Health experts warn that steroid abuse is rampant in parts of the UK. Today JAMES ILLINGWORTH speaks to two people whose lives have been imapacted by ‘sted culture’.
David sits in front of me making a sweeping motion with his hand, his thumb representing a knife blade.
He’s explaining how muscles connected to his shoulder had become detached as if, like his surgeon described it, meat had been filleted away from bone. The effects of this injury are among many he has to endure as a result of using steroids and placing his body beyond its limits in the gym.
He has problems in his elbows, also. And his stomach muscles have herniated requiring surgery. He tells me he suspects one such hernia has resurfaced and will require another visit to the GP.
The steroid culture in the area is so ingrained in some gyms that those who shun it are in a distinct minority, he claims. Having not used for a number of years he says he had to make the decision to swap his usual place to workout because the practice was so rife. Not behind closed doors or taken in secret, users would be injected behind the reception desk.
He says he has been injected in every place imaginable. Now, when he requires a jab at hospital or the GP, he has to explain where they can insert the needle as certain areas of his body would result in excruciating pain as a result of the steroid use.
Although his injuries sound horrific, they’re not as bad as some other sights he has seen.
“I’ve seen biceps ripped off, I’ve seen someone rip their chest off. They took him off (the bench) put aspirin in his mouth, strapped him up, put his knees to his chest and called the ambulance. I’ve seen another snap his knee on the leg press. All through their sense of super strength.”
After one of his more serious injuries he was told he wouldn’t be able to train for at least six months. But six weeks later he was back. Back in the gym, back on the stuff. Juiced up and unable to feel the pain, he carried on. It’s a decision, one of many regarding his steroid use, he now regrets.
“If someone had sat me down and told me about what would happen if you did it for years, I think the consequences would have outweighed it,” he explains. “But everyone else was doing it. I can’t stress to you how common it is. It’s so easy to attain. Someone gives you a bottle and says you need a blue or green needle and some swabs. Then you go off and do it.”
In terms of the risks associated with using and whether he was made aware of them, David says in gym culture it’s a process of trial and error.
“Of course certain types of steroids don’t agree with certain people. About three weeks in you can become very ill. Your body rejects it because you don’t need it.
“But nobody tells you in the way when you go to the doctor and you get anti-biotics and they say what’s what. With steroids, there’s nothing like that, it’s people’s knowledge passed down. But my genetics are different to yours. What might work for me won’t for you and it’s all second hand knowledge.
“You don’t really get told much. It’s only when you’ve ‘trialled and errored’ and you work out you can’t take that because that made my heart race, or made me sweat, or made me paranoid.
“There’ll be people telling, ‘you only need to be on a 12 week cycle’ and you think, no way, look how good I am after eight weeks and you carry on.
“But when you come off it you need to jump-start your testosterone and that’s trial and error as well. It’s like tricks of the trade and secrets, stuff like that.”
He says he would tell a young lad now to do things properly. To eat well, sleep well and train hard without the “short-cut” of using steroids. Those who use on an infrequent basis are known as “summer-boys”, gym-goers who juice up during the summer months but disappear in winter. It’s pure vanity, he says.
I ask whether it’s concerning that due to the anecdotal nature of steroid culture, youngsters may be influenced by older users who may play down the risks?
“I’ve got a friend who trained and now he’s bent double,” he says. “A normal person doesn’t spend five nights in the gym with 40 kilos about their head. The steroid makes you think you can do it, you only feel the pain when you come off.”
David, now middle aged, can speak with the benefit of hindsight about the mental impact of his time “on the juice”.
He says periods of his life were chaos as a result of steroids, bouts of full-on paranoia would blight his relationship. The mental side is often overlooked, he tells me. “The mind is the one thing that will snap,” he says. “You start becoming isolated but when you go to the gym you feel like you fit in then. And the steroids enhance everything.”