A “On steroids, Wil­son felt strong, more con­fi­dent”

Men's Health (UK) - - The Hidden Masses -

t his most pow­er­ful, Alec Wil­son’s bi­ceps mea­sured 45cm around. On a good day, he could dead­lift 212kg – equiv­a­lent to the weight of a lion. In the mo­ments be­fore he heaved an almighty load, he would sum­mon a rough growl from his stom­ach, shock­ing his body into the pro­duc­tion of adren­a­line. Other men knew when he’d ar­rived at the gym. They could hear him roar.

Wil­son was 36. He was not a pro­fes­sional body­builder, but an aca­demic with a cou­ple of sci­ence de­grees. Most days, his of­fice was a lab. And yet his train­ing had be­come re­lent­less. Al­most ev­ery night, as soon as his young son had gone to bed, he would head to the lo­cal weights room, lift hard and chat game with other big men. Of­ten, he felt he could go all night. Lift­ing. Talk­ing. Lift­ing. Talk­ing. “I’d stay un­til they kicked me out,” he told me. “Then I’d go back the next night.”

Wil­son and I first met at a bar in Birm­ing­ham, not far from where he lives. (His name has been changed at his re­quest.) In­stantly, he struck me as a con­tra­dic­tion. At 5ft 10in, he isn’t es­pe­cially tall, though he looks big. His shoul­ders are broad, his chest re­sem­bles a whisky cask and, in many ways, he is large enough to make me feel like a small boy. And yet at times he spoke so softly I found him dif­fi­cult to un­der­stand; when we first in­tro­duced our­selves, his right hand was trem­bling. Wil­son ex­plained that he hadn’t al­ways been so big. A few years ago, he’d had trou­ble lift­ing any­thing close to his 212kg record. He’d trained for years, but his power had plateaued and he’d be­come frus­trated. At the gym, he and oth­ers would dis­cuss tech­nique and nu­tri­tion. But they’d also chat about steroids. Men would re­veal the com­pounds they were us­ing, reg­u­larly slip­ping into a quasi-med­i­cal lan­guage that, to out­siders, was hard to un­der­stand. When they mixed com­pounds, a process called “stack­ing”, they shared their ex­pe­ri­ences, tak­ing ques­tions from oth­ers. How did it feel? What side ef­fects did you suf­fer? What would you do dif­fer­ently? Wil­son was proud of the fact that he was privy to these con­ver­sa­tions. “It wasn’t easy to be­come ab­sorbed in this cul­ture,” he told me. “You re­ally had to earn re­spect. If you waited your turn, let the big guys go first, knew your po­si­tion in the peck­ing or­der, you’d get your place.” Later, he added, “It be­came part of my iden­tity, that I was a mem­ber of this group.” Be­fore long, Wil­son de­cided to use steroids, too. A friend sup­plied him with testos­terone enan­thate, an an­abolic used in hor­mone ther­apy, and he sourced nee­dles from a clinic two towns away, where no one would recog­nise him. When his stock dried up, he found a phar­macy in Ser­bia, from which steroids could be bought on­line. Soon, he be­gan to ex­per­i­ment with other com­pounds, gen­tly in­creas­ing doses to over­come his body’s acclimatisation. To counter the ef­fects of se­vere joint pain, he be­gan us­ing small doses of nan­drolone de­canoate, known as “deca”, which is some­times pre­scribed for os­teo­poro­sis. Within weeks, Wil­son’s mus­cles bal­looned. In the bar, he showed me a cou­ple of pic­tures on his phone. He was stand­ing in the sal­low light of his kitchen. His head was shaved, and it was dif­fi­cult to pin­point where his back mus­cles ended and his neck mus­cles be­gan.

Wil­son be­gan to lift heav­ier weights. He felt stronger, more mo­ti­vated. In the morn­ings, he was filled with a store of en­ergy that lasted all day. Later, he no­ticed a great up­surge in con­fi­dence – not just at the gym, but at work, too. Prob­lems were eas­ier to solve. “I be­came much clearer in my thoughts,” he said.

Steroid cy­cles typ­i­cally last 10 weeks. To pre­vent “shut­down”, in which the body stops pro­duc­ing testos­terone nat­u­rally, users must un­dergo a process of post-cy­cle ther­apy (PCT), in­tended to reg­u­late the body’s or­ganic pro­cesses. But PCT is hard, and those who come off cy­cles com­plain of lethargy, teari­ness, low sex drive and deep and dark de­pres­sion. “You feel like a small man,” one user told me. An­other user com­mented that dur­ing PCT, “You just want to be held.” When we dis­cussed the man’s loss of li­bido, he said, “Three women could be bounc­ing naked on a tram­po­line in front of you, and all you’d want is a cup of tea.”

Wil­son had heard sim­i­lar sto­ries and found the idea of com­ing off steroids trou­bling. So he didn’t. “That first cy­cle lasted four years,” he said. It led to a kind of phys­i­cal de­struc­tion: “Be­cause your strength and mus­cu­lar­ity in­crease so rapidly, your ten­dons and joints can’t keep up.” His body was un­able to sup­port the mus­cle he’d con­structed; his knees be­came frail, and his right shoul­der was dam­aged. Dur­ing a visit to his GP, an even more ur­gent mes­sage rang out. “My doc­tor said, ‘If you keep go­ing the way you are, you won’t live to see your son grow up. You’re go­ing to have a heart at­tack.’”

Wil­son had been made aware of the risks prior to be­gin­ning his cy­cle. I asked him if he’d wor­ried about them while he was us­ing. “I’d oc­ca­sion­ally give them a fleet­ing thought,” he said. “But I was prob­a­bly ar­ro­gant enough to think I could mit­i­gate the ef­fects.” Later, he hinted at a greater un­der­stand­ing of the depth of his ex­pe­ri­ence. “Some men go to the pub and never come out,” he told me. “I went to the gym.”

What Makes a Man?

A cou­ple of decades ago, steroids were al­most uniquely tied to the world of com­pet­i­tive weightlift­ing. To the

unini­ti­ated, users were big, brash and quick to rage. It didn’t mat­ter if you were a de­voted fa­ther or peren­nial do-gooder. The so­cial tar­nish was in­escapable. You juiced.

But big men are no longer the drugs’ only con­sumers. It’s es­ti­mated that close to one mil­lion Bri­tons in­ject or swal­low steroids on cos­metic grounds, though many ex­perts be­lieve it to be much higher. Most users avoid in­ter­ac­tion with health pro­fes­sion­als, even when their bod­ies be­gin to fail. Re­searchers hop­ing to iden­tify real user fig­ures quickly run into a tricky prob­lem: how do you reach peo­ple who don’t want to be found?

Most users are peo­ple con­sid­ered by so­ci­ety to be rel­a­tively or­di­nary. Use is rife among men from all walks of life: lawyers, bankers, po­lice­men, stu­dents and, in at least one re­ported case, a cleric. Steroids have breached board­rooms and snuck into churches, gate­crashed court­rooms and in­vaded class­rooms.

The chief med­i­cal of­fi­cer of Wales, Dr Frank Ather­ton, de­scribes steroid use as “an es­ca­lat­ing prob­lem” and, like other med­i­cal ex­perts I spoke to, he con­sid­ers the up­surge to be rooted in aes­thet­ics. But, in many ways, the mo­ti­va­tions run deeper. An older user might care less about the way testos­terone helps him fill out a T-shirt than he does about how it re­plen­ishes his en­ergy lev­els. When the joints of a mid­dle-aged man be­gin to ache and his gut ex­pands, he might turn to syn­thetic testos­terone to coun­ter­act his body’s nat­u­rally de­plet­ing lev­els: not to look great in the mir­ror, but to ex­pe­ri­ence the sen­sa­tion of feel­ing young again.

Young men, as par­ents will at­test, are more com­pli­cated. “If you look at gen­eral the­o­ries, they’ll tell you it’s to do with Snapchat, In­sta­gram – the so­cial me­dia ex­pe­ri­ence,” says Tony Knox, a sports sci­ence re­searcher at the Univer­sity of Birm­ing­ham. “These kids want to be able to show off. But I think it goes much fur­ther than that… A lot of these young men are deeply in­se­cure. They don’t know their way in life.”

Knox has spent the best part of a decade re­search­ing steroid use and its harms. He talks to users – men he re­cruits from gyms around the coun­try – weekly, gain­ing their trust, thanks in part to the way he looks: big up top, like some­one who trains.

“There are so many dif­fer­ent vari­a­tions of gen­der now that these kids don’t know where to place them­selves,” he said. “So, they sit­u­ate them­selves in some­thing that is ridicu­lously mas­cu­line. When I was a kid” – Knox is now in his forties – “there was no am­bi­gu­ity. You didn’t have to look a cer­tain way. You just walked into a mas­cu­line role and you did it. But it’s not easy for kids these days. It’s much more dif­fi­cult for them to de­fine them­selves as men. Us­ing steroids is one of the ways that some of them do it.”

The fol­low­ing day, Knox took me to a gym from which he reg­u­larly re­cruits. It sprawled across two floors of what was once an of­fice build­ing, and huge paint­ings of the gym’s most

mus­cu­lar mem­bers lined the walls. Much of the space was given over to free weights and re­sis­tance ma­chines. A small area fea­tured tread­mills. It re­mained mostly empty.

Knox in­tro­duced me to a friend of his, a per­sonal trainer who had used steroids on and off for more than a decade. I asked him to ex­plain the ex­pe­ri­ence to me. “You feel stronger,” he said. “You feel as though you can hold your head up higher. You want to have sex a lot more. Then you come off and it’s like…” He hes­i­tated. “You feel like less of a man.”

Fight­ing Na­ture

Men have wanted to feel more like men for thou­sands of years. In an­cient Greece, Olympic ath­letes ate sheep’s tes­ti­cles be­fore com­pe­ti­tions, in­gest­ing sec­ondary testos­terone. It was a time when strength re­ally mat­tered. Many an­cient Olympic games were bru­tal and not ev­ery com­peti­tor left the arena alive.

The first batch of syn­thetic testos­terone was cre­ated in 1935, and the ex­per­i­ment was con­sid­ered a sci­en­tific break­through. Soon, ath­letes were be­ing in­jected with the hor­mone – first in the Soviet Union, later in Amer­ica. A kind of ath­letic arms race de­vel­oped be­tween the two na­tions, one that be­came em­blem­atic of their po­lit­i­cal ten­sions. Who could run faster, lift heav­ier, throw fur­ther? By the time per­for­mance en­hance­ment was banned in pro­fes­sional sports, in the 1970s, steroids had al­ready en­tered the main­stream con­scious­ness. Am­a­teur ath­letes be­gan to source testos­terone – then it hit the gyms. And that’s where we are now.

Cameron Jef­frey runs a steroid clinic on the west coast of Scot­land. A Scot in his forties with a colos­sal physique, he’s spent a decade work­ing with steroid users – most re­cently de­vot­ing him­self to his own project, a drop-in clinic not far from where he grew up. (He asked that I change his name so as not to be­tray the trust of those he ad­vises.)

Jef­frey told me that he runs the clinic in­for­mally – by which he meant he con­sid­ers it part med­i­cal cen­tre, part so­cial club. Users swing by for guid­ance and stick around to drink cof­fee and chat. Many ask Jef­frey to su­per­vise or ad­min­is­ter their in­jec­tions, which he per­forms in a ster­ilised, win­dow­less room at the rear of the build­ing. I was told to ex­pect a carousel of users: “They’ll be in and out all day.”

When I ar­rived, Jef­frey and a cou­ple of men in their twen­ties were sit­ting at a counter, laugh­ing loudly. Be­fore long, Jef­frey and one of the men ex­cused them­selves into the back, where Jef­frey pre­pared 500mg of testos­terone. When it was over, the young man promptly left, and Jef­frey walked into the com­mu­nal area to meet me.

“The big kid,” Jef­frey said. “He was ask­ing for more. More, more, more. And I had to tell him no. There’s no point. It’s use­less. His body can only take so much.” He con­tin­ued: “They think it means more gains, but they don’t know what they’re do­ing. They don’t know what the im­pact could be.”

Age­less Bod­ies

When I spoke to Dr Ather­ton, he told me that one of his most im­por­tant jobs was to dis­sem­i­nate in­for­ma­tion. “Peo­ple need to go into these things with their eyes wide open,” he said. I’d heard sto­ries of strokes, heart at­tacks and in­fer­til­ity. Ather­ton con­tin­ued, “I be­lieve that a prop­erly in­formed per­son who knows about the risks would prob­a­bly choose to im­prove their body im­age through hard work, not chem­i­cal en­hance­ment.”

Jef­frey, too, sees his role as a kind of coun­sel­lor. As trust builds, men open up in ways they tend not to else­where. “It’s like a con­fes­sional,” he told me. “They can’t talk to their wives or their mates, so they come here and tell you about their

lives. They spill it all.” Twenty min­utes later, an older man en­tered the clinic, walked over to a drinks ma­chine and qui­etly made him­self a cof­fee. Jef­frey greeted him warmly, and soon the pair walked to the back of the clinic.

“How old do you think he was?” Jef­frey asked me, once the man had left. “60,” I said. “Higher.” “65?” “Try again.” Doubt­fully, I of­fered, “70?”

“He’s not far off 80!” Jef­frey said. “He came in com­plain­ing of lethargy. He’d put on weight. He didn’t want to leave the house – not even to take the dog for a walk.” That was a few years ago. Jef­frey told him to get a blood test, which re­vealed stag­ger­ingly low lev­els of testos­terone, even for the man’s age. He’s been com­ing in once ev­ery 10 days ever since. “And look at him now!” Jef­frey said.

I asked him why he thought so many older men had taken to steroids. “It used to be that a man could grow old grace­fully, maybe with a bit of a pot belly,” he said. “But the cul­ture’s chang­ing. We’re liv­ing longer. And we want to live well for longer. We’ve learned how to eat, how to train. There’s Botox. Boob jobs. Steroids are a part of that, too.”

Just be­fore I left, a tall man walked into the clinic and slumped into a chair. Jef­frey walked over and eyed him care­fully. “You look big­ger,” he said, “in a good way.” A broad grin slipped across the man’s face. He’d re­cently split up with his wife, Jef­frey told me, and he was train­ing hard to keep his mind off it. The pair be­gan to dis­cuss the man’s cho­sen sub­stance, and they de­bated the ef­fi­cacy of his cur­rent dose. Jef­frey erred on the side of cau­tion, as he tends to, and even­tu­ally he won out.

Tak­ing Back Con­trol

One day in April, a while af­ter we had first met, I called Alec Wil­son. The last man I’d seen at Jef­frey’s clinic re­minded me of some­thing Wil­son had told me: that the mo­ti­va­tion be­hind his steroid use was not to do with looks, or even strength, but more to do with a kind of per­sonal agency.

A few months be­fore he be­gan that four-year cy­cle, Wil­son re­alised his mar­riage was break­ing down, and he slipped into a de­pres­sion. His mood, usu­ally light and sta­ble, had turned dark. On the phone, Wil­son told me that his “iden­tity had frac­tured. I was no longer the worker, the provider, the lov­ing hus­band, the good fa­ther… I felt as though the only thing I still had con­trol over was my body.” Other users spoke sim­i­larly of per­sonal re­straint, of self­pos­ses­sion, of be­ing able to af­fect the way they looked, felt and thought while the world around them shifted in­ex­pli­ca­bly or, worse, fell en­tirely to pieces.

“In some ways, I feel as though I did the right thing,” Wil­son told me. “I cer­tainly don’t re­gret do­ing what I did, be­cause it al­lowed me to get part of my iden­tity back.” Wil­son sep­a­rated from his wife, but the pair are now friends, and he en­joys a good re­la­tion­ship with his son.

To­wards the end of our con­ver­sa­tion, I asked Wil­son if he would use again. “I would,” he said, in­stantly. I asked him what the ben­e­fits would be. “In­creased en­ergy lev­els,” he said. “I’m 42 now. Some days are a strug­gle.”

“My iden­tity had frac­tured. All I could con­trol was my body”

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