Reporter JO MCKENZIE-MCLEAN lost her brother to suicide after he went ‘cold turkey’ off anabolic steroids. She revisits his story 20 years after his death.
A baggy-jeaned skateboarder hikes up his pants before pushing off a ramp. It’s night and an orange glow from the streetlights illuminates the dark Invercargill skate park where he attempts an ollie. He fails the flip and crashes to the concrete. His face grimaces. I pause the screen. Mesmerised. It is the only clear shot of Kris’ face on the short clip.
My eyes move over his every limb. He is wearing the ring I bought him for a birthday present; his black Vans shoes that now sit at my mum’s doorstep poke out from under his frayed jeans; his dark hair is slicked back. He is wearing a white singlet and I can’t help but notice the definition in his bulging arms as he pushes himself up off the ground.
The footage is grainy, wobbly, dark and old. It was shot 20 years ago. But it is precious. It is the last video footage we have of Kris before he took his life on December 17, 1999.
Twenty years. It is a long time not to have seen your brother, son, nephew, friend. Grandparents have died, children have been born. Time passes and life moves on. Grief is an unpredictable, draining, emotional train-ride that takes you through dark tunnels, around tight bends, up mountains and down steep hills. And there is no getting off.
My brother had just turned 20 when he died. He lived in a flat in Invercargill and worked as a forecourt attendant at a petrol station. I had just finished my third year at University of Otago and was working in the Bay of Islands with two university friends for the summer. I was getting ready for a shift in the bar of the Duke of Marlborough Hotel when my stepdad called me to tell me Kris was dead. I stood outside the back of the hotel. I still shake with emotion reliving that call – the shock, disbelief and overwhelming pain that has the power to freeze time and sink you to your knees.
Kris was the “cool” one of the two of us. He struggled academically at school, but he was smart and talented; he would just rather have been surfing or skateboarding than studying. He was charismatic, caring and cuddly. He was also good looking. People often thought he was Māori or Italian because of his dark complexion. He had a wide, welcoming smile and big bright eyes. He was tall, athletic and lean.
In the months leading up to his death, Kris changed. His personality darkened and his body bulked up. He became obsessed with his image.
My family noticed the changes in Kris but we were naive. We thought it was the arrogance of youth. We knew he was going to the gym and getting results from the work he was putting in. We never suspected he was using anabolic (body-building) androgenic (masculinising) steroids (AAS) to achieve it.
Kris’ steroid use wasn’t exposed until after he died. Some family members found vials hidden in his bedroom. His gym “buddies” went to ground when we started asking questions. My mum, in her search for answers, took the lead on trying to find out what was going on in Kris’ life that may have contributed to his death.
I think in any suicide people will always ask why Kris didn’t leave a note. He was surrounded by family who loved him beyond words. Suicide was never ever on our radar. But here, we had evidence that Kris was using an illegal substance and given the changes in him leading up to his death … we wanted some answers.
A close friend of his was able to provide us with some important detail. Kris had gone to her and confided what he had been doing. He was in tears and told her he didn’t like who he had become and decided to quit the steroids cold turkey. He took his life not long after this conversation.
Another friend, involved in the gym industry, was also able to provide insight into the underground steroid culture in Invercargill at the time, which was given to police officer Andy Fraser, who ended up investigating Kris’ case on behalf of coroner Trevor Savage.
SPOTLIGHT ON STEROID USE
Kris’ is the only case in New Zealand where a coroner has linked suicide to the withdrawal from prolonged anabolic steroid use.
Overseas, anabolic steroids were thrust into the spotlight in 2007 when professional wrestler Chris Benoit killed his wife and his young son before committing suicide shortly after injecting himself with the drug.
There have been a handful of other cases in New Zealand where coroners have ruled anabolic steroids have been a factor in death. Two men who died were personal trainers who were described as having substantial and chronic anabolic steroid use; another was a gym user; and another was a young man in the military who died during a physical training exercise at a military base in 2009. None of those cases were suicides, although one mentions a history of self-harm and suicidal thoughts, and the possibility of the death being a suicide was investigated.
David Gerrard, an Emeritus Professor of Medicine and anti-doping expert, gave evidence at Kris’ inquest in 2001 and 20 years on, his story was still an important one to tell, he said.
“The sad story presented by Kris is typical of many young men seeking short-term goals through body enhancement, whether for sport, occupational or personal reasons. Frequently these young males (mostly) struggle in areas of personal engagement and have a desire to present a body image that they feel will gain acceptance and attention.”
A key revelation was around the psychological side-effects of anabolic steroid use, including altered personality, mood swings, uncharacteristic aggression, schizophrenia and depression. A significant feature may be an increased risk of depressive illness, particularly after withdrawal from these drugs.
“Now, as a physician and a professor, I am equally concerned about the impact drug misuse has on the health of young athletes and other members of society – from a range of seemingly trivial morbidity through to serious changes in personality, uncharacteristic moods and ultimately suicidal ideation we know is associated with ‘coming down’ from the use of some drugs, but AAS in particular.”
Gerrard said he had only provided evidence in one other similar coronial case and that was in Australia soon after Kris’ case.
“The circumstances were very similar and equally tragic … There are certainly several anecdotal instances of suicide in young male athletes following withdrawal from prolonged anabolic steroid use. Most of these have been reported in US literature.”
The presence of an underground steroid culture did not shock police officer Andy Fraser, who investigated Kris’ case on behalf of the coroner. But the side-effects were eye-opening, he said.
“I knew about the mood swings but I didn’t know what could happen when you stopped.”
Kris’ case piqued his interest and he “blew budgets” sending tests to Australia trying to get the answers not just the family, but the coroner wanted.
Despite getting leads to Kris’ supply source, no arrest was ever made.
“It would have been great to grab him and chuck him into court, but that didn’t happen.”
All Blacks mental skills coach Gilbert Enoka said the desire for people wanting to be the “biggest and the best” had not changed since Kris’ death.
“Society still rewards these endeavours so they will always be pursued with vigour by ‘those who can’. The challenge comes when this pursuit becomes an obsession, which often leads to the blurring of boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable practices and what people are prepared to do to ‘taste its power’.”
Many get lured into a sort of ‘trance’ and unhealthy practices could be increased as individuals told themselves rational lies and their new and improved ‘look’ and the ‘taste of success’ created a spiral that hooked them in, he said.
“Unless they have ‘powerful people’ – who they respect – close to them, the results are often catastrophic.”
The testing had increased dramatically – but all that did was drive excessive users to methods and practices that helped avoid detection, he said.
“Education still remains as a powerful deterrent, as do programme structures and the individuals that lead them.”
As a family, we wanted Kris’ case to be made public to educate people about the dangers anabolic steroids posed. That same urge to speak out resonates with an American father who lost his son to steroids.
BASEBALLER ON STEROIDS
Taylor Hooton was a talented 17-year-old baseballer who committed suicide in 2003 after withdrawal from anabolic steroids.
His father, Don Hooton, said the withdrawal had been his son’s “death sentence” and a lack of knowledge about steroid use and its widespread use cost Taylor his life.
After his son died he reached out to medical experts and was shocked to learn how dangerous the drugs were, and how many young people were using them.
“Taylor was in his high school baseball team and we were able to confirm half his team were actively using steroids.”
He wanted to share his knowledge and initially worked with his son’s high school to run a programme to educate students and parents about AAS. His plight was picked up by news media across the country, including CBS’ 60 Minutes and the New York Times and he soon discovered what he thought was a local problem was much bigger.
“We walked into and uncovered – what was actually in plain sight – a national epidemic of young people around the country using anabolic steroids. It’s not an isolated problem.”
He consequently started the Taylor Hooton Foundation to raise awareness about the scope of the AAS problem and provide education by travelling around the country talking to students, professional groups, athletes, trainers, coaches and parents.
His efforts were not always welcomed, with pushback from the user community, as well as from sports leaders.
“There is an immediate wall that goes up. They don’t want to admit there is a problem … Resistance has decreased over time but I can’t say people are overly enthusiastic about wanting to tackle the problem.
“At a general level, parents are open to talking about the problem being out there in society somewhere but are loath [to believe] their child could be tempted to get involved in it.”
Social media platforms had enabled AAS peddlers to bring the drugs into kids’ bedrooms, he said.
“”It is not like heroin or cocaine or crack where they have to go to the street and go buy it in secret … they are sitting at their desks getting exposed to this stuff.”
A recent six-month investigation by Washington-based organisation the Digital Citizens Alliance looked at the sale of AAS over sites like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.
The report – Digital Platforms on Steroids – shows millions of Americans have resorted to the use of appearance- and performance-enhancing drugs, aided by drug dealers who advertise the sale of anabolic steroids and human growth hormone online while digital platforms seemingly turn a blind eye.
THIN END OF THE WEDGE
Gerrard said efforts to fight AAS use had “dropped below the radar” when confronted by the current epidemic of societal drug abuse – particularly meth. However, the anabolic steroid industry remained very much a problem.
“I think that it’s the thin edge of the wedge when you think of people like Kris who become involved in poor decision-making but plotted and abetted by people who knew the potential consequences of what was going on … It’s no different to the peddling of other addictive drugs in society.”
There were still significant pockets of AAS use in society that focused on gyms, the supplement “industry” and in areas of image-enhancement – body-builders, bouncers and the armed forces, where size was intimidatory, he said.
“I still believe that AAS remains available through a number of nefarious routes – as reflected in the recent Townshend case.”
In 2017, Christchurch man Joshua Townshend was sentenced to a two-year jail term after admitting 129 charges involving body-building drugs.
Townshend operated a large-scale online steroid business under the name clenbuterol.co.nz. He attempted to distance himself from the operation by using bank accounts held by others to receive funds, using false names to register websites and Facebook pages, and by not identifying himself to customers.
A Ministry of Health spokesperson said 17 people had been prosecuted by the ministry for anabolic steroid-related offences since 2009.
The prosecutions have included:
– Nutritionist and former Mr New Zealand Mark William Rainbow charged under the Medicines Act with importing and selling steroids and related medicines and with offences under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 (2009). Handed a total of five years and three months in jail the following year.
– Former bodybuilder Phillip Musson: four years and five months’ jail on charges relating to the importation, selling and distribution of steroids and party pills (2014).
– Rodney Leonard Bailey: seven months’ home detention sentence for a mail-order steroid-dealing operation (2013).
Research in the anabolic steroid area was difficult given that athletes remained very unwilling to disclose their use of AAS, Gerrard said.
Gerrard was part of an Otago University study in 2014, funded by DrugFree Sport New Zealand, which found the potential risk of elite high school rugby players being engaged in doping “is real”.
Researchers surveyed 142 players from seven first XV teams about banned drug use. It found young athletes had similar attitudes and behaviours to doping and dietary supplements as their peers in Australia, Canada and the US.
“There is a strong body of evidence we should be putting attention into that age group … In parts of the world, such as the UK and South Africa, they have done some good education work with that age group of rugby players and young men coming through the sporting ranks who have been told they need to be bigger and stronger … New Zealand should not consider itself insulated from the world of drug misuse in sport.”
YOUNG, IMPRESSIONABLE & TRUSTING
Kris wasn’t an elite sportsman. He was a normal, fun-loving, free-spirited young guy whose life unravelled when he joined a gym and he was introduced to illegal anabolic steroids.
He was young, impressionable, trusting and regrettably injected that poison into his body. The saddest part is that he recognised he had become someone he wasn’t and he tried to make a change. The thought of him crying about hating the person he had become breaks my heart. If only he had reached out to his family. If only we had known what to look for. If only he had known how dangerous the drugs were. If only.
I’ve had to stick up for my brother in death. Twenty years ago suicide was a taboo subject – never to be talked about. Suicide made people uncomfortable. Uneasy. People used to cross the street to avoid talking to me. Not long after Kris’ death, a counsellor at university said “you must be embarrassed and ashamed about the way your brother died”. I walked out.
I will never be embarrassed or ashamed about Kris or how he died. He was a victim. He was a young kid who knew no better. Anabolic steroids are still out there. Our young people are still at risk. They are still killing.
Steroids did not just take my brother’s life. They stole him from my life and my parents’ lives, they have robbed my children of an uncle.
We ride the grief train together, but, over the years, while the pain of our loss is as deep as day one, we have learned to let light in through the dark tunnels; to love, to laugh and to live.