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Tested on Humans: the Story of Lab Rat JR015

James Robinson



On Friday the 28th of July, SALIENT Editor James Robinson signed himself over to Science for twelve hours. He was given a slave name “JR015” and forced to perform tests for his new masters. Recently freed, he brings you his shocking story.
I was in a room. It wasn’t a big room. I’d been in it for about seven hours, on and off. I was on party pills at a private hospital, and it was 4pm.
As I tried to focus my mind in on an email I was sending, a man I did not know before that day (and, to be honest, had no real wish to know in the future) was clutching an Xbox controller in his hand. He was playing a first person shooting game, killing aliens with a child like joy. His bursts of virtual homicide (maybe all in the name of something noble like defending the world in some sort of inter-planetary warfare?) were interrupted by curdling cries of “take it bitch!” “yes, a shotgun!” and the timeless oh, you like that?” He too was on pills. Our experience of this day seemed to be somewhat different. But even if you took this situation away, I believe I may have found just a little bit more difference than this. Still I tried harder and harder to reel my mind in, to adjust to an alien situation and simultaneously reject the ever-deepening onset of chemical confusion. Something about this situation seemed so hard to grasp.
It’s at this time that I’d probably like to include a token “I had no idea that this is what I’m getting myself into.” I’d be lying though. I’m an opportunist. I was alerted to a government study on the impact of party pills. It held a financial reward. And in the name of a good story I signed on. I’ve taken party pills before, well aware that the horrid little pills do not usually lend themselves to situations of normality. The study is a joint initiative of P3 research and the Medical Research Institute of New Zealand, who had been handed down the task (and a load of government money) to examine the effects of the pills. With good reason. I Concerned citizens, rallied by a mass of unproven and anecdotal evidence, and provoked by a media who liked to dabble in elevating them into a gateway to hell packaged in one easy to swallow pill, continue to treat the drugs with disgust and ‘think of the children’ vitriol. So if I could sign myself up to something to help with the quest for a more knowledgeable and free society, I would do so. This is a cover though, as the study appealed to three of my most base reactions, ‘woah… that’d be crazy’, ‘cool! Money’, and ‘I could write about it’. The moral explanation is no more than a mere bonus.
I tripped out into Wellington’s outback of Crofton Down (what brings people out this way?) to Bowen Hospital the Monday beforehand for my preliminary examination, to check that I was a specimen fit for such an ordeal. My guide was Dr Imogen Thompson, one of five doctors working on the experiment. The deal was slightly complex. Twelve hours, 4 pills (equal to a standard dose), 6 standard drinks, and a variety of possibilities within this. I could receive placebo pills, with or without alcohol in my standard drinks, and likewise if received the actual pills. I would do a twelve-minute driving test at various times during the day, and we ran over that. We ran over the concentration test that I would have to do. I filled in some questionnaires, got told that my blood pressure was perfect, thanked myself for quitting smoking, and subsequently went home. I was quite impressed, if almost looking forward to it. We would have a television, complete with SKY, VHS/DVD player and Xbox, broadband Internet connection, pool table and dartboard at our disposal. Luxury.
My anticipation grew as I fielded a surprise phone call from one of the doctors to take my catering order for the day. I could have soup and a main meal with my lunch. My joy at being able to afford the luxury of sampling the Potato and Leek soup without ruining the prospect of a satisfying meal was hard to suppress. On top of that I was allowed crackers and cheese and bread, as well as a selection of fresh fruit. Dinner was similarly plentiful. I wonder if Karl Marx himself would have found hate inside himself for capitalism if he’d been able to sup on the plentiful and delicious fruits of the private sector, as I would be soon. The one variable that I was subjecting on myself (on top of the experiment), was extreme lack of sleep. My reporting time was 9am on a Friday, a little more than four hours after I returned home work the previous morning. So as I journeyed by taxi (the forty dollar Island Bay to Crofton Downs taxi fare covered by a chit that they provided) there were few luxuries in the world that could have outdone a trip back to bed for a few more hours sleep. Anyway what was done was done, and if I got the placebos I could always head back to bed in one Bowen’s many spacious and unoccupied private rooms. My first task upon arrival was the always-dignified urine test. I hadn’t blown out and relieved myself before arrival and had even consumed a safety glass of juice before arrival. There is still something slightly disturbing about handing over a container of your own pee to someone that you do not know well, and added to this discomfort was the fact that I was not peeing into a jar with a lid, rather a shallow plastic scoop dish. The test confirmed that I hadn’t taken crack cocaine or any performance enhancing substances (poor fitness meant that I couldn’t perform in the Tour De France this year) and I was able to advance to the next round of events.
The tiredness, I could only assume, would have a negative on my control tests. As I filled in my mood questionnaire I was a little bleaker. In the sobriety test, when instructed to take nine steps, heel to toe, I miscounted and took eight. The concentration test (the minute long example I had done previously gave me no preparation for this preposterously dull 15 minute test of endurance) was pointless. The task of pushing a space bar for every letter that flashed up except the X was too hard. At least I gave my first round of blood with dignity, an activity I’m sure six-year olds have performed with more grace than myself. With the full spectrum of tests considered, it took well over an hour – and I would have to repeat this process twice more throughout the day, as well as a series of blood pressure and pupil tests (a test that involved the doctor staring into my eyes, looking at a scale and in the later stages of the day probably remarking to themselves scientifically “look at the size of his pupils, he’s mashed!”).
I was returned to the ‘Volunteer Room’, my technologically decked-out home for the day. I was in the company of two others: my good friend and Salient co-worker (who will have removed all the errant apostrophes from this very article by the time you read it) Marianna Kennedy and this other guy, who I’ll call Chad. (Name changed for usual reasons, I don’t want this guy to hunt me down and kick my ass.) Marianna and Chad had taken their first round of pills and were setting into their drink. A groggy and sick Marianna, only slightly more rested than I, had taken placebo pills and was drinking orange juice. “Chad” was struggling through his second vodka and orange, and the immediate signs of foot-tapping, restlessness, and pointless regurgitation of conversation gave away the fact that he was on pills. I was given my first pills two and a drink placed in front of me. I had that sick adrenaline of being Alice at the top of the rabbit hole. I washed my pills down with a sip of what was thankfully only orange juice. The next two hours for all of us would become a constant struggle of consumption. It was a battle we were not aware we would face. Not allowed to eat after twelve the night before, and with lunch hours away, we now had to get through six huge cups of thick, full-pulp orange juice. The look on Marianna’s face as she sank the dregs from her fifth cup said it all, “Please god, no more” she howled. The orange juice was winning. Our consumption was timed and regulated, which made it worse. At 12.36pm Marianna was in trouble. She was now a minute behind schedule on the whole juice-athon, which was quickly pointed out. However unpleasant as it was for us though, both and Marianna and myself could not help but feel sorry for our new friend as he forced down his six vodkas, a task that on an empty stomach at 10am would be harrowing even for a seasoned alcoholic. His face showed a pain that he seemed to be unable to articulate, however during the course of the day ‘Chad’ would not able to articulate much – leading to a later suspicion that maybe it wasn’t just the drugs.
I believe I have already given the surprise away that I got the ‘hard’ stuff. After about an hour in (or in the preferred time unit of the day, at least two episodes of Extras), I was convinced that I had taken the placebo. But then my aching tiredness became a little less noticeable. I got up to go to the bathroom and relieve myself of the keg of juice I had inhaled. The room swam a little, and my head began to race along a course of nothing. The actual process of peeing was a lot more alarming than it should have been. When I returned to my seat I couldn’t sit still. Most of you know what I’m trying, but failing to describe. I was high. And this is where actually being a lab rat started to take its toll. Undertaking each new round of tests (aside from the spectacular difficulty they soon acquired) became a startling process of being examined, of feeling myself being watched. In turn, through trying to act in some journalist capacity, I was watching myself being watched and I was on pills at the same time. Which made a smooth mental transition through the whole day harder. (My note taking skills turned out to be of little real use for a story. A quick check through my notebook revealed such ludicrous insights as: “How can I focus on my lunch when I can’t stop photographing my arm?”, “Chad is easier to talk to now that I’m high”, “I have a sneaking suspicion I’m now high” and my favourite, “I love Journey”.) Even worse for the elastic mind and the restlessness was that every time you ventured out of the room people just seemed to look at you. They’d give you the sort of smile you’d use to keep a homeless man at arms length. The faux-friendly grin said it all. “We don’t want no harm now druggie, we’re not like you, but we will leave you be.” It seemed clear that people were well aware of the nature of our experiment. We were the druggies.
You take a substance, designed by corporations in a desperate bid to force dance music upon an unsuspecting public, in the bottom floor of a private hospital, at 11am after no sleep and force yourself to stay their for a number of hours and it’s going to be unusual.
The day ebbed on, with a peculiarity that is hard to explain. You take a substance, designed by corporations in a desperate bid to force dance music upon an unsuspecting public, in the bottom floor of a private hospital, at 11am after no sleep and force yourself to stay their for a number of hours and it’s going to be unusual. Anyone who’s had a slight run in with drug culture of any sort is aware of the almost embarrassing futility of over-description, (“I was in this room… And I was like, y’know, like floating, y’know?) and there were no dazed and confused shenanigans. I watched an entire season of Extras, forced myself to eat food for the good of myself no matter how queasy it made me feel. Marianna had a nap. My blood pressure peaked at 155 over 86 (from its usual 130 over 70) and I’m sure I gave away the fact that I was on drugs in pretty much all the tests, despite the fact the staff didn’t want to know to protect the integrity of said tests. (But I mean c’mon? “Doctor’s Log: Patient is all of a sudden scratchy and irritated, useless at all the tests, vaguely sweaty with randomly huge pupils, is drastically overusing the word yeah. Such results are a shock to us, and I am greatly confused.”) I went home to an empty house. Slight paranoia and anxiety were playing at the outside of my mind after nearly a day under the influence, severely under-slept – I feared these pills would not facilitate a smooth night’s sleep. To my surprise I had some lemon and ginger tea, read an NME (squealing with disgust at some trash-talking female Mike Skinner) in the bath and watched my girlfriend’s Grey’s Anatomy DVD in bed. Pretty soon I was sleeping solidly and dreamlessly. That’s just how I roll.