Two summers ago I was dead broke. I was running out of money fast, draining my bank account, and I knew that I wouldn’t be getting a paycheck again until the end of the summer. This is one of the miseries of being a teacher. The two month summer break is awesome…except for the fact that it doesn’t really exist. Most teachers work some kind of job during the summer, and although doing a dippy part-time job offers more freedom than teaching, it also means that the bank account is going to take a pretty substantial hit. The arrival of summer vacation is kind of like getting a new girlfriend – it’s fun, but suddenly you’re dipping into your savings account to afford dinner at Applebee’s. One summer I worked at a group home for people with traumatic brain injuries; another summer I taught an English camp in Korea for a month and a half and flew back to America two days before the start of the new school year.
I was supposed to go back for another summer camp two years ago, but it ended up falling through, leaving me jobless and going broke. One night at a bar with my teacher friends, the science teacher at my old school, who was a good friend of mine, said something that interested me.
“They rejected my plasma,” she said. “You know, you can make a lot of money selling your plasma.”
“You tried to sell your plasma?” I asked. Was this really what things were coming to for teachers? Were economic times so bad, we had to sell our body’s plasma to make ends meet?
“Yeah,” she said, “they took a sample but I guess my plasma isn’t what they’re looking for.”
“Maybe I’ll try to sell my plasma,” I said, wondering how I was going to pay the bar tab.
The next day, I did just that. I went online and found the website where I could sign up to participate in clinical trials and get paid for it. Suddenly, it was as though a whole new world of weirdness opened up to me. Every week I’d get an email outlining the new trials I could volunteer for. I never knew before how many bizarre experiments there were going on in the city; reading through the emails, I learned all sorts of interesting things.
I could sign up to help doctors research Sjogren’s Syndrome, which is a surprisingly common disorder where the body’s immune cells attack – for unknown reasons – the tear glands. Yes, for people with Sjogren’s Syndrome, the body’s immune system refuses to let that person cry. “And this whole time,” I said to myself, “I thought all of my ex-girlfriends were just cold.”
Or, if I didn’t want to be crying all the time taking some new Sjogren’s medication, I could sign up to help doctors learn more about Wake Therapy and its effects on depression. For one week, I would stay in a hospital and they would see how sleep deprivation and light therapy would alter my mood. Apparently, sleep deprivation has been shown to improve feelings of sadness in people with depression, although those improvements have not lasted over time. So for a week, I would get some cash, but I’d have to get woken up a lot. I had a feeling this would not result in the ‘happy’ effect the scientists were anticipating. I saw lots of grumpiness and irritability happening.
Or I could take a pill called Psilocybin and see if it would stop my cravings for alcohol. As someone who has bounced in and out of AA for years, this idea intrigued me but also made me sad. Could a pill cure alcoholism and, in doing so, prove itself to be stronger than things like will power and the human spirit? Really, if it worked, a stupid pill would be able to do something I had been failing at for over a decade. “The investigators hypothesize that drinking will decrease following the psilocybin sessions, and that increases in motivation, self-efficacy, and spirituality will be observed among study participants,” it said.
I imagined myself overdoing it – I mean, if the pill was so good, why not? People would see me passed out in an alley and would ask, “Is he drunk?” and then someone would say, “No, he’s just ripped on Psilocybin and exhausted from light therapy.”
I tried to volunteer for several of these studies, but was only contacted back by one (which I did not try to sign up for myself). It was testing out a new diet pill. I weighed 135 pounds and was massively underweight; somehow taking a diet pill didn’t seem like such a good idea. Furthermore, is that the kind of PR the company really wanted? I pictured their future commercial: “Are our diet pills effective? Well, listen up! You’ll lose so much weight, you’ll die!”
Then there would be a “before” picture of me, looking happy. And the “after” picture would be a skeleton.
But then again, I was pretty broke. Yeah, they’d be killing me with diet pills, but at least I’d be getting paid for it.
As things turned out, I got through the summer without ever doing one paid clinical experiment. I still get the weekly emails and look through them, seeing what wonderful and baffling things the science world is up to. There are lots of problems trying to be solved. Maybe the best solution to all these problems – and I could be speaking out of personal bias here – is a 12 month school year.