Next came the spasms, onsets of cramps in my biceps, back, and legs. I'd be out to brunch, reading the Sunday Times, when the muscles in my arm would tremble. I'd let the arm dangle, then shake it loose, but 10 minutes later my calf would seize, clenching until I mashed it with a fist. Blaming these fits on the coke and speed, I resolved to quit them both once back in school. That fall I kept my word to myself and also reduced the juice, but instead of tailing off, the weirdness doubled. Fear set in, a free-range conviction that someone lurked behind me, plotting harm. I felt him in the crowd as I walked to class, pressure on the nape of my neck.
From there the tailspin deepened by the month. Muscle melted away as I tried, three times, to stop taking steroids cold turkey. Without them I was in grinding pain, as if my joints were rubbing together, bone on bone. And then there was the ceaseless worry that I was getting smaller. No one had warned me how ruthless 'roids are, conspiring, as they do, with your self-contempt to distort what you see in the mirror. Even at your biggest, you obsess about "flaws," moaning over a forearm that's soft or calves that don't swoop like bellows. Invariably I'd get back on the juice, resolving to take only the minimum needed to keep my hard-won cuts.
I hoped I'd hit bottom after my asthma came back after years of free-and-clear breathing. But at night, staring at holes in the dorm-room ceiling, I started hearing my heartbeat go on crazy runs. What none of us knew then was that a steroid habit can change the shape of your heart, swelling the left ventricle so its timing is wrecked or the organ fails completely. Then one night I let myself into the gym, where I worked part time and had swiped the keys. Benching by myself, I stood after a set and felt a swoon come on. I leaned against the weight stack for the faint to pass when my heart started thrashing in its cage. I grabbed at my chest and sank to the bench; the pain in my ribs was a chisel. I screamed, but the blade just dug in deeper. Death, I remember thinking, hurts like hell.
A couple of hours later, at the hospital I'd been rushed to, I had a tense chat with the doctor. Having done a thorough workup on the severe arrhythmia that he called a "heart event," he grilled me about the tracks on my ass and the drugs "that brought this on." I lied my fool head off, blaming a virus; he glared at me over the chart. "Quit or you'll be back here in full arrest. It's a really dumb way to die young."
I did quit, finally, with the help of a good shrink who connected my tension and pendulous moods to my stop-and-start romance with juicing. But if I was done with 'roids, they weren't done with me. My nerves, rubbed raw since the Summer of Juice, grew more threadbare by the month. In the spring of my senior year, I had a hell's-bells panic attack that lasted for hours and hours. The next night, like thousands more to come, the panic resumed in full cry. Nothing suppressed the terror, not booze, not Xanax; the only option was to ride it out, watching the tube till 5 am.
These episodes continued for 11 years and wreaked havoc on my life. In the course of that lost decade, I dropped in and out of grad schools, went days and often weeks without leaving my room, and – the topping cruelty – shrank down to my old weight: 150 pounds of hair and bones. I'd treated my body like a science project, played fast and loose with potent hormones mixed in someone's bathtub, and though I was a kid at the time, my punishment was earned. When it comes to messing with your genotype, stupidity is no defense.