Confessions of a Lab Rat | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Confessions of a Lab Rat 

Doing drugs for science has its high points.

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By Howard L.

The University of Chicago paid me $160 to get drunk, take drugs, and watch TV, a fair wage for something I've done at home in my spare time for no money at all.

Last month I answered this ad: "Drinkers Wanted! Healthy light or heavy/binge social drinkers, aged 25-35, needed to participate in studies examining the mood and behavioral effects of commonly-used substances and/or alcohol."

I fit the profile, so I called the U. of C. and was scheduled for a screening at the Human Behavioral Pharmacology Laboratory, which is much less grand than it sounds, only seven or eight rooms on the second floor of one of the university hospitals.

During my interview, I exaggerated my drinking habits, hoping to fit into the "heavy/binge" category demanded by the ad.

"How many times would you say you drink each week," asked my interrogator, a tall red-haired graduate student.

"Oh, maybe four times."

He scribbled this on a sheet pinned to a clipboard.

"And how many drinks do you have each time?"

"Oh, uh, three or four."

"So, you average what, maybe 12 drinks a week?"

"Sure, depending on the week. Not every week. Some weeks."

Yeah, some weeks in 1986. This was the only time I'd ever lied during a job interview, because it was the only time I'd ever wanted a job I'd been interviewed for. The truth was, I hadn't been drinking much lately. I hadn't had a beer in my refrigerator for a month. There's a neighborhood tavern called the Ho two blocks down the alley from my apartment building, but I'd only been there twice. Then came a question that allowed me to brag about a time when I really was a "heavy/binge" drinker, when every evening was like an episode from Jack London's John Barleycorn.

"And what's the period in your life when you drank the most?" the interviewer asked.

"When I was going to community college, I drank a bottle of wine every night."

"How long did that last?"

"About six months."

This was 100 percent true, at least if you consider Boone's Farm Country Kwencher "wine." When I was 19, my best friend, Mike Czerniak, who had a bald head in lieu of a fake ID, bought two bottles every evening. We'd drive around town in his Pontiac, listening to Flipper and Steppenwolf, talking about how much everything sucked.

"What was going on in your life that made you drink so much?"

"I was going to community college," I said.

"Anything...else?"

These U. of C. doctoral candidates don't know the first thing about failure.

I didn't qualify for the "heavy/binge" test, but I was eligible for a similar study, testing the effects of stimulants, sedatives, and alcohol on the nervous system. (Separately, not all at once. That's been tried already--just listen to any Gregg Allman solo album.) An EKG determined that my heart could handle the drugs, and I was in. I kept a journal while I was guinea pig.

Day 1: I'm prohibited from eating before the morning session. The lab wants our stomachs as empty as possible, so we get the full effect of the dosage. Simon, the grad student who's conducting the tests, sweeps into the room with what he calls a "delicious breakfast"--a Sara Lee bagel with cream cheese. After breakfast, Simon hands me a mysterious blue pill and a tumbler of grape Kool-Aid to wash it down. Then the tests begin. First, a dexterity exercise. I get a sheet of paper on which the numerals 0 to 9 are each matched with an abstract symbol. There are several lines of random numbers with empty boxes underneath. I have 90 seconds to fill as many boxes as possible with the proper symbol. Then I blow into a Breathalyzer and run over to a Macintosh computer. Simon takes my blood pressure while I answer a "mood questionnaire," punching yes or no to 49 statements, such as "I would be happy all the time if I felt as good as I do now," "A thrill has gone through me several times today," "I have a heavy head," and "I feel a sense of belonging to the world and all those around me." The drug hasn't taken hold yet, so I answer no, no, no, no. Finally, there's a test of mental alertness. For eight minutes, random numbers flash on the screen. If the number is a zero, I press the "H" key. If it's anything else, I press the space bar. It's incredibly tedious, but I tell myself for the same money I'm getting there are people doing data processing in Loop office buildings--and they have to do this for eight hours. Eight minutes doesn't seem so bad.

By the time Simon returns half an hour later for the second round of tests, I know I'm on a stimulant. My legs are tingling. I feel giddy. I feel a sense of belonging to the world and all those around me, even people who owe me money. I rip through the tests. Yes, I've felt a thrill go through me. Yes, I would be happy all the time if I felt as good as I do now.

A guy named Richard is doing the study with me today. He thinks he's on a stimulant too. He's sitting on the edge of a couch, giggling at the John Goodman movie Matinee. For our entertainment, the lab has provided a library of videos, a shelf of board games--Risk, Life, Monopoly--and wrinkled back issues of Time and the New Yorker.

"I can't tell if it's the stimulant or the movie," Richard says. "I'm really enjoying the movie because I recognize all these guys. The character John Goodman plays is based on William Castle, who really did stunts like this in movie theaters. I'm seeing all those people and I go 'aaaahh!'" He shrieks and waves his hands.

The session lasts from nine in the morning until one in the afternoon. Then we get the big reward--a ride home in a Cadillac DeVille. The lab is worried that, depending on the drug it feeds us, we may be too drunk or sedated to drive home or find the el, so it contracts with a car service to chauffeur the guinea pigs home. After Richard is dropped off at a downtown residential hotel, I ask the driver to take me up Lake Shore Drive. Sitting in the back of a luxury sedan with smooth suspension and a silent motor, I feel like a low-income, low-fat version of Oprah Winfrey or J.B. Pritzker. The ride costs the lab $44--more than I'm getting paid for each session. There's no other temp job that ends with a chauffeured ride along Lake Michigan.

Day 2: I get drunk. It's awful. They can't bring us a pitcher of whiskey sours, or a beer bong. We're not supposed to know what drug we're taking, so the lab has mixed some sort of grain alcohol into my morning Kool-Aid and given me a blue placebo to swallow.

"This is the worst drink I've had since I went to an Everclear party in college," I say to Simon, grimacing as I suck the barbed liquid through a straw.

Laura, another subject, also has the spiked Kool-Aid. Richard is laughing. He's done his drunk day. Simon smiles wanly.

"I can't tell you what you've got," he says.

Five minutes after the first cup, Simon brings in another. Did they believe me when I said I was a four-nights-a-week drunk? Will all this alcohol put me in a coma? If it does, will I live to sue? I've brought along a copy of Sir Walter Scott's historical romance Rob Roy to pass the time, but I know I'll be too wasted to concentrate. I set it aside and pick up the list of videos. The Manchurian Candidate? Complicated plot. Eat Drink Man Woman? Subtitles. The Madness of King George? Sounds like Masterpiece Theatre.

"Hey, Richard." He's lying on the couch opposite me, reading an Elmore Leonard western. "You don't mind if I put on the Beavis and Butt-head video, do you?"

He glares, but he doesn't say no. He says, "My estimation of you has just gone down."

It's the first time I've been drunk before ten in the morning. I feel stumbly, and when I try to find the door for the stairwell I walk into the bathroom instead. Worse, I'm sober again in three hours. Not only is this alcohol traumatic to drink, it has no afterglow.

On the ride home, Richard reveals that he makes his living participating in medical experiments.

"Last year I wrote on my tax form 'Lab Rat, Freelance,'" he says.

He got started several winters ago, after quitting his job as a bookstore clerk. Desperate for money, he turned to telephone research. A coworker told him about a study at Abbott Laboratories in North Chicago, testing ritonavir, a protease inhibitor. The pay was $1,300 for three three-day sessions. It didn't matter if you were HIV negative--everyone was welcome. Richard, a pop culture freak and aspiring screenwriter, had read somewhere that Robert Rodriguez financed his film El mariachi by doing a medical study, so he figured he'd try it too.

"I was afraid when I first did this," he says. "I thought I was gambling with my life."

Abbott Labs didn't kill him, and since last July he's held no job other than lab rat. The closest he's come to being the stooge of mad scientists was at the U. of C., where he had to plunge his arm into a tub of ice water in order to test the effectiveness of a painkiller. The longest study he ever endured was a 22-day marathon at Evanston Hospital, an investigation of how a hypertension drug interacts with an antifungal medicine. ("Don't ask me," he says. "I don't make up the studies.") Twice a day researchers drew blood, but the other 23 and a half hours Richard and 17 fellow subjects were free to read, play video games, watch movies--anything except leave the hospital.

"They took us for walks twice a day," he says. "You'd go down to the park or to the beach. My nickname for the place, and other places like it, is the Joint, the Slammer, or the Big House, because you're a prisoner in there."

When he's not testing, though, Richard is freer than almost any man alive. He figures he's spent a total of 90 days in the last year doing studies. The rest of the time, he reads, goes to the movies, haunts the library, writes short stories. Once, after collecting a $2,000-plus check, he flew to London for the World Fantasy Convention. England seemed cool, so he stayed for three weeks. He says some pros follow the laboratory circuit, jetting to New Jersey, Texas, or wherever the most lucrative experiment is happening. But Richard is content to make a subsistence living here in Chicago.

"I don't have a lot of expenses," he says. "I live in a hotel. I live pretty modestly. I am no good at having a normal job. I am not even going to try to have a normal job. The upside of doing this is I don't have to pretend to be nice to anybody. I don't have to work in some kind of bullshit customer service job. I don't have a boss to report to. The downside is that you can't really tell anybody that you do this. You can, but they look at you like you're a lunatic. When you're talking to girls, you don't tell them you're a lab rat."

Day 3: Feels like a placebo. I'm levelheaded enough to read Rob Roy.

Day 4: Subjects are always joining the study, so today I have a new companion in the testing lounge: Dave, a physics major at the U. of C. Dave is vocally upset when he sips his Kool-Aid and discovers it's spiked.

"This is nasty!" he says. "I can't believe I got alcohol! I've got so much stuff to do this afternoon. I'm going to lift weights. I've got to meet my lifting partner. Then I'm supposed to play soccer later."

Dave's a soldier for science, though, and he chokes down his drink. He's curious about its potency, so he asks me to watch the display on the Breathalyzer.

"The last time I was here, I was watching two other guys who got drunk, and they blew 0.14."

When Simon returns to administer the tests, I peek under his arm. The red digits on the Breathalyzer climb to 0.12.

Like Richard, Dave is a veteran lab rat. He tests to pay his college expenses.

"I need the money," he says. "They prey on students like me, the ones who need money."

Though Richard says this drinking study was the easiest he'd ever done, Dave prefers testing drugs in a hospital ward, because he gets fed three meals and sleeps overnight. Last time, he says, researchers injected him with cortisone, then drew blood while he slept. He tells me of one notorious study that he--along with most other students who test regularly--refuses to sign up for: a weeklong sleep study that pays $1,000 and comes with the offer of a free air conditioner to make sure you have no trouble nodding off. There's just one catch: you have to wear a rectal thermometer equipped with a radio transmitter everywhere you go.

"It sounds great," Dave says, "but when they get to the thermometer part everyone cops out."

A week and a half after finishing the study, I call Simon to find out which drugs he fed me on which day. The first day, he says, I had a "larger dose" of stimulant. The second day, of course, was alcohol. On the third day, I received a "smaller dose" of stimulant, which, unfortunately, had no effect on my mood. And on the last day, I got a placebo. Simon refuses to tell me what was in that vile Kool-Aid cocktail, but he does tell me that my drinking it may eventually benefit humanity, at least its chronically drunk members. By testing whether alcohol and other commonly used drugs influence the same brain chemicals, the U. of C. is hoping to understand how alcohol acts on the brain and eventually to devise drugs to treat alcoholism. My grandfather was a heavy boozer, and I'd have choked down Night Train and Tang to cure him, no matter how bad it tasted.

Besides the satisfaction of making a small contribution to medicine, I get a check for $160. I've had a lot of temp jobs. I've painted park benches, delivered glass, filed papers, swept parking lots, picked trash off a conveyor belt in a recycling plant--none of these paid as well as the U. of C. paid me for getting drunk and watching Beavis and Butt-head. And none of them sent me home in a Cadillac either.

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