When Your Man’s a Steroid Junkie ‘I’VE ALWAYS TRAINED TO LOOK GOOD TO PULL WOMEN,’
Tom Powell explains, his eyes steadying on his reflection as he sets up for a deadlift. It’s 9.30pm, the light from the gym the only evidence of life inside an otherwisedisused industrial estate. Tom tightens a clasp on a bar. ‘You get good feedback from
’ Roid use among young men is so widespread, gyms are now installing needle exchanges. But how does ‘ juicing’ affect your relationship? Alex Harris racks up with Tom Powell ( pictured) to find out
So he goes about his body business. He clanks through sets, racking up 210kg for squats, 270kg for deadlifts – a modern-day Adonis with buttery-blonde highlights. A poster behind him reads, ‘Re-rack your weights, bro. Your mother doesn’t work here.’ The soundtrack of metal warring with metal echoes around the gym. I’ve never felt so out of place.
Despite being dealt a genetic royal flush by age 18 – over 1,8m, with the kind of body that would leave a pro athlete prodding his fat bits – Tom, now 26, chose to gamble it all last year. He broke the shackles of human physiology and injected himself with a potent, body-transforming, life-changing concoction of anabolic steroids. With his big guns and tattoos, it would be easy to dismiss Tom as a classic ’roid-head. But after 10 minutes in his company, what’s worrying me more than anything else is that he seems entirely normal.
’Roids are all the rage
Steroids are big business, with the most alarming increase in guys aged 16 to 24. Tom isn’t surprised by this. ‘ Those two who were deadlifting earlier – they’re 15 and 16, and they’ve been asking me about it. I told them to come back to me when they’re 21 and we’ll have a conversation.’ Experts agree the number of users is likely towards the higher end of the myriad estimates made every year. Overseas, charities and needle exchanges confirm that they’re seeing younger and younger men taking steroids. Is it becoming as mainstream as protein shakes and #fitspo selfies?
The stereotypes of body builders and doormen and string vests and skinheads are gone. Users aren’t beasts any more: they’re the ripped guys in offices and nightclubs and on our favourite realityTV shows. They could be your guy friend, boyfriend, brother, that guy you see on the bus to work every morning. ‘They’re not all looking to be body builders,’ explained Jim McVeigh, director of the Public Health Institute and an expert in substance misuse, when I spoke to him ahead of meeting Tom. ‘Many of them want to be a bit more defined, to add a bit more bulk. They want to look like what’s seen as “acceptable”.’ And, presumably, they want to do that to attract … well, to attract women like you.
One in every 31 men you meet at work/at gym/on Tinder will be juicing, with the purported side effects of anger, bacne, infertility, and extreme fluctuations in both sex drive and erectile function thrusting their way into your world any day now. Those potential risks could be a reality for Tom’s girlfriend, Scarlet. ‘It didn’t take me by surprise,’ she says. ‘I thought, “He’s really big, so he must be on them.”’ Tom’s physique was one of the draws for Scarlet. ‘It’s my type. I like someone who goes to the gym and trains. I had my eye on him when he was on Love Island. [Tom took part in the popular reality show in 2016.] He was in great shape.’
Believe it or not, men are just as affected by pop culture’s hypodermic drip of insidious body-shaming as women are. Where girls have skinny models, guys have buff dudes. Women had Barbie, men had Action Man. ‘It doesn’t matter if you’re watching a superhero film or a TV soap, when a male under 40 takes off his shirt, he has a welldefined body,’ says McVeigh. ‘We don’t even think of it as “defined”. It’s now classed as the norm.’
Tom’s physique is beyond the norm: he’s somehow huge while simultaneously being ‘ripped to shreds’. He also has the jaw of an action hero. That’s a side effect (or payoff, depending on how you look at it) of steroids. ‘My girlfriend was looking at pictures of me before and said that my face looks better now, much more masculine,’ he says. It’s definitely that. ‘It’s a nice feature to have,’ Scarlet told me. ‘I like that masculine, testosterone look.’
Tom takes trenbolone acetate (known on the street as ‘tren’), considered to be the strongest steroid around. One online tren guide I’d discovered previously warned of irritability, anger and a tendency to ‘ be an asshole’. It’s not anger that strikes me about Tom, but rather an underlying sense of body dysmorphia.
‘I have never, ever, ever in my life been happy with my physique,’ he says. ‘Not even now. On Love Island, I was in the best shape of my life
Believe it or not, men are just as affected by body shaming as women are
– but I still felt pressured to keep my top on. I compare myself to other guys every single day.’ Tom takes a break to FaceTime Scarlet, so I, too, open my phone. On the way to meet Tom, I’d e-mailed an associate who had promised to speak to me anonymously about his use of steroids. The reply drops my regular-sized jaw to the floor.
‘I went through periods of being unable to get fully hard or to stay hard,’ the associate tells me. ‘Trenbolone reduces sensitivity for me while, at the same time, increasing horniness exponentially. Delayed ejaculation, plus a savage will to f*ck, allows for f*cking like a porn star – which is really nowhere near as cool as it sounds.’
I quickly return my attention to Tom. ‘How has tren affected your sex drive?’ I ask. ‘ The only time steroids ever changed me is when I came off them,’ he says. ‘I was needy with a girl I was seeing, texting her things like, “Why aren’t you texting back? It’s been 20 minutes.” That’s because of the oestrogen levels. But I’m a needy person. I always have a girlfriend. I need someone there all the time. I hate my own company.’
By ‘oestrogen levels’, Tom is referring to fluctuations in the brain chemicals brought on by hormonal supplementation. Neediness is a side effect. This vulnerability is disarming. I push further. ‘What if other guys look better than you? Perhaps in a photo?’ ‘I hate it,’ he says. ‘I wouldn’t want the pictures to go anywhere. I want to be the best-looking one.’ Was he wantonly tearing through Tinder to satisfy this anabolic sex drive? ‘Never really got into it. I’m with my girl 24/7, and that’s all I need. I can go five times a day,’ he says. ‘How does she feel about it?’ I ask, incredulous. ‘Sore,’ he says with a smile.
It was when Scarlet put a towel down on the bed to deal with his night-time ‘trensweats’ that he knew she was a keeper. That’s one of tren’s two major side effects, the other being ‘tren-cough’, a nasty-sounding chest spasm that restricts breathing. These, Tom says, are signs you’re on the good stuff. To the rest of us, they’re scary physiological responses to real and rapid changes in the body. What drives a man to see this as a worthwhile trade-off?
I later asked Scarlet about the sweats. ‘ The first time it happened I woke up thinking, “Was this me?” I was so embarrassed. It was quite … stale. He was honest about it, and I was fine with it. It’s his passion, you see,’ she says.
In its own unusual way, the towel story is a touching one. Scarlet wanted to talk about steroids, and be there for his side effects and his intense phobia of needles whenever she could. In accepting his drug use, she made it safer.
When a man is so driven to alter his appearance that, despite a fear of needles, he’ll cover himself in tattoos and inject hormones, chastisement isn’t going to get in his way. What’s needed is a support network. ‘It’s his decision. I sometimes joke and say, “Tom, you’re going to be dead by 50 [because of the pressure steroids put on the heart],” but it’s his choice – he’s not going to listen to me or to anyone.’
It’s a sentiment shared by McVeigh. ‘ These guys will take steroids regardless of whether we tell them not to,’ he told me. ‘ The health and research communities need to find ways to engage with them to make it safer.’ The dangers don’t end with night sweats and bad coughs: Tom uses a local needle exchange to ensure his safety, but many other users face the same risks as heroin addicts because of syringe contamination. In fact, according to recent research, you’re now just as likely to contract HIV from injecting steroids as you are from heroin*.
It’s no wonder more and more mainstream gyms now have needle bins in their locker rooms. For a fuller picture of the risks, I call Dr Channa Jayasena, consultant in reproductive endocrinology at Imperial College London and an expert in the effects of steroids. ‘They have a profound effect on libido,’ he says. ‘Men often come to me distraught, because they’re not making their own testosterone any more. When men stop taking steroids, they experience a crash, because their testicles have basically switched off.’
From some men I’ve spoken to online, I’ve heard of cases where the hormonal impacts of steroids have even altered (or perhaps unlocked) certain sexual predilections, increasing desire for masculine features in women, upping the chance of risky sexual encounters and even, in some cases, turning ostensibly straight men gay. These are unusual cases – but to Jayasena they make sense. ‘The sexual behaviour embedded in you pre-birth is influenced by a delicate balance of sex hormones and oestrogen in the brain,’ he says. ‘Using steroids is like hitting a computer with a hammer. Who knows what will happen?’
There are some other things you should know about Tom. In school, he was captain of the rugby team for five years, ‘sportsman of the year’ more than once, assistant head boy, winner of the ‘most likely to become famous’ award, and loved by teachers for his excellent grades and willingness to learn. Like many users today, he was a high achiever looking for more, not some weights-room pariah building biceps where his personality should be.
What he, and many of the well-meaning users I spoke to represent, is a breed of steroidtaker we don’t want to believe exists – one who’s well aware of the risks. Risks they then mitigate with research and other drugs to counteract the potential fallout. ‘I use the minimum effective dose,’ Tom says. ‘Some boys are idiots, taking way too much. That’s what gives you the side effects.’
McVeigh says many users share these beliefs, and some of their thinking is flawed, but it’s opening a dialogue with which experts must engage. Tom is at least starting a conversation that he believes will help protect other users. Talk is no cure, but without it, the conversation surrounding male body dysmorphia and its illicit solutions will never find its way out of Internet forums and gym locker rooms. ‘I wanted to know everything when I started: what it’s doing to my body, how to take them, how to come off them,’ Tom says as we say goodbye. ‘I always needed to know how to come off safely.’
‘So will you?’ I ask. He pauses. ‘Right now, if I’m honest, no – probably not.’