“Okay Stephanie, just step on the scale so I can record your height and weight.” I was excited for this part of the appointment — I’d definitely lost some inches; downgraded a dress size or two, but I hadn’t been able to put a number on it until now. I couldn’t afford a scale.
Actually, I couldn’t afford anything. This would account for the weight loss — my apartment (or, the basement I lived in, whatever) had a tiny, nonfunctional kitchen that encouraged – nay — celebrated my hatred for grocery shopping. Stranded in a New York suburb and without a car, it was often more convenient to skip meals than to go through the rigmarole of procuring food. (If you’re below or above the age of 21 and operating under this rationale, seek help.)
No wheels meant I relied heavily on public transportation – which also proved to be costly (as most things will, when you have no income). I walked when I could—to job interviews, open houses, bars (always enough money for the bars, somehow). You’d be surprised how difficult it is to keep the weight on when you’re subsisting on slices of pizza and walking for miles in 90-degree weather. The poverty diet is one of those things money just can’t buy.
In addition to whittling my body into its former underweight self, my lack of funds was what found me in a paper robe getting weighed by a physician named Karen. And not because I was malnourished—I went to the hospital voluntarily. I was there to make money. I was there to smoke marijuana.
My roommate Shannon would wake up at 4 AM or some other obscene hour and commute into the city, where she’d oversee drug and alcohol abuse studies. The hospital would recruit addicts for various experiments, and it was her job to observe them. “Today we’re doing heroin addicts. I get to buy their meals,” she’d casually mention, like she was telling me about an episode of Oprah I’d missed.
When she returned home in the afternoon, we sat around our living room and she told me about her workday, rattling off a list of ongoing studies and what each study paid the subjects. Eight-hundred for the outpatient alcohol study. Two G’s for the inpatient heroin study. Maybe those tweakers were on to something. “When will they have a marijuana study?” I’d beg. “Soon, definitely. I’ll keep you posted.”
I waited patiently, but “soon” couldn’t come soon enough. When Shannon told me about the ridiculous meals her patients requested, I’d recoil into a dark, bitter place. Where’s my Cheetos moment? Am I not good enough?
Months passed, college ended, and my bank account was as hungry as I was. Shannon moved out and found a new job. I moved into a basement and hung out with my new roommate’s ex-con friends. I had almost given up hope when I received an email from Shannon with a message (don’t mention that you know me) and a link to a Craigslist post that advertised a study similar to the ones she’d described. Except this one was looking for marijuana smokers. O’ joyous moment! I called the number in the listing and had an appointment a week later.
“Stephanie… You’re Shannon’s friend, right?”
Well. So much for discretion. I shook my head yes.
“Great, I’m Karen. Shannon and I used to work together. Just take a seat, I’m going to ask you a few questions.” I sat on one side of a small desk in an uncomfortable room. Karen took a seat across from me, shuffling papers on the desktop. The scene suspiciously resembled a police interrogation.
“Just to be clear—you smoke marijuana already, correct?” I nodded, trying to keep a serious face, one that said, “I’m a professional; you can trust me to smoke your marijuana in a responsible manner that aligns with the standards of this fine establishment.” “Good,” Karen confirmed. “How often would you say you smoke marijuana?”
I froze. What’s the right answer? I wanted to reach out and grab her arm, furrow my brow and beg, “Please. I need this.” But I didn’t. I replied with what seemed average. “Three or five times a week?”
“And, how much would you say you smoke, when you do?” Did I sign up for the LSAT or did I sign up to smoke some free weed? What the fuck?
“Probably a blunt’s worth? Sometimes less. Depends on uh… if I’m alone or not.”
Karen scribbled some notes in that judgmental, illegible handwriting they must teach to all mental health workers. “I see.”
We talked about other illicit drugs (none), cigarettes (yes), and alcohol (please and thank you). We talked about my mental health (flatlined in the past, was probably okay now. I’m not a doctor.) Then we talked about my physical health (questionable). “Have you ever had an EKG?” I wasn’t sure. Probably not. “Okay, follow me.”
I followed Karen into an examination room, where she requested I strip down to my thong. I lay 98% nude on the examination table as she covered my body in electrodes. “Just have to make sure your heart’s in tip top shape before I give you the okay.” Karen stepped away to observe the needle as it charted my heartbeat on graph paper. I waited for something to happen, but the room stood still until she approached me and began removing the gelled pads that affixed the cables to my body. “All done.”
I got dressed and Karen gave me the run down. The study would go on for two weeks; I’d have to come to the hospital every other day at 8 AM sharp. I was not to drink alcohol or smoke anything past midnight. I’d be paid $580 on my last day. Could I handle that? “Yes,” I said. “Pick what you’d like to eat on Monday,” Karen said, handing me a slip of paper that I recognized from visiting my mother’s hospital room years earlier. I grimly marked ‘Bagel,’ ‘Diet Coke,’ ‘Smart Ones: Garden Vegetable,’ and ‘Popcorn.’ Karen handed me $30 for my time. I left and got a drink.
“Guys, guys. Wait, just… shut up. Steph, get over here. Tell them what you’re going to do. Guys, this is so fucking cool.”
I’m wishing my “so fucking cool” announcement was that I’d found a job, or an apartment, or a boyfriend – any shred of stability would do. But instead, the words tumble out bashfully, anticipating judgment, same as they had a hundred times before. “I’m going to smoke weed for money.”
Eyes light up like blunt cherries. “What?! How?” This is where I launch into my monologue about trips to the hospital and EKGs and medicinal marijuana. As I recited the story, I realized my captive audience was receptive, and why the hell not? No one at this graduation party had landed a job yet. Why was I ashamed to get paid to do something I loved? Isn’t that the post-grad dream? I continue to rant and rave, using my hands to add a bit of flourish.
After Karen checked my lungs to confirm they weren’t tainted with non-hospital grade weed or lingering tobacco smoke, I asked if I could have a cigarette. “Sure,” she said, “but I have to come with you.”
We walked through a maze of stairwells and Emergency Exit doors until we reached an outdoor space designated for smoking. I hardly had both feet outside before I lit up – it’d been twelve hours since my last fix.
“Why do you have to come with me?” I asked, looking down at my feet. Between the meal selection and the chaperone, I was starting to feel a tiny bit like a death row inmate. “We have to make sure you’re not smoking anything that might interfere with the study.” “What do cigarettes have to do with the study?” I asked, begging for a loophole. “Our machines can’t tell the difference between marijuana smoke and tobacco smoke, so that’s why we ask that you don’t smoke either after midnight. We have to make sure you start with a clean slate.”
The study goes like this: you stick your hand into a bucket of ice water and you see how long you can keep it there until the pain becomes unbearable. Your time is recorded. You answer some questions on an ancient computer that appears to be running on MS-DOS. Then you do it again. And again.
I did this four or five times before Karen gave me a THC pill. “Remember, the marijuana will come in different dosages and in both pill and plant form. Just continue to submerge your hand in the ice water for as long as you can, and answer the questions when prompted.”
Twenty minutes later, I was slightly high. I remember smiling, daring my hand to drown for just a bit longer, trying to prove that marijuana had dulled my pain. “Pain? What pain? I can’t even feel my hand. We should totally legalize this stuff, right?” My disdain for the fossil of a computer I was using turned into mild intrigue. “Look at this old, dinosaur-museum-type thing. So cute.”
My hand took the plunge another four or five times and when my buzz began to wane, I asked for lunch. Karen and her crony sat on the other side of a window and watched me pick at my indigestible food. Where is my Cheetos moment? This experience was nowhere near as glamorous as Shannon had described. Still, there was the whole “getting high for free” thing. Maybe if I concentrate hard enough, I can pretend this TV dinner is actually Cheetos. The power of positive thinking, right?
After lunch, I had another cigarette. When we returned to my cell, Karen handed me the fattest joint I’d ever held. “I’m going to sit on the other side of the window and talk to you through a microphone. I’ll count to five. Don’t stop inhaling until I tell you to.” She scurried to the other side of the glass like a bomb was about to go off; safe from the fumes I’d so actively sought to breathe in.
“Okay, light ‘er up,” Karen’s voice filled my tiny room through a speaker on the ceiling. “Christ! You scared me,” I screeched, fumbling the joint. I recovered and “lit ‘er up,” watching the cherry alight expertly and evenly, like a movie prop.
“And, inhale. One… Two… Three…” I coughed. “Karen! That was like, at least six Mississippis. Can you speed it up a bit?” Karen sneered. “No, I can’t. Procedure. And you can’t just stop, okay? You need to inhale until I tell you to stop.” I had high school flashbacks of being tormented for ‘wasting the weed’ and ‘sleeping on the blunt.’
“Fine.” Karen was pissing me off, but I was gonna see this thing through. Even if this hospital weed was burning my lungs. Even if it didn’t taste all that good. Even if it wasn’t getting me high…
“Was that placebo weed?” I yelled toward the window once I was instructed to clip the joint. “You know I can’t tell you that,” Karen replied with that DONE WITH YOU voice. “It was. I know it was. I’m totally sober.” Karen ignored my cries. “Please submerge your hand in the ice water until you can’t anymore.”
My hand began to shrink in fear of the cold, much like it had when I’d first arrived. The computer regressed from a thing of wonder to a slow, clunky machine that should’ve been recycled into something useful by now. I was ill equipped to answer the same questions again and again without totally losing my patience. Not only was I sober, I was slighted. Couldn’t they have given me the placebo weed on my third visit, when our reservoir of trust was a bit deeper?
After eight hours of mind games, I was released and resolved that I would not continue on with the program. I had seven more appointments to survive before I got paid, but smoking fake weed for cash is where I draw the line. Thirteen-year-old me smoked enough fake weed for the both of us, and I have no plans to go to that dark place again.
Some people say to do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life. Others say not to mix business with pleasure. I arrived at the hospital that morning as a member of the former and emerged eight hours later as a firm believer in the latter. The day didn’t end with a case of the munchies like I’d expected – instead, it left me craving a real job… one that doesn’t drug test.
This article is an excerpt from Girls? A Collection of Essays, available here.