As a kid I always had this image of myself as being small. Although I was never puny, at 5’9” I felt short compared to my father and brothers, who were all over six feet. On top of that, being the youngest of four, I always felt I had to do that much more to get noticed.
Even at 14 years old, I knew that the more powerful you were, the more recognition you got. I figured that although I might be shorter, I didn’t have to be smaller, so I started Olympic weightlifting at the gym for a couple of hours after school four times a week. It was tough going at first, but I was determined and applied myself. After a while I even found that I enjoyed that lingering soreness in my developing muscles the day after a heavy workout. I knew that meant I was breaking down muscles and forcing them to grow. I was getting stronger every day.
As I grunted and grabbed, I’d stare in amazement at some of the bodybuilding guys, who looked like they’d been inflated with a bicycle pump. When I saw a centerfold of Arnold Schwarzenegger, my reaction was Yeeuchh! his physique was grotesquely, gratuitously over the top.
But the longer you hang around bodybuilders, the more you accept what’s going on. Soon I began to admire these muscle mountains. They got respect from people, and I wanted some of that for myself.
So I shifted from Olympic weightlifting to bodybuilding, which has all these exercises to develop every muscle from your eyelids down.
Right from the start I was aware that there were about five guys in the gym who dwarfed everyone else. It was an open secret they were “on the juice”—our code for taking steroids. I knew that even if I spent 24 hours a day in the gym, I’d never get as big as them. And the bigger the better—I thought.
So after graduating high school, I went up to one of the guys and asked for some juice. Looking back now, I realize it was one of those fateful decisions.
In the changing room two days later, I paid $35 for 100 white tablets. It felt no different than buying a beer when you’re underage. Sure, I’d heard the horror stories about steroids, but I didn’t care. I couldn’t wait to get home and take them.
“Look at My Lats!”
I’d been told to take two but gulped back four. I felt different almost immediately, and within two weeks my shirt gaped at the buttons like the Incredible Hulk’s.
Every muscle got visibly bigger by the day, and my clothes looked like they’d shrunk in the wash. But soon I wasn’t wearing much anyway.
I was stripping down everywhere I could to show off. I’d walk through town in the snow in a T-shirt, thinking, Look at me! Look at my lats! I was the ultimate poser. I wanted to make people go “Whoa!” And they did.
I’d been training for nearly three years, and my arms were stuck at 141/2 inches. But within two weeks of taking steroids, they’d grown to 171/2 inches.
Those muscles felt totally different from normal muscle because they were constantly engorged, or loaded with blood. They didn’t give when you squeezed them, they were iron-hard and laced with veins. I thought I looked awesome. And like the model with outrageously oversized silicone tits, I didn’t care whether it was synthetic or not. I just loved turning heads. And man, did I ever. After a while, you couldn’t not notice me!
It Was Crap
After six months my supplier told me to take a six-month break or I’d get liver cancer. But the very first steroid-free morning, I felt myself deflating like a burst balloon.
The muscles disappeared faster than they’d come, and no matter what I did in the gym, they wouldn’t come back. I’d gone around for six months being the Big I Am, and suddenly I was the Big I Am Not. It was crap. It was worse than when I had started out as a scrawny 14-year-old kid, because back then I hadn’t ever had a taste of the power and recognition muscles could give me. But to experience that and suddenly be forced to go without it was horrible.
After the six-month break, I thought, Screw this, I’ll just keep going. No more breaks. I’d heard that intravenous steroid injections were stronger, so I began injecting myself a couple of times a week.
By combining intravenous and oral steroids, I soon made an incredible change in my body. After only a couple of weeks, I felt totally amazing and unstoppable again.
Soon I had 28-inch thighs, bigger than Arnie, who I’d once thought looked like such a freak. Now, of course, I was every inch as big a freak myself. Good old Arnie was starting to look like family to me.
But I’d lost touch with reality by then. I was going to the gym four times a day, six days a week, but didn’t think I was obsessed. I was just dedicated.
Everything revolved around getting bigger. I’d shovel back 10,000 calories a day without thinking twice about it. My typical day’s intake would have been enough to feed some families for a week. I’d start with a 20-egg omelet for breakfast and have a whole chicken midmorning, a 12-ounce steak for lunch, another at 3 p.m., training from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., fish and three vegetables for supper, and then another 10 eggs before bedtime. I had thought steroids were expensive, but the grocery bills were soon spiraling out of control.
My Thigh Came Off
At 18 I was spending up to $1,000 every couple of months on a growing cocktail of steroids. I was working as a bouncer at a nightclub, but my pay barely covered the cost. I once threw out four trash bags of drug containers I’d used in just four months.
I got married at 19, and my wife went along with my steroid consumption, although like everyone else she thought I’d be dead at 30. One gym owner called me a walking chemical reactor, but I didn’t care. I thought I was the cat’s ass. If anyone said anything about me dying, I’d just say, “Yeah, but it’ll take at least 10 men to lift the coffin.”
Taking all these steroids sent my sex drive through the roof while at the same time making me very aggressive. I once threw a 100-pound dumbbell at a guy just for looking at me the wrong way.
Getting noticed on the street was one thing, but soon my ego began demanding more attention. I began going in for bodybuilding competitions and did well.
I didn’t think twice about covering myself in a carcinogenic green fluid. It was the best fake tan you could get, and it turned my pale skin almost black overnight.
Backstage at a bodybuilding competition it’s just like a Miss World competition but without the hair spray. The competitors would spend every offstage moment eyeing each other like bitchy fashion models. I’d starve and dehydrate myself to help define my muscles. Other guys resorted to laxatives. I once saw three guys share a suppository just minutes before a competition.
There were no drug tests because competitive bodybuilding without steroids is like car racing without gasoline. In 1985 I won my first championship. Whenever I won, I’d come home feeling like God. I didn’t just think I was powerful, I had the trophies to prove it.
Then one day in 1987, when I was 29, I was lifting a 1,000-pound weight with my legs when there was a loud crack. My thigh muscle had simply ripped off the bone. But my body was so full of endorphins, I felt nothing.
“My fucking thigh came off,” I shouted. Everyone just laughed. It was only when I stuck my hand under my thigh muscle and wiggled it around under the skin that they ran in panic for the phone.
It was like being a heroin addict: Nothing hurt. On some level I was aware that I was in pain, and plenty of it, but I really didn’t feel a thing. No big deal, I thought. I’ll be back to the weights before breakfast tomorrow.
But at the hospital, they told me if I trained again, I’d kill myself. I just sat there and nodded and thought, No way. Six weeks later I was back in training, and 10 weeks after that, I won another competition.
I Started to Rot
One night soon afterward, I was walking upstairs at the nightclub where I worked when my leg gave way and my kneecap shattered into four pieces. This time I felt the pain. I managed to keep my shit together, and even then I couldn’t admit to myself that I might be damaging my health.
When they examined me, the doctors found that my ligaments were as thin as cobwebs because of the strain I was putting on them. Surgery was really the only option to save my battered joints, but there was another problem: By then I weighed just under 280 pounds, and I was so freakishly out of proportion that the doctors couldn’t be certain if I’d survive the general anesthesia.
Two days after the leg cast was removed, I tripped in exactly the same place and my knee shattered again. I discovered newer and bigger kinds of pain this time out.
The repinning operation took more than four hours, and they had to pump me with so much anesthesia that my liver just up and quit on me. I developed septicemia, my internal organs failed, and my leg started to rot. Rot! While it was still right there on my body. That’s not supposed to happen.
I Was Dying by Inches
It was my 30th birthday, and my body had had enough. I developed a fever and spent 12 weeks in the hospital with gallons of pus being drained from my leg. It measured 32 inches when I went in. By the time they removed the cast a few weeks later, it had shrunk to a depressing 10 inches.
I had developed a condition known as necrosis, in which my toxic body was literally dying by inches. The dead flesh had darkened and turned crinkly, like the skin of a burned marshmallow. My leg was now just a wizened black stump, with maggots crawling out of the skin. I felt like a living corpse, like something out of a horror film.
I’d been trying to turn myself into a musclebound freak but ended up looking like a monster. After nearly 15 years of steroid abuse, my whole body had collapsed and every cell was toxic. I knew then the game was up. I lay there in agony and contemplated suicide. I was on morphine and still screaming in pain, and I knew I was dying.
Then one day my six-year-old son, Daniel, came to visit me. I could barely breathe, and I felt as if acid had been poured into every joint and bone in my body. But I looked at him and for the first time in my life realized there was something worth living for. If I died I wouldn’t see him grow up. I thought, Shit, that’s what this is about.
Until then it had all been about me, me, me. As he smiled at me, I thought, I’m going to beat this.
I left the hospital and was carried home to bed, and I was unable to move for nearly a year. My legs had dwindled to matchsticks. I’d been warned that if my knee broke again, they’d have to chop my leg off since the tissue was so rotten. So I lay there, hallucinating. I didn’t just see pink elephants, I fed them and walked them and offered them bodybuilding tips.
My body was so toxic, I smelled disgusting. My digestive system was completely played out, and I was too scared to eat. The morphine made me constipated, which added to the agony. After eight weeks I was so desperate, I cut my ass open with a razor to get relief. It was excruciating, but I was in such horrible pain anyway, it couldn’t get much worse.
A year later, when I could put one foot out of bed, walking was almost impossible on my shrunken legs. On one of my first ventures out, I was jumped by seven guys I’d pissed off in my bouncing days. As one of them tried to cut my throat, he sneered, “You ain’t so big now, are you?”
My Body Was Like a Furnace
I ended up in intensive care with 75 stitches but didn’t want to press charges. What those guys didn’t realize was that the person they were trying to kill was already dead. The overblown bouncer, the old Rich, didn’t exist anymore. The fact that I’d changed so much meant that my marriage broke up, and I realized I had to get away and start rebuilding myself. I had one last chance.
For a while I slept outside in a tent in a friend’s backyard because my body was like a furnace. I slowly returned to a normal size as the toxins leached out of me. My weight fell to 154 pounds and everyone thought I had cancer.
I was still crippled when friends introduced me to the Chinese system of meditative exercises called t’ai chi ch’uan. In a year I could walk properly again, and now I’m a healthy 182 pounds. I teach t’ai chi, work as a masseur, and am unrecognizable as the musclebound mutant in the posing pouch.
Five of my bodybuilding buddies are now dead. When I look back on those insane years, I always remember the last time I was in a bodybuilding competition. I posed to the Alice Cooper song “Hey Stoopid.” That was me. But I was the freak who fought back. And won.