A Gentle Giant
He was our gift from God. Our first born…a son! We beamed with a pride that only parents can fully comprehend. We doted on him and adored him. We loved him with all of our heart. As the years passed he filled us with joy as we saw our hopes and dreams for him coming true. Parenthood was hard work, sometimes downright difficult, but we gave everything we had to give. And, to our delight, it was working. At age nineteen, our son Efrain had grown to be a fine, respectable young man. Sure, he had his share of youthful stumbles along the way, but he responded well to our guidance and managed to navigate his teen years without succumbing to the gang-culture, the violence and the criminal activity that plagues so much of our youth today.
He was fiercely committed to his family. He had the highest respect for his parents and he was very kind at heart. He adored his baby brother, Ethyn. He was a successful athlete. He was raised in a solidly Christian home, and had embraced his faith. A hard-working young man, he was attending a local community college, studying hard…he had a plan for his life, a direction. We couldn't have been prouder. We couldn't have loved him more!
The unfortunate byproduct with loving someone so deeply, so intensely is that if you ever lose them, the pain, the anguish, the fathomless emptiness are almost more than you can bear. It is a very long and lonely path we must walk now. One we never wish any family or anyone should ever have to take. We lost Efrain to suicide on September 26, 2004. Suicide! How…why? Through the fog of grief so overwhelming as to defy description we kept coming up with more questions than answers. How could a merciful God let this happen? What did we do wrong? How could we have missed the signs? Didn't anybody see this coming? But always…why?
That day started like any other. Breakfast…everybody in good moods. Lots of smiles. We were leaving to do some shopping, and Efrain was at the kitchen table doing homework. Dad put his arm around Efrain's powerful shoulders and asked if he needed anything, and Efrain asked for some deodorant, said he needed some boxers and t-shirts, and he also wanted a new video game. His birthday was coming up, so Dad said the video game could wait until then. Efrain stopped me and politely asked me to "work on Dad" about the video game…he knew I was a pushover. We left home without the slightest hint that anything was amiss. While at the store, I remembered that I left out the chicken for dinner thawing on the kitchen table. We asked Erika to call her brother and to remind Efrain to put the chicken in cold water. During that call everything sounded normal according to Erika. We returned home a little more than one hour later to a scene that is forever burned into our souls and has changed our lives forever. Sometime during our brief absence, our son went upstairs, we believe took a shower, assembled his father's pistol and took his own life in our bedroom next to our bed. We were in tremendous shock. It was as if a lightning bolt came down from the sky and shattered our home. We were completely incapacitated.
Dear God what could possibly have led my son to take his own life? He had scheduled himself for an appointment with the counselor the next day. He had a new girlfriend and had a date for Tuesday. Dinner and a movie. There was absolutely no indication that he was planning such a thing. What happened? As time passed and we searched for clues, we came to realize the answer to that question is a "dirty little secret" hanging around nearly every locker room, gym in America and wildly used by our elite professional athletes that our children look up to. Steroids. Efrain had been secretly using steroids to prepare for football season. He had been a standout offensive lineman in high school and was now playing at the junior college level. However, he decided he wanted to move from the offensive line to more of a "glory" position at middle linebacker. Any football fan seeing Efrain would recognize the significant physical transformation it would take for him to make that move. That transformation was exactly what he was after when he turned to steroids.
We became aware of Efrain's steroid use three weeks before his death. Something led him to the realization that he was in trouble, and because he trusted his parents he came to us for help. After talking to him, he disclosed to us that he was using steroids. He then gave us the Dianabol pills, a vial of steroids, and two syringes and needles. Efrain was afraid something terribly wrong was happening to him. He was having episodes of paranoia and deep depression. He told us that during one of his college classes he felt people were looking at him and laughing. He also admitted he didn't care for much anymore. Up to that point in time the idea of our son using steroids had never crossed our minds. We had missed every sign. We didn't even know what the signs were! His mood swings, his rages, his depression, his obsession with his appearance, his rapid fat loss and muscle gain all were "below our radar" because we were, regrettably, unaware.
We did what any responsible parents would do we sought counseling and we talked to our family doctor. We told Efrain to stop taking steroids, which sounded to us like a great first step and like any respectable child he did. Our doctor told us that the substances would pass out of his system soon, and not to worry about it. He would get through this phase soon and that these were common symptoms. We trusted his advice; after all he's the doctor. We didn't know it at the time, but at that very instant the medical profession failed us. Whether our doctor didn't take the situation seriously or simply wasn't attuned to consequences of suddenly quitting steroids, the fact is that steroid users must be weaned from the drugs and monitored for the onset of depression during the process. We are convinced now that the psychological effects of paranoia and devastating depression caused by using steroids and then quitting cold turkey is what led Efrain to end his life. What triggered him to do so at that exact moment we will never know. The lesson for parents is if you have a child using steroids not prescribed by a doctor treat it as a "life threatening" situation, because it is. If your doctor tells you otherwise, look for a new doctor and keep looking until you find one that treats the situation with the gravity it deserves. More importantly though, counsel your children on the dangers of steroids and to never use it.
How could this have happened and why did this happen to such a good family and son? The "how" is easy, the "why" takes a little more soul searching. Since my son's death we've discovered just how alarmingly easy it is for our children to get their hands on steroids. Any locker room, any gym, on the Internet, anywhere in America. Coaches, trainers, fellow athletes, enterprising students looking to make a buck. Over the counter in Mexico. The really buff guy in the weight room. Any kid looking for steroids can get their hands on them within 48 hours easy! See, nobody pays much attention because they aren't really drugs, right? At least not drugs in the sense we normally worry about. But steroids are as easy, or easier, for our children to get as alcohol, marijuana, cocaine or any other illicit drug.
Why our kids use steroids takes a little more introspection. The real question is who or what convinces our kids they need to be bigger, faster, stronger, and more muscular? The answer can be found at every baseball field from Little League to the pros. You can find it at every football field from Pop Warner to the NFL. Tracks throughout the world. High school and college wrestling mats. Weight rooms anywhere. In fact, you can find the answer anywhere adults instill in children the need to "win at all costs" and to do anything less is failure. Whether it's the elite athletes in professional sports setting the example by using steroids, dad pushing his young son to pick up the pace on his fastball, mom exhorting her daughter to cut a few more seconds off her 440 time, or a coach hinting that an defensive lineman could start at middle linebacker if only he were a little stronger and faster it's all dangerous and irresponsible unless the adults take the additional step of putting things in perspective. Not every aspiring athlete can be a starter, not every high school athlete will get a college scholarship and not every college player will make it to the pros — our kids need to know that too. Our children must know that the adults in their life want them to work hard and do the best they can with what the good Lord gave them and to do it honestly. They must also know that turning to performance enhancing drugs of any kind is cheating, dangerous and can ultimately kill them!
Efrain was a tremendous son and young man. He was what is all good of this world. He was a very powerful young man physically yet a very gentle person in the heart. He was very kind and he loved everyone. He loved his family. He loved his father, mother, sister and especially his little brother, Ethyn. He adored Ethyn! He had a big heart and his heart was full of God's truth, God's love, and God's light. So I believe this…I believe we should lift our hearts and take comfort…for it is only the human mind that suffers now…because I believe God has brought that big heart home to heaven!
No parent should ever have to endure the loss of a child. Our tragedy has forever scarred our lives, and our one prayer is that we can prevent this from happening to your family. They say time will heal our wounds, but right now life has lost its color. Gather up your children and give them a hug talk to them ask questions listen closely to them. Remind them that Efrain was a powerful young man with a very supportive and loving family but once he crossed that line and took steroids, he gave up that control and even his family could not save him. Watch for the signs that something is amiss, and then do what we parents do best.
Hold, love and protect your kids.