I am the Chuck Yeager of erectile dysfunction. For nine days in July, I was part of a group of twenty-four men who were dosed with pills, prodded by doctors and poked with needles to test the next generation of blood-flow redirectors.
For generations, the human testing unit has been the refuge of destitute college students who would sell a kidney if the price was right. I was no different. As I looked through the back pages of The Onion on my lunch break, something caught my eye: an ad seeking a few healthy men to stay overnight at Covance, the “clinical research unit” in Madison, Wisconsin, wedged between the local community college and the regional airport. It seemed as innocuous as a slumber party.
I signed up for the preliminary screening and was in and out of Covance in just under two hours. Handing me a clipboard full of forms, the heavily pregnant nurse told me I would be testing a new, longer-lasting formulation of Levitra. Since Levitra was a second-generation erectile-dysfunction drug, I wondered if I was on the threshold of something truly spectacular. After a barrage of paperwork, blood draws and urine samples, the nurse told me to come back on Thursday for the first stay.
I spent that evening with some friends at a downtown bar. In the last few months my drinking buddies of choice had been a troupe of lesbian graduate students in anthropology and education. After the third round, I told my friend Lia about my plans.
“Oh, gross,” she said. “You know what this means, don’t you? For the next month, I won’t be able to stop thinking about your penis.” Still, she couldn’t stop herself from speculating. “So is everyone going to have to walk around with some sort of condom-shaped sheath on all day, measuring how hard you get?”
There were many unanswerable questions. “I don’t know,” I said. “I guess we’ll find out.”
For the next three days, I told my boss, my co-workers and friends what I would be doing. I wanted people to tell me that the risks were probably minimal and that I might even make a valuable contribution to humanity. No one did. The general consensus was that I would be sullying my body at great personal risk.
The study was to pay $3,200. I’ve been known to sully my body for less.
Unable to convince anyone that my cause was noble, I made my departure for the test site as unceremonious as possible. I woke up at eight on the morning of the study. My girlfriend rolled over at the sound of the alarm and cast me a wicked smile. “Have fun,” she said.
I kissed her goodbye and headed out the door without breakfast. Strapped on my back were three days of clothing, my laptop and one or two books that I probably would never open.
As I approached the building, I was overcome with dread. When a nurse greeted me at the door, I began to have second thoughts. In front of me was a line of men stemming the flow of blood from their arms with matchbook-sized pieces of gauze. Within minutes a nurse signed me in, told me where to drop my bags off and hung a photo ID around my neck.
The main room smelled strongly of antiseptic and latex. There was a pool table, several wide-screen TVs, a foosball table in the corner and computers with Internet access. The dusty bookcases were full of Louis L’Amour novels and tattered board games.
Standing next to me was a man whose nametag read Steven. I saw a copy of The Augmented Bible in his bag.
“So I guess it’s going to be just us guys for the next few days,” I said. “Hope we don’t get too excited.”
Steven appeared not to understand what I was talking about, but he was quite eager to give me directions from the research unit to his home address three hours away. He somehow ended up on the subject of airline tickets. “I sometimes call Southwest’s reservation line so that they’ll put me on hold and I can listen to the commercials,” he said. “I don’t even want a ticket, I just like being on hold.”
I smiled sympathetically and took my leave of Steven. At the far end of the main room, participants from another study on antidepressants were watching Dawn of the Dead on TV. They had either been locked up in the building for too long, or the drugs were working all too well: the entire group stared at the TV with the same blank expression. They barely acknowledged us.
I made my way to the dining room for orientation. The room was empty except for five or six folding tables and chairs. At the back of the room was a dry-erase board listing information on our study. The head nurse was only five feet tall, but she wore a scowl that said she meant business. After she had introduced herself, she listed the house rules.
1) No going to the bathroom without first asking permission.
2) Show up to your blood draws on time, no exceptions.
3) No booze, sex, caffeine, drugs, porn or exercise.
I could understand why we couldn’t drink coffee or shoot heroin, as it might interfere with our blood work. But the sex-and-porn clause caught me off guard. There weren’t explicit rules about masturbation in the testing center — although I assumed it was inevitable — but the nurse clarified that, once outside, for the three weeks of the study, we could only have sex if we used condoms. (I assumed this was for liability reasons, in case children were born without eyes or with an extra penis.) Then she moved on:
4) Report any unusual side effects immediately.
At this point, I raised my hand. “Um, what kind of side effects should we report?”
“This is basically a feed-and-bleed study,” the nurse replied. “We’re trying to find out how long the drug stays in your system. We don’t need to know if you have an . . . um . . . we don’t need to know if the drug is having its desired effect. Only if it’s abnormal.”
Having never taken Viagra or Levitra before, I wondered what an abnormal erection might be. For some, being hard for three hours with a group of guys watching SportsCenter might be run-of-the-mill, but it seemed abnormal enough to me.
The first day, we were to remain under observation. We wouldn’t get the drug until seven the next morning. In the meantime, there wasn’t much to do other than watch TV. The second common room was bigger than the first; it was called “the fishbowl” because one end of the room attached to the main nurse station, which was sealed with soundproof glass. Nurses could see out and we could see in, but we could only communicate with them through sign language. This was a problem, because nurses controlled access to the bathrooms from a hidden switchboard. I wasn’t sure whether they kept the doors locked because certain other studies were only allowed to pee at specific times, or because they were trying to keep us from spending all our time masturbating.
A bronzed, moody guy kept staring at the nurses in the fishbowl. “You know what this is,” he began, “it’s like we are on some sort of reality show and the nurses are judging us.”
“Yeah,” I said. “The guys with the softest erections will get kicked off until only one is left standing.”
The couches were populated with the expected contingent of students looking for quick summer cash and more than a few professional lab rats. Most of the pros were in their early forties. Many had driven three hours to get here. A few had flown in from halfway across the country. One unemployed computer programmer told me he had been doing studies full time for twelve years. “I’m probably in the top twenty percent of income-generating lab rats. Last year I cleared $60,000.” Apparently, he was part of an underground network that shares information on the best-paying studies from Seattle to Miami.
Next to Twelve Year sat a man nicknamed Sarge, who spoke entirely in run-on sentences. When not lamenting his failed career as a stand-up comedian and the fact that he hadn’t seen his daughter in over a decade, he spent his time cruising online personal ads and loudly telling the room which of the “babes” he would score when he got out of the study. He was the embodiment of every woman’s fear of online personals.
After a few hours of listening to the stories of lab-rat lifers, I went back to my room, wondering if I too would be tempted by a life of easy money and blood draws. My roommates were an out-of-work flight attendant and two men biding time before they enlisted in the Army. The room was worse than any dorm room I had ever stayed in, but better than barracks. The only decorations were a full-sized wall mirror and a framed picture of seagulls frolicking above a beach.
In my dreams that night, I wandered through a maze of ten-foot high white walls. After a relentless series of wrong turns and dead ends, I found a holy grail: a jar of Levitra.
At 6:45, I was awakened by a nurse, who told me to get ready for breakfast and my first dose. In the cafeteria, a nurse gave me a tray with coffee cake, a bowl of corn flakes and a carton of milk. We ate in silence and shuffled down the hall to have our blood draw. This would be the first of nineteen vials of blood pilfered from my arm that day.
After being drained, I made my way to the pill-administering station. The project manager who gave us the rules earlier that day smiled at me. To her right was another nurse ominously holding a flashlight. In front of them on a blue paper towel was a single pill and a glass of water. One nurse took notes as the other instructed me on the proper techniques for swallowing a pill. “Put the pill on your tongue and drink the whole glass of water. Be sure the pill goes down. Hiding it in your mouth will disqualify you from the study.” After I had swallowed it, they told me to open my mouth and they searched for contraband.
The current formulation of Levitra is administered in 2-, 5-, 10-, and for the most severe cases, 20mg doses. I was taking 30mg. It should have been enough to give a horse a hard-on. For the last week, I had been waiting for the biggest erection of my life.
But a half-hour passed, then an hour, and nothing happened downstairs. The rest of my body, however, had begun to feel strange. Everything I saw was beginning to take on a yellow tinge, and there was a dull throbbing in my temples.
Over the next hour, I began to feel less sexy and more inclined to crawl into bed and cry for my mother. The rest of the inmates were feeling equally down. Even Sarge was more or less silent. My penis had yet to make any “abnormal” movements. (I had never taken Viagra before and didn’t know you have to stimulate yourself to get results.) At that particular moment I felt more dysfunctional than I ever had in my life. For the next few hours, I sat on a couch with three other men. To my right, Kyle, who had been heretofore chipper, had his hands pressed against his temples. “You hard yet?” I asked.
“Workin’ on it, but tell you the truth there’s no action yet, just this damn throbbing.”
“Is anyone feeling it?” I asked to the rest of the group.
“I was earlier,” said Jeff, a slight, thirty-two-year-old paralegal. He had his nose stuck in a graphic novel featuring a dozen cartoon heroes in skin-tight jumpsuits. “I don’t know what you guys are complaining about. I was up and down for an hour, and my head was fine.”
No one bothered to say anything when I left the room. I crawled into bed and closed my eyes. As I tried to sleep a nurse dropped by.
“I have a really bad headache,” I said.
“Oh, we sort of expected that. When did it start?”
I tried to answer her questions, but I couldn’t concentrate on her words. I could understand why she wanted to know the exact minute that the pain started. I made up a time that sounded good so that she would leave me alone.
“All right,” she said, “just be sure to keep track of when it peaks and finally goes away.” I fell asleep and dreamt that nurses were chasing me down empty corridors asking how I was feeling. Their clipboards looked dangerous.
I wasn’t sure how long I had been asleep, but when I woke up my head wasn’t throbbing anymore. The pressure had migrated its way down my body. The blood had rushed away from my head and had filled my crotch with all the blood it could find. If I were a magician’s animal balloon it felt like someone had squeezed me in the middle, poked my head in, and pushed all the air downwards. There, making a rather impressive tent in my shorts, was my much-anticipated boner. It was abnormal. I could feel it pressing against the fabric of my pants in a familiar way, but something was wrong. It was boring. My body had certainly responded to the drug, but it had left my libido at the coat check. I slid my hand down to feel out the situation. I’ve lived with roommates before and have never felt particularly uncomfortable having a wank while people were looking the other way, but I couldn’t get in the mood. I couldn’t sleep either — it was kind of impossible, with the TV down the hall blaring the original Amityville Horror — so I got up to join the group.
“Anyone feel anything yet?” I asked.
“I’m still okay,” said Jeremy, who was half-reading the same graphic novel. “But did you hear Richard threw up?”
“Yeah, he was puking for the last half-hour.”
Richard looked like he had driven pickup trucks all his life. He wasn’t the sort of person you would expect to be leveled by a penis pill. But when I found him, he was standing with a nurse begging for an aspirin. “I know we can’t take drugs,” he pleaded, “but I feel like my head is splitting in half.” The nurse said she would have to talk with a doctor. It turned out that he had to endure three hours of pain before they broke out the Advil.
Of all the men in the study, only two actually felt the desired effect of the drug. They were also the only two men who didn’t get headaches. Apparently, the drug only goes one of two ways: up or down.
“Next time I’m going to make it a point to bring in a Playboy,” said Jacob, a broad-shouldered college student. “The way I figure, the drug either goes to your brain or to your cock, and the headache shows up when you’re anxious about not getting a boner. If I’m looking at porn, I can guarantee I won’t be anxious.”
Before long, my curiosity made some of my cohorts uncomfortable. It was when a usually laid-back college student with dreadlocks past his shoulders snapped at me, “what do you care what I’m doing in the bathroom,” that I realized I should probably stop asking questions.
The next morning, I left the research center. I would have two more weekends in the lab, two more headaches and two more rather unimpressive erections.
But after that first stay, I did have to look forward to reuniting with my girlfriend after three days in a hospital room. Despite the sex-drive-killing effects of the drug, I started getting really excited on my way home. My cock was so hard that it was difficult to concentrate on the turns in the road. Once home, I cut the engine and ran up the steps two at a time. When I put my hand on the doorknob, I was harder than I’d been in days.
I fumbled with the key, unlocked the door and ran inside. She was sitting on the bed in a miniskirt and knee socks, waiting for me. “You’re back a little early. Did you miss me?”
“You won’t believe what I have in my pants.” I said, loosening my belt.
Should my friend Lia be reading this, I will spare her the mechanics of the following scene. We were not however, able to spare our upstairs neighbors the sounds of our reunion. I don’t know whether it was because of the drug or simply the time-tested erectile assistance of distance and deprivation, but I can report that my penis made absolutely no abnormal movements.
This article originally appeared in Nerve’s True Stories.