It’s Friday evening, and the 19-year-old college freshman, who prefers to go by the pseudonym “Shane,” steps out of the shower and prepares for the ritual he now undergoes twice a week. He dries off, swabs a patch of skin with alcohol, draws a small amount of clear yellow fluid from a glass vial into a syringe, then injects himself in his buttocks. Unlike a cocaine or heroin user, he feels no rush of well-being. But after only two weeks of taking testosterone enanthate, an anabolic steroid, Shane is already feeling another high of sorts. He has put on 11 lbs. and upped the weight he can bench-press from 185 to 215 lbs. “I’m much stronger,” he boasts. “I wanted something to give me an advantage on gaining size in the shortest time possible.”
Call it the shot being felt around the country. It’s hard to have missed the steroid scandal that continues to roil the professional sports world, especially baseball. (Last year star sluggers Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi were brought before a San Francisco grand jury to tell what they knew of Balco, a Bay area lab that has been implicated in the trafficking of performance-enhancing drugs for elite athletes. Both players have denied using steroids.) Less noticed—but no less important—is the rising concern that the use of such drugs has also become a significant problem among ordinary young people in their teens and 20s. Among the sobering statistics, according to a study out of the University of Michigan: A full 8 percent of 12th-grade boys admitted to using either steroids or substances like androstenedione—which, in the body, metabolize into steroids. Even more troubling, 2.5 percent of kids in eighth grade report they’ve tried steroids. And these aren’t all male gym rats. “What have we done to our culture?” asks Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden, who has long been an antisteroid crusader. “The ignorance of the consequences of using these substances is astounding.”
Certainly all that bulking up often comes at a steep price. Anabolic steroids, which are illegal to distribute without a prescription, are synthetic derivatives of the hormone testosterone and have been linked to a wide range of serious health risks, including heart disease, infertility and organ damage, not to mention the uncontrolled aggression, known as ” ‘roid rage,” that can afflict abusers. Bodybuilder Steve Michalik, then 28, won the Mr. Universe contest in 1975 and at one point in his career was injecting himself with steroids 14 times a day and taking 15 pills. He was forced to stop in 1986, when he nearly died of liver complications that he says were caused by the steroid abuse. Says Michalik, now 57, who reports being clean ever since and currently works as the training director at a gym in Farmingdale, N.Y.: “These kids don’t know what they’re in for.”
In some cases—as with Shane, who plays hockey for a Division II college—part of the motivation for using steroids is to improve athletic performance. But for many others, it’s simply a matter of vanity, the desire to look, in a hunkified world of Justin Timberlake and R&B singer Usher, as buff as they can. “It’s about body image,” says Dr. Gary Wadler, a prominent specialist in performance-enhancing drugs at the New York University School of Medicine and a member of the World Anti-Doping Agency. “It’s fashionable to be cut, defined, muscular.”
To which many experts might say, Be careful what you wish for. Shane, for one, insists that he did his homework on the perils of steroids before he started using them. “I was pretty scared about the side effects,” he says, so he did extensive research on the Internet. He decided not to buy his drug on the Web, as many steroid abusers do, because he was concerned that they might be of poor quality. Instead Shane paid another player on his team $240 dollars for a two-week supply. He claims he isn’t worried about possible ‘roid rage because “I think I have a lot of self-control.” A pharmacist he had consulted warned that steroids could also make him sterile, but Shane says that he does not plan to use the drug long enough for that to become a problem.
It’s true that steroids—which are often prescribed to treat men who produce inadequate amounts of testosterone and had been used for certain growth disorders in teens—aren’t chemically addictive. But plenty of users are so thrilled by the results they see that they become dependent on them anyway. Craig Costa, a student at Bristol Community College in Fall River, Mass., began taking steroids five years ago, purely to boost his self-esteem. “My whole priority was that I wanted people to say, ‘That guy’s huge,’ ” says Costa, 27. “I’ve always needed to be the top dog, to look the best.” He started modestly enough but soon began going to extremes. Although steroid users typically cycle off the drug to give their body a chance to recover, Costa decided not to take a break. He also began combining multiple injections and pills each day, a technique known as “stacking” that increases the medical risks. In any event his foray into the world of steroids produced mixed results. The exhilaration he got from bulking up became “my high,” he says. But no matter how big he got, he recalls, “it wasn’t big enough.”
Soon he was spending up to $1,000 a month for the drugs, money that he made working with special-needs kids while living at home. He would do grueling two-hour workouts at the gym seven days a week. “The only thing I had control of was my body,” says Costa. “I didn’t have the greatest self-esteem in the world, but I thought, ‘I’m the strongest guy in the gym.’ ” As Dr. Wadler points out, that desire for absolute control is similar to the distorted mind-set typical of anorexics. “Both are obsessed with the mirror,” Wadler says, “with how they look.”
But while the steroids enabled Costa to increase his bench-pressing from 225 to 450 lbs., his body started to fall apart. He suffered serious chest pains, the result of his heart’s working too hard. He also developed an explosive temper. At bars, he says, “I’d be dying for someone to say something to me. I was a friggin’ train wreck.” He and his wife, with whom he had a son, Jacob, now 3, soon split. He eventually stopped taking steroids in 2001, with the help of a psychiatrist. “You get the results you love, and it takes over,” says Costa. “I haven’t heard of anyone who does this in moderation.”
There are some, of course, who end up only dabbling with the drugs. But even a brief experimentation can have dire consequences. One of the most damaging effects of steroids is sometimes among the least visible—depression. Taylor Hooton, a 17-year-old baseball player from Piano, Texas, started using the drugs in early 2003, after a coach made a passing comment about his need to get bigger—although he was already 6’2″ and 175 lbs. (Hooton’s school will not comment on this claim.) Soon Hooton was heavily involved, stacking pills and injections, which helped him bulk up notice ably in a matter of months. “He was very vain,” says his sister Mackenzie, 24. “With every reflection he’d be checking himself out.”
Almost as soon, signs of depression also emerged. (Steroids affect the limbic system of the brain, which plays a role in emotions, and can cause not only irritability and depression but may also lead to delusions and mania.) Early last year in a phone call with his brother Donald Jr., 23, Taylor admitted he wanted to hurt himself. Told about the conversation, his parents, Donald, a marketing director for a computer firm, and Gwen, an elementary school teacher, got Taylor to a psychiatrist, who put him on an antidepressant.
Taylor stopped taking the steroids, but his girlfriend Emily Parker, 16, says, “Things started going downhill from there.” Upset that he was losing muscle tone, and that schoolmates were commenting that he had gained weight, he talked about going back on steroids. On the morning of July 15, his mother went upstairs to talk to Taylor. She found him hanging by a belt around his neck from the door frame. He left behind a suicide note that read, “I love you guys, and I’m sorry for everything.”
Ask Shane if he has any real fears that his steroid use will end badly and he skirts the issue. “I don’t think so,” he says, “but you never know.” He’s already busy anticipating how sculpted he will look once he cuts back on his calories. Somehow, in his telling, the centuries-old pursuit of the perfect human physique can sound like a realistic goal and an impossible folly all at the same time. “You always want to keep getting bigger and stronger,” he says, “your body better-looking.”
Bill Hewitt. Anne Driscoll in Swampscott, Mass., Darla Atlas in Plano, Eve Heyn in New York and Melody Simmons in Washington, D.C.