Vacaville, California -- Brenda Marrero came upon her son Efrain surfing the Internet one day last October. When Efrain hid what was on the screen, she asked what he had been looking at. He turned and said he wanted to tell her something: He was using steroids.
She called her husband, Frank, and they told Efrain he needed to stop, because steroids are dangerous.
"But Barry Bonds does it," his parents remember Efrain saying.
"That doesn't make it right," his father responded.
To please his parents, Efrain retrieved a dozen pink pills, a vial of liquid and two syringes. His mother flushed the pills and kept the vial. Efrain, who played football, promised to stop using steroids. It was a promise that no one doubts he kept.
Three and a half weeks later, Mrs. Marrero found Efrain in a bedroom at home, a bullet in his head, a .22-caliber pistol in his hand. He left no explanation for his suicide. He had no history of depression or mental illness. He was 19.
"We didn't see it coming," Mrs. Marrero said, crying. "We were absolutely devastated."
Not until weeks later did the Marreros learn that their son had been surrounded by steroids; his sister's boyfriend, co-workers at the mall and other weight lifters at his gym used steroids. And when Efrain went off to the College of the Siskiyous, he joined a football team in which a number of players were using steroids, three former teammates said.
And not until they learned what steroid withdrawal can do to a teenager's hormones did the Marreros find a plausible explanation for Efrain's suicide: the family, their doctor and their friends think that Efrain fell into an abyss from having suddenly stopped using steroids.
Two previous suicides had been attributed by parents to steroid use by young athletes: Rob Garibaldi, 24, of Petaluma, Calif., in 2002, and Taylor Hooton, 17, of Plano, Tex., in 2003. The athletes, both baseball players, died shortly after they stopped using steroids.
At a time of increasing concern about the use of steroids by young athletes and the long-term health risks associated with the drugs, the three suicides, while extreme, have underscored for many medical experts the short-term risks linked to withdrawal from steroids.
Donald Hooton Sr., Taylor's father, is scheduled to be among the witnesses discussing steroid use by teenagers at a hearing today of Congressional health and consumer protection subcommittees. Mr. Hooton and Mr. Garibaldi's parents have also been invited to testify on baseball's steroids policy before the House Committee on Government Reform on March 17, and the Marreros said they planned to attend.
Many medical experts suspect that other teenage suicides have been connected to the cessation of steroid use, because adolescents are especially vulnerable to hormonal swings. But the link has not been proved. For ethical reasons, researchers cannot design a medical study that would try to induce depression in someone using a steroid by taking him off the drug.
Medical experts said, however, that there is persuasive anecdotal evidence and a reasonable biological explanation for a connection. When someone takes steroids, the body suppresses its natural production of testosterone. After a person stops, it takes weeks or months to produce normal levels again, leaving some but not all people vulnerable to profound mood changes.
"Efrain stopped, just like we asked him to," Mrs. Marrero said. "And I believe he spiraled into a severe depression. We didn't know this at the time, but we're finding out the thing to do is not go off them cold turkey like that. And I believe that is what happened: steroids killed my son."
Mr. Marrero's suicide occurred in a region where the steroids scandal involving the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative has dominated news coverage for more than a year. In San Francisco, about 50 miles southwest of Vacaville, federal prosecutors are preparing to go to trial in the Balco case, in which four men, including Barry Bonds's personal trainer, have been charged with conspiracy to distribute steroids.