Why you should care

Because for those who are utterly driven by physical competition, we know there’s an inescapable truth behind the brouhaha over steroids: It’s much ado about something.

This is not at all a story about compensation. Or overcompensation.

It’s a story about steroids, but it has nothing to do with prevailing ideas of steroid users’ sense of inadequacy. I’ve always felt beyond adequate. Super-adequate, if there’s such a thing.

Since the first moment cameras and I existed in the same place and space, photos of me flexing my biceps were committed to film. Extra-masculine ideas about the pecking order and my place in it were caught on camera as I stood in the bathtub. And in front of the TV. And in the kitchen. I was 3 years old, and my mother and father had no idea that this wouldn’t just be a phase.

For lifelong lifters like me, did it matter if I used or not?

My cartoon choices told the tale: Hercules, Gigantor, the Green Hornet, Speed Racer. The tag line for Gigantor was “bigger than big, stronger than strong,” and I was as addicted to this Japanese import as any kid could be. Then there were the comic books and, more important, the ads in the back of the comic books touting the genius of Count Dante, the “world’s most dangerous man,” along with Charles Atlas and the insult that made a man out of Mac — my first gander at bodybuilders. While other kids gathered around and went “ewww…,” there was nothing I wanted to do more.

Eugene's contact sheet of BW images of he posing as a body builder

About a month before my first ever bodybuilding show. All natural. Me, not the show.

Which explains the martial arts, the bodybuilding, the street fights, all embraced to greater or lesser degrees of success. I was — and there’s no better way to put this — power mad.

But I had refused the always-ready access to performance-enhancing drugs.

See, I was a fanatical purist and believed the oft-told tale in Joe Weider’s Muscle mag: All of what I saw within its pages was achievable through “conventional” means. Meaning the steadfast pumping of iron with a heavy complement of multiminerals, multivitamins, B-complex, brewer’s yeast, niacin, protein powders, pituitary and adrenal gland extracts — a bleary bevy of over-the-counter lunacy.

My bodyweight entering my last bodybuilding show was a lean 190 pounds, 6′1″. And the show? The California Naturals in San Diego. Naturally. And my attempt at doing it the right way was rewarded with a last place finish. Naturally. Because no one else on the stage with me was natural, by any definition. The competition strictures were clear: steroid-free for at least a year. So, of course it was “legit.” Quote marks intact. And the polygraphs they gave us before made sure of that. Sarcasm, also intact.

…people of the sauce didn’t need a study to prove what they could see.

The organizers didn’t even see a glimmer of guilt when they asked if I had ever taken steroids and I answered “no” while wearing a backpack full of them, bought legally in Tijuana for friends. And I had not. Yet.

But last place. Against guys who were 6′3″, 230 pounds and “natural.”

The drive back home was long and quiet, and the ceaseless thinking went thusly: For the occasional lifter, steroids made little to no sense. But for lifelong lifters like me, did it matter if I used or not? And did I need to justify it by claiming I needed steroids to be competitive? A fraction of the hundreds of dollars spent on bogus supplements would be spent paying my friends back for the deca-durobolin, maxibolin and human chorionic gonadotropin in my backpack.

I was about to become a steroid user.

Three days after the initial injection and the pills (known inside the fence as “orals”), I had forgotten I took them.

Until day 3.

Then: freight train. I no longer needed recuperation time between reps, between sets or between workouts. I was stronger, faster, hungry like a stevedore, and even more than that? My mind was like a laser, and over the coming eight weeks of what I learned was called a “cycle,” I was super-refreshed on only about four or five hours of sleep.

Sure, there were the warnings fired up by friends and associates. Shrunken testes, acne, roid rages. There were others I knew who were claimed by steroid use: Gary Aprahamian, a 380-pound teenager who could curl the back end of a Toyota and bench-press 605 pounds (not at the same time), dead from liver ailments; Gordon Kimbrough, in jail for roid-rage-fueled murder.

The scientific community tried saying there were “no scientific studies proving the effectiveness of steroids in muscle building,” but people of the sauce didn’t need a study to prove what they could see: In my case, about 15 extra pounds. And not a rage in sight.

But these things have to be reconciled. And they were, facing an empty medicine cabinet and all of the horrors that the previously mocked scientists claimed would come: mood swings, depression and sleep problems. It’s where I imagine all the press conference crying comes from when pro athletes get caught and called to account. I mean, this is what you do when everything good has gone, right? There’s a catch when you deal with the devil. The drugs encourage you to do the opposite of what you most need to do. You need to taper off — but who wants the party to end?

It had been the best of times and became, officially, the worst of times. Weird worst times.

Like watching Scrooged and bursting into tears when Bill Murray delivered a homily about the need to put a little love in your heart. I played it for laughs, but close to the end of a two-week post-cycle misery, I had to acknowledge that this was a dangerous drug, not to be tampered with without research, planning and the able assistance of a medical professional who didn’t work out of his car.

While it’d be nice to say that I learned a lesson here, it was no more than learning there’s a wrong way to do them and a right way to do them. The next time, and there was a next time, I did them much more sparingly and with a much better result. To wit: I hit 265 pounds of muscled geniality (still never a glimmer of a rage). A weight I kept until realizing in a moment of clarity, while watching a friend haul a garbage bag of used syringes to a needle exchange, that this was not a sustainable lifestyle. And besides which: What was the point?

But there are strange realities that go along with being 206 pounds, which is what I am now. A wider variety of fashion choices, for one. More frequent street challenges from strangers, true, but also: better cardio, martial arts competitions in a lighter weight class, happy knees, increased mobility and a decreased likelihood of sobbing at Scrooged.

But I’d be lying if I said that passing by the muscle mags at 7-11 doesn’t make me pause a beat longer and long for the days of the barge-like berth the world cleared for me when I was a stone’s throw from 300 pounds.

Lo, how the mighty have fallen. And a damned good thing, too.

This is the ninth installment in a series of True Takes from the eclectically and electrically lived life of OZY’s own Eugene S. Robinson.

Earlier takes include Advice From Andy Warhol, unexpected Affliations With White Supremacists, Wild Orgy Nights at Stanford, Is It a Riot If It’s Just the Four of Us?, Tattoos, Tough Guys + the Travails of Making a Living, Full-Force Fathering, Breaking the First Rule of Fight Club and Larry Flynt + Me.

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