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

Cosmopolitan (South Africa) - - REAL LIFE -

’ 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.’

Body trans­for­ma­tions

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.

Pump­ing iron

‘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?’

Mak­ing gains

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.’

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