I am 48 years old, live by myself, my interactions with others largely restricted to weekends. Yet I accepted a role in a drug trial at the Centre for Clinical Studies.
In backpacker lit, such trials are described as ‘getting paid to lay around’.
For writers like me, they mean ‘possible income’.
In reality, they are a test of social temperament.
To get accepted by the CCS, you must usually be aged between 18 and 55; a non-smoker and not taking medication; and be prepared to undergo a thorough physical screening, which usually means abstaining from alcohol for a couple of days and often fasting for maybe 10 or 12 hours.
You have to read through the detailed analysis of why the drug is being synthesised, what is involved in the test, the new drug’s possible risks, then you sign a document which states that you understand all of this.
In the four-day studies I experienced, we were ‘dosed’ with the medication on the morning of day two, once via a needle in the backside, once by swallowing eight small pills.
Neither method caused me any distress in any way. After that, my ‘cohort’ was tested continually throughout dosing day, and at regular, but more distant intervals on the other days of our stay. We were constantly asked how we were feeling.
The cheerful young staff are well-versed in all the procedures and there was nothing onerous about any of the tests, much less the potential liver disease and Alzheimer’s drugs we imbibed. I did not see a single person out of 100, on various tests, experience a bad reaction.
If you are patient, the medical aspect of the ‘job’ is a doddle.
The biggest challenge of the trial is not the medical procedures, but the incarceration.
We were locked into the test area, the outside world, with its fresh air and tasty food off-limits. Our world shrunk to the confines of the ward, the common room / meals area, and a tiny ‘quiet room’ featuring computers that don’t work, bean bags without beans and a couple of ageing video games.
I was in intimate proximity to strangers, most of them in their 20s, for every hour of every day. There was nowhere to be alone.
In such a dormitory, it is essential to be self-assured and easy-going and a huge bonus to be naturally gregarious. These wonderful human traits describe 95 per cent of my fellow guinea pigs and the chipper staff, fostering in me a renewed optimism about the future.
But as for middle-aged me …
At first I felt I was revisiting the socialising impositions of childhood; first shared holidays or school camps, with their rude surprises about the variety of human beings and one’s comparative shortcomings. I felt envious and admiring of the effortlessly open-hearted.
I felt ashamed at being shy and self-conscious and morbidly consumed inside my own head. Surrounded by un-tormented extroverts and serene saints of forbearance, I shrunk into my bed, into my reading, like a mummy’s boy on his first night in the army barracks.
By the end of the first trial, the slightest achievement made me swell with mad pride: introducing myself to a stranger or braving the showers made me feel like I had slayed Freud; ignoring the call for the 9.30pm snack made me feel like a revolutionary.
By day three of trial two, in a more crowded ward, I had to admit to myself that I felt stuffed in a container one size too small. I proceeded to the common room for a wistful gaze between skyscrapers to Port Phillip Bay, and overheard my neighbours debriefing.
“No, it’s not the guy next to me, it’s the fat one,” the 20-something gal complained. “I think it’s pretty selfish to come in here if you snore like that.”
They were talking about me. I was the snorer. Selfish! My neighbour said to her that I was a ‘nice guy’ but he had faked coughs in a vain bid to stop my snore jackhammer.
‘But I didn’t know I made that noise – I live alone! And I did my knee a couple of years ago, then my Achilles, meaning I can’t run, so I put on some kegs! And I am older and it gets harder to keep weight off … I swear I am not selfish!’
I said none of this, for in this environment, contesting her or defending myself would result in a disagreement or argument – the number one verboten behaviour in voluntary incarceration. No argy-bargy is allowed, no bringing the vibe down; that is the absolute unsaid number one no-no of these environs. The basic code: Don’t Worry, Be Happy.
It was bad enough that I demanded to be moved, for everyone’s good; that created enough of a scene. The friendly coughing neighbour said he would have told the staff if he thought it was a big deal – but I knew that he was merely following rule number two of getting along with strangers in close confines: put up with s***, as much as you can.
The understanding supervisor said he had received no complaints, but eventually agreed to me sleeping in an abandoned corner far from humans, beyond the games room.
That’s something I will never do again, I thought with relief, when I got out after my 18 hours alone in the self-quarantined old-man ward. I vowed to resort to more age-appropriate fundraising activities.
I had failed the test. But it out-paid all my writing income that month …