In 2009, I was laid off from my job. I was living with my girlfriend and scared out of my mind. Despite a severance package and unemployment insurance, the shock of suddenly being jobless impacted me in ways I could never have anticipated. It wasn't until I was shown the door that I realized just how much of our identities are derived from work, from the things we do to take care of ourselves and those we care about, to the way we consider our values as human beings.
The sense of shame that came with the layoff was profoundly wounding. I felt that my unemployment was my fault. I felt as though others — particularly my girlfriend — saw me as a failure. Worse than that, however, was that I felt emasculated. I didn't just feel like I had lost my job, but that I had lost face, lost honor, lost my ability to provide and protect as a man.
I felt downsized in the most poignant sense of the word — diminished, weakened, disempowered, neutered.
My way of dealing with my shame was to attempt to reclaim my lost masculinity in what I thought of as the purest possible way:
I began using steroids, going from 165 pounds to 210 pounds in just a matter of months.
I've worked out since I was a skinny teenager, but I was never what you might think of as athletic. I had no interest in team sports. I hated P.E. in high school. I couldn't seem to gain weight no matter what I ate. At 5-foot-10 and 130 pounds when I was 15, I made for an easy target for bullies at a time when bullying was accepted as a fact of life: just part of growing up. Skinny kids get made fun of, too. It was years before I managed to work my way up to 160 pounds.
I worked both security at a shopping center and as a student police officer while studying law enforcement during one of my many flings with college — a job that demanded not just physical stamina, but what is known as "command presence": a mixture of being physically and psychologically imposing; in short, authoritative. But even working out three to five days a week, and consuming protein powder and high-calorie foods only got me to 180 pounds at my heaviest.
Despite that fact that I was in much better shape than most of the people I worked with and wearing a bullet-resistant vest added to my bulk, I still had to psyche myself up every day to go out on patrol, either at work or at school. No matter how I looked to others, I never saw what they saw when I looked at myself. I always felt like I wasn't "enough," no matter what anyone ever told me. I only saw faults. I only saw that I could always be stronger, faster, fitter, bigger.
I only saw my 15-year-old self — a skinny, picked-on kid, looking back at me in the mirror.
When I finally moved on to do other things, those feelings seemed to subside ... until I was laid off.
Then all of those insecurities came back with a vengeance.
Getting "juice" was easy — steroids are just one click away, even on the "clear" Internet.
I had always browsed bodybuilding forums, so much of what I knew about steroids came from "bro scientists": guys who discuss every single facet of a "cycle" (a stretch of time of about 10-12 weeks when steroids are used), from side effects, to how to inject, to perfect "stacks" (steroids used together to produce greater gains), to post-cycle therapy — or PCT — where the goal is to slowly bring the body back to normal by modulating estrogen levels as the body begins to produce testosterone on its own again.
The general consensus in the juicing community is that your first cycle should be 1) injected and 2) testosterone. I was hesitant about using needles, so I opted for Winstrol, which was available as a tablet. In addition, Winstrol had a couple of benefits that immediately appealed to me. It doesn't convert to estrogen, so there was a low risk of developing gynecomastia or "gyno," the development of breast tissue in men. Second, the gains from Winstrol are "dry," meaning the drug adds mass, but keeps you lean.
I ordered a bottle from some overseas company online and within a week, I had a small bottle of Winstrol shipped to me in a candy tin.
A few things happened when I started using Winstrol:
1) I got very strong, very, very quickly. My lifts went up, along with my aggression and sex drive.
2) I gained 30 pounds in just a few weeks. Suddenly, none of my clothes fit. I thought it was great. I was drinking around a gallon of milk and eating a pound of ground beef in the form of hamburger patties every day while supplementing massive meals with protein shakes. My appetite was never sated, but I got no real enjoyment from eating because I was eating with one goal in mind: to get as big as possible in as short a time as possible. My friends and girlfriend were shocked at my transformation, not having any idea that my "supplements" were actually steroids shipped from Eastern Europe.
3) I felt absolutely horrible. I had splitting headaches for days at a time, the longest lasting more than a week. My joints hurt. I would sleep for hours and hours after my workouts. I felt like I had a hangover even though I wasn't drinking. It wasn't until I started showing signs of liver damage that I decided to get off the Winstrol. I took a tapering dose of Clomid — a popular fertility drug that is used by juicers as PCT — just to be absolutely certain that I wouldn't get gyno.
Gynecomastia was always feared and I was always on the lookout for it, dreading the itch that some guys reported or worse, the sudden beginnings of a lump beneath a nipple or, even more alarming, the production of milk. While some guys claimed that gyno could be wiped out with PCT, almost everyone agreed that once it started, the only way to get rid of it was cosmetic surgery to remove the excess tissue.
No sooner was I done that I started again ... but this time, I went for testosterone.
The 25 ampules of testosterone enanthate that arrived from Turkey in a padded envelope and taped to a piece of cardboard were supposedly made by an Iranian pharmaceutical company. Each contained a light gold-colored liquid that I was told contained 250 milligrams of testosterone enanthate — a slowly absorbed ester of the predominant male sex hormone. They looked legit.
I couldn't say the same thing for the collection of chemicals that I had obtained for both on-cycle and post-cycle therapy: each came from a "research chemical company," and was clearly marked "Not For Human Consumption" and "For Research Purposes Only," though the only "researchers" I ever saw discussing the eye dropper-capped bottles full of milky, bitter liquids were juicers like me.
The PCT chemicals that I dutifully dropped into my mouth every few days were as strong as anything I'd inject. Arimidex, Nolvadex and Exemestane are all drugs used to treat breast cancer. Each lowers estrogen in its own way or prevents the conversion of excess testosterone into estrogen or its relatives. I took all three, ever mindful of the dreaded "gyno" and the fact that I'd rely on them for weeks after my last injection.
Along with all of this were the needles or "pins" in juicer parlance. I injected twice a week — half a gram of testosterone a week — using disposables I bought online with no questions asked. One ampule got one syringe and two needles: a large needle to draw the liquid out of the ampule and a smaller one to inject.
I would carefully heat an ampule in warm water, then wipe it with an alcohol swab. After cracking it open, I'd prepare a syringe with an 18-gauge needle and draw the testosterone into it. I'd wipe down my injection site — whatever area I was going to inject — with alcohol, then replace the needle with a 23-gauge. A 23-gauge needle slips into a muscle like a hot knife through butter, but every time I injected, my hands shook. Part of it was the anticipation and excitement ... but part of it was fear. Every injection brings the possibility of an infection leading to an abscess or worse. But I did it. Twice a week for 12 weeks.
Being on testosterone felt fantastic.
By the seventh or eighth week, I was completely at ease with the world — calm and confident to the point of cockiness. I felt secure in my body, in the layers of muscle that covered my once-delicate frame. My girlfriend had left by then, tired of the stress of my looking for a job while trying to find work on her own, but I didn't care: I was too wrapped up in myself to care about anything except eating and lifting. I was eating between 4,000 and 6,000 calories a day, supplementing each protein-packed meal with calorie-dense foods — in my case, Pop-Tarts — that I justified to myself by saying that I'd go on a "cutting" cycle later to burn off all my fat.
I had gained muscle, yes. I looked like the exact opposite of the person who had been laid off, sure. I looked pretty damn manly, absolutely. I looked indestructible. As long as I could keep my insecurities from leaking through the armor I had created, the rest of my life — chaotic and messy compared to the order of the gym — ceased to matter. What mattered was that I was 210 pounds and on the days when the mirror caught me off guard, I looked like a tank.
But a tank is not a human. Despite the stretched shirts and bulging arms, I still felt a terrible emptiness in my life. I still felt like I had no real purpose. The only difference was that I now locked that insecurity and that skinny 15-year-old kid under 50 pounds of muscle, water and fat. None of it went anywhere. It just got buried and even though each prick of the pin added another layer of armor, no amount of muscle could help me hide from myself for very long.
Week 12 ended and it was time to get my hormone levels back to normal, if only to prepare for another three months of gear. I had big plans.
By the time I started PCT, my cholesterol was through the roof and my red blood cell count was higher than anything the nurse who took my blood had ever seen. "Like gravy," she said. I was planning my next cycle and had started going back to school full time when something unexpected happened a few weeks after finishing PCT:
I went deaf.
I woke up one morning unable to hear anything but what sounded like a roar in my left ear. Completely in denial, I went to my first day of classes while only being able to hear about 20 percent of what anyone said. I got a friend to take me to a hearing specialist, who — after running tests — confirmed that I had lost 90 percent of my hearing in my right ear and more than half in my left along with nearly all of my ability to differentiate between tones. It's called sudden sensorineural hearing loss: sudden deafness.
I am not sure if the steroids had anything to do with it. Neither did the specialist. I had been taking huge amounts of aspirin, which, as it turns out, can cause damage to the structure of the ear. I was taking the aspirin partially as a blood thinner, partially to cope with the aches and pains in my muscles.
The doctor wasn't exactly encouraging. "Sometimes it'll come back," he said. "Or maybe it won't." I left with a prescription, wondering if I'd ever hear anything again and knowing that my days of juicing were over.
Ironically, the prescription was for prednisone, an anti-inflammatory steroid.
My hearing came back as suddenly as it disappeared, but it fluctuated pretty wildly over the next six months before stabilizing.
I went from 215 pounds to 185 that summer. By the end of the year, I was down to 175, retaining very little of the mass I had gained.
I transferred to Columbia University later that year and finished a B.A. in English. I was offered a job with A Plus the month before I graduated in 2013 and I moved to Hollywood, Calif., before returning to New York to join our office here.
The month I got the offer, I was in a panic. I was about to lose my housing as a student. I had no jobs lined up. Once again, I felt completely useless and disempowered. The job offer provided me a sense of security and a sense of identity, just as steroids had, just as my job before it had, just as school did.
But here's the thing that it took me years to figure out and that I'm still figuring out: I'm not my job, or my body, or my relationship. And neither are you.
All of those things play a role in making you the kind of person you are, but they're not you. Resilience means being able to find some essence of yourself when you're stripped bare, when you no longer have the things that you may take for granted such as your hearing, or your work, or your friends.
Trying to define yourself in terms of what you have is a pretty sure way to be unhappy. Someone will always have more. Things can be taken away, lost or destroyed. Your body will eventually fail you and fall apart, regardless of how well you take care of it. One day will be your last day at work.
At the end of the day, you have to be enough. Just you.
In Always We Begin Again, an adaptation of the Rule of St. Benedict — the 6th century text still serves as a guide for various orders of Christian monastics — John McQuiston II offers some perspective on how we might live with the uncertainty that we sometimes face about ourselves and our lives:
"What is wanted is not that we should find ultimate truth, nor that we should become secure, nor that we should have ease, nor that we should be without hurt, but that we should live fully.
Therefore we should not fear life, nor anything in life; we should not fear death, nor anything in death; we should live our lives in love with life.
It is for us to train our hearts to live in grace, to sacrifice our self-centered desires, to find peace without want, without seeking it for ourselves, and when we fail, to begin again each day."