Mental Illness, Mr. Big, and Me: My Life As a Medical Guinea Pig
There was a time in my life where I regularly searched for medical test listings in the Gigs section of Craigslist. I don’t do this anymore. Whenever I feel stalled, I should remember this. Things are getting better. I no longer have the search terms “testing medical,” “testing subjects paid,” and “study experimental drugs” bookmarked.
One ad was looking for people with relatives who were mentally ill—qualified participants would be paid the princely sum of $500 upon successful completion. The week before, I’d let some undergrads stick probes up my nose and scrape out sinus cells for $15.
I scanned the ad. To qualify, I needed to:
Be between the ages of 18 and 45.
Check. I was 23.
Have a family history of depression and/or anxiety and/or other mental illness.
All of the above. Score.
Not be on any medication (INCLUDING BIRTH CONTROL!!!!)
Sure. I didn’t have health insurance and was too tired from working two low-wage jobs to even begin to consider the types of activities that would necessitate birth control.
Not be a smoker.
I would never smoke. I was doing random medical testing while living in a decrepit SRO outside of Penn Station, breathing in the fumes of 1,000 taxis and Greyhounds every second of every day and surviving on chalky yogurt from Jack’s 99 Cent Store, but goodness no, I wouldn’t smoke. That would be unhealthy.
Not be a steady drinker.
My mom called whenever she saw a movie or TV show set in New York. She’d ask me about the places she saw, as if I was constantly swirling cosmos and rosé at Pastis and Balthazar. Sure, they’re nice, I’d say, because I was sure they were.
That $500 was mine.
You interview for medical testing like it’s a real job. First, you write a note expressing interest and showing off your qualifications (look at all of these bright shiny organs I have!). Then they schedule a phone interview with a low-level team member. If that goes well, you get called in for an in-person interview, sometimes several, before you get the call telling you the good news—you qualify for being a guinea pig.
Medical testing is unlike a real job in that every single time you enter the premises, you have to pee in a cup and then make a fist so they can take a tube’s worth of blood. This is to double check that you haven’t gotten pregnant or taken drugs since you were last in. I was once in an allergy med study that let us out for a 30-minute lunch break and then did the pee/blood tests when we came back. I was flattered they thought I could accomplish that much in a half-hour.
I sailed through the phone interview, rattling off my caffeine intake and sleep schedule, height, weight, and usual bowel movements. I’d been doing testing since I moved to New York a few years before—I was a pro.
The study was in a hospital complex uptown. Stepping off the train, the neighborhood was wild, even at 7 a.m. The streets were crowded with people getting breakfast from trucks in the street, from the fruit vendor with a Styrofoam carton of egg sandwiches, and from little old ladies pushing laundry carts packed with freshly fried donuts. Some of the hungry customers were civilians—kids with heavy backpacks and tired moms, construction crews in paint-spattered sweatshirts—but about half were wearing scrubs.
The noise and color fell away when I opened the door to the hospital. The buildings were severe monoliths built sometime in the midcentury and connected by sky bridges. The mental health buildings had a single entrance with a guard and a series of locking doors.
“Wait while I call your floor,” the guard shouted at me. In my experience, there are two types of people in mental hospitals: staff and everyone else. Visitors are just potential patients. The staff explains everything loudly, with small, clear words—go here, stand here, wait quietly—as if the work had worn them away to just one default setting, the one that worked best on someone having a psychotic break.
“Go directly to your building and directly to the 14th floor,” the guard yelled as he stuck a visitor badge to my shirt and buzzed me through.
I had been to the vaulted 14th floor several times because it was lined with research labs. Getting there required using a sky bridge, and I walked slowly across because the view was so spectacular. The buildings were perched on the cliffs of the Hudson River and the view of the river was almost pastoral, angled so that I could only see trees and water.
On the other side of the bridge, the halls of the 14th floor were covered in bulletin boards advertising the latest studies.
Seeking anorexia patients! Study—$40
Have trouble sleeping? Insomnia study—$100
Diabetes study (Type 2 only — NO EXCEPTIONS)—$65
I copied down the insomnia information—I’d done sleep studies before and while it was difficult snoozing while hooked up to machines, it was still sleeping for money and I wasn’t going to kick it out of bed, so to speak.
Studies are, in theory, coordinated by teams of doctors. In practice, they are run entirely by grad students and exhausted nurses picking up extra money between shifts. The nurse didn’t introduce herself—just handed me a cup to pee in and sucked a tube’s worth of blood from the crook of my elbow.
My grad students were Nicole* and Bob*. They were both just a few years older than me. “I’ll be handling the medical portion of your study,” Bob said, barely looking up from his phone. “Nicole’s doing the paperwork.” He said it dismissively, like paperwork is a small thing in a research study, but Nicole didn’t flinch.
The medical portion would take place next week and would involve propping open one of my arteries, shooting me up with a radioactive isotope as a stain and then hanging out in a PET scan machine for a few hours. The “paperwork” consisted of legal stuff and an interview about my crazy family members. The legal part was easy—it was just a binder full of permission slips absolving them of any ethical wrongdoing or monetary responsibility, should I die or be maimed. Sign, sign, sign.
Nicole opened up a notebook. Could I detail my family history of mental illness?
I could. All of the diagnoses I’d heard: bipolar, clinical depression, schizophrenia, personality disorders, mood disorders. All the genetic bullets I’d dodged. I once asked my mom’s doctor if maybe I had depression too, because I was constantly sad. She’d looked at me and said very carefully, “I think, considering the circumstances, it would be more worrisome if you were not sad.”
That was why I was 3,000 miles away in New York, trying to see if guilt was easier to ignore than sadness.
Nicole perked up. “Oh schizophrenia! That’s great!” Which is probably the only time in history that sentence has been said. She explained that they had a ton of bipolars but no schizophrenics yet.
My grandma is the schizophrenic. I explained everything I knew about her condition and Nicole asked if we could call her up and ask for additional details about the disease’s onset.
I tried to imagine telling Grandma that scientists needed to know more about her so they could shoot me up with radioactivity to examine my brain. This was a woman who once heard me snap my gum over the phone and cut the line, assuming it was the click of a CIA bug.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” I said.
“Shoot,” Nicole said. “Well, okay, I guess we’re done then.”
They paid me $50 cash after the paperwork, the remaining $450 to be paid after they made me bleed.
I was originally scheduled to come in for the PET scan three days later but I got bumped because someone with an actual brain tumor needed the machine. Bob called to tell me.
“That sounds reasonable,” I said.
“It’s actually not, commandeering the PET scan in the research department like that. Oncology has their own.” (Bob was a bit of an asshole.)
No one else had the audacity to come down with cancer in the next few days, so I once again walked through the crowds getting breakfast, stopped at the security desk, and walked slowly across the sky bridge to the 14th floor.
I peed in the cup, gave a tube’s worth of blood, and suited up in a hospital gown while the scientists in the upstairs lab split the atom or whatever it was they had to do to make the necessary radioactive stain. A nurse taped my wrist to a board and yawned a bit while she poked around with a needle, looking for the artery. She finally found one, pushed the needle in and then opened it up so a much bigger needle could shove in and start an IV. The artery was going to be left open for the entire procedure and it already ached.
The nurse tugged at the tape holding my wrist down. “Don’t pull at this ‘cause if it comes out, you’re going to bleed out faster than anyone else here can save you.”
I held my arm very, very still as I was led to the PET scan and helped in. My neck was strapped into a contraption and forced up into an arch. My head was upside down and I could see the wall opposite the machine.
And then we waited. Apparently, Project Manhattan upstairs was taking a little longer than anticipated.
“You wanna watch a movie?” Nicole suggested.
“Yes, absolutely,” I said. I expected, somehow, that the movie would be played by the multi-million dollar machine I was currently strapped into, but no. Nicole wheeled out an old Dell laptop and angled a mirror so I could see the screen.
“We only have Sex and the City. The TV show.”
That was fine. I’d never seen it, but it was an important cultural touchstone. Now was as a good time as any to catch-up. Nicole loaded the pilot and sat down next to the PET scan to watch too.
Onscreen, the ladies vowed to have sex like men. Carrie met Mr. Big and so much pop culture made so much more sense—cupcakes, Manolos, women who called themselves Carries, Charlottes, Mirandas, and Samanthas. We watched the whole episode and then Bob stuck his head in to report that the radioactive isotope didn’t take. Apparently, they fail 10 percent of the time. They were trying again and I needed to sit tight.
“You want to watch the next one?” Nicole asked.
But when she went to change the episode, the DVD froze. She exited the program and tried again. Same thing. She tapped it. She shook it a little. The pilot started up again.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with it but I guess we can watch this again.”
I grit my teeth. My neck was starting to hurt. My wrist was aching. I did need something to distract me from the whole stupid experience.
She sat down to watch it with me again—I could see her in the corner of the mirror, sitting with her hands under her chin, studying the screen.
Onscreen, the ladies vowed to have sex like men. Carrie ran into Mr. Big again and again and this was the New York I recognized from my mom’s phone calls: a glossy, bubbly New York filled with banter and gorgeous, giant cocktails. About halfway through the episode, I realized I really had to pee. By the time Capote went home with Samantha, the situation was dire.
“Nicole, I have to pee.”
She shook her head. “You can’t move while you have that IV in.”
The IV was probably the problem, I realized. The entire time I’d been lying there, the damn thing had been pumping fluid into my body.
“Then you’d better get a bedpan,” I told her. Nicole made a face at the thought. I made one back at her. She was such a Charlotte.
“How about if I help you to the bathroom and hold your arm still?” she asked, looking to me like I was making the rules here.
I nodded. Sure, whatever. I was about to pee on a multi-million dollar piece of equipment, which would probably get me on some weird medical trial blacklist.
We shuffled off to the bathroom, the IV line tugging ever so slightly as I moved. Nicole was shorter than I am and her head kept bumping into my cheek as she tried to hold it level. Her hair smelled like oranges. The day was turning out to be more far intimate than I expected.
We successfully made it into the disabled stall, successfully navigated kicking off my underpants and squatting over the toilet. Nicole whistled while I peed, which was polite.
It was when we tried to stand back up that we ran into a stumble. Literally. Nicole stumbled. Over nothing. Over air. She jerked my wrist, the board snapped it back, and I was going to die in a hospital toilet with Nicole. I hadn’t even told anyone I was doing this because I hadn’t wanted them to know that I was desperately poor enough to necessitate something like this. I wanted my family to think I was out drinking Cosmos and meeting cute men at glossy bars because the truth would make everyone worry. I didn’t want that worry to get twisted and echoed and warped by illness into something much bigger and darker, a terror for them and a pain-in-the-ass cliff to talk them down from for everyone else.
I didn’t start bleeding. Whatever magic the exhausted nurse had used to strap that needle into my artery held.
“Sorry,” Nicole said.
“It’s fine,” I said, which was true because, rationally, I knew it was an accident and anyone could stumble, and also a lie, because I still wanted to murder her for it.
When we got back to the PET scan, Bob was waiting with the stain, finally. Apparently radioactive isotopes behave like restaurant entrees. You can wait and wait and wait but the second you go to the restroom, that shit comes out hot.
“Girls, always going to the bathroom in packs,” he chuckled, and I considered ripping the IV needle out myself just to stab him with it.
I got back into the machine and as I tipped my head back, heard Sex and the City start up. Nicole was playing the first episode again.
I couldn’t see Bob touching my arm but I could feel him poking at it.
“I’m going to add the isotope to the line and you might feel some burning in your arm as it moves up to your brain. Don’t worry, that’s normal.”
It burned less than Nicole yanking my arm in the toilet stall.
Nicole sat down next to me to watch the show again.
Onscreen, the ladies vowed to have sex like men. Bob moved into the control room to watch scans of my brain come through. Carrie met Mr. Big over and over again. Nicole giggled at the same jokes over and over again. My wrist ached.
I walked out of there $500 richer, arm wrapped in a bulky pressure bandage. I treated myself to a donut bought from a laundry cart, the inside soft and light, the outside crackling and covered in sugar that stuck to the corners of my mouth. My mom called later and my face was still sticky when I pressed the phone against my cheek to greet her and tell her that I was doing fine, that I’d just had the most delicious donut and saw the prettiest view of the river. It was not the entire truth, but none of it was a lie.
*Names have been changed.