By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
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Scarcella's story is the same one that is told countless times on GHB Internet message boards: After a day of pumping iron, he would have trouble falling asleep, so he used GHB occasionally to get a good night's rest. It seemed like a miracle drug: made you sleep, made you bulk up, got you high, got you through the day. And if doctors in Europe used it to anesthetize pregnant patients during labor, if it was being used to treat alcohol withdrawal, and it could make you bigger, then how harmful could it be?
"At lower doses, it can energize or relax; at larger doses, it can cause coma and death," says Dr. Deborah Zvosec, a Minnesota GHB researcher. "The consensus in the clinical community is that it is a very dangerous drug."
But that consensus has been a long time coming. The Food and Drug Administration didn't ban the supplement until 1990, and even then it left loopholes, which allowed for GHB analogues (chemical cousins that turn into GHB after ingestion) to continue to be sold over the counter. Although Texas and several other states had made GHB possession illegal in the '90s, the federal government didn't follow suit until 2001. Responding to its pernicious reputation as a date-rape drug, Congress listed GHB and its analogues (if adapted for "human consumption") as Schedule 1 controlled substances on par with heroin and methamphetamine.
Early studies, some of them conducted in Europe, concluded that GHB was neither toxic nor addictive. Some recent emergency medicine journals have reviewed the medical literature and catalogued a variety of therapeutic benefits for the chemical, which is a depressant. But Zvosec believes these studies are based on bad science and are part of "a campaign of misinformation," reinforced by the Internet, which continues to make the drug poorly understood, even within the medical community. "Because GHB has been used in limited cases for medical purposes, some people assume that it is a good thing," she says. "They leap to the profound conclusion that since GHB occurs naturally in the body [believed to be a neurotransmitter], it is nontoxic. And that is just not true." Although there is scant science on the drug's long-term effects, there is a great deal of research (some of it hers) that shows that GHB is a highly addictive drug whose withdrawal can be lethal.
Despite this research, GHB hasn't become a public health priority and hasn't even made it onto the radar screens of many within the rehab or medical communities. "We are battling a lack of public awareness," Zvosec says. "GHB is not as available as heroin, and it hasn't gotten the attention of Ecstasy, which is much less dangerous. But according to the federal drug warning system, the number of ER admissions where GHB is mentioned has grown from 50 a year to nearly 5,000."
In 1996, when GHB was still a nightcap for Scarcella, he again felt the itch to compete, this time at the NPC-sponsored Mr. Lone Star contest. If he won the competition, he would qualify to compete in the nationals, where a win could finally make him a pro. This time, in his corner, he had Crystal Gleisner, who also knew from the moment she met him at a Dallas nightclub in 1995 that she wanted to take care of him. She got her wish, moving in with him and cooking his meals four times a day, exactly the way he wanted them, exactly when he needed to eat them. "His body was like a machine," she recalls. "The minute he would start eating he would start to sweat, instantly metabolizing his food."
She thought his shyness meant they might connect at a deeper level, but bodybuilding kept him shallow and self-absorbed. "What you saw with Mike was all there was: a sweet man who ate, slept, worked out and watched sports. If you wondered where he was, it was either in the kitchen or the bedroom." Gleisner wanted something more. "Do you know how many times a day we heard, 'Say, how much can you bench?'"
Scarcella prepared for the competition the only way he knew how: by over-training. Although he tore a hamstring before the competition, he won the Lone Star Classic easily and felt he was finally on his way to becoming a professional. Just one more win at the NPC Nationals and there might be endorsement deals, special appearances, a shot at some real money. But something happened in the meantime, something that made him look beyond himself: He became a dad.
Shortly after Brock was born in 1998, Scarcella told Gleisner that he was done with bodybuilding. It was too selfish a sport, and he needed to make money as a personal trainer. He wanted to be there for Brock in a way that his own parents had never been.