Lights pulse in my peripheral vision. My eyes invent blobby white images, reluctant to give in to the darkness. No sound. Cold skin. Suddenly a wave of sensation, a slow prickling sweat that creeps through my torso, my face, my scalp. Then the nausea hits. I feel I’m going to retch, but at the same time I don’t know what part of my body I’d retch with. My only awareness is discomfort. As the sensation slowly disappears, so do I.
I experience death in a small, gray cubicle on the ninth floor of Veterans Hospital in West Haven. Nurses watch me through a video monitor; they shuffle papers and take notes. A blood pressure cuff squeezes my right arm and a pulse oximeter hangs from my left index finger. One of my IVs draws blood samples while the other drips saline solution and drugs into my veins. I see dull fluorescence when the blindfold is removed. I hear beeping machines when my earplugs are removed.
I still feel like I can’t quite…I don’t know how to look at…
Yeah, I can stand I think but I’d rather…sure, yeah I can answer the questions…
The researcher is cute. She recites without looking at her clipboard.
“Did you have any strange or unusual experiences?”
“Um, at one point I thought I was dead.”
“Did that worry you at all?” Her expression is a mix of surprise and concern.
“No, not really. The worst part was that I started singing a little song to myself, and then I thought, ‘Oh no, I’m dead but I can still think! I’m going to be stuck repeating this stupid song over and over forever!’ That worried me a little.”
She makes a note.
I am a human guinea pig for a schizophrenia research lab. In the last year I’ve been injected more than twenty times with different experimental substances: Salvinorin, THC, Canabidiol, Amphetamines, Iomazenil. Different doses, different combinations. I got into drug studies by a friend’s recommendation and an online search. I figured it was a quick way to make some money, and no scientific or humanitarian aims inspired my first trip.
My part of the job is simple. Take drugs, sit there and ride out the effects, then describe how it felt. The researchers assign me cognitive tasks, like repeating long lists of numbers backwards or pressing colored blocks on a computer screen. Often I wear an EEG cap or a sensory deprivation mask. Always I get stuck with needles. Sometimes I lose my mind.
I’m not always sure whether these drugs might some day be used to treat schizophrenia, or whether they’re meant to induce short-term schizophrenia in a healthy subject who can wake up and tell the researchers what it was like.
It would be easy to say that I continued to do drug studies for the money. I can make over forty dollars an hour to trip. But even the nurses who’ve been working in the lab for years tell me that my desire to come back is prodigious. The drugs aren’t fun, and as I learned more about the debilitating and mysterious nature of the disease, the possibility of being permanently affected by these experiments worried me. A little.
Besides the fact that I like the nurses, the bus ride to the hospital, and the free physicals, I do it for a voice that I miss. I used to hear it in my head when I was a child; it had a kind of intonation I’ve never heard in real life—a combination of gravel and black tar—a bottomless dark voice that emanated from behind my neck, that wrapped around my skull. I could understand what he was saying as he spoke, but as soon as he stopped I lost the message, like a dream that instantly fades.
My nerves light up in an instant, then I savor the slow decline of adrenaline, feel it dripping away throughout my system. “Does that feel O.K.?” the nurse asks me. Sometimes it does, but my veins are tricky. Often the IV doesn’t stick, and I can feel the pressure from the saline solution building up in my arm, filling cavities and tissues where it doesn’t belong. Finally we get the IVs to work, tapping veins on the backs of my hands.
Sensory deprivation again, and this time I watch as the two-dimensional darkness in front of my eyes shifts, gains a third dimension. A silver city appears like fog rolling in. It stretches out in a grid of clear porcelain and stainless steel, and suddenly I’m not alone. I feel my companion like I used to feel ghosts as a child, the ones that made me open doors all the way to make sure nothing was behind them, the ones that made me back up into walls just to be sure nothing was following me. But this companion is friendly. We move through the city, punching from point to point on a stiff grid, forward one block, left, forward, forward. We are both in control, we don’t use words.
Finally we escape the reflective canyons and empty streets. We summit a hill. But the world is disintegrating already, burning off into blackness. I feel a touch on my arm, a real touch. It’s time to come back.
I’ve been fascinated by schizophrenia since I was a kid, listening to an NPR program in the car with my parents. I remember Scott Carrier’s melancholy narration: “A person’s soul should be like an ocean, but a schizophrenic’s soul is like a pool of rain in a parking lot.” He spoke about voices, people believing they are the devil, that all the evil in the world is their fault. Sisters and sons suddenly aren’t themselves, mothers have sex with angels. I haven’t gotten over the sense of wonder I felt, that people could have an idea of reality incongruous with everything around them. And the fear that our minds can turn against us so savagely.
After that I used to wait for insanity, sure it would hit any day. In a strange sadistic way I wanted it to happen. I wished I could sometimes say, “I can’t help it.” I watched kids in middle school who rode skateboards, spray-painted the walls, jumped on people’s backs, screamed in the hallway. They wore spikes and weird clothes, they listened to music I couldn’t understand. Everything about them seemed to be organized by some strange logic that was singularly their own. I wanted a similar compulsion, an inner force that I didn’t understand and was powerless to change. Being a sane, detached observer doesn’t really give you a flavor.
My mind has since hardened. I’ve lost the inner voice from my youth. Sometimes I don’t even hear the real voices around me. I’ve had friends sobbing in my arms while I counted ceiling tiles. I got a tattoo on my ribs and barely felt it. The world just doesn’t get to me, so I found a way to inject a different one. When I’m there I build cities, I meet people, I am a machine, I am part of it all. I don’t enjoy myself in the schizophrenic state, but I need the time I spend there. I try to find books to better understand what I’m experiencing, but I’m no scientist, so I end up mythologizing it even further, reading the theories of Julian Jaynes, the philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari, and the memoirs of Judge Schreber. But as with all forms of tourism, what I experience is far from the truth of the condition.
I finish another of the endless questionnaires and sit in the hospital bed listening to the man in the next cubicle. He sounds middle-aged. As he responds to the same questions I’ve just answered, I realize he must be schizophrenic. I trace the contours of his mind with every detail he gives that seems strange. His answers droop with exhaustion and seethe with characters he can’t escape. I can understand him only when he gets emotional and raises his voice. “…Nothing works for me…bad man in Hamden…I feel worthless…My brother made it and I didn’t!” He mentions the multitude of voices he hears every day. He talks about them like they exist. He says they hate him.
At the end of the day the man is asked to rate his day on a scale of one to ten, with ten being the worst day of his life. He gives it a seven. I munch my sandwich and ask the nurse if I can sign up for another study.