When cheers turn to depression
High school girl got a steroid scare
By Stan Grossfeld, Globe Staff
FREEHOLD, N.J. – She just wanted six-pack abs. So, Dionne Passacantando, a 17-year-old high school cheerleader, gymnast, and vice president of her Allen (Texas) High School class, made a decision she regrets. She bought anabolic steroids from a boy on the school football team.
“Nobody frowned upon it,” she says. “It was easier for me to get those than it probably was to buy beer.”
But after injecting herself with Winstrol every other day for five weeks, she became suicidal.
“I was the last person in the world you’d think would use anabolic steroids,” she says.
Her story is part of a much larger picture. The Mitchell Report, which detailed steroid use in major league baseball, noted that while steroid use among high schoolers seems to be declining, it is still estimated that 3-6 percent of students nationally have tried them. That means that, at a minimum, hundreds of thousands of high school students are using.
A recent report by the Oregon Health and Science University using data from the Centers for Disease Control said 5.3 percent of teenage girls admitted to using anabolic steroids, mostly for body-enhancing reasons or self-protection, not athletics. According to 2003 CDC data, seventh-grade girls were the fastest-growing group of steroid users, with more than 7 percent using them, the controversial report stated.
Passacantando, now living in New Jersey and using her married name of Dionne Roberts, says her desire to use steroids was the result of societal influences.
“It’s this whole Hollywood thing,” she says. “Everyone is so affected by movie stars and that whole pop culture thing. I think it takes over a little bit. We have to get back to reality.
“Everybody has their own quarrels with self-esteem and self-image, and that’s what every young woman goes through.”
The suicide of 17-year-old Taylor Hooton has haunted her.
Hooton and Roberts never met, though their schools are rivals just north of Dallas.
“We probably knew the same people and probably got our stuff from the same people,” says Roberts.
Hooton was a 6-foot-2-inch, 180-pound pitcher for his Plano, Texas, high school team. According to the Hooton family, Taylor was told by his coach that “he needed to be bigger” for his senior year. Taylor used steroids, became depressed, and hanged himself from his bedroom door.
His father, Don Hooton, started the Taylor Hooton Foundation to fight steroid abuse and has testified before Congress about steroids.
Former Senator George Mitchell, who spearheaded the Major League Baseball investigation into steroid use, acknowledged Don Hooton in his landmark report and said he hoped the public would move past the list of major leaguers and focus on getting kids to stop using steroids.
The recent appearance by Roger Clemens before a congressional committee indicates that isn’t happening. Don Hooton called the hearing “a circus.” Kids are taking their cues from their heroes, he says. And no one knows for sure how many adolescents are actually doing steroids.
‘A very secretive thing’
Dr. Harrison Pope, professor of psychiatry at Harvard and director of biological psychiatry at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., says the number of girls doing steroids is greatly inflated. But Dr. Linn Goldberg, head of health promotion and sports medicine at Oregon Health and Science University and one of the lead authors of the university’s report, scoffs at Pope’s claim.
“That’s like a blind man grabbing the tail of an elephant and saying the elephant is shaped like a snake,” says Goldberg.
“It’s a very secretive thing that is common with any drug abuser,” says Roberts. “It’s not something you flaunt. You don’t want people to know.”
Don Hooton agrees.
“It’s a very, very, dark secret,” he says.
The week Taylor Hooton died was the same week Dionne Roberts started using steroids, she says.
And she says at least half of the Allen football team was on steroids.
“A lot of parents and coaches were OK with the fact that this was going on,” she says. “I feel it was even encouraged to a point.”
The school’s athletic director, Steve Williams, disputes that.
“I’d have a hard time believing that’s the truth,” he says. “We have no knowledge of that. Are we naive to say steroids don’t exist here? No.”
Roberts’s mother, Lindsey Stewman, says she didn’t know about the vials of Winstrol stashed behind the sink.
“Oh no, I had no clue whatsoever,” she says. “I feel so idiotic. I was so clueless. I grew up in a generation where only East Germans used steroids.”
Hooton says he once asked his son’s coaches if steroids were a problem on the team.
“They said, ‘No, not here,’ and we all went, ‘Whew,’ ” he says.
The Cycle Begins
Eleven miles up the road, the culture was the same at her school, says Roberts.
“Football was really, really big in my school,” she says. “It was pretty well-known that a lot of the players were definitely using.
“I had kind of spoken to a few people about it and I was told that there was a particular type of steroid called Winstrol that was supposed to lean you out and get you toned.
“It’s not uncommon to strive for that four-pack or six-pack, even in girls. Being in shape is not just a masculine thing. So I mentioned to a friend on the football team that I was interested in it.”
According to Roberts, the football player who helped her get the drugs wound up playing for Texas A&M. She refuses to name him.
“All I did was give him $250, and within two or three days I had a cycle of steroids,” she said. “And we went to a CVS and told them we needed some syringes for a 4-H fair.”
Though needle-phobic, she injected herself in the buttocks. Not to be a better athlete, just to look better.
“I had no idea the psychological and physical effects steroids would have on my body and my mind,” she says.
Experts say anabolic steroids make you stronger but can also decrease good cholesterol and increase bad cholesterol. Steroids can cause liver tumors, increase blood pressure, stunt growth and, in girls, deepen their voices.
Nevertheless, one recent study found that 57 percent of high school steroid users said they would risk shortening their life for increased performance.
“They’re young and they think they are invincible,” says the study’s author, Jay Hoffman, chairman of health and science at the College of New Jersey.
Roberts says no one at her high school warned her of the health risks.
“The only thing I ever heard about steroids is that you can get ‘roid rage,” she says. “I figured that was too much testosterone.”
She also says she never had a breakdown or used antidepressants before she started using steroids.
“Gymnasts are pretty notorious for eating disorders and stuff like that,” she said. “In high school, I was already doing some unhealthy things like skipping meals and trying to make myself throw up.
“I’ve talked to other girls about it and it seems pretty horrible, but girls will teach each other how to do some of those horrible things. I was never starved for male attention. I had a boyfriend all through high school. I never didn’t have a date. It just became a super-important issue to me coming out of high school.’
She says she experienced ‘roid rage and depression. Doctors says the depression is caused by a drop in testosterone levels after the steroids are stopped.
“I just became so totally depressed,” she says. “I was definitely suicidal. I just was so upset the smallest thing would set me off. And I’m just like, ‘I want to die.’ Like, maybe if something happens to me, I’ll get the attention I need. I was, like, looking for something and I certainly didn’t find it.”
Out of Control
Instead of six-pack abs, Roberts gained 10 pounds of muscle. Once she ordered three steaks and ate them all at one sitting. “That was not what I wanted,” she says.
Her mother thought it was simply the mood swings of a teenager before going off to college.
“I had a fight with my parents over something stupid,” says Roberts. “I was feeling horrible. I was so miserable, I wasn’t sure what I wanted anymore.
“I went to the medicine cabinet and took 30 over-the-counter pills. I got really tired. I was going to do something harmful and I couldn’t handle it myself. It was like a half-hearted suicide attempt, pretty much.”
Two days later, she was in trouble again.
“I spiraled out of control,” she says. “Had a little too much to drink and got in a fight with my boyfriend. I blew up at him. I flipped out a little bit and had a meltdown”
She got in her car and drove off, drunk.
“In that inebriation, I did have a moment of clarity and thought, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’ ” she says. “I’m driving around drunk, I could hurt other people.
“Something made me say, ‘I need to take myself to the hospital, I need some help.’ ”
The hospital placed her on suicide watch for 24 hours, and she was briefly institutionalized.
“I felt very alone,” she says. “People revered me as being a clean-cut, responsible young woman, and to see me do something like that was a little shocking. I wasn’t the type of kid using drugs.
“I went to a mental health facility for three days after that. They put me on antidepressants and it took a long time to get it out of my system.
“Physically, I kind of felt the effects when I stopped. Withdrawal. I definitely had – not on my face – acne on my back. My voice got deeper, a few people noticed it.
“People in my family and a few good friends were like, ‘What’s up with your voice?’ ”
She says the lack of education about steroids hurt her. “It’s really a miracle she’s still alive,” says her mother. “My advice to other mothers is to question everything.”
“I didn’t know anything about it – I didn’t realize how dangerous it was or any of the side effects,” she says. “It’s horrible the physical and psychological side effects, for guys and girls.
“I just pray that it won’t affect me in the future. In the next couple of years, I’ll be thinking of having a family. Those are things I have to worry about right now.”
Though it’s hard for her to talk about, she has been sought out for advice.
“This girl contacted me and she said she wanted to tone up,” says Roberts. “She had been told by another football player at Allen who said, ‘I have what you’re looking for.’ She contacted me. [I told her], ‘I don’t believe this is your answer, it’s really harmful mentally and physically. I don’t want you to go on the same road. Don’t do this.’ ”
Learn From Mistakes
Roberts graduated from Texas State University-San Marcos last year with a degree in mass communications. She’s married to an Air Force pilot and works for a fitness gym in Bruce Springsteen’s hometown. She plays the piano and wants to be an actress.
On this day, it’s snowing outside, and Roberts turns on the TV to check the weather. Within seconds, the face of Roger Clemens is staring back at her.
“I think people are obsessed with celebrities, so that’s why the focus has turned to him,” she says. “Major league players are not the target for my plea. If he was doing steroids, he probably knows a lot more than a 16-year-old girl. Young people are very impressionable. It’s hard to say no.”
Roberts wants to make sure other kids don’t make the mistakes she made.
“I want people to take the positive from my story,” she says. “Genuinely, if I helped one person – boy or girl – it’s worth it.”