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