Tragic threat lurking in pursuit of perfection

By Steve Deane

In April the Herald investigated a new generation of widely available performance-enhancing drugs. Now we look at the increasing illicit steroid use outside elite sports, and the terrible toll it has taken on one Kiwi family.

Kris McKenzie's family say the loving, lovable 20-year-old became a different person after he began using steroids.
Kris McKenzie's family say the loving, lovable 20-year-old became a different person after he began using steroids.

Kris McKenzie loved his puppy, Oden. One day, inexplicably, Kris flew into a rage, grabbed Oden and threw him into a wall.

The brutal act was totally out of character for a 20-year-old described by his family as a "happy-go-lucky kid". Kris' rage scared his family, and made them deeply worried.

They had every reason to be. Months later Kris was dead. He took his own life, an act that was later attributed by a coroner to depression caused by withdrawal from an anabolic steroid he had been taking and had quit cold turkey.

Kris Anthony McKenzie's death in Invercargill in 1999 was the first case of a suicide being linked to steroid use in New Zealand. The coroner's office could not tell the Herald how many more, if any, there have been since. Such statistics aren't readily available.

But the link between steroid usage and mental illnesses such as psychosis and depression has been well established.

In 2000 a study of 62 Finnish weightlifters who were strongly suspected of taking steroids found the death rate of the group was more than four times above normal.

Of the eight athletes who died over a 12-year period, three suffered heart attacks, one died of cancer, one suffered a hepatic coma - and three committed suicide.

When former British rugby league hooker Terry Newton took his own life in 2010 he had traces of steroids, cocaine and amphetamines in his system. Toxicology reports showed he had taken the steroid nandrolone within a week of his death.

Newton had been serving a two-year ban after becoming the first athlete to test positive for human growth hormone, and had hoped to work with national officials warning players about the dangers of drugs.

Those dangers, as Kris McKenzie's family can attest, don't just apply to athletes. "We, like so many others, naively believed that anabolic steroid usage was only practised within the elite athletic world, not in our local gyms by our own healthy Kiwi kids," says Kris' mother, Shari.

His death completely blindsided the family. No one saw it coming.

"That pain of losing your child to suicide is indescribable," says Shari.

"It was a shock. I'm not proud of saying I was quite smug that my children were really well adjusted and we were living a really happy home life. It was like 'this kind of thing doesn't happen to us'. Then suddenly this terrible, terrible thing was happening to us.

"The pain was unbearable. The grief of losing a child is so enormous that the pain is indescribable. I honestly didn't know how I was going to survive it. I couldn't imagine how to carry on with my life. I felt that I'd failed him as a mother. It was my job to keep him safe. I was feeling this terrible, terrible guilt at not being able to keep him safe."

A good-looking kid, Kris was body conscious, and discovered body building at 17. Shari was warned by a friend to be careful when he switched gyms, but she didn't realise what the warning was about. The family were completely unaware of the threat posed by steroids.

"We had no idea he was on steroids," says older sister Johanna.

"But even if we had known he was on steroids we would never have connected that they could contribute to his aggression and all those mental side effects."

The anger at what happened to Kris hasn't faded. Before his death, Kris' arms often displayed bruising consistent with needle marks. After his death a vial of the prescription-only steroid propionate salt of testosterone was found in his wardrobe.

A police investigation uncovered the likely identity of the suppliers, but no prosecution was ever brought.

"To me it was criminal activity, supplying illegal drugs to vulnerable young men," says Shari. "They had no consideration of the consequences. They encouraged these men who were young and impressionable, at an age when body image was important to them. The easy option was the good option and they encouraged that. They were trainers, people who were working in the fitness industry, who were role models for our youth."

Shari's concern at the time was that penalties for steroid-related crimes were so light they were barely a deterrent. Not much has changed. A Herald investigation into performance-enhancing peptides published in April found that prosecutions for performance and image enhancing drugs (Pied) importation and distribution are rare, and usually result in a fine or community-based sentence.

Kris wasn't the only Invercargill teenager taking steroids in 1999. "There were some big issues down there," says Johanna. "Kris was just one of dozens of young guys getting mixed up in that scene."

If that was the case in Invercargill, she says, then what is the extent of the problem in bigger centres? And how much more stark is the threat now that importing is at record levels, and the internet has opened up a host of new markets to would-be buyers?

Former Commonwealth swimming champion and outspoken campaigner against steroid abuse Dave Gerrard gave evidence at Kris McKenzie's inquest. The raw emotion in the court when Kris' friend testified about him kicking his beloved dog was palpable, recalls Gerrard.

"I'm constantly being asked questions like 'why don't you just flag it and let anybody take anything?'

"Well, bugger it. There is a lot to be lost. If you lose those fundamental principles then what sort of sport will my kids and grandkids play?"

Gerrard will always wonder what he might have achieved in his swimming career had he not come up against the drug-fuelled Eastern Europeans that dominated the 1960s. But bigger issues were at play than who won what-coloured medal.

"There were some horrific health implications," he says. "We tend not to highlight the health, but think of the moral issues of cheating."

Steroids robbed the McKenzies of much more than a shot at glory.

"It was like Kris became someone we didn't know," says Shari. "[Attacking Oden] was so foreign to his behaviour. He was happy, so loved by everybody, just a lovely, happy-go-lucky kid enjoying life. He was kind and generous, loved his friends, and really, really loved Oden."

Never ending heartbreak over loss of brother

Johanna ChamberlainIt's been 13 years since my younger brother Kris took his life. He had just turned 20. I am now 35, have married and have two beautiful children.

Kris' photo hangs on my wall - his young face frozen in time. "Who's that?" my 2-year-old asked the other day. "That's your Uncle Kris," I replied. "Where is Uncle Kris?" "He's in heaven." "Why? ... I like Uncle Kris ..."

My children would have loved their Uncle Kris and it breaks my heart they will never meet him.

They will never have cousins. I'll never be an aunty.

Grief is lonely and never-ending. Often I find myself swallowing a lump in my throat or wiping away tears - forcing myself to hold my head up and get on with life. I still have my life to live.

Nonetheless, a surge of anger emerges when I hear of sportsmen and women taking steroids to enhance their performance, and I feel sick to my stomach when I see bodybuilders flexing their inflated muscles with pride on television and in magazines.

While professional sportspeople abusing steroids get condemned publicly, an underbelly of seedy steroid abuse is happening under our noses. People need to wake up. It isn't just the Lance Armstrongs, Nadzeya Ostapchuks and rugby heroes taking these body and mind-altering drugs. Ordinary young New Zealand men and women are getting lured into a drug scene that seems to be thriving.

Kris was an impressionable 19-year-old when got sucked into the steroid scene in Invercargill. My family, unaware Kris was on steroids, watched him self-destruct from a hopeless distance.

He put up a wall and wouldn't let us in. When Kris decided he didn't like the person he had become and came off the steroids "cold turkey" the damaging psychological side-effects continued - ultimately leading him to take his life on December 17, 1999.

When Kris died, his "gym buddies" were nowhere to be seen. Conveniently, some we believed to be key players in the drug scene disappeared from Invercargill while police investigated allegations that steroids were prevalent within certain gyms.

While steroids and drug paraphernalia were found in Kris' bedroom, the police investigation fizzled to nothing. Whoever supplied my little brother with those damaging drugs was never caught, and has been free to ruin the lives of other innocent people.

If steroid use can thrive in a little city at the bottom of the South Island, I shudder to think how widespread the scene is across the rest of New Zealand. The worst part: I feel helpless to stop it.

- Johanna Chamberlain

Helpline
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