A former steroid user reveals the dark truth about performance enhancing drugs
Brought to you by HPRA.
“My heart could have stopped.”
When you think of steroids, you probably think of Lance Armstrong’s barefaced denials and impossible performances on a bike. Older generations might recall the 1988 Olympics and Ben Johnson’s bulging muscles as he surged past Carl Lewis to smash the 100m record.
Both men would end up with their sporting reputations in tatters.
Yet steroid use is no longer just the preserve of elite athletes or oversized bodybuilders. Steroids are increasingly being used by young men who are looking for a shortcut to a six-pack rather than chasing medals.
In gyms across the country, steroids are now used in an effort to improve conditioning or to help young men to emulate the sculpted male bodies that are commonplace on shows like Love Island. That's despite the fact that steroids have been shown to cause heart attacks, liver issues, strokes, infertility, blood clots or kidney damage.
So JOE sat down with a former steroid user to discuss the grim reality behind the headlines.
Paul* was a 19-year-old college student when he first tried steroids. He was an active sportsperson but that wasn't his main reason for starting.
“I always played football but it wasn't football related,” he recalls. “The friends that I hung around with were all bigger, older lads who were into the gym. I was quite slim. They just said, ‘Hey, look, it will help you with your football to come to the gym and build yourself up a little bit.’”
He trained naturally for six months but steroids were always around the fringes of those gym circles.
"Conversations were coded but you knew that something was going on," Paul explains. "I was like, OK, what's the story? It just sort of escalated from there I suppose."
With steroids common among his immediate circle, it seemed like a harmless way to make fast gains. He started with muscle-building steroid tablets called Dianabol, or D-Bol, and quickly discovered a newfound stamina and recovery. The results fed the hunger for greater results and he inevitably went back for more.
“Once you've done it, it's like ‘That felt great. I wouldn't mind doing that again,’” he says. “You get addicted. It's like a buzz. Honestly, I can't explain how invincible you feel when you're on them.
“You see progression with every single session so that releases endorphins. That's I think what people get addicted to – that feeling when you're on them.”
He did three cycles of D-Bol before a mate suggested injections of a more powerful testosterone compound. The idea of needles was more “invasive and serious” but a friend from the gym walked him through his first time. It still took him an hour to get over the nerves and inject himself.
It didn't take long for his reliance on steroids to overcome this initial squeamishness. He got used to injecting it into alternate shoulders two times a week. As time went on, the accumulated scar tissue would make his shoulder a “little bit crunchy” when he inserted the needle.
“After a while, I suppose you just become addicted to the gains and feel you're invincible. I'm young, I'm fit, I'm healthy, I feel good, I'm strong – I'll be fine. Everybody's doing it. You kind of get that mentality. Safety in numbers, I suppose.”
The injections caused him to bulk up rapidly and he “trebled in size” in the first year, although a lot of it was bloating at first.
“It's basically water, that weight,” Paul explains. “The injections make you retain water more around your muscles. You can spot people on steroids a mile off. They go red. They're very sweaty, they're full of excess water and just carrying it around.”
His life started to revolve around the gym more and more.
“When you’re on them, you're in a bubble and you're consumed by the lifestyle and the networks that you're involved in. You're constantly in the gym. You eat clean. Your whole life becomes about going to the gym and getting fitter and stronger. Other people's opinions? You block them out and just go to the gym.”
Did this insular lifestyle damage his social life or impact on his relationships with people outside the gym? It certainly led to negative changes in attitude and behaviour.
“I think I became a bit of a prick, if I'm being honest,” he admits. “I was very self-absorbed. You see them now - these big gym heads. They look silly, they act silly, they wear tops that don't fit - these low cut tops.
“The things that are important in life suddenly don't seem that important. Things like your character or how you come across. You're not bothered because anyone who’s not in your circle doesn't matter. It's the people in your circle that matter, the size of your biceps and how much you're lifting. It's all you become focused on.”
Paul played semi-professional football while taking steroids but there was no testing in the leagues he played in. During one season in a Welsh Premier League team, he'd a close call when drug testers visited the dressing room and he only just escaped the serious repercussions of being outed as a drug cheat.
“The lads must've known as I went white as a sheet. You could see it on my face. Luckily I didn't get picked as I would've been done.”
The gains came at a cost. He suffered one severe reaction coming off a cycle that hit him physically and emotionally. Anabolic steroids produce large amounts of synthetic testosterone so his body had stopped producing natural testosterone.
“Once you stop pumping the artificial stuff in, your body doesn't necessarily start producing it straight away,” Paul explains. “So you just turn into a wreck. You become very emotional, unpredictable and sensitive, very self-conscious and just like a shell of your former self.
“There are very extreme highs and very extreme lows. Your body is trying to find that level again so it's constantly messing with your emotional levels. I was completely unpredictable, not in control of my emotions – I couldn't control it. It was just a very, very strange time.”
The stereotypical ‘roid rage’ was another side effect of the testosterone he was taking and it resulted in a few scrapes on nights out. His temper would flare up easily.
“I was the absolute poster boy for roid rage,” he recalls. “You just all of a sudden get very, very hot. Very, very hot and mad. Honestly, that's the only way to describe it. The smallest thing can set you off and you just feel this rush of testosterone and heat and pressure.
“There's no outlet. You're not meant to have that level of testosterone so there has to be this release. So it would be shouting, screaming, punching or throwing so that you could come back down to that normal level. It's crazy. It's like the Incredible Hulk.
"You become aggressive. You nearly become a caveman. All you care about is eating, picking heavy things up and putting them down again."
His lifestyle revolved around steroids, the gym and partying hard with his mates at the weekend. It eventually took its toll when he woke up one Saturday feeling clammy and sweaty. He felt that his heart was “skipping a beat” so he went to a doctor.
“She said ‘Whatever I tell you next, do not panic.’ I thought ‘Oh shit.’”
His heart had developed an irregular rhythm and he ended up in the cardiology ward of the hospital for two and a half days.
“Basically, they had to give me drugs to lower my heart rate to the point where it would actually knock itself back into a natural rhythm,” explains Paul. “Or if that didn’t work, they’d literally have to get the shockers.”
Paul was convinced he was going to die. He remembers passing out to the sound of beeping heart monitors and waking up to find that his heartbeat was back to normal.
He survived but he suffered anxiety attacks that mirrored the symptoms of heart attacks for months afterwards. He became obsessed with his heartbeat and was convinced that something was wrong. The doctors ran tests and a heart monitor was attached but everything came back clear.
“It was purely mental,” he admits. “At that point, I walked away from absolutely everything. I pulled the partying, all the steroids, everything. I never ventured into it again.
“I struggled for a long time with body dysmorphia. It was a mental battle to come off steroids, to train naturally, to be comfortable with what I look like. It took me a year and a half to get over that.”
Many people who start taking steroids aren't aware of the risks. The people who sell steroids illegally aren't big on warning labels or on advising clients about the potential dangers.
Even if you don't suffer life-threatening issues like heart problems or kidney issues, there can be long-term repercussions. Paul saw first hand the effect it had on some of his peers. One of his friends can’t have children due to steroid abuse so the effects can be irreparable.
From the age of 19 to 26, he reckons he only did about seven one-month cycles. It wasn’t as much as many of his peers but it did almost kill him.
Paul's advice for anyone considering steroids is simple. He says you won't be able to stop after the first course so think about the long-term effect on your health and ask yourself is it really worth it.
To find out more about anabolic steroids and the negative effects on your health, check out the zerogains.ie website. For medical issues or advice, talk to a health professional.
*Not his real name.
Brought to you by HPRA.