Ramesh doesn’t like strays. The 30-something doctor from Mumbai kicks street dogs whenever he sees them. His violence is not limited to dogs. One day, he beat up a constable who stopped him from crossing a green light because the traffic was being blocked for a minister’s car.
“I’d beat up my wife, family members, neighbours and even my patients if they annoyed me,” he says.
Avinash, 21, surprised his family when he suddenly started pelting his neighbours with stones. His worried parents admitted the boy from western Uttar Pradesh to the Institute of Human Behavioural and Allied Sciences (IHBAS), New Delhi.
Ramesh and Avinash have something in common with Oscar Pistorius, the South African double amputee track star, who was released on bail on Friday after being jailed for allegedly killing his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp, in his mansion in Pretoria.
On the night of the shooting, Pistorius, or Blade Runner as he was popularly called, was said to have been in the possession of anabolic steroids.
Ramesh takes anabolic steroids — synthetic derivatives of the hormone testosterone — and doctors believe that Avinash was prescribed the drugs by a quack after an illness. Research has shown that in some people — especially those with a family history of psychotic illnesses — steroid drugs can trigger aggression. “This seems to have happened in the case of Avinash,” says Om Prakash, associate professor of psychiatry at IHBAS.
Anabolic steroids, banned in professional sport for their ability to artificially enhance performance and bulk up muscles, are once again in the dock, courtesy the fallen South African star. The controversial steroids behind the win of many a sportsperson is now being discussed for “roid rage”, which the United States Anti Doping Agency (USADA) describes as “increased aggressiveness and sexual appetite, sometimes resulting in aberrant sexual and criminal behaviour” in its latest handbook for athletes.
The potential side effects of steroid misuse range from acne and baldness to testicular atrophy. In women, it can lead to facial hair and a deepening of the voice. Among the other serious side effects are reversible infertility, as well as stroke, liver failure and cardiac arrhythmia.
Fatal shot: Oscar Pistorius and his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp
But the focus in recent times has been on aggression. As extensive research has shown, anabolic steroids, used to treat delayed puberty, impotence and muscle debilitation by raising the levels of testosterone, the primary male sex hormone, also leave a trail of side effects, from the brain downwards. And aggression is often an outcome.
Recently, Dr Dilip Nadkarni, an orthopaedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist in Mumbai, had to mend an angry 26-year-old wrestler’s wrist with a plate and screws, after he pounded the wall with bare fists. The man was on anabolic steroids, as he confessed in the privacy of the doctor’s clinic.
“Misusers of anabolic steroids subjectively report significantly more fights, verbal aggression and violence towards their significant others during periods of use compared with periods of non-use,” says an article in the January 2013 issue of the journal of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, UK.
In the United States, it says, there have been several case reports of “roid rage”. In 88 athletes using anabolic steroids, a study found aggressive behaviour related to steroid-associated episodes. “Participants admitted to a range of serious episodes, including property damage, assault, being involved in a murder plot and beating a pet dog. Several of the sample had been expelled from home by parents, wives or girlfriends because of their intolerably aggressive behaviour,” the journal says.
In India too, widespread use of steroids — especially in areas such as sports — is leading to bouts of violence. Sourav, a 28-year old engineer, who began taking anabolic steroids to excel in college level sports, says he’s lost count of the number of beatings and street fights he got into. “If a fellow biker ignored my honking, I’d just crash into him,” he says. “Once a lady on a two-wheeler fell of her bike because of my violence,” he says.
Saurav, who took 100-200mg of drugs every day, says he was always edgy at home. “If I felt challenged, I broke whatever came my way — even the TV and microwave,” he says.
Ashok’s story is similar — though his aggression was self-inflicted. He recalls one night when he came home late after taking his daily fix of steroids. Tempers were already running high; his nephew was arguing with Ashok’s mother.
Ashok suddenly found himself screaming at the boy, and got slapped by his older brother. Humiliated, he went out and slit his wrist with a blade. The doctor was called in and the hand bandaged, but the adrenaline in his veins hadn’t left the blood. “I was still so full of energy that I tried to find ways to kill myself,” says Ashok, who underwent a 90-day rehab programme.
Clearly, anabolic steroids are not just being used by athletes and others seeking to enhance their performances. Increasingly, it’s also being used as a drug for it triggers a sense of confidence and euphoria. And like all drugs, users can get addicted.
Three years ago, Sandeep Mitra, senior counsellor at the Kripa Foundation’s drug rehab centre in Calcutta, says he saw hardly one or two addicts a month hooked on steroids; today that number has gone up five or six times. In Kripa’s Manipur drug rehab centre, 10 of the 30 beds are occupied by anabolic steroid users. “Most drug addicts start between 13 and 19; once they’ve developed a tolerance for hard drugs like heroin, they turn to steroids,” Mitra says.
“Steroids make you feel on top of the world, but when you stop you crumple into a heap on the floor,” Mitra stresses. And sometimes, somebody else crumples in front of you.
(Some names have been changed.)