Everyone who knew Matt Dear agreed that he was growing up into a fine young man. A sea cadet, his life-long ambition was to join the Royal Marines. He rarely drank alcohol and did not smoke or eat junk food – so keen was he to pass the elite force’s super-tough physical.
And so, when just months shy of his 18th birthday, Matt complained of feeling under the weather, his mum Tina didn’t think anything of it.
After all, the teenager was working part-time as a postman alongside his dad, Chris, as well as doing gardening jobs to earn extra money. Any spare time was spent training at the gym.
We just put it down to Matt burning the candle at both ends,’ recalls Tina, a 43-year-old learning support assistant from Essex who also has four younger, children. But what happened days later could not be so easily ignored.
‘Matt had been at a party, started to feel unwell and a friend drove him home,’ she said. ‘We were watching television and as soon as he came in I could see he was bad. He was very disorientated. He couldn’t move very well and I had to guide him to the bathroom. He didn’t seem to know where he was or where he had to go. He was being sick.’
Terrified, the couple called an ambulance. But as Matt was helped on board Tina overheard him telling the paramedic that he had been taking steroids, bought for Â£40 from his local gym.
‘Dad help me, help me,’ were the last words Matt would utter to his father. But there was nothing Chris, 44, could do. A few days later, Matt began to fit as his brain fatally swelled.
Today, with the sympathy cards marking the first anniversary of Matt’s death still on the mantelpiece, the couple believe that parents up and down Britain should understand just how big a problem the abuse of steroids is amongst the nation’s young men.
Bombarded with media images of the rippling six-packs and bulging biceps of stars such as Daniel Craig, Mark Wahlberg and Peter Andre, they are turning to the drug in their tens of thousands. According to drugs counsellors, those injecting steroids now outnumber users of heroin and other drugs combined. Equally worrying is the fact that those using the muscle-building drugs are getting younger and younger.
In the past five years official figures indicate that users aged 11 to 15 have doubled. The number of under-18s admitted to hospital having poisoned themselves with steroids has increased by almost half.
For while it is illegal to supply steroids, they are not illegal to possess. Hence the fact that many regard them as harmless – the male equivalent of Botox injections or breast implants. And yet the fact is that their use has been linked to everything from sterility to liver damage, violent mood swings and worse.
That the issue of steroid abuse is today back in the spotlight is down to the terrible and terrifying rampage of Raoul Moat over the past week. In the the wake of the former Newcastle doorman’s actions, one man lies dead and two others – his ex-girlfriend and a policeman – seriously injured.
It is known that Moat, aged 37, had been using steroids for years. His over-sized muscles and huge bulk were evidence of that. So too, say friends, were his hair-trigger temper, his paranoia and his irrational behaviour.
‘He’s been very unpredictable, because of the steroids,’ said Kelly Stobbart, the half-sister of his former partner Samantha, who is currently recovering from shotgun wounds in hospital. ‘He injected them. He had to have them, he’s addicted.’
In a letter to a friend, Moat himself gave an insight into how out of control he often felt. ‘It’s like The Hulk,’ he wrote, a reference to the fictional Incredible Hulk character. ‘It takes over and it’s more than anger…’
Increased aggression and violent episodes involving anabolic steroid users have been documented across the world. Indeed, so common have they become that the phenomenon is now referred to as ‘roid rage’.
The steroids, which can either be injected or taken in capsule form, work by flooding the body with a modified version of the hormone testosterone. While their main purpose is to increase muscle mass they have numerous side-effects.
Users claim the drug makes them become more irritable and prone to dramatic mood swings. Paranoia and violence are also reported with scientific research, suggesting that anabolic steroids can lead to substantial personality changes even within a short period of use.These range from acne and baldness through to breast development in men, shrunken testicles and even raised blood pressure and heart attacks. But the psychological effects, particularly with respect to aggression, are less well understood.
While steroids have been used and abused for decades, what has changed in recent years is who is doing the using and abusing. Once restricted to a hardcore of professional or semiprofessional body-builders, they are now far more widely available.
Classified as Class C drugs, they can be legally sold only on prescription by pharmacists in this country. But while anyone supplying the drug could potentially face a 14-year jail sentence, prosecutions are very few.
Today they can be easily bought over the internet. Foreign-based websites promise a range of anabolic steroids delivered to your door within a matter of days.
The drug’s easy availability has coincided with increased demand from young professionals, self-conscious about their physical appearance.
Roy Jones is a substance mis-use worker with Turning Point, an organisation that helps people with drug problems. Over the past ten years he has witnessed the profile of steroid users change dramatically.
‘The average age used to be 34,’ says Jones. ‘But in the last decade it has gone down to 22 or 23. They are generally male and, unlike before, aren’t using the drugs to enhance performance but simply to enhance their image. The people I was seeing came from professions across the board – solicitors, bankers, people in average jobs. They wanted to lose body fat and to look toned.’
This new-found self-consciousness, Mr Jones believes, is linked to changing perceptions of what the perfect male should look like. In much the same way that young women are influenced by images of air-brushed celebrities, so too are today’s men.
‘You only have to look in a toy shop and you’ll see the changes,’ says Mr Jones. ‘The build of Action Man today is very different, much more muscley. Even at that age children are being exposed to images of how a guy should look. They are catching up with women in terms of becoming body-conscious and feeling inadequate.’
Among those tempted by the quick fix offered by steroids was 23-year-old Dan Brown from Cannock, West Midlands. Employed in the construction industry, he became self-conscious about his appearance after a girlfriend’s comments.
‘I’ve always been a fairly slim guy,’ he said. ‘As I’ve got older, it’s started to bother me a bit more. My ex-girlfriend had started making comments as well, she was moaning about how “thin” she thought I was and how she’d love it if I “bulked up like other guys”.’
Dan headed to the gym and once there couldn’t fail to notice how much bigger some of the men were than the others. Speaking to them, he quickly learned that they were taking steroids.
‘I got the impression that almost everyone was using them,’ he said. ‘It didn’t seem to be a big deal. I was getting frustrated that my training wasn’t giving me great results so I decided to give them a go as well.’
For Â£60 cash Dan bought a course of injectable steroids from someone at the gym.
‘Once my first course finished, I didn’t want to take a break from the steroids because I was worried I might lose the muscle I was putting on. It was that quick.
‘This time I bought a pack of 100 pills for Â£25. You’re supposed to take just one a day, but the other guys all take five a day so I decided I should do that as well. It quickly became routine to take a pill before work.’
It wasn’t long before Dan noticed that his personality was starting to change. ‘I’m normally a fairly calm guy who can get on with most people,’ he said. ‘But I became moody and irritable almost overnight. If I was in the car and another driver was irritating me, I’d wind down my window and start shouting across the street at them. It really wasn’t like me, almost as if I was watching someone else in my body turning into this monster.’
Three months in Dan realised that the steroids were to blame for the person he was becoming.
‘It had got to the point that I couldn’t trust myself not to get angry at people if I was in a bad mood,’ he said. ‘I knew it was time to stop before something bad happened. So I decided not to buy any more. It’s taken a while to get them out of my system but I’m getting back to my old self.’
No doubt if 17-year-old Matt Dear could have his time again he too would do the same. His parents believe that he started taking steroids only because he was worried that he lacked the upper-body strength to gain entry to the Marines.
‘He didn’t want to be Arnold Schwarzenegger but he wanted to be strong enough for the job,’ said his father, Chris. ‘Matt was going to the gym about five times a week and apparently they were being dished out like sweeties.’
Following his death, two men were charged in connection with supplying the steroids.
But because experts could not conclusively agree exactly what had caused Matt’s death it could not be taken into account when the pair were sentenced.
As a result they walked free from court, having been given just 160 hours’ community service.
‘I was gutted,’ said Chris. ‘We know the steroids killed our son. The boy who got Matt the drugs wrote up a chart in his college jotter saying “start with one pill then increase”, it was like he was a doctor who knew what he was talking about, not a teenager.’
Determined that some good will come out of their son’s death, the couple have set up a website (www. matt-dear.vpweb.co.uk) that provides information about steroids. They have also distributed leaflets with pictures of their dying son, taken when he was in the hospital. They hope the image will get the message across about the risks associated with steroids.
His mother said: ‘We didn’t know anything about steroids before this. When you are young you think that you are invincible. Matt probably thought that because his mates were doing it, it couldn’t be dangerous. Well it is dangerous.’
Not just for those who take steroids, it seems, but, as events in Northumberland have shown, also for the victims of ‘roid rage’.