pains and pleasures to be felt in my heart. Such existential turbulence was what I was born for, and the fact that my words ran dry when I hadn’t done it for a while was confirmation to me of that. Listening to the rain outside, I began to imagine myself back out on a new adventure, living life on some precarious edge. I imagined getting my heart broken again and new truths being discovered. I imagined pouring all those new emotions into new stories and poems – the wisdom of the wilderness being further explored as I resumed my chaotic journey through life. But there was nothing I could do. I was powerless. Locked down. Blocked. Simply existing and no longer living…

I wasn’t alone in this feeling, of course, and I thought of everyone else out there in the storm, also just existing and waiting for the world to go back to how it was before so we could all carry on with our lives. Maybe the conspiracy theorists were right; this was the end of normality as we knew it and it was all a part of some grand plan to control us all under a new globalist agenda. Maybe the government was right and things would be back to normal by the summer once people had been vaccinated. In reality, it was hard to know what to believe; getting to the complete truth of things with your own short-sighted perspective of such a complicated, global issue was an almost impossible task, and a part of me had mentally withdrawn myself from the whole mess altogether. I didn’t follow the news anymore; I didn’t debate about it with friends and family. I simply waited and waited, practicing contentment, meditating on my bed as the last years of my twenties drifted by in static silence.

I took solace in the fact that I had taken advantage of the preceding years when a man could go online and book a flight to almost any country in the world for the next day. Such a lifestyle seemed like it was a relic of a bygone age, even though it hadn’t even been a year since the first lockdown started. Now the feeling is almost becoming normal, and that’s what worries me the most. To live a life that is constantly on hold, blocked, and you become accepting of and adjusted to this new reality. But how many people like this lived their whole lives this way? Waiting constantly for life to begin? Fuck, maybe I was just getting sucked into it like the others. Maybe I should have taken the gaps in lockdown to move to another country, or take up a new hobby, or at least try something. Maybe I’m just on the downward slope to having this spark inside my soul snuffed out, and I’ll attribute it to old age or the lockdown, but really I’ll just be another person made complacent and incompetent by the world, wasting out his one existence on the shores of security, rather than going out and braving that storm. No creativity or imagination left. Rotting away. Blocked forever. Spiritually locked down forever. 

Well at least I had some ideas about how I would get out living again, and some money in the bank to put those ideas into realisation once the travel bans were finally lifted. I was in contact with my French friend who had taken a risk to book a flight to Indonesia for April. He too was like me, itching to get out and do something, although he was being sent slightly more insane by the lockdowns than I was – drinking often, and losing his mind from being sex-starved. “Life is shit,” he said. “I need to go pub and to fuck some girl.” It was the type of pent-up sexual frustration that only a single man in a global pandemic could resonate with. He was urging me to book a flight too. It was tempting, although I felt April was most certainly too soon to escape this prison. I was also in communication with my Dutch friend who had gotten lucky to be in Australia during the pandemic, where things were currently running normally in most parts. He had been moving around the island of Tasmania, going on hikes, drinking in bars, meeting new people. The pictures arrived in my inbox. The other side of the world, in the summer sun, free to roam as he pleased as I stayed locked away in this small room with the winter winds howling against the window.

It’s a shit situation and there’s not a whole lot to do but write these words and carry on waiting for life to begin again. A part of me knows I’m gonna get back out there doing what I was born to do eventually, but I can’t for now; I am blocked, both physically and mentally. I’m just a man in a waiting room and seemingly out of words to say. But as the wind keeps howling outside, I can at least still feel that wilderness inside of me fighting to break out – out of this room, out of this winter, out of this insane situation society finds itself in. It will take me onto that first plane, travelling to some distant land, sharing drinks with strangers, embracing, hugging, kissing, dancing. It’s all out there beyond the rain clouds, beyond this crisis, and it’s going to come back to me, and I will soak in all those experiences and all those new truths and all those new words, and I will come back to you and share some stories and poems with you. Until then, I’ll be here, staring at these four walls, trapped, blocked, waiting for life to return. A prisoner of circumstance.

diaries

The Secret Diary of a Depressed Therapist

(the following is the opening for a fictional diary-style novel I am experimenting with)

Photo by Sinitta Leunen on Pexels.com

“People are the greatest show on earth and you don’t even pay the ticket.”

Charles Bukowski said that. A man who lingered on the edges of society for most of his life, working odd jobs, moving around, trying to be a writer while alienated from society. He stood on the outside of the herd, looked back in, observed their behaviour and wrote about it. Some people hated his writing, others loved it. For me, I guess I am one of the latter, and I couldn’t help but agree completely with the above quote. I mean, have you ever stopped and watched people? Like really watched them? Their behaviour, their movements, their stresses and anxieties? Have you listened to the lies that come out of their mouths and tried to understand the chaos in their brains? For me, I was drawn to that stuff from an early age and I soon found myself studying the behaviour of everyone around me. From peers to parents to teachers: I wanted to know what made them tick, what their dirty little secrets were, and what it was that would push them over the edge into the abyss of total madness. The average human brain was a dense jungle of issues and for whatever reason I wanted to go and explore it (no doubt I needed therapy to ascertain why exactly that was myself).

Naturally it made sense that I had ended up electing to study psychology at university, before spending a large part of my twenties travelling the world. Of course, at school you just learn all the dull text-book crap, scanning miles and miles of print and regurgitating it in an exam, thinking you are ready to walk on a psych ward and nurse some murderous psychopath back to some form of sanity. None of that stuff really prepares you for the real thing, and it was out on my travels where I started to get some first-hand experience of helping people make sense of the human condition. I mean, there’s something about the situation of travelling overseas that causes a person to let their guard down, take off their mask, and start spilling their deepest, darkest secrets to a total stranger. This, I felt, was that travelling was already a sort of therapy for people anyway; an activity where you took yourself away from the stifling reality of ordinary life to put yourself under the existential microscope. The average Joe could learn a lot about himself while hiking through a mountain wilderness, or getting wasted with people from another culture, or staring out at an ocean sunset while wondering what the hell it all meant. And of course, people naturally felt safer sharing their issues with people they were never going to see again (after all, we all knew what judgmental gossips work colleagues and relatives could be). 

On my travels I listened to a fifty-year-old man tell me how he had quit his job after feeling suicidal from work-related stress; I listened to a young Danish girl tell me about her eating disorders and childhood abuse; I listened to an ex-heroin addict explain his addiction and fears of relapsing/overdosing. I heard tales of disaster and darkness; of pain and heartache; of death and destruction. My reserved and attentive demeanour drew people in, and I must have spent countless hours listening to people from all around the world spill their hearts out to me. Walking the ancient Christian pilgrimage El Camino de Santiago in Spain was perhaps the greatest experience in this, seeing me spend most days wandering along the trail, meeting people from all walks of life, and talking about the things that lingered in the darkest corners of a person’s mind. The most memorable encounter being with an eccentric, middle-aged man called Pete – a retired army soldier from London who had no home or next of kin. His last remaining family member (his brother) was killed by American friendly fire in Afghanistan. With no family left and no place to be, he now lived the life of a wandering nomad, walking the pilgrimage again and again with no apparent goal other than to just keep going until he dropped dead on the ground. He was a nice guy, although it’s obvious there were some serious demons lingering within, which typically came to the surface every evening after a bottle of red wine – resulting in arguments being started, abuses being hurled, and hostel tables being flipped. Such encounters were compelling to me and only made me crave the gypsy lifestyle more; clearly there was no substitute for real life experience in getting to know just how convoluted and complicated and chaotic the human mind could be. As the godfather of modern psychology had said:

“Anyone who wants to know the human psyche will learn next to nothing from experimental psychology. He would be better advised to abandon exact science, put away his scholar’s gown, bid farewell to his study, and wander with human heart through the world. There in the horrors of prisons, lunatic asylums and hospitals, in drab suburban pubs, in brothels and gambling-halls, in the salons of the elegant, the Stock Exchanges, socialist meetings, churches, revivalist gatherings and ecstatic sects, through love and hate, through the experience of passion in every form in his own body, he would reap richer stores of knowledge than text-books a foot thick could give him, and he will know how to doctor the sick with a real knowledge of the human soul.” Carl Jung

Yeah, old Jung knew the score. The sick were out there in plagues, and by travelling the world with an open heart, you were sure to end up in the midst of human sickness. And the truth, I’ve come to learn, is that almost everybody is sick with something. Even the people who look untroubled on the surface have their monsters lurking somewhere within, and each man or woman has their own facade to hide away the reality of their true tortured self. I even remembered the teachers I had at school – people I looked up to as shining examples of successful human-beings – I later came to find out their drug habits, how some were cheating on their spouses, how one was sexually harassing members of staff, and how another was even found with underage pornography on his computer. Ultimately human-beings are wild and wounded animals ruled by desire, instinct and fear – only society has sought to suppress that side of us and to present us all as civilised beings with polished appearances. But no matter how clean your clothes are, the pain in your heart can’t be washed out; no matter how much makeup you wear, the dirt in your soul can’t be glossed over; no matter how many filters you use on Instagram, the mess in your head can’t be edited out.

Everyone is fucked-up to some degree, and I guess it’s my job to help people make sense of just how fucked-up they are, and also what – if anything – can be done about it. I know, I know: you’re probably thinking how heroic and selfless I am. Well, just know I don’t see myself as some sort of hero: a dark knight that leads people back into the light from the demon-infested shadows. I’m sure there is a view of a therapist out there somewhere (I think that was what I thought when I was an idealistic young man). You see, the truth is I’m just as fucked-up as the majority of people I speak to. Perhaps even more so actually. That’s what makes this whole thing so laughable. I mean, a fucked-up person helping other fucked-up people become less fucked-up? It’s almost poetic in a Nietzsche-esque sort of way. I guess I had spent a lot of time trying to make sense of the mess inside my head so I could, to a degree, put myself into the seats of those opposite me. They were the seats of the broken, the desperate, the lost, the lonely, and the confused. And they were states of being I had gotten to experience myself over the years, so naturally I could resonate with most of the things coming out their mouths. The only difference being that I wouldn’t dare sit in front of a therapist and divulge the contents of my mind for fear of getting dragged to the nearest madhouse. So what better place to sit than in the therapist chair myself, hearing other people’s stories, and feeling some sort of relief that many human-beings were a complete mess inside too.

Often I even thought many of them were fine when compared to myself; nothing a bit of self-reflection, meditation and a few lifestyle changes couldn’t sort out. For me, my madness was an unshakable, elemental part of who I was. It was something I had knew existed within me from a young age. There were many moments of strangeness but I guess the first notable one was when I broke into a house on my way home from a night out when I was sixteen. I went into the kitchen and poured myself a glass of wine before going to drink it in the living room. It was Christmas and I sat there on the sofa looking at the Christmas tree, sipping my wine and feeling like Santa Claus himself. I considered taking one of the presents from under the tree but managed to stop myself. Aside from that, I started relationships with girls then deliberately crashed them just for some drama and passion. I got drunk and stood on the ledges of buildings, wondering what it would feel like for those few seconds of falling before hitting the ground. I went out into the world and sought out pain and drama like some deranged masochist. The reason I liked this shit? There was no way around it: I was self-destructive at my core. An absurdist. Prone to nihilistic thoughts. Human existence was a big joke to me and I wanted to make a mockery of it as much as possible – even getting a self-serving job that satisfied my fetish for delving into the minds of those around me. God, there’s so much to tell you about really, but I’ll spare you the full details of my own tragedy for now. We’ll have to entertain ourselves with other people’s tragedy instead.

03/01

The start of a new year. The ‘new year, new me’ were out in force and I was usually met with new clients looking to finally address their underlying issues in the hope they can finally achieve happiness, or perhaps just momentarily stop themselves from kicking the bucket. I was guilty too – starting this diary as a sort of new year experiment to see if I could create some added meaning to my life which was currently in the grips of my latest existential crisis. Dreams of being Charles Bukowski were still in my mind, and I was well aware this was another project that would probably dissipate and fade out into nothingness over the course of the year, just like all my previous projects – including a dystopian novel that was going to be the most prophetic book since 1984 (yeah, I was particularly deluded at that time). Still, it was something; another creative endeavour to keep me going and not let myself be crushed by the feeling of pissing your life away doing the same things every day. It was a common feeling most working adults could relate to. Just like Roger Waters of Pink Floyd had sang on the album Dark Side of The Moon:

“Every year is getting shorter, never seem to find the time.

Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines

Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way

The time is gone, the song is over,

Thought I’d something more to say…”

    Or perhaps a bit of Celine hit the nail on the head:

“The worst part is wondering how you’ll find the strength tomorrow to go on doing what you did today and have been doing for much too long, where you’ll find the strength for all that stupid running around, those projects that come to nothing, those attempts to escape from crushing necessity, which always founder and serve only to convince you one more time that destiny is implacable, that every night will find you down and out, crushed by the dread of more and more sordid and insecure tomorrows.”

Old Louis-Ferdinand Celine: a writer after my own heart. Anyway, enough of all that. Today’s ‘new year, new me’ client is a twenty-two-year-old woman. She is in the final year of university and expressing some of the standard concerns that ravaged the minds of young people across the world. On she went telling me about her crippling anxiety, her doubts in her head that she wasn’t good enough, that she would always be unhappy and die alone in some dark room covered in spiderwebs and sorrow somewhere. Young women are my biggest client demographic. First of all, women are more likely to actually go and get therapy, unlike us men who politely bottle up our pain and end up committing 70% of all suicides. Second of all, the young woman has a range of issues she needs to navigate in the attempt to be a functioning human-being. Everything from image issues, social media addiction, eating disorders. Some are victims of domestic or childhood abuse, some sexual assault, others are riddled with anxiety about the world and themselves. And let’s not forget the state of the economy which had left all young people screwed when it came to finding a stable career and affording their own home. It was a cluster-fuck of issues altogether, being made continually worse by the unrelenting absurdity of the modern world which was never afraid to make you feel like total shit at every opportunity.

“I feel like I’m doing all these things just to do them,” she told me. “I don’t feel a connection to what I’m doing. I’m just drifting through the motions like I’m not really there, and I keep wondering: will I always feel this way? Like when I get married and when I have kids. I’ll just be doing those things too because that’s what everyone does. Surely everyone doesn’t feel like this? I know they can’t. All my coursemates are applying for jobs and planning their lives. They sound excited, enthusiastic, hopeful. Meanwhile, I just can’t relate to them at all. I just have this emptiness inside.” I let her have a moment for self-reflection before interjecting.

“Have you spoken to anyone else close to you about this? Do you have anyone in your life you feel understands you?”

“No, that’s another thing – no one understands me. If I had someone to talk about these things with, I would, but I don’t. Isn’t that why I’m here after all?”

“I understand. I can say that you are certainly not the only one feeling these things, but that doesn’t negate how you are feeling. However, losing interest in things you once enjoyed and feeling no connection to anything is often a sign of depression. Would you say this a feeling that’s manifested recently? 

“Well, I started feeling this way after the first year of university. I was waking up in the morning with no energy, and sometimes it took me over an hour to get out of bed, then when I did……”

I sat back and let her go on, seeing if her introspective exploration of her issues could help us identify the area that was causing her these troubles. The best thing to do with a new client is to just let them speak. The thing is that most people just have so much shit inside of them they need to get out, and having a stranger whose job is to listen to anything and everything you want to express can be the godsend they’ve needed. It’s really quite simple in a way. You give them their space to scream, you acknowledge their scream, and you help them make sense of where their scream came from and what can be done about it. Most aren’t even expecting some grand epiphany or something like that; just the sheer relief of getting all that shit out inside of them is enough. All that shit that has been tearing them up through the years; all that shit they hold inside when they say ‘fine thanks, you?’ Finally, their time has come. So sit back, look attentive, and let them vomit out the contents of their constipated mind right in front of you.

We carried on for another thirty minutes trying to get to the root cause of why she felt that way. Soon her time was up and I said goodbye to her, had some lunch, then welcomed back one of my regulars: an unemployed widow with no savings whose social anxiety stopped her from getting a job. After that it was a guy with bipolar disorder who had recently smashed up his parents house and set fire to his car. It was another cheery start to the year.

After work, I headed to my local. I had considered the dry January thing but decided it was just another trend and fashion that I didn’t really want to follow. I couldn’t bring myself to face another year sober so I sat down at the bar and ordered a drink. I then looked up at the television. More talk of Brexit negotiations were on the screen, along with the latest football scores, and something about government officials dodging taxes. It was a world of absurdity out there but drinking helped you escape for a brief while. I got my double rum and coke then got speaking to one of the resident alcoholics. You needed people like that to make yourself feel better at times; people worse than you that made you feel okay about yourself in comparison. It was a common mind trick we all played on ourselves and I utilised it too. I downed my drink with him, put the world to rights, and headed home to masturbate and eat some leftover macaroni and cheese. And some digestive biscuits too.

short stories

~ Helping to Heal a Broken World ~

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~ Helping to Heal a Broken World ~

It was a world of hurting people. No doubt about it. Forget the fairytales and the happy-ever-after stuff they tell you when you’re a kid – this life broke so many people down and left them struggling to go on. Out there I’ve seen people without hope; without any desire to live in their eyes. I’ve seen people who have had all the light and love kicked out of them. Sometimes that person was the one in the mirror’s reflection, sometimes it was a friend, sometimes a stranger on the street. When you have been down at the very bottom, you feel as if you have this sixth sense that can detect whenever another is dwelling in that darkness. You don’t know what it is specifically, but it’s just there in a person’s aura. And as my friend sat there talking to me that evening, I could sense it again. He had been acting irregularly for a long time now. And avoiding friends, a sunken look in his eye, weight gain and drinking heavily. It was evident to me: that same state of being that had consumed me in the past. I wanted to ask him if he was okay, but I couldn’t find it within me to just ask straight to the point. Instead, I asked how he was doing – some casual conversation to try and make him open up. He answered in an ordinary manner. God, maybe I was wrong. Maybe he was fine after all? But I thought of the girl I had spoken to just a few weeks before her suicide the previous year. Others that had seemed fine and had suffered in silence before meeting their ends. Why was the world like this? Why was it so hard to open ourselves up? And why did I constantly feel it within me to try and help people, when often it was me who needed help myself? 

A girl I was speaking to told me I was a healer of some kind. Maybe she was right. It seemed that I was always looking to help a wounded soul. I stood ready with words of encouragement and enough enthusiasm to drag them through hell myself. It was an innate urge that I just couldn’t suppress. I was riddled with problems of my own, but the thought of helping a broken soul immediately spurred me into action. And there were so many out there in the world to help: the depressed, the lonely, the anxious, the broken, the lost. I guess in a way it did make sense why I felt the desire to alleviate other’s pain. When you know what it’s like to feel a certain way, the thought that there are others out there feeling that same way is troubling, so naturally you look to just make their existence a little easier. I think this is ultimately what led me to writing. There was a time when the words of others helped me to go on living when everything seemed hopeless, and I knew the life-affirming power a few sentences could yield. A part of me wanted to give people what those writers had given to me, and I guess that was one of the reasons that led me to sharing my heart with others. I wrote my words down and sent them out into the world to see if they had any value to people out there. To my surprise, it seemed that they did, and over time I received messages from others saying how it had given them strength and reminded them that they weren’t alone or crazy. Reading those messages was like spiritual heroin to me, and it made me feel like I was doing exactly what I was put on this earth to do. An existential desire had been fulfilled and it was the start of a continual need to keep offering pieces of my heart to the world.

Over time I came to meet similar people to me: people who had made it through some dark times, and now possessed a specific knowledge of the human soul, as well as an innate desire to help cure others. It soon became clear to me that certain people in this world exist as healers, and most of the time they don’t even know it. Not all healers are doctors or nurses. Sometimes it’s that friend with the reassuring comment; it’s that person making you feel safe enough to share your secrets. It’s the musician you listen to, the writer you read, the postman smiling to you as he delivers your mail. In a world of secretly hurting people, naturally it happens that a few of those people exist to lift people’s spirits and illuminate the darkness in which so many dwell. Without those types of people filtered, humanity would suffer from a great sickness which would spiral out of control. But in an ironic fashion, it just so happens that these healers happen to be in desperate need of healing themselves. A classic example was the comedy actor Robin Williams – the lovable star of family movies that had persevered all his life to put smiles on people’s faces. He eventually committed suicide after a life-long battle with depression to which most people were unaware. Such a fate was a shining example of how people in the darkness try to stop others from sharing that darkness with them. It reminded me of a joke the comic book Watchmen:

“Man goes to doctor. Says he’s depressed. Says life seems harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in a threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain. Doctor says, “Treatment is simple. The great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you up.” Man bursts into tears. And says, “But doctor…I am Pagliacci…”

Indeed it’s a strange situation that the healers of this world are usually some of the most hurt individuals themselves. All those artists losing their minds while giving so many people the fuel they needed to go on. All those everyday people doing charity work and helping friends out even though they suffer from anxiety and depression. It seems that some people have a deep desire to sacrifice themselves for the aid of others. And I think I feel it inside too: this unwavering desire to lead others through the storm; to keep sharing my heart with the world no matter how much it takes out of me. Although this gives me a deep fulfilment, I guess I should try to pay more attention to myself sometimes. But ultimately this desire is paramount to my own health and happiness. Maybe it will cost me in the end, but in a world of hurting people, it seems throwing pieces of myself onto the fire to help illuminate the darkness makes more sense than anything else I ever knew.