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Steroid to Heaven

The wide world of anabolics

Steroids are in. I’ve always thought I’d get around to trying some, but I never feel ready, and since my dad’s one of the likely millions of American men on testosterone replacement therapy (TRT) but is also prone to umbilical hernias, falling off ladders, and other hindrances to a consistent diet and workout plan, I’ve seen their effects on a more or less sedentary subject: not bad but still short of my “Stone Cold” Steve Austin-inspired dreams. The fantasy goes like this: I turn in my book (due in five weeks), turn in this article (due four days ago), clear my schedule, and devote a few months to weights, jiu-jitsu, long naps, and eating an obscene amount of meat. I’ve known guys who put on twenty-plus pounds of lean mass on their first cycle and added fifty to a hundred pounds to their squat, deadlift, and bench press. That would give me a three-lift total just north of thirteen hundred: joke numbers for a powerlifter but more than I’ll ever put up with grit alone.

I’m not the only one who wants to be swole, and getting chemical help to do so has never been easier. There are no solid figures for how many Americans are legally prescribed steroids, but between 2002 and 2013, the number of testosterone prescriptions increased by 500 percent, and they’ve shot higher since 2019, with eased regulations in response to the Covid-19 pandemic leading to a thirty-eight-fold increase in the use of telehealth services. A few keystrokes will guide you to dozens of online pharmacies ready to mail you an at-home saliva or blood test; send it back and, if your hormone levels are low enough, you can have your testosterone injections or gels delivered within a week. In principle, what you receive is a therapeutic dose, intended to treat a medical condition: low endogenous testosterone, defined by the American Urological Association as less than three hundred nanograms per deciliter. But labs don’t seem to be too finicky. In 2022, urologist Justin Dubin, whose T-levels were a healthy 675, went undercover as a secret shopper to see how liberal these clinics’ interpretation of low was. Six out of the seven he approached were willing to prescribe to him, with some telling him their target for clients was between one thousand and fifteen hundred nanograms per deciliter, which would be on the high end for a sixteen-year-old boy. In part, this is because the treatment paradigm is shifting from normal/pathological to optimal/suboptimal; even when obesity, muddle-headedness, impotence, or malaise lack a clear medical explanation, it’s still possible that testosterone might help, and for many providers, that possibility is enough. But if you’re somehow only able to find labs with scruples, no worries: advice abounds on YouTube and Quora, and even on the pages of TRT providers themselves, about ways to temporarily lower your testosterone with fasting, sleep deprivation, alcohol, and licorice root.

It’s estimated that somewhere around one percent of Americans take steroids off-label. The DILFs and Joe Rogan fans and the legitimately ill who get their hormone replacement by prescription may carp about being put in the same bag as gym rats spiking themselves in bathrooms, but the only difference is sourcing, and maybe who sticks in the needle: steroids, or more specifically, anabolic steroids, comprise a class of drugs that includes testosterone and its analogues as well as other, chemically similar compounds that bind to androgen receptors. These include relatively anodyne drugs like Anavar, good for cutting and drying out; Deca-Durabolin, which was long popular for its risk-reward ratio despite the well-known side effect of erectile dysfunction, also known as “Deca dick”; and trenbolone acetate, or “tren,” a veterinary steroid beloved on the internet for its powerful androgenic properties, despite the inconvenience of “trensomnia,” paranoia, excessive sweating, and coughing fits.

Apart from off-label or illegal steroids and TRT, there’s a burgeoning market of anabolic peptides and Selective Androgen Receptor Modulators (SARMs) not approved for human consumption but available through supplement websites with the disclaimer “for research purposes only.” In theory, SARMs are “tissue-selective,” with muscle-building effects similar to steroids but without undesirable effects like hair loss or gynecomastia, a.k.a. “bitch tits,” while peptides are alleged to stimulate the body’s own hormone production. Studies of effectiveness have produced mixed results, and anecdotal reports say the benefits are modest and the risks unclear. But they’ve proven a boon to bro scientists and lifestyle consultants who sell the promise that an Adonis-like build can be obtained without breaking the law; often, these people host affiliate links to SARMS or peptide suppliers along with photos of the miraculous transformations these substances supposedly induced. No one knows how many people are taking SARMS, but an analysis of congealed cooking oils in UK sewers found them in higher quantities than cocaine or MDMA.

It’s an IQ Test, Not a Drug Test

The prejudice against steroids—common in progressive circles that otherwise support the liberalization of drug laws—is rooted in longstanding suspicions about the cultivation of manliness. In the 1951 paper “Masculine Inadequacy and Compensatory Development of Physique,” psychologist Robert G. Harlow laid out a psychoanalytic case for the neurotic motives of bodybuilding whose broad outlines persist to this day:

The following main characteristics distinguish the weight man from the non-weight man. The former has significantly greater feelings of masculine inadequacy. He appears decidedly more concerned with establishing his maleness, is more narcissistic than the non-weight man. He has fewer heterosexual impulses and shows more homosexual tendencies. Significantly, more hostility feelings are directed toward the mother and toward the environment at large, and, at the same time, the weight man shows evidence of inability to cope successfully with his environment. Feelings of rejection are prominent. He seems to be characterized by strong feelings of dependency and shows stronger compensatory needs than does the nonlifter. . . . In short, weight training seems to be an attempted solution for feelings of masculine inadequacy and inferiority.

Harlow was writing at a time when Freudian—or, in the case of the overcompensation thesis, Adlerian—dogmas were taken as scientific fact; since then, an absence of robust scientific data has done little to undermine his conceptions. Indeed, they take on a second life in the sociology of Alan M. Klein, whose widely cited Little Big Men: Bodybuilding Subculture and Gender Construction and edited volume American Sports: An Anthropological Approach harp so insistently on bodybuilders’ sexual inadequacy, psychological shortcomings, authoritarianism, and homosexual urges that the notes of ressentiment are impossible to overlook. One wonders who is really compensating: the weightlifter minding his business or the gay-baiting intellectual on the sidelines enumerating his deficiencies.

What is strange to me is the suggestion, as the notion of gender-as-spectrum has become near-unassailable, that masculinity is only acceptable up to a point. A spectrum implies differences within a substantial commonality, and if it’s licit for one person to progress X degrees in a given direction, why should someone else going a few degrees further be deemed unbecoming? In common parlance, gender-affirming care remains under the shadow of the nominally obsolete concept of changing sex, but in practice, there are no objective criteria for when a person is sufficiently masculinized or feminized, or when they have escaped the gender binary to their satisfaction: the answer can only come from within. The same must be said of those who wish to express their birth sex more forcefully, whether through surgical enhancement, weight training, or drugs. In all cases, the moral question is one of the proprietorship of one’s body, and of whether one has the right to strive for a self that feels truer than the present one irrespective of the risks involved—and the practical or legal question is whether one has the right to take potentially harmful drugs to do so.

Of course, steroid use had permeated society beyond the weight room even before hormone replacement therapy became widespread. Performance enhancement has a history as long as sports themselves: strychnine, which in small doses enhances muscle contractions and produces euphoria, was used by athletes in ancient Greece and by Victorian cyclists, and it’s still used in horse racing today. But serious anti-doping measures didn’t begin until the 1970s, and initially, their focus was on stimulants and narcotics. Over the next two decades, attention turned increasingly to steroids, and hostility to them (often tinged with xenophobia) rose to a moral panic. A turning point was Canadian Ben Johnson’s victory over American Wheaties box headliner Carl Lewis in the one-hundred-meter final at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Johnson remains the archetypal dirty athlete, but the true story is more complicated. Lewis himself shouldn’t have been in the Games after failing three drug tests at the Olympic trials that year; the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee let him slide because he’d “inadvertently” ingested the banned substances in an “herbal supplement,” but his later admission that there were “hundreds of people getting off” doesn’t inspire much faith in his integrity or the American commitment to fairness in sport. Meanwhile, in his book Speed Trap, Johnson’s coach, Charlie Francis, suggested that Johnson was a victim of sabotage. Francis closely monitored Johnson’s steroid usage and had him on furazabol, a drug then undetectable; Johnson tested positive for stanozolol, which he rarely used because it made him feel stiff, and when he did, he took it in pill form, and it should have long cleared his system.

Three years after Johnson’s fall from grace, maniacal defensive lineman and Super Bowl veteran Lyle Alzado appeared in a Sports Illustrated cover story looking gaunt and bug-eyed, with a bandana covering his bald head, next to the words “I lied.” Alzado’s confession is that of a penitent sinner on the day of reckoning. In part one of his tale, obsessed with size, with strength, with winning, he gobbles and injects every steroid he can get his hands on, never bothering to cycle off; in part two, after a fall outside a yogurt shop, followed by fits of vertigo, he is diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer. He died less than a year later.

Alzado admitted, “I know there’s no written, documented proof that steroids and human growth hormone caused this cancer,” but that didn’t stop him from insisting repeatedly on that very point. There was something strange, possibly untoward, in his self-flagellation. On Roy Firestone’s sports interview show Up Close, he mused, “I got sick, and how does that happen? It doesn’t happen because you live right, it happens because you do something wrong.” Rumors were rampant at the time that Alzado had AIDS and had concocted the steroid story to cover up his condition—this has never been proven, and his doctors in Oregon and California denied it. The fact remains, though, that no plausible link has ever been established between steroids and the T-cell lymphoma that killed him; indeed, anabolic steroids are commonly prescribed to cancer patients to combat cachexia. The impact of Alzado’s revelations is hard to gauge now—most of the articles and interviews aren’t archived online—but it was big enough to make videos of him the scare tactic of choice for the high school health classes in the 1990s and early 2000s that helped stoke anti-steroid hysteria.

In 1991, the year of Alzado’s diagnosis, the Anabolic Steroid Control Act took effect, criminalizing the possession of steroids without a prescription. That year, Major League Baseball banned them, though it wouldn’t begin serious testing for more than a decade, and the player with the most home runs was Jose Canseco, who would call himself “the godfather of steroids” in his 2005 memoir Juiced. Irrespective of Canseco’s substantial ego or any axe-grinding his book may engage in, Juiced is a plea for maturity on the part of sports fans: for recognition that steroids are ubiquitous rather than the dirty secret of a few, that the athletic achievements people demand necessitate PEDs, and that the money in sports means athletes will do anything to succeed. In response, the Miami Herald dubbed him the “NotCredible Hulk,” and Murray Chass, a sportswriter for the New York Times, questioned the motives behind his revelations before chalking them up to a desire for “money and notoriety.”

Outside of baseball, most people have read about Lance Armstrong, Marion Jones, and the Russian athletes doping at Sochi. Stories like theirs make the news every couple of years, sporadically enough to perpetuate the bad apple paradigm. But when you add to their ranks the hundreds of athletes most have never heard of—Ukrainian discus thrower Olena Antonova, Jamaican triple jumper Suzette Lee, Iranian race walker Ebrahim Rahimian—the notion that performance enhancement isn’t a basic part of modern sport looks like wishful thinking.

No sporting organization endorses steroid use, but not all of them test diligently, and some don’t at all. In powerlifting, there are tested and untested federations—the lifts in the one naturally tower over those in the other. A testing program exists in the International Fitness and Bodybuilding Federation, but the World Anti-Doping Agency has declared it noncompliant, and increasing numbers of bodybuilders are open about the fact that without drugs, their sport wouldn’t exist. Many have raised an eye at the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s dramatic break with USADA, the United States Anti-Doping Agency, just as mixed martial arts’ biggest draw, Conor McGregor, is due to return to the testing pool (McGregor has been out of action since breaking his leg in a fight in 2021 but has been bombing social media with photos of himself looking enormous for a man who last fought at 155 pounds). Seemingly undefeatable jiu-jitsu athlete and social media troll Gordon Ryan, who won’t quite say aloud he’s on the sauce but doesn’t mind everyone thinking so, celebrated the decision on Instagram:

If the UFC “regresses” back to the old days, this is amazing news. The reason people watch professional sports is almost exclusively for entertainment value . . . The higher the testosterone, the more physical the athletes are, the less prone to injury they are, the faster they recover, the longer they can compete, and the more entertaining and high paced they are. The better they look, the more attention they draw, the more money they make. In addition, people think that just because athletes are being tested by USADA or WADA that they are natural LMAOOO.

Ryan goes on to say that beating drug tests is a billion-dollar industry and that bans work against up-and-comers who lack the means to dope and get away with it. This is probably true (the adage in sports is, if you know it’s coming, it’s an IQ test, not a drug test), but not all fans seem ready to admit it. A story, apropos, from my beloved Philadelphia: in late fall 2009, I was sitting in Cousin’s, a luncheonette near work, listening to a group of schleps chew the fat about Alex Rodriguez’s “stupid mistake” of “experimenting” with banned substances. One guy shrugged and said, “Whatever, I mean everybody’s doin’ ’em.” Sepulchral silence overtook the room, and a surly delivery driver, looking like a bagman from The Sopranos, mumbled through gritted teeth, “You sayin’ you think the Phillies’re on steroids?” The Phils had won the series the year before, and fans were banking on a repeat performance. Nervous, sputtering, the guy replied, “So what? They all do.” The question was repeated, then there was another pause, and the sharp scent of danger overlaid the clingy one of cheap coffee and fryer grease. “Nah, I mean, I ain’t sayin’ the Phillies do ’em,” the man concluded at last (a Phillies pitcher and an outfielder from one of their farm teams had both been popped for PEDs earlier that year).

All Agog to Mog

As a youth, I thought exercise was for morons and looked at my body as I did at a car: a thing to rely upon, its needs ignored until it gave out in a future too distant to bother contemplating. But then, over the course of a single school year, I had bacterial pericarditis and viral pleurisy bookended by two bouts of bronchitis, and I got scared that if I kept smoking and taking drugs, I might die. I started weightlifting because Henry Rollins did it and because, at five-eleven and 125 pounds, I had no aptitude for any actual sport. I took as gospel the prevailing prejudices about steroids, listed here in order of veracity: they give you acne, shrink your balls, make your hair fall out, give you heart disease, make you aggressive, shrivel your penis. What changed my thinking ten years or so later was, ironically, reading an article about the death of Andreas Münzer, an Austrian bodybuilder, from multiple organ failure in 1996. Der Spiegel published Münzer’s drug cycle in the weeks leading up to his last contest, when he was on a smorgasbord of injectable steroids, as well as insulin, growth hormone, ephedrine, IGF-1, and dozens of tablets a day of Halotestin, Dianabol, and Winstrol. Due to their hepatoxicity, orals are often considered more dangerous than injectables, and the Munich doctor who performed Münzer’s autopsy described half his liver as crumbly “like Styrofoam,” and the other half as “full of masses the size of ping-pong balls.”

There’s a cautionary tale here for some, but the lesson I took away was that the mastodonic drug regimens of professional bodybuilders had nothing to do with anything I’d ever try, and the dangers are consequently not comparable. For the most part, science bears this out. Steroids are like every drug: they involve mild to extreme risks, some dependent on individual physiology, some mitigable, some a matter of fate.

The prejudice against steroids is rooted in longstanding suspicions about the cultivation of manliness.

Steroid culture, like most culture now, is best observed online, on TikTok, YouTube, or Reddit boards like r/steroids or r/nattyorjuice. The patron saint of steroid influencers, Rich Piana, floundered as a pro competitor but had nearly a million Instagram followers who couldn’t get enough of his jumbo arms giving the thumbs-up while he screamed into the camera wearing ice-blue contact lenses. One of several cycles Piana posted consisted of thirteen ten-milliliter bottles of injectable anabolics, eight one-hundred-tablet bottles of orals, five kits of human growth hormone, three packs of ten thousand IU of human chorionic gonadotropin, and two ampules of testosterone propionate—all to be consumed over sixteen weeks. When Piana collapsed from a heart attack in 2017 and died after two weeks in a medically induced coma, his autopsy report revealed a heart and liver that weighed two times those of a normal man (funny enough, if you google “Rich Piana heart liver,” the first result is Rich Piana 5 Percent Nutrition Heart and Liver Defender, which has 4.7 stars on Amazon). His following was dwarfed by that of Joesthetics, a German social media entrepreneur who died of a brain aneurysm earlier this year, who knows if from steroids or from the four liters of coffee a day he drank to cut body fat.

There’s a Tide Pod Challenge kind of reckless stupidity to the internet steroid ethos exemplified in the Tren Twins, whose most popular videos include “Anabolic Grocery Haul and Workout” and “Mogging at Planet Fitness” (mogging is from AMOG, or alpha male of the group, and means “to dominate”). As of this writing, they’re in a spat with Canadian bodybuilder, fitness coach, and fake-natural-physique-debunker Greg Doucette. The twins allege he wrote them a shitty diet plan and sold them fake steroids. To observe influencers at work is to observe a living metaphor of civilization meeting its ignoble end, and you can only take so much before you need to click on the accounts of reply guys and wannabes, to console yourself with the thought that there isn’t that much worth saving. The libertarian principle is that people should be able to do whatever they want as long as it doesn’t harm others; the reality is that indulging idiocy debases society and is harmful to all; the deeper reality, to quote Paul Celan, is we really don’t know what counts, and getting your panties in a wad about these things is probably a waste of time.

With steroids, as with Covid-19, as with the factuality of the Holocaust or the shape of the earth, the superabundance of information available on the internet seems to have encouraged rather than inhibited error. As Adorno noted in his writings on astrology, individuals’ awareness of their dependence on knowledge systems that exceed their grasp is closely associated with authoritarian conformity; for the same reason, young steroid users, faced with the complexities of organic chemistry, are likely to turn away from the hundreds of studies on PubMed and seek out some loudmouth with nineteen-inch arms who tells them what they want to hear. Perhaps this is an occasion for harm reduction, for accepting the reality that some people want these drugs and will take them, and that society’s duty is to keep them safe as they do so. But harm reduction often errs in treating drug users as a static community, and in failing to acknowledge a relationship that would seem painfully obvious between increased tolerance and increased usage. Moreover, the harm reduction model ignores the depressing congruity between massive drug consumption and massive everything else in America. The painful truth is we are a gawdy, grotesque, gluttonous, self-destructive country that watches Botched, dips Flamin’ Hot Cheetos in Velveeta, rolls coal, and responds to the mass murder of children by buying the same gun they were killed with in record numbers. No amount of education, social spending, or rehab will make us behave. Not with steroids, not with anything else.

An exception to the rule, a discreet man with modest bodily goals, I had a dealer map an eight-week cycle out for me many years ago: five hundred milligrams a week of Sustanon-250, and Winstrol and Clomid in quantities I no longer remember. After a few unanswered calls, I went to his apartment and found it empty, with the door open, no forwarding address, no nothing. I took this as a sign and have remained natural ever since, and at my heaviest, around 205, the amount of food I needed to keep the weight on made me feel gross and sluggish. For my heart, that was probably best; a lot of health problems attributed to steroids could more rightly be blamed on the insane dietary choices users make to get big—interested parties should look at powerlifting great J.M. Blakely’s Big Boy’s Menu Plan. Now, as I wade into respectable TRT age—replacement therapy has a better ring to it than drug abuse—I wonder if it’s time to try again. But my own online steroid guru says TRT is a lifetime commitment, and people with my goals who prefer walnut-sized testicles to a pair of jellybeans would be better off doing a short, well-designed cycle and getting it over with. I asked my editor whether The Baffler would bankroll one. He replied, “lol yes,” but I fear that translates to “no.” Interested readers are encouraged to set up a crowd funding campaign if they’d like to see me guinea pig myself for their delectation.