Xavier* was 20 when he knew he had to quit using steroids.
He was sitting in his Dodge Durango outside a Gold’s Gym in Suffolk County. A needle and syringe sat on the passenger seat next to him, along with a gym bag and water bottle. Looking to get what he describes as “that pump,” that bottomless well of energy to press, curl and lift weights, Xavier injected a needle full of steroids into his leg before going inside to work out.
“I stuck it in, injected the stuff, took it out, and as the needle came out—blood,” says Xavier today, 24, with pierced ears, a crew cut, thin beard and a massive tribal tattoo on his right arm. “It wasn’t squirting blood, it was kind of pouring down my leg. I flipped out, I freaked out.”
Xavier is but one of countless LI weightlifters who has used steroids in his quest for arms so big they can barely fit into shirt sleeves, legs the size of tree trunks, a puffed chest feared by collar buttons and a back the shape of a capital letter “V.”
Steroids are what everyone and no one wants to talk about. They spark a wide range of opinions, and those vary depending on who you ask: Are they safe or dangerous? Common or uncommon? Easily available or nearly impossible to find? What the doctor ordered or exactly what he said to stay away from? The shortest path to a sculpted physique, weightlifting records and the attention of anyone within a 50-foot radius? Or one riddled with alarming side-effects, trips to the emergency room and 3 a.m. Google searches for “How do I stop my fingernails from falling off?”
Are they the answer? Or are they an asterisk?
So who wants to get pumped?
That Eight-Letter Word
Headlines tell us steroids are what gave Major League Baseball’s Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds the oomph to hit 70 and 73 home runs in 1998 and 2001, respectively, helped cyclist Floyd Landis win the 2006 Tour de France and drove WWE superstar Chris Benoit to murder his wife and 7-year-old son and hang himself over a three-day period in 2007. The Web gives us plenty of photographic evidence, some altered, some not—though it’s difficult to discern which images have been on the receiving end of a Photoshop distortion. Pop culture informs us they’re quickly becoming de rigueur in many walks of life: “Almost all my friends are into it—girls and guys,” said Franklin Square’s Jenni Farley, aka J-WOWW from the MTV hit show Jersey Shore, in an interview with the Press last year, when asked about the show’s casual use of the word “juiceheads” and its relation to steroids culture.
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Nassau County police say in 2007 there were 10 steroids-related arrests, eight in 2008, two in 2009 and four year-to-date in 2010.
“I have to say, we don’t see [criminal steroids activity] a lot here,” says Teresa Corrigan, chief of the Street Narcotics and Gang Bureau for the Nassau County District Attorney’s Office. “In my 21 years of practice, I have never known steroids to be at a level similar to drugs and alcohol for arrests and incidents.”
Corrigan points to a large 2007 steroids bust, where two East Meadow residents, Thomas Butler and Carlos Cuevas, were arrested for ordering steroid ingredients off the Internet, turning them into various forms and distributing them throughout both counties, as the main blip on the radar.
There’s a similar climate on the other side of the Island, according to Detective Lt. William Burke, head of the Narcotics Section for Suffolk County police.
“In the grand scheme of things it certainly is not at the top of our priorities,” he says. “We’re not seeing people dying of steroids. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but it’s not our focus like with heroin and the opiates.”
But just because police radio airwaves aren’t full of steroids chatter doesn’t mean the Island isn’t using them.
You’ve probably seen an anabolic steroids user before, not just on TV playing in nearly any professional sporting event, but in real life: at the gym, Jones Beach, the club. They want to get bigger than big; they want to get BIG.
The juiceheads, guidos, gym rats and whomever else dream of size and strength above all else take anabolic steroids. “It’s called an anabolic steroid because it helps synthesize, in particular, muscle,” says Dr. Gerald Bernstein, vice president of medical affairs at Generex Biotechnology and director of the diabetes management program at the Friedman Diabetes Institute at Beth Israel Medical Center. “And therefore, it’s a well-known opportunity for abuse.”
Drew* was a frequent gym user for years, and one day learned his workout partner started taking anabolic steroids. Admitting they had always intrigued him, he bought some from his gym’s owner (“He said he would just walk across the border from Mexico with armloads of them”) and started using.
“I went from 195 pounds to 250 pounds in about 18 months,” he says. “It was strictly, ‘Let’s see how big we can get.’ If I can get an 18-inch arm, maybe I can get a 19-inch arm.”
Drew is quick to point out the steroids weren’t addictive, but they were seductive. “If a little bit’s good, a lot’s better,” he says. He went through three cycles—alternating between using the steroids for a number of months and going off them for a short period of time, before starting up again—each time aiming for a greater gain. If he was able to gain 10 pounds in one cycle, he’d aim for 20 the next cycle.
“I think what people are taking it for, they may not achieve the goals that they want, because the amounts that they’re taking aren’t sufficient to give them the anabolic benefit,” says Bernstein. “And so the drive is always to take more.”
After spending the first few weeks convinced the gym owner sold him water, things clicked. And in his third week using a combination of testosterone and “deca” (deca-durabolin, a popular steroid administered via needle and syringe), his appearance caught up to what was being injected.
“I remember that day because I noticed it. My workout partner, I left him in the corner of the gym to walk across to get a drink, and when I turned around, he was staring at me and he watched me walk. He was just staring at me and I got up to him and he said, ‘You’re bigger,’ and I said, ‘I know.’ And we both noticed it wasn’t just muscle growth, it was—it’s hard to explain, but the body shape, the ‘V’ shape, the broad shoulders, the narrow waist—all the masculine traits were accented.”