By Cate Baily

One young man's story of steroid addiction, body obsession, and getting clean

Craig Costa / Former steroid abuser

Every time he passed a mirror, Craig Costa flexed his muscles. He wanted to look "insanely big—like an action figure."

"When I walked into a room, I wanted heads to turn," he says. People did notice Craig's 225-pound, 5-foot 9-inch frame. But what they didn't see was the physical damage and psychological turmoil going on inside. The story behind the bulk was five years of steroid abuse and a struggle with muscle dysmorphia, a condition in which a person has a distorted image of his or her body. Men with this condition think that they look small and weak, even if they are large and muscular.

Illegal and Grim

It all started when Craig was 18. Before a trip to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., he was feeling overweight. He wanted to look good with his shirt off, so he resolved to get fit. A student at Bristol Community College, in Fall River, Mass., he started going to a nearby gym. Running on the treadmill, he slimmed down fast, losing 20 pounds in a month.

( © Steve Allen/Brand X/Alamy)

But lean wasn't Craig's ideal. "My whole priority was, I wanted people to say, 'That guy's huge." He lifted weights and experimented with steroidal supplements, also called dietary supplements. These drugs promise to build muscles. Despite potential risks and unclear effectiveness, they can be bought legally over the counter at many stores.

But what Craig was looking for couldn't be bought in a store. So he turned to anabolic steroids, drugs derived from the male sex hormone testosterone.

Under a doctor's supervision, anabolic steroids have some legitimate medical uses, as do corticosteroids, a different type of steroid used to reduce swelling. But to use steroids as Craig did, for muscle-building in a healthy body, is illegal. This didn't stop him. Neither did the many grim potential side effects (see sidebar).

Craig thought he knew exactly what he was getting into. And like 4 percent of high school seniors (according to a 2002 NIDA-funded study) and an estimated hundreds of thousands of adults, he took steroids anyway.

(Steroid User: © David Madison/Getty Images)

Heart Problems

Craig's appearance was that important to him. "The scale was my enemy. Every pound meant so much to me," he says.

Craig constantly compared himself to others. He drove his friends and family crazy asking, "Is that guy bigger than me? What about that guy?"

He never had complete satisfaction. "Some days, I'd be arrogant, wearing shorts to show off my quads. Other days, I'd be a disaster. On a non-lifting day, I'd have to wear big, baggy clothes."

Craig's steroid use escalated over time. He had begun by taking oral steroids (pills) exclusively. But when he heard that injectable steroids were more effective, he overcame a fear of needles. At his worst, he was injecting three to four times a day and taking 10 pills on top of that.

The drugs took their toll. Craig's hair fell out; acne popped up all over his back; his face swelled. Then, something even more serious happened: He started having chest pains.

Craig was having heart problems of the emotional sort, too. "I don't even remember how much of a jerk I was," he says.

© Illustration: Stephen Kroninger

New Priorities

There was a lot of screaming and yelling at home, and ultimately, the end of his marriage and a custody battle over his 1-year-old son, Jake. Craig's wife said that Craig, then 25, couldn't see their child until he passed a drug test. That was the moment when everything changed for Craig. He knew he had to quit. On Father's Day, 2001, Craig went cold turkey. He knew he needed help, so his parents found him a psychiatrist, who treated him through the better part of a year. Today, Craig's priorities have changed. He still wants to be a head-turner, but for a different reason. "Now I'd rather be walking into a room with my son [who is now 2] and have people thinking, 'Wow, he's the greatest dad in the world."

For more information on heroin, check out