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Steroid Abuse

June 10, 2016

Unfortunately we live in a world where the commercialisation of sport has negated the very values for which it stands. Amateur pursuit of competition has become little more than an arms race between drug testing federations and athletes. The sad thing is that not all the athletes are necessarily corrupt; but simply trying to maintain a level playing field. Nonetheless the presentation of sport is very different from the reality and the performance enhancement that goes on behind closed doors has tainted every major sporting forum.

Drug testing agencies have their work cut out for them to enforce clean competition and there is no way they can get it right. There is no way to guarantee that every athlete is competing under the same circumstances and drawing the line of what is “natural” is very hard in the pill popping culture in which we exist.

Unfortunately for me, I am one such pill popper. I am reluctant to use over the counter drugs for aches and pains, but I have no choice about the fact that I take steroids every single day. Steroid is the term most synonymous with performance enhancement, and the particular variety I take are indeed on the banned substance list. But having lived with the side effects on and off for a few years now; my performance is anything but enhanced.

I have Ulcerative Colitis which is an autoimmune disorder that basically causes self destruction of the bowel. The steroid Prednisolone impairs my immune function to lessen its damaging activity against my colon. Without it I would need my bowel to be removed or it would eventually perforate and kill me. That sounds dramatic but, luckily for me, I respond quickly to Pred. Very quickly.

I have had three significant flare ups of my Colitis. The first was the longest, meaning I was on oral steroids for over two years during which I was housebound and generally bed bound. The second was the most intense meaning I was hospitalised and on intense IV steroid infusions for two weeks. The most recent one has been the most mild, but arguably the worst timed, coming right in the middle of my final University assessments. Another major difference this time around though, is that I am a competitive Powerlifter preparing to qualify for Drug Free Nationals. Telling people in this walk of life I am on steroids is akin to saying I murder puppies. But the reality of what the steroids do to me is very different.

The reason Pred is on the banned substance list is because the anti-inflammatory effect can improve aerobic capacity and endurance. A nice little feature, but it doesn’t help me lift more. There is also the possibility that the dose can cause some people to feel invincible as it significantly affects the brain and one’s mood. This certainly would be a big advantage in competition, but the thing is: it’s probably much more likely to make you feel unusually depressed and anxious. That’s certainly what happened to me first time round. Being prepared for the changes this time has made it easier to define exactly what this drug does to me. When I first went on it at 18 years old my body was still making changes of its own and the onset of a serious illness meant that I had no real idea what was initially causing my face to round, my chest muscles to sag, my stomach to bloat, and my skin to stretch, my body temperature to rise, my appetite to double, my muscles to cramp, my veins to bruise, and my hair to grow patchy. For the last three years or so I’ve been pretty stable so when all these things happened one week after going back on Pred, it was pretty obvious what was causing it.

It’s enormously de-motivating to have all the physical gains I’ve worked so hard to achieve for three years to be taken away in a week or two. But it’s happened before. And it will probably happen again. I got into the sport of Powerlifting with the realistic goal of one day approaching a British record. Each time I have come anywhere close to a record weight, my illness has flared. The records keep creeping higher and higher, and I seem to keep getting weaker, year after year. But I didn’t get into Powerlifting for the records. That is a goal, and it won’t change; it will just move in and out of focus depending on other factors. I got into it because I love doing it. I love lifting heavy weights. I love the training, the technique, the programming, the problem solving, the psychology, the social aspect of competition, the buzz.

It takes a long time to come off a high dose of steroid. Your body can’t just do it, it needs to slowly adapt to a reducing dose. All of this time my body will be in a state of flux. Week to week my health is unpredictable, and my body will look different, and my strength will be affected by uncontrollable factors. I have no choice but to listen to my body or I run the risk of further hospitalisation.

Now, however, I feel more determined than ever. The flare up of my condition and the drug side effects have meant that I can’t train with the intensity I normally would. When I realised this I felt a sense of desperation. Quitting was not a consideration, but emotionally it’s so taxing to keep investing so much time and effort in consistently going backwards. It’s like working at a relationship you desperately want to succeed but constantly getting nothing in return. It makes you doubt your ability to stay with it. But I examined what a champion, or record holder would do. They would work around the problem. I have changed my training to work on my weaknesses to the extent that I can.

So maybe Colitis has put me in a good position to be successful at powerlifting, after all. With my life being unpredictable on a week to week basis, I have to work around my condition to the extent that I can. I have to have plans for more than one outcome, and this adaptability, this auto-regulation, is key to long term successful training. A healthy lifter will have days where they are strong, days when they are weak. They will have months where they feel invincible, and months where they have no confidence whatsoever. Colitis means that every aspect of my life follows these patterns; so I have had to learn to take things as they come, and focus on the factors I can control. I know just how easy it is to deteriorate into a pattern of hopelessness. Steroids, in my experience, made this process even easier. For me, the goal of making myself as strong as I can helps prevent this, and I implore anyone who has a chronic illness to find something that does the same.


For more anecdotes and general thoughts on life with colitis, or taking steroids (among other things) check out

£1 for every book sold goes to Crohn’s and Colitis UK charity:

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