It was the fall of 1975, and I was having such a rough go of it that even my hair was depressed. Styled on David Bowie of Aladdin Sane vintage, it was long in back and purportedly spiked on top, but drooped like Three Dog Night in a two-day downpour. I stood 6-foot-1, weighed 150 pounds, and hadn’t been laid since Nixon’s reelection, making me, like George McGovern, a landslide loser. At the ripe age of 20, I had a mad crush on Ginger from ‘Gilligan’s Island’ and organized my day around the 4 pm reruns. I had plenty of time to watch, having dropped out of college and been fired from a series of flathead jobs, including two at which I actually volunteered.
And so that January, I did what middle-class kids do when life gets bored of beating them senseless – ran, hat in hand, back to college. Though the State University at Stony Brook billed itself as the “Berkeley of the East,” it was fairer, I think, to call it the “McNeese State of the North,” a school whose students were mostly interested in cars and picking up overtime at Sears. To walk the length of my residence hall was to know both the joys of a fierce contact high and the canon of Gregg and Duane Allman.
With the exception of mine, the one door on the hall kept closed belonged to a tall blond kid with big muscles. Actually, big doesn’t begin to give a sense of the guy. The first time I saw Mark, he was leaving the john, wearing a towel so small it gaped at the hip and thigh. He had cannonball shoulders that looked carved from brass – burnished arcs at the top of his arms that flowed into half-moon biceps. His chest was a slab of T-squared boxes, beneath which knelt columns of raised abdominals that bunched and torqued as he moved. I turned around, slack-jawed, and watched him go; it took all my self-control not to applaud.
For weeks I watched as girls trooped by in hopes of scoping Mark in low-rise briefs. Finally I knocked on his door. He listened to my spiel about being an asthmatic who’d grown up skinny and phobic, and allowed that he himself had been gangly until the summer before his senior year of high school. “What,” he asked, “do you want at the gym? D’ya want to get big or you want to get strong?”
My head in a sweat, I pondered the question like a man who’d just rubbed an old lamp. “What I really want is… I want to get laid.”
The next day I bought my first pair of Nikes and met Mark at the bottom of Stony Brook’s field house. Behind airshafts and pump rooms was a tiny space that constituted the campus weight room. It reeked of old mold and stagnant air, and the sum total of its apparatuses – two aged Universals – had oxidized a rusty ambergris. I followed Mark back to the rear machine, where, after a stern lecture about “respecting the room,” he had me lie on the bench.
Drawing a breath in, I whistled it out and hefted 70 pounds in the air. They hung there a moment, eyeing the view, then came down much too fast. “Slowly!” Mark yelled at me. “You lift the weight; the weight isn’t s’posed to lift you!” Chagrined, I shoved the bar up again and offered some push-back when it dropped. I did a third rep, and a fourth, when something strange happened. A radiant heat began filling my chest, as if someone had draped a compress across it. I did another rep and the feeling spread, inching past the collarbone toward my throat. I kept on going, losing track of reps, attuned to the muzzy, pins-and-needles buzz that was setting up in my ears. It was sharp and soft, then hot and cool. I forgot who I was and even what I was, imagining myself as a two-stroke engine and my arms as pistons firing. Dropping that last rep, I lay there, clinically stoned, wrists hanging limp at my sides, watching fireworks on the back of my lids.
“Up,” Mark ordered. “No sleeping between sets.”
I stood in a daze, savoring the burn in my chest and the wash of lactic acid down my arms. It was cold enough to see my exhaled breath, and the only sounds that intercut the noonday silence were Mark’s bellicose grunts while benching. But when I looked at myself in the unframed mirror mounted crookedly on the wall, I thought, This is the thing I’ve been searching for; I’ve found it, and I’m not leaving. I’ve been paying for that fix, very nearly with my life, ever since.
Forty years after his rise to power as the Moses of self-made muscle, it is hard to overstate Arnold Schwarzenegger’s impact on a broad, rabid swath of skinny teens. From 1970, when he won the first of seven (!) titles as bodybuilding’s Mr. Olympia, to the fall of ’84, when ‘The Terminator’ opened, he changed the operative notion of what a man’s man looks like in this country. Lanky seducers like Newman and Redford were elbowed out by Conan and his barbarians – the Ferrignos, the Rambos, the Alzados. Ten years on, we had sprinters built like strong safeties and gyms full of kids with overnight muscles.
With the wisdom of years, we know now what we wrought: a national pastime tainted beyond the telling, a pandemic of wrestlers dying in their 30s and 40s, and high school sophs sized like Pro Bowl tackles, their hearts and livers ticking down to doomsday. It’s easy enough to see how we got here. Give a kid the means to rewrite his DNA and what you get, soon enough, is a subset of males who flout the inconvenience that we call rules.
But back in 1976, I saw none of that coming. I’d been training for a month more or less constantly, cutting Anthropology to lift alone, then returning to the gym for an hour at night. Alas, I learned that you can’t build pecs from scraps of skin and bone. What’s needed to make marbleized, long-strand muscle is the kiln-ready clay of loose flesh, and for the life of me, I couldn’t pack it on. Despite lunches dense in complex carbs, all I seemed to get for my gluttony was a series of bowl-busting dumps. At the start of January 1976, I weighed 149. By the end of the month, I weighed 151, and neither new pound waved back at me when I posed in the bathroom mirror.
Then I ran into a kid at a party whom I knew vaguely from the gym. Kenny, as I’ll call him, was a poor man’s Mark: 5-foot-9 at most and slim through the hips, but he strained the seams of his Huk-a-Poo shirt with a splendid slant-V trunk. He had a nervous way of squeezing his fists open and closed, but it was his eyes that worried me: They seemed to fairly pulse inside their sockets.
He clapped me on the arm, said I was looking a little bigger, and asked what I was “bumping.” I scrolled my brief lexicon of bodybuilding. “Um, do you mean benching?”
Laughing, he wrote his number on the flap of a matchbook. “Call me tomorrow, and I’ll totally get you started. Oh, and I don’t take checks, so stop by the bank.”
The next morning, I climbed up a snow-slick rise to his off-campus place in a brick colonial. I rang the bell expecting tawdry squalor, his pad done up in early Hustler. Instead it boasted a leather sofa, a smoked-glass troika of cocktail tables, and the sound system of my dreams.
Kenny went into a back room. A few minutes later he came back cradling a footed case of fine-grained oak and ash. A voile false panel lifted out, baring a stash box lined in felt, with custom-fitted slots for the goods on offer. And what goods they were, those vials and bottles and old-style chrome syringes. I caught myself gaping at the thin-gauge sharps and unsayable, all-capped names, the decanoates and oxandrolones that read like runic chanting. A shiver went through me, deep and wide: I knew in that spectral moment I’d crossed a line.
“So, if I started out with just some basic stuff – “
“A cycle’s what we call it. Or a stack, if you’re doing a combo. Why don’t we hook you up right now?” I shriveled. “Um…all right.”
He led me down the hall to a bonus space that he’d fixed up as a mini-gym. I watched as he unwrapped a newish needle and filled it from an amp of something called Deca-Durabolin. “Don’t worry, dude. This is top-grade gear from the finest labs in East Berlin.”
He handed over the syringe and undid his belt; for a moment, I thought he was going to use it to tie off my vein. Instead, he turned around and presented his naked rump. The skin was a crazy quilt of grays and mauves and hardened lumps that looked like topped-out landfills. “Don’t worry about the welts; I’m doing a big stack now. It’s just to show where you start out spiking.”
He gestured for me to face the wall. “Put your weight on your front foot so the skin hangs loose. If you want, I’ll do ya this first time. Spare you the risk of swelling up.”
“No, I – I’ve gotta learn. Just give me room.”
He moved to the side a foot and knelt to guide my hand. But before I jabbed, I stopped for a second to think it over. Kenny, taking my pause for weakness, shoved the needle in and pressed the plunger. Stunned, I shifted weight to the right (i.e., wrong) foot; the knotted fibers of the buttock yowled, bruising right before my very eyes. From hip to tailbone, I felt a sprawl of heat, as if someone had scattered buckshot in my ass.
“See? You fucked up,” Kenny said. “Next time, listen when someone tells you. It might just save you a hebe-atoma.”
“What?” I glared, in no mood for Jew jokes.
“Nothing,” he said. “It’s a word I learned in Bio. It means bruise, and that one there’ll be a smoker.”
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.
Angel finally called. We arranged to train at the Y. For hours he ran me through a workout so fierce I almost passed out in the john. But there, in the mirror, was the point of all his torture: freakish definition from neck to knees. We went out to grab some lunch, met three girls from a touring dance troupe, and wound up, after a daylong, drunken debauch, cabbing back to his place with the dancers. And so was I enlisted, and so sworn in, to Angel’s crew of hard boys on the make: with a night-and-next-day, cocaine-addled orgy. By week’s end, his recruitment of me was complete: a trip to Charivari, the men’s store of the gods, for a starter kit of Pucci and Nik Nik dress shirts, and a posh revision of my Mott the Hoople hairdo. And a nasty new regimen of ‘roids.
He put me on a blitz of “catch-up juice” – fat bumps of Deca and test-cypionate and 20-mil tabs of Dianabol – and pushed my protein load with a midnight meal of Breyer’s-and-raw-egg shakes. The jump-off, as he called it, brought swift returns. In a fortnight I’d added 10 pounds of mass and was sporting new ripples in my quads. Ravenous and speedy, I’d sleep four fitful hours and bound out of bed at 6 a.m. Wolfing a five-egg omelet clotted with sausage and bacon, I’d go and wake up Kate, the girl I’d started dating, and gobble her like a short stack with syrup.
By then I’d gleaned the point of Angel’s grooming. He ran a going business of gym-toned strippers, booking them for birthdays and bachelorette parties. The bulk of his trade was in the outer boroughs, catering to lusty cosmeticians and big-haired secretaries, but my “debut,” as he called it, took place at a bridal shower in Long Island, where “the classier people” lived. Alas, we got lost on the drive there. When we arrived, hours late, there were 20 tipsy women chanting “Man-ass! Man-ass!” as we apologized to the furious bride-to-be. I was so unnerved, I forgot to strip, shuffling, knock-kneed, in my Dickies work suit to a Nancy Sinatra cover of the Beatles’ “Day Tripper.” By midnight, skulking around in a Star of David G-string, I’d been groped by three generations of Jews, including a couple of aging aunts who tipped me in change and those chocolate coins they give to kids at Purim.
If steroids made me big, they couldn’t make me bold. To function as an “entertainer,” I’d need a booster drug. It was mostly Angel’s coke that unlocked my inner wild man, coupled with bourbon and tonic. I did what I could to hedge the risk, using blow only on nights I worked. But the party was just beginning when the skin show ended, and by the time I stumbled home from a club crawl with Angel, I was strung so tight I had to take a quaalude to get to bed. A few weeks in, I was waking at noon and gulping Benzedrine to part the mists. Not that I got much rest, or wanted it. Where Angel went, I followed, joining Tommy and Spiro in a crew we dubbed The Four Whoresmen, staging swing-club romps through the Flower District, hoot rides to discos in Brooklyn and Queens or shoot-the-vapids tours of East Side fern bars. I’d soon be back at school, parsing Cavalier poets and wondering how to make a world of that. For now, here was life with all the Swiss-cream frosting, and I shoveled it in.
And then I got sick – very sick – and there went the body I’d worked to build. It wound up being the least of what I’d lose.
It started as a series of symptoms that didn’t slot together or scare me straight. The first puzzle piece was my zigzag mood, a loop-de-loop of sentiment and short-fuse fury. I belly-laughed at things like the Tonight Show monologue, which had always left me stone-faced before, blinked through tears over State Farm commercials, and blew my stack without warning or cause, seized by feelings I could convey only through big, weepy hugs and property damage.
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.
Twenty years have passed since I found my way to the psychiatrist who set me free. Minutes into my rote recital of symptoms, he pegged my condition as panic disorder and prescribed a new medication that quelled it. My appetite returned, and some portion of the old vigor. I went back to training after years in exile and slowly, gratefully built a body out of battered parts. My shoulders were shot, torched by bursitis; my elbows whinged after preacher curls, and anyone fool enough to time me in the mile would have needed to pack a flashlight and a lunch.
But bit by bit I saw it in the health-club mirror: the pound or so a month of hard-won muscle; the medial delts rounding into view. Eyeing my reflection, I wanted to cry. That torso reminded me of me at 20, the kid I’d mistreated and done grave harm to before he had a chance to really live. His immune system is ravaged and can’t be fixed (I have asthma, arthritis, and a list of allergies longer than the healthcare bill), and his neurology hangs together on pantloads of Paxil and too much Xanax when he flies. I’m doing what I can now to make it right – egg whites, long walks, light-rep sets – but I owe this body more than I can pay. And so, four times a week, I load up a bar and strap my weight gloves tight. It isn’t about size now, or the attention of women. It’s the reward of those first, clean, humming strokes: the arms firing up like piston rods, the air going out in metered breaths. By the fifth or sixth rep, I’m halfway stoned on a deep-brain dopamine flush. Pain and exhaustion melt away, and all I hear, as the breath goes out, is that pins-and-needles buzz in my ears. The last couple of reps are soft explosions, the pulse in my eardrums roaring up as I rack the bar, depleted. I lie there, spent but whole again, alive in a deep way, waiting for the next set to start.