Taylor Hooton Foundation > Hoot’s Corner > General > Steroid users speak out against stereotypes as drug use among teenagers and young men surges
October 21, 2015
Steroid users speak out against stereotypes as drug use among teenagers and young men surges
Steroid user Paul shows his results five months after undergoing chemotherapy for testicular cancer.
YOU’VE heard the steroid horror stories. The bloody bar fights blamed on roid rage, the exploding biceps, the withering testicles and the sudden strokes taking young lives. But experts say there is a major problem with this popular narrative. It is not the reality for the rapidly growing group of characters at its heart: the gym junkies taking extreme measures to boost their body image by shooting drugs into their muscles. There are fears that this disconnect is in fact alienating the majority of the steroid-taking community. And rather than slowing the number of teenagers and young men resorting to performance and image-enhancing drugs (PIEDs) in the quest for a bulked up summer body, the take-up figures are swelling. A surge in prevalence of PIEDs is reported in the latest Australian Needle and Syringe Program Survey, released in June. Between 1995 and 2010, the proportion of respondents nationally who reported last injecting PIEDs, compared to other drugs, had been stable at 2-3 per cent. But in the last few years, this figure has seen a sudden spurt, reaching 7 per cent in 2014. PIEDs are also the fastest-growing substances among new initiates to needle exchange services, with 38 per cent reporting last injecting steroids in 2014 after a spike in 2012 at nearly 50 per cent. This year’s Australian Crime Commission Illicit Drug Data report also revealed steroid arrests hit record numbers in 2013-14, jumping by 41 per cent to 936, with users accounting for about four in five of those nabbed. Outlaw motorcycle gangs are also said to be cashing in on the drug’s uptake. The rhetoric around anabolic steroids and growth hormones is only toughening. Across the country, their use is illegal unless prescribed by a doctor for certain rare medical conditions. In Queensland and in NSW, steroids have been classed as schedule one illicit drugs with jail terms of up to 25 years and hefty fines for possession. Late-night drug and alcohol-fuelled violence have been cited as the primary reason for the crackdown. But for a group who do not see themselves as criminals, drug-users or addicts, and who largely live by healthy mantras of regular exercise, clean diets and little alcohol, it is being argued that vilification is unlikely to fix many underlying problems. Many of the known short-term side-effects from steroid use are said to be reversible or manageable, while the long-term complications are under-researched. And at the heart of the issue is an unhealthy society-wide obsession with the body beautiful. ‘IT’S HARD TO IMAGINE TRAINING WITHOUT IT’ News Corp Australia spoke with several Australian men currently using illegal steroids and peptide hormones, and any names have been changed to protect their identities. All said that public perceptions of their community as vain, violent thugs were incorrect and they baulked at the term ‘roid rage’.
Steroid users feel they shouldn’t be treated as criminals for their cosmetic goals.
While they said there lacked quality control on PIEDs, most took precautions to ensure their use was as safe as possible by monitoring blood pressure and getting regular blood tests to check on their liver, kidneys and hormone levels. Many also voiced alarm at the increasing number of teenagers joining the taboo trend with a reckless tendency to shoot first, think later. Paul, 24, admitted he began in this manner at age 18. The newlywed Victorian logistics worker launched into gym training when he was 16. Two years later, he started swallowing steroid tablets offered by a beefed-up older member of his local footy club, before moving to injectables. “It’s pretty much everything you could want when you’re that age, all of a sudden your strength goes up six months’ worth within a week or two,” he said. In six years, his weight has ballooned by nearly 60 per cent, now sitting at just under 100kg.   At 19, Paul fell victim to testicular cancer — which he said was unrelated to the steroids — and suffered another tumour a year later. In the end this meant having both testicles removed, shutting down his natural testosterone production. He chose to continue cycling his own PIEDs to feed his body testosterone rather than use his doctor’s prescription. He has ever since been strict about getting frequent blood tests under the care of his 10-year GP. He said he regretted his brazen attitude when he was younger, saying that he had put himself at unnecessary risk by not researching and not seeing a doctor. “I felt fine, but I don’t know what was going on inside of me,” he said. Now after several years on the drugs, the bodybuilder said there was an embedded culture at his gym centring on steroids, with the vials more available than ever. He said you couldn’t know what the effects of each product would be, but he looked to online forums for advice. He said he hasn’t sustained any serious side-effects, but acknowledged he was a lot more preoccupied by even the smallest of changes in his appearance. He conceded he likely had a psychological addiction. “Once you’ve trained with it for so long, you think ‘how am I going to train without it?’” he said. “It will be difficult to stop when it comes to it, going to the gym, lifting less weights and shrinking.” He said the ‘get shredded for Stereo’ mindset had popularised the steroid scene, resulting in foolish copycat behaviour from teenagers who have their hearts set on getting ripped for summer and wooing girls. He said common overblown terms like ‘roid rage’ alienated users and gave them a bad name, pushing them to remain cagey. When asked if take-up of steroids might be different if there was more concrete evidence on potential long-term effects, he said “I think it definitely would.” “It would be good to have a lot more research so people know what they’re dealing with,” he said. “We sort of have a fair idea now, but to have concrete proof would be better for everyone.” ‘THE KIDS PINNING THEMSELVES THINK THEY’RE BULLETPROOF’ Queensland-born paramedic student Max, 31, said he grew up on the “lean” side before he began hitting the gym at age 14. In 2007, he started committing himself to serious weight training. But after a major car crash, he suffered spinal injuries and tore three-quarters of his right shoulder. He grew impatient with the lengthy rehabilitation and turned to injecting steroids to speed up the recovery with his girlfriend’s approval two years ago. Now living in Tasmania, he said he was driven by curiosity, having had gym buddies who used PIEDs for several years. His doctor agreed to treat him through the process, running blood tests before, during and after his cycle. If there were signs of side-effects such as diminished sex drive, acne, testicular atrophy or overproduction of oestrogen — which can result in excess breast tissue — Max battled these with other hormonal treatments. Max said he easily sourced his black market products through “word of mouth” in his gym circles. And while he would prefer to use pharmaceuticals made specifically for human consumption, he said they were simply unaffordable. He admitted never truly knowing where or how the drugs were being made, but his experience had been trouble-free. “It’s like buying a car, you only know about the quality of the car because others have known it or driven it, so you get feedback from other people … and sometimes you just have to see how it works,” he said. He denied having an addiction. Rather, he said he planned to cut out the drugs before Christmas, but he hasn’t ruled out ever going back.
Ex-professional bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger posing at the top of his form in 1976.
“I don’t feel the need to continue down that road,” he said. “You have to be so strict with things … and it ends up feeling like a chore. “It’s harder work when you are cycling these things. I’ve known people doing it for 12 years consistently … but I’ll pass on that.” Max stressed that horrific portrayals of roid rage, butchered sex lives and freak stroke deaths weren’t the reality for steroid users, only leaving the community more insular. He said he had a clean lifestyle, eating well, exercising regularly and he restricted his alcohol consumption to rare special occasions. He would not class himself as a drug user and he staunchly believed PIEDs could be used safely. But he said he believed there was a difference between being a self-educated adult to being young and hasty, saying the latter behaviour led one friend to suffer erectile dysfunction for nine weeks. When asked if the steroid culture was spreading: “for sure,” he said, saying he feared too many teenagers who lacked self-discipline and maturity were eagerly pinning themselves “thinking they’re bulletproof.” “Up until a few years ago it was largely just between bodybuilders,” he said. “Kids are jumping the gun before their body has finished growing.” ‘WE SHOULDN’T BE TREATED AS CRIMINALS’ Several other Australian steroid users shared their views, with most expressing frustrations at the established public discourse. “People who are active and lead a healthy lifestyle should not need to be treated like criminals for simply wanting to improve their physique,” one 29-year-old said, likening steroid use to any other cosmetic procedure including plastic surgery. He said education was key to shedding light on a “maligned” topic. “If nothing else, it may discourage some of the younger users away from making stupid uneducated decisions about their long-term health,” he said Another said credit should be given to users who carefully researched each compound, consulted with a medical professional and planned the 3-4 months of training, diet, sleep and work for their PIEDs cycle.   Many, including Paul and Max, believed that decriminalising steroid use would make way for safer and more regulated administration. One South Australian said legalising PIEDs could ensure quality and sterile products, free up hospital beds from steroids, raise taxes for government and give police time to focus on illicit drugs with wider societal impacts. But one was sceptical, saying: “There are plenty of people that are capable of respecting them (steroids) for what they are, taking the correct protocols, and researching before use, but unfortunately we have to account for the small percentage that do the wrong thing.” Bond University researcher Dr Terry Goldsworthy is currently surveying Australian steroid users, and he said his preliminary findings clearly showed most respondents did not believe PIEDs should be treated in the same criminal class as heroin and methamphetamines. They also agree use of the drugs should be legalised. “There is resistance from users to see it as illegal behaviour,” Dr Goldsworthy said “They don’t see steroids as risky like heroin and ice and don’t see the issue of addiction coming into it.” He said it was worth exploring new ways to communicate about anabolic steroids, as users hailed the drugs’ physical benefits, looking past any health impacts. “Heroin users know the drug has a very negative effect on them despite getting that positive hit. Motivations for using PIEDs is not for an instant high, it’s for long-term gain,” he said. “There may be underlying health issues but on the surface it’s to improve how they look and perform.” THE CONVERSATION NEEDS TO CHANGE
Sydney personal trainer James Blatch was charged in June with supplying steroids to clients at his gym.
University of Sydney’s Dr Scott Griffiths, who researches steroid use and muscle dysmorphia, said the current discourse demonised steroid users as violent “meat-head” narcissists and was harmful from a public health perspective. “Anything that stigmatises users doesn’t discourage steroid use all that much, but it does push the community deeper underground,” he said. In doing so, not only do risk-taking teenagers tune out of the overblown messages being emitted — which their older gym buddies will tell them are bogus — but the incentive to keep steroid use from doctors and loved ones grows, taking them further into their tight-knit networks for support. Dr Griffiths said many of the short-term side effects raised to convince people not to take steroids were sensationalised. He said roid rage was a “myth”, exploding veins were baloney, hair loss was only accelerated in people who were going to lose it in the first place, and shrunk testicles were reversible. “These are the things we throw up against young users and the problem is they hear that, they talk to their gym bros who have done a few cycles and they say it’s bulls—,” he said. Rather, Dr Griffiths said the under-researched possible long-term impacts were the real consequences, such as infertility, cardiovascular damage causing strokes and heart attacks or lifelong testosterone replacement therapy. But there were barriers to conducting studies of such effects because PIEDs were so taboo and the drugs hadn’t been around long enough, he said. “We haven’t seen an explosion in use until the last 10-15 years so we’re waiting to see what’s going to happen to these guys down the track,” he said. WHAT DO YOU THINK? Tell us below. Dr Griffiths said it was key to first tackle the deep-seated problems around body image increasingly afflicting people at a young age. “Appearance is important … (but) if you let it become the only way you derive self-esteem, you will develop a problem,” he said. He said steroids worked, so they were seen as a miracle drug by fitness fanatics wanting to better their body image and it was hard to step away from that. He said the current surge in steroid use was coming from startlingly young boys and men who “want to have bigger party arms, do better with girls and look better at music festivals.” He said the conversation needed to be one of compassion, education and awareness because as a society we were constantly confronted by our own appearance as we place high value on beautiful, fit bodies. “But when some men and women pursue it we call them vain and superficial, we tear them down,” Dr Griffiths said. “Same thing for these guys who use steroids. “They just got caught up in (a culture) we somewhat push them into.” Australian Drug Foundation head of information and research Julie Rae said the fact steroid users were very health conscious and did not see themselves as drug-users or criminals called for a renewed focus and more public responsibility for why body image was steering more teenagers and young men to PIEDs. “What are we doing as families and friends to help?” Ms Rae asked. Dr Jamieson also warned of potential carcinogenic effects to the liver and heart, as well as impacts to fertility, and denied PIEDs could be illicitly used safely. “No matter what amount of quasi or pseudo medical supervision is conducted, you cannot remove safely those risks,” he said. “The hospital system really shouldn’t have to be coping with this self-induced non-medical use of these drugs and generally speaking most ethical GPs, sports physicians … unanimously would say they do not believe in the use of PIEDs for recreational or non-recreational purposes.” He said he felt “sorry for doctors aiding and abetting the process” as he could see why GPs could feel conflicted and pressured into treating a patient who was using illegal steroids. He said, if in their position, he would refer the user to an addiction specialist. “Whether or not they have a chemical addiction, they definitely have a psychological addiction,” he said, pointing to body dysmorphia. “Anxiety is on the increase among young people. “We don’t want people to damage themselves, their bodies are still developing. “It’s really important that we have having a positive conversation with children so they are not looking for (shortcuts).” Rae said it was time to draw awareness to steroids to educate youths on safe use and risks. NOT WHAT THE DOCTOR ORDERED Australasian College of Sports Physicians president Dr Michael Jamieson is strongly opposed to the illegal use of anabolic steroids and growth hormones by gym junkies. He emphasised there was much cause for concern around unsafe injecting practices, risky dosages and dodgy quality of the drugs, usually veterinary grade. Dr Scott Griffiths said while it was encouraging for steroid users to undergo regular blood tests, he believed there was a certain “cognitive dissonance when anyone does any sort of illicit drug. Most of the time we’re convincing ourselves it is safe.” “You have no way of testing (the substance) other than putting into your body and seeing what it does,” he said. Suzanne Morris, of Queensland rehabilitation service Lives Lived Well, said PIED users were difficult to treat because they didn’t think their drug use was a problem and did not want to feel stigmatised as addicts. She said treatment involved rewinding the clocks on their body image. “The only time we see them in our services is when their use escalates to the point they get physically unwell because they are using contraband injectables … or they gravitate towards using methamphetamines as well,” Ms Morris said, adding she had also seen users with whopping bruises and abscesses from botched injecting. She called for a public awareness campaign so users could feel confident to seek help or health advice without being demonised. “They’re not robbing people and they’re not stealing handbags to support their habit,” she said. “These guys don’t see themselves as needing help, but people need to understand. “We don’t care if you do it, but you have to do it safely.” She said she believed decriminalising users would eliminate many of the problems stemming from covert use and backyard manufacturing.
Brisbane personal trainer Dean Weiss did not like the effects his steroid use had on him.
FORMER USER: ‘STEROIDS ARE UNNECESSARY’ Brisbane body transformation specialist Dean Weiss is a vocal advocate for health and fitness without the reliance on PIEDs. The 31-year-old owner of Cutting Edge Performance used steroids in a 16-week cycle while working in the mines in his early 20s and reached 110kg. “When you’re on it you feel great, you’re lifting heavy, I got massive,” he said. But he developed a shoulder injury, which he blames on lifting excessive weights, as well as lost his sex drive and grew acne post-cycle. He said he then realised the damage he was doing to his endocrine system by throwing his hormones out of balance. Weiss then went on to carve himself a career in personal training and has participated in International Natural Bodybuilding Australia competitions. “You can feel good all the time by eating well and exercising. It’s all about balance,” Mr Weiss said. “Everyone wants a quick fix, no one wants to work for things, and steroids are the same thing. “It can take you three months to put on muscle that might take you a year but there are consequences later … There is a darker side to it all.” http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/news/national/steroid-users-speak-out-against-stereotypes-as-drug-use-among-teenagers-and-young-men-surges/story-fntzoymf-1227575635308?sv=468a341039a7857e8eaadbfbdfff8f3a