Whether steroids work is not in doubt. But are bigger muscles really worth dying over?

A former Mr. Nevada, Phil Pape began using steroids after getting out of the Marines.

A former Mr. Nevada, Phil Pape began using steroids after getting out of the Marines.

Photo By Nick Higman

Three teenagers cram into a bathroom stall before a meet. They’re nervous, but they don’t talk. They know the drill.

It’s Alan’s first time. The 15-year-old tries to push out of his mind what he is about to do. It doesn’t seem like a drug; it seems like “part of the job.”

Alan’s friend of the same age and a 17-year-old are all huddled in the same handicapped-accessible stall. All three high school students fit comfortably there. The elder assures the two younger boys he knows what he’s doing. He pulls the syringe and the bottle of anabolic steroids out of his gym bag, pulls his gym shorts down a bit and preps himself for the injection.

Alan watches. He’s next. He notices the bottle has Chinese characters on it. That recognition zips in and out of his head.

Done. The needle is in and out.

Neither Alan nor his friend speaks. Alan turns, facing the beige wall of the bathroom stall, puts his head against his arm, pushes against the wall, away from the 17-year-old, and pulls down his shorts.

“It was all very matter-of-fact,” Alan recalls later. “It was all very simply presented to me.”

They wrapped up the needles and steroid bottles and put them in their bag. They didn’t want to risk throwing them away in the gym bathroom.

Alan didn’t worry about side effects then, he says. He didn’t worry about getting caught. All he was worried about was being the best wrestler he could be.Home run king Barry Bonds’ second indictment for lying about his use of steroids was practically an opening pitch to the 2008 major league baseball season. The word “steroids” will likely be on everyone’s lips from now until the final game of the World Series—if not beyond.

According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, anabolic steroids are synthetically produced variants of the naturally occurring male hormone testosterone. Both males and females produce testosterone in their bodies: males in the testes, and females in the ovaries and other tissues.

The bottom line: Men, and less commonly women, take steroids to improve athletic performance by increasing muscle size. Increased muscle size means athletes, whether amateur or professional, can run faster, hit harder, lift more weight. Bigger muscles are more aesthetically pleasing to people who admire big muscles.

But with threats of liver damage, testicular shrinkage, early death, acne, psychological damage and breast development in men, it’s easy to wonder why anyone would want to get “juiced,” anyway. Is our society really so shallow that we’ll take athletic success and good looks at the sacrifice of … what? Honor? Not to mention health.

Long-term medical studies haven’t been done on steroid use in healthy men, says Dr. Scott Hall, a sports physician at the University of Nevada, Reno. The reason for that, Dr. Hall says, is that there is a “very hush-hush culture” about steroid use. There is no way to measure the long-term effects of an illegal drug if the users don’t come forward.

“Physicians are pretty clear on it,” Dr. Hall says. “They’re against it. These are drugs. This is drug abuse.”

The most common “knowledge” about steroids comes from first-hand accounts of users. One 56-year-old man interviewed for this article says he feels stronger, healthier and all-around better since he began receiving a steroid injection from his doctor every other week. Another man, a former Mr. Nevada body builder, who no longer “juices,” says he doesn’t regret his past use.

A 28-year-old who has been working out on a regular basis since high school, did two cycles about six years ago and has had no short-term negative side effects to report. (A cycle is a set time period during which steroids are taken, typically between 2 and 12 weeks.)

But there’s also plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest steroid use has a darker and deadlier side, including what appears to be a connection between steroid use and depression.

The 56-year-old and the former Mr. Nevada had a mutual friend who killed himself after using steroids.

The 28-year-old knew a middle-aged professional who tried a few cycles. His arteries clogged, and six months later the man swallowed the barrel of a 12-gauge shotgun.

Dr. Hall recalls hearing a physician give a speech about his 16-year-old son who killed himself after finishing a steroid cycle. “And they didn’t know he was using steroids until after the death.”

A survey published in the Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition found that the majority of steroid users are white males, averaging 29 years old.

That survey shows that about half of the steroid users got the drugs off the internet. Many websites boast that they sell steroids that can’t be purchased legally elsewhere.

Nevada law makes unauthorized possession of anabolic steroids a felony that could result in one to six years in prison. But prosecution of steroid possession is rare, says Washoe County Deputy Chief District Attorney Karl Hall. Hall says he was working on a case involving “pounds of meth,” and that he hadn’t personally prosecuted any cases involving steroids in his career. In fact, a quick survey of his office found that only one attorney there had prosecuted a case involving steroids—once. [page]

Gym candy at the high school
“Hey, you know what, if we want to maintain that competitive edge and we want to be the best, why not use steroids?” says Alan, who began using steroids when he was 15 years old. “That was our way of rationalizing it to each other."Alan, now a prominent student leader at UNR, was a competitive wrestler in high school and remembered the pressure he and his teammates felt then. He spoke under an alias.

“A lot of the older guys we knew were taking it, so we started it,” he says.

But it’s not just “older guys;” 1.5 percent of eighth graders said they’ve used steroids at least once in their lifetime, according to a 2007 study by the National Office for Drug Control Policy. So have 1.8 percent of 10th graders and 2.2 percent of 12th graders. Use of steroids within a month before the survey was about 1 percent less for each group.

These results were about two percentage points less than 2004-05.

The survey also said that 17 percent of eighth graders said steroids were easy to obtain. In contrast, 27.7 percent of 10th graders and 40.1 percent of 12th graders said steroids were easy to find.

More than half of the 12th graders said steroids were not safe. But sometimes risky behavior comes easy to teenagers, particularly when there’s a bullshit rationalization—like school spirit. Alan, for example, came from a competitive high school.

“People in most sports did it,” he says. “I wouldn’t say it was most athletes. I’d say it was the most serious and the most competitive athletes. The people that really showed promise.”

As for him: “In our minds, it was like, ‘We have to do this; we have to be the best.’ Just the legacy we had. We were that class. … It gave us that edge, and we did well with it.”

His chemical enhancements started out in the legal realm. Alan and his friends discovered Creatine, a muscle supplement that was relatively new then.

“Supplements are the gateway to taking steroids,” says Alan. “You see what it can do to you.” He says the mindset then was, “Wow! This stuff makes us feel great. We need something stronger now.”

Alan and his teammates all worked out regularly. When they started using Creatine, their muscles grew, and the amount of weight they could lift increased. When they started juicing, their “maxes” exploded.

“We were literally increasing our [maximum weight on the] bench press by 30 to 40 percent in a matter of weeks,” says Alan. “Our weight shot off the charts. Everybody just got huge. You take it, and you just feel invincible. When you’re lifting, you feel like you can do so much—and you can! Your stamina was great. And what it did to your strength was just outrageous!”

Alan says he did four cycles between his sophomore and junior year in high school before he stopped using.

“As we got older, and we learned more about it, we learned that we could take it during the [wrestling] season. They don’t drug test in Vegas.” Or in Washoe County, for that matter, although school officials say getting caught using steroids can get a student athlete kicked off the team.

Steroid use among professional athletes is controversial. Some people interviewed suggest that the benefits outweigh the risks. But it is very difficult to find someone with medical credentials who would say that high school athletes don’t do serious damage to their bodies.

Alan didn’t believe that until after high school, when he had ceased using.

“A lot of people were doing it,” says Alan. “We didn’t discuss it. It wasn’t something we talked about. But it was something everybody knew about.”

Everyone except his coaches.

“We knew our coaches would disapprove,” says Alan. “They were honorable guys that cared about their athletes, not just winning championships.”

Alan and his friends were reassured by their dealer that the steroids—which the students injected into each other—were safe.

“Who knew what was in it?” says Alan, in retrospect. “All we had to go off of was what the guy told us … We’re in the YMCA injecting each other in the bathroom.”

Steroids come from many places—Latin America to Asia. They can even be ordered from the comfort of your own home internet connection. No illicit source should be assumed safe.

The dealer, Alan was told, had a relative in Mexico who knew a pharmacist there. The pharmacist sent the drugs up from Mexico. Or at least that was the story. If they came from a pharmacist—even from Mexico—they must be safe, right? But they might also have come from a Mexican veterinarian.

The odds are stacked against users
“That’s just not true,” says Dr. Hall, concerning the myth of steroids from Mexico being of medical-grade quality. “There are numerous reports of guys who bought steroids that contained other things. You cannot determine the safety. … You just have no idea of what you’re getting.”

“Issue two, the actual injection … you have all the problems of obtaining needles, sharing needles … hepatitis, HIV, all those things have been transmitted with steroid use. If you happen to get the real stuff, and you inject yourself with steroids, is that safe?” asks Dr. Hall.

Alan didn’t quit juicing out of fear. He quit juicing when he stopped wrestling.

“It became clear who was going to go to college to do sports and who wasn’t,” he says. “And I was one of those people who wasn’t,” he says. “Then I started hearing about my dad’s friend who took it, and it enlarged his heart, and now he can’t even jog.”

Hall says that while serious heart enlargement is unlikely, it is a possibility. The heart is a muscle, he explains. Increased testosterone can cause that muscle to grow abnormally large in an otherwise balanced person.

Alan’s father’s friend, Rick, was a top college athlete.

“It was a guy my dad had worked with … a really nice guy, but he was like a big-time football player,” says Alan. “All of a sudden he was on a football field, and he collapsed one day. They found out he had an enlarged heart. If his heart started beating too fast and pumping too much … any type of vigorous physical activity would just shut him down. That was all just because he took steroids for a long time. He took them all through high school and college, until he eventually couldn’t take them anymore.”

Alan quit juicing about five years ago.

“I have friends that still do it,” he says. “They’re of that same mind-set of ‘nothing will happen to me as long as I do it responsibly.’ That’s a really common way to feel.”

The “hush-hush culture” still exists. Alan’s friend walks into the room during the interview. Alan nods, suggesting it is OK to continue the interview in his friend’s presence. Alan makes the motion of injecting a syringe into his arm with his hand. His friend nods once. Neither says a word about the subject.

Even now, Alan isn’t sure whether he regrets what he did to his body.

“I wouldn’t say it was morally wrong,” he says after a pause. “I don’t know what it’s gonna do to my body in the long term. I could have taken a year off my life. Those are the kind of things that wear on your mind. That’s the thing that really worries me. Is my future gonna be affected by some stupid thing I did when I was 15 or 16? When you’re young, you can get sold on that stuff easily.”


‘Roids for amateurs
Kids aren’t the only ones who’ll cheat. A lot of people see steroids as a shortcut for better results. It’s easy to assume that the biggest guys at the gym—the ones curling 100-pound-dumbells—might be on steroids.

Athletes and bodybuilders interviewed all look down on recreational steroid use. The theory: Using steroids for competitive reasons makes it OK. Maybe that’s not as hypocritical as it sounds. It’s damned near impossible for a clean athlete to compete with one who’s juicing. Barry Bonds may be a good example of this.

But is it OK for a guy who works out on a regular basis but isn’t an athlete to take a couple cycles to gain some quick strength?

John, 28, says it can be. John also spoke under the condition his real name not be mentioned.

“I was working out and [wanted] to get fast results, I guess,” says John, describing why he used steroids. “To get what I wanted faster. Just to get bigger, to lift heavier, I guess, were the main reasons then. I researched it for about four months before I did it.”

John is aware of the potential side effects—psychological and physical. He knew the guy who blew his own future away with the shotgun.

“I know one of my buddies was doing what I was doing—and I don’t want to say he was having depression issues—but it was affecting him,” says John.

John shares a belief with other juicers: If a person is stable before taking steroids, he or she will probably be fine. If the user is already unstable, there is real potential for danger. The big question is: Who in their right mind would risk their life to look better or to lift a few more pounds? Most people’s livelihoods don’t depend on their ability to knock one out of the park.

John says he did two cycles. One by injection and one by pill. This was about six years ago. He hasn’t used since, but he doesn’t oppose juicing for recreational use in healthy adults.

A means to an end
“Most people have one or more side effects if they are using steroids,” says Dr. Hall. “But most side effects are not that bad. One thing I will tell you—severe side effects are rare. The other one—which I worry most about—are the psychological changes that one can experience with steroids."Do steroids make people depressed, or are unbalanced people more likely to take steroids?

“It’s tough to prove,” says Dr. Hall. “Chicken or the egg? I will tell you that there’s no question—we know for example that there are receptors in the brain that the steroids bind to—and I would tell you that if you talk to people who consistently use steroids, they become dependent on them. And most of that dependence is from a psychological standpoint.

“I’ve listened to parents get up and tell their story about how their son committed suicide,” Hall says. “The best estimate is that 5 percent of people who use steroids have serious physiological side effects. Depression, anxiety, aggression. And then there are those that commit suicide. It’s a very serious thing.”

Teenagers shouldn’t use steroids. Period. Dr. Hall explains that men produce more testosterone as teenagers than at any other time in their lives. By adding extra testosterone into a body, that body will produce less of its own testosterone.

“You’ve got a growing body, which if you give steroids, you’re stunting growth,” says Dr. Hall.

What other effects could happen by using steroids as a teenager?

“We don’t know,” he says. “We don’t have long-term studies. … We just don’t know, frankly, what the long-term effects are. And that’s part of my problem with it. There are so many different ones out there that people use. And you get conflicting opinions from different people.

“What typically happens, someone is advising the kids how to use it,” says Dr. Hall. “It’s fraught with problems. You got someone with no medical training telling you, ‘This is how I did it.'”

This side of the legal line
I have stuff that’s similar to steroids, says Phil Pape, owner of Phil’s Discount Nutrition. “It’s not hard on your liver. It’s not hard on your system. It’s not gonna kill you.”

He sells “legal steroids,” pills that have slightly different molecules than steroids.

One brand, Max Xtreme, advertises the similarities and differences between their product and the illegal form. The Max Xtreme advertisements can be convincing. One ad: “MASS POWER STRENGTH.” Another: “LEAN HARD STRENGTH.” They explain the chemical differences that make them safe and prevent side effects while still providing the same results.

On the bottom of all the ads is the disclosure: “These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.”

Some of the Max Xtreme drugs were banned by the FDA as recently as this month.

Pape, 41, knows fitness. He’s been a competitive body builder since 1993 and was Mr. Nevada in 2002. He’s owned his own nutrition store for about five years, where he sells supplements and offers personalized dieting plans for people trying to lose or gain weight.

“I teach nutrition here,” Pape says.

Pape admits to prior steroid use, even though he hasn’t juiced in years.

He started using steroids around 1991, after getting out of the Marines. He went from 190 pounds to 220 after his use. He says he never had any sort of major side effects. He never went crazy. Neither did the 56-year-old man in his office who receives a bi-monthly steroid injection from his doctor.

“As for the body builders, yeah, about 90 percent use it,” Pape says. “It’s not questioned. When you’re in the gym [on steroids], you feel solid. You feel strong, but it’s not a high. I want to stress that—it’s not a high.”

Pape stressed that teenagers don’t need steroids. With hard work and proper nutrition—all stuff he teaches people who come to his store—teenagers can gain the same results with no risk.

As for steroid use, “They say it’s not addicting,” says Pape. “Of course it’s addicting.”

Two years after that first injection in the handicapped stall, Alan had already quit juicing, but he well remembers a kid who collapsed in the gym.

The kid was doing squats when he just lost his balance and fell. Everyone ran over, Alan recalls, and “his heart rate was out of control. It was crazy.

“It was scary as shit,” he says. “Just the fact that steroids did that to him always stuck out in my mind.”