John* used to weigh 172 pounds. Not the svelte, toned 172 of an athlete, the 172 he wanted, but the kind that comes after shedding 100 pounds from a 6-foot-1 frame. Now he looked sickly, worse than he had at 282 pounds.
He'd hoped that losing the weight would reveal a physique that was sculpted and muscular. Instead, he felt weak. John's doctor diagnosed an eating disorder. His family forced him to "put on some fat," which simply added pudge to places he didn't want to fill out.
John started exercising. He put on some muscle mass. Still, it was nothing like the bodybuilder frame he was aiming for. Then he found a shortcut to achieve the "attractive, masculine" form he wanted: "raw" testosterone, combined with the synthetic anabolic steroid stanozolol (sold as Winstrol or Winny). He bought it online and injected it into his gluteal muscles with a 1.5-inch needle.
It took a couple weeks, but he started seeing gains that seemed impossible without steroids. His confidence skyrocketed first. Then came the physical effects: He looked massive and muscular, even when he hadn't been exercising. But there were some drawbacks. Winny "dries out your joints and makes them crack," John said. But after two weeks, his shoulders broadened, "which I believe was the [testosterone] kicking in."
John has been using steroids, including powdered testosterone that he filters and vials himself, for about a year. "The mental benefits were quite drastic," he told Mic. "Steroids massively improved my self-esteem, self-respect and interpersonal respect."
John's case of steroid use is far from isolated. Anabolic-androgenic steroids have long been widely used, the worst-kept dark secret of the bodybuilding world. They let guys with small frames, like John, add huge amounts of mass in a short time. With the advent of online communities and underground marketplaces in the un-Google-able Dark Web, the use of illegal steroids is on the rise. And so are its dangers.
Injecting without information
Earlier this month, the story of 25-year-old Romario Dos Santos Alves, who nearly lost his arms due to synthetic filler use, went viral. An aspiring bodybuilder, he was hospitalized after pinning — the slang used in the bodybuilding community for "injecting" — an alcohol-and-oil compound called Synthol. "I remember the doctor told me that they would need to amputate both arms. They said everything in there, all my muscles, were rock," he told the Daily Mail.
Synthol is not a steroid but an oil that causes muscles to swell when injected. Abuse of the filler often results in side effects like infected, bulbous body parts, fatty lesions and long-term disfigurement.
And it isn't hard to find. Alves may have scored Synthol from other users in his gym, or even on Amazon, where it's sold as a "posing oil." But inside the Dark Web, an anonymous online network where the infamous black market Silk Road rose to power, where terrorist organization ISIS allegedly recruits and solicits funds and where online retailers can hawk anything from stolen credit cards to cocaine, dealers can sell steroids like they were homemade scarves on Etsy: very, very easily.
Young men risk death to bulk up
When this self-described 18-year-old "#yolotard teen" recently posted about attempting a new steroid regimen to a steroid subreddit, he was met with some optimism. But overwhelmingly, the community urged him to rethink a decision that could almost unimpeachably kill him.
"There are fates worse than death," another young steroid user responded. "You most likely won't die, but if [you] suffer liver failure you're going to be strapped to hospitals for the rest of your life. If you suffer some type of stroke, you could face horrendous consequences such as becoming paralyzed. It's cute you think you're just going to jump off into death, you're not. You'll be alive in sweet, sweet agony, wishing you were."
These young bodybuilders seem conscious of the extent of potential damage. Wary of their peers going overboard, they provide online guidance and tough love. They don't hesitate to criticize fellow users for cavalier behavior or remaining uninformed about the drugs they're injecting.
The risks are more serious than many people think: Steroids are not cartoon formulas that shrink testicles ("testicular atrophy") and cause rage issues — at least, not exclusively. People who abuse anabolic steroids can suffer heart attacks and die.
"These men are doing major damage to their hearts and are substantially increasing their risk of death," said Shane Darke, a professor and drug researcher at the University of New South Wales, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. "For a very young group in their early 30s, their cardiac health looks like what you would expect of someone twice their age."
A recent article fromT Nation, a website dedicated to the "pursuit of muscle," listed more than 30 bodybuilders who died from heart-related complications. Still, on the extreme side, young users like the one pictured above up their dosage and face the possibility of a painful death.
Inside the steroid marketplaces of the Dark Web
Without close examination of the images of illicit drugs or the complicated soup of characters that make up the market's Web address, drug boutiques on the Dark Web look like any other retailer. Scroll through pages of steroid compounds named Testosterone Propionate and Anavar and Tren E, packages of syringes and orally ingestible Winny. Select what you want, enter your contact and shipping information, then hit "buy."
Piece of cake.
Spartan Labs OZ is an Australian vendor on Black Bank Market only accessible through the identity-guarding Onion Router network. Its owner, who goes by "Spartacus" online, operates as a middleman. A steroid user himself, he's only ever purchased steroids from one source, he told Mic.
Each week, Spartacus said, he ships 50 orders from two Dark Web marketplaces. Sometimes that's only 50 products. But occasionally, he claims, the orders are from more serious users who request a variety of products (called a stack), and Spartan Labs OZ will send upwards of 150 performance-enhancing drugs to locations all around the world.
"Most of our customers are hard-working people that want to make a difference to their lives and enhance themselves both physically and mentally," Spartacus told Mic. "Some are bodybuilders, while others are just normals, regular guys that want to look like a fitness model or reach their maximal potential."
A new kind of support group
Of the roughly 17,000 members of Reddit's most popular steroid forum, only a quarter aren't using steroids. This is according to Eric*, one of the forum's moderators, who spoke to Mic on the condition of anonymity.
"There are powerlifters, MMA fighters, other types of athletes. And then, lastly, people who self-medicate since testosterone-replacement therapy is difficult to get in many countries, or people who just enjoy the use of anabolics," Eric told Mic, referring to anabolic steroids, or the steroids used for bodybuilding. He insists anabolics are "not dangerous in informed applications," but recognizes "they can do harm without proper knowledge of how to use them."
But online, that information is a click away. "When I started on the board, the chat was a bit older — probably mid- to late 20s, lots of ex-military that dominated the discussion," John said about a popular steroid subreddit he moderates. "Lots of new users are students and young men. In general the juicing population is getting younger. Lots of teens browse ... [but] few are active as far as I can see."
Eric said he believes the availability of online forums create a more informed base of users.
"I found my first source in a supplement store without online help," he told Mic. "Traditionally, people would be approached by the shady bodybuilder in a gym for steroid sales, and who knows what kind of quality that product is, not to mention what kind of information is available through him." Because of the Internet, he argued, today's steroid users are more intelligent. Moreover, the quality, purity and reliability of steroids are improving. More drugs are "what the label actually says" they are, Eric said. Subreddits like SteroidSourceTalk — "the cooler, gayer cousin of /r/steroids" — provide comprehensive reviews of steroid vendors. They put more power and resources in the buyer's hands.
But more accessibility means more users. "The advent of Internet sources has definitely spread steroid use," John told Mic. "I myself would likely have never been exposed to a [steroid] source for at least much longer, if ever, if not for Internet forums."
John knows there will be aftermath. He assumes he'll lose hair, that his exacerbated acne will leave scars. But for the most part, he says, he plays it safe. He tries everything he can to avoid liver toxicity, which can lead to liver failure and slow death — something he wouldn't have known to monitor without the self-help library of his steroid community.
Steroid use isn't slowing down. It's easier than ever for the younger versions of John and Eric to find ways to buy raw testosterone from an overseas vendor, mix it up, put it in a syringe and inject it into their muscles.
But unlike the guys before them, they'll go in with a plan. They'll be forum lurkers. They'll ask questions. They'll know all the sources and the best bang for the buck. So when it's time to stick in that needle, they won't inject themselves with tainted gear. Because with communities ready to step in and help guide informed decisions, maybe they'll be the last generation to read viral news stories about bodybuilders who died too young.
* Names have been changed.