Confessions of a Steroid Addict
Credit: Photograph by Eric Ogden
I didn't, of course, get bigger that night – or the next night, or the one after that. Steroids are black magic, but their sorcery unveils in steady accretions of mass. Synthesized from cholesterol in the 1930s by a team of German chemists, they were hailed as a class of wonder drugs in the treatment of wasting disorders. (The Führer himself took regular injections, according to his then physician, and they were administered, en masse, by Allied medics to starving death-camp survivors.) Steroids work by piercing cells and binding to androgen receptors. There, they signal a suite of genes to perform two crucial functions: maximize the yield of the proteins we eat, and minimize the effects of muscle-wasting hormones like cortisol and clucocorticoids. This, in turn, boosts hunger and the production of red blood cells, and amps the metabolism to burn fatty tissue. In conjunction with exercise and a diet rich in protein, 'roids build size and strength in weeks. Or days, if you overdo it.

I started with modest injections of Deca, 100 migs a dose once a week. When nothing happened, I went to Kenny and bitched. "Up the Deca," he advised, "and add D-bol tablets; you obviously got those hard-grow genes." Days later, I rose from a set of strict dips and saw the first outcrops of sinew: the notch of a midline splitting my pecs, an arrowhead tracing of deltoid. I hugged myself for joy and fired 10 sets of dips, backed by dive-bomb push-ups.

What followed, over the course of the next days and weeks, was an onset of physical madness. My appetite doubled, then doubled again: I ate like a man going to the chair. In a month, I put on 10 pounds of mass and was beating my max daily on benches and curls. If I wasn't in the weight room I was fiending for it, strung out on the flush of tipped endorphins and that gorgeous burn of blood and glycogen that bodybuilders call the Pump. Then there was the other deliriant drug: sudden attention from women. That spring, as the coats and sweaters came off, heads started spinning as I passed. I was 180 pounds of cold-rolled steel, and though I had no game with girls, I didn't need it. Parked one night in her lime-green Bug outside a disco in Freeport, Long Island, the blonde I'd been dancing with eyed me from her seat and said I'd barely spoken two words. I was about to say sorry when her mouth came at me. "Babe, it doesn't matter – not with that body," she said. "Your chest does all the tawkin'."

There were, of course, omens early on. I broke out in acne, tenacious whorls on my neck, and began growing hair on my arms and brow after adding Winstrol, a second injectable, to the stack. Standard symptoms for users, those were first-alert signals of shifts taking place in my biology. As steroids do their work building muscle and bone, they also disregulate crucial male functions, boosting some and braking others. The process starts mildly (increased oil-gland output and a great blooming bush of pubic hair) but gets more onerous as you go. The hair on your head begins falling out, your body cuts production of natural testosterone and converts what it makes to estrogen instead, and eventually your pecs turn squishy-soft, a development that juicers call "bitch tits." All the while, your endocrine system chases its tail to adjust for the testosterone you're shooting, and your testicles shrink from obsolescence until the day they cease working altogether. It should probably be said that knowledgeable 'roidheads rarely come to such ends: They take monthlong abstentions from juice between cycles, use drugs like HCG to restore hormone levels and Clomid to damp the estrogen. But no one was knowledgeable back then, not the trainers, athletes, or bioengineers who'd make steroids the cash crop of the 1980s. Besides, I was riding high: For months the only symptoms commanding notice were three pounds of new-grown muscle a week and a dick that wouldn't go down at gunpoint.

Near the end of May 1976, my father drove out to collect me for the summer. It wasn't his fault he didn't recognize his own son, asking if I knew which room was Paul's. "It's me, Dad," I said, shirtless and tan, making my chest pop, a new trick. He took a step back and reached for the wall. "Oh, my Christ," he said, sliding down.

Back in New York, I joined the Midtown Y and fell in with a crew of hard-hat bruisers – vice cops and garbagemen in chalk-smudged Speedos and calf-high wrestling boots. I thought they were giants until the day in June when the real size kings walked in. Two of them, Tommy and Spiro, had chiseled trunks and the complicated, quasi-Cubist planes that give away hardcore juicers. But it was the third one, a mocha-skinned guy named Angel, that I couldn't pry my gaze off. When he doffed his Puma jacket and burned through upright rows, I saw the kind of vascular, strand-on-strand rhomboids you find in Da Vinci studies. There was art in what he did and art in what he made: muscle from a fourth dimension. I gathered my flimsy nerve and said hello.

He dropped into a square-jawed grin. "Yo, you got some pipes there," he said, appraising. "Working hard today, huh?"

"Well, I was away," I lied, "but I'm trying, yeah. You see my arms next week, they'll be ripped and stripped."

We chatted briefly about gyms in the Village while he sized me up. "You're a new kinda cat," he said, "a college boy with muscles. I see good things for your future." Before he joined his crew in the dumbbell pit, Angel slipped me his business card. "Write your number down on the back of that there. I might have something coming up soon."

Days went by without word from him, and I held off calling him. I knew, in the way that you know these things, that he was trouble. But whatever he was pushing – parties or call girls or new, more potent 'roids – I was prepared to throw in on. My body was in charge now, lunging ahead like a dog that had snapped its leash. All it wanted, with fang-tipped hunger, was everything the world allowed, and the best I could do now was hold on tight for the rough, bloody ride.