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Am I Young Yet?

Posted on Nov.24.2010

08face-doping-tmagarticleTo celebrate the start of the football season, I’m volunteering to take one for the team — no, for all teams, major and minor — by coming clean about my doping. Throughout the fall and winter of 2009, I gave myself daily shots of somatropin, the manufactured form of human growth hormone, or H.G.H., which is believed to build muscle and rev up the recovery time from injuries. Hence the drug’s allure to professional athletes. In my case, I had a torn ankle tendon that required surgery, and at 48, I began to wonder whether my post-op rebound might benefit from the supposed boost of H.G.H. juice? “It’s worth a try,” confirmed my doctor, an anti-aging specialist. “H.G.H. should also help you lose weight, and you’ll love the way it will make your skin look younger.” Did I hear that right? Weight loss and younger skin? Could H.G.H. be my double dream come true?

As a compulsive pursuer of youth, an always unattainable and therefore delusional quest, I have chased all manner of facial-rejuvenating and appearance-enhancing agents, from a cornucopia of creams to chemical peels to wrinkle-erasing and skin-plumping injections to aesthetic laser treatments and even a surgical procedure or two. I go so far as to establish first-name relationships with plastic surgeons and dermatologists, their private cellphone numbers the only ones I keep on my auto-dial.

This is not unusual for sufferers of Dorian Gray Syndrome, a little-known psychological disorder first identified in 2000 by a cabal of staff shrinks at Germany’s Justus-Liebig-University, Giessen. The doctors appropriated Oscar Wilde’s novel to describe patients exhibiting an obsessive preoccupation with physical attractiveness and eternal youth, and a narcissistic fixation with “lifestyle drugs” (medications for hair restoration, weight loss and the like) as well as cosmetic procedures and products. The doctors were describing me.

But last winter, I found myself in the grip of more than just vanity. I was also battling hypothyroidism, an endocrine upheaval, throwing my metabolism into slo-mo and saddling me with symptoms like weight gain, exhaustion, irregularity, dry skin, lateral eyebrow loss (weird but true) and more. When it first struck, I inexplicably started to swell, bursting out of my clothes, my bloated thighs splitting the inner seams of my best Chloé trousers. By the spring, I had reached the stage where three strangers — a manicurist, a doorman and a hairdresser — all asked the just-chloroform-me-now question “When are you due?”

After nearly two years of failed treatment by Manhattan’s marquee endocrinologists, I lucked out and landed a rare appointment with a California anti-aging doctor who has treated stubborn cases like mine. Did I care that the American Medical Association and the American Board of Medical Specialties didn’t recognize his specialty? Not if he could prevent the buttons from flying off the back of my skirts whenever I sat down.

Dr. X, 30-something based on his boyish looks, was full of beans. He explained that after 30, the production of growth hormone by the pituitary gland (necessary for the growth of healthy bones and organs) gradually declines and the clinical signs of aging appear, which include everything from weight gain to cardiovascular disease. But, he assured me, if you put back enough growth hormone to reach the body’s optimal level — say, at age 30 to 35 — you can halt the advance of aging and even reverse it. And, best of all, he said, “It’s safe, with almost no side effects.”

My head instantly filled with the rhapsodic sound of ocean waves as I fantasized about a time-lapsed version of myself basking on the French Riviera, nude but for a monokini, regressing back to the pulchritude of my prime: 34 and shimmering like a pink pearl on a half shell.

With three weeks to go before my surgery, I started giving myself daily injections. Although injecting my thigh was pretty painless, it conjured a mixture of shame and creepiness about using a drug that required a set of works. But it also made me feel gutsy and cutting-edge, undeterred by the F.D.A.’s lack of approval for H.G.H.’s use as an anti-aging drug. After all, I got my first shot of Botox in 1997, way before the lethal botulinum toxin became a mass movement and five years before Saddam Hussein’s favorite biological weapon got the F.D.A.’s thumbs up for removing frown lines.

For 10 weeks post-op, my foot was imprisoned in a cast. Because I mostly remained in place, with my leg propped up, I wound up conserving rather than burning calories, and thus failed to shed my extra layer of fat. Meanwhile, a whole other gonzo phenomenon began happening to my face. It was sprouting mutant life forms: solid, raised bumps, ranging from isolated little brown mounds to pimply red pocks to pale-yellowish beads resembling whiteheads. However, when I tried squeezing them, no clogged debris could be released. Granted, I might have exceeded rational expectations when I believed H.G.H. would bathe my complexion in a pre-Retin-A dewiness, but how to fathom this dramatically opposite fate? Skin lesions common to the faces of old people? Were the tiny toggles tagging my face a cutaneous case of Benjamin Button’s aging in reverse?

The prospect put me in a panic. What if other cells — atypical and beyond my eyes’ merciless scrutiny — were also replicating rapidly? How would I even know?

I entrusted this disaster to Dr. Roy Geronemus, the director of the Laser and Skin Surgery Center of New York. He decided that the hyfrecator, a small electrode that uses heat to destroy skin lesions, offered the best precision for the task. Sparing you the gory details, I’ll go straight to Dr. Geronemus’s casualty count: 5 or 6 nevi, or moles, measuring the size of baby peas; approximately 25 sebaceous hyperplasia, or enlarged oil glands, appearing as the yellow bumps, the majority flecking my forehead; and at least 50 angiofibromas, or the small reddish pocks, clustering around my nose.

There is little doubt that H.G.H. was the fertilizer for my face’s errant growths, which constituted a “true adverse effect,” in the words of Dr. Mary Lee Vance, a professor of medicine and neurosurgery at the University of Virginia Health System in Charlottesville who specializes in pituitary disorders in adults. She confirmed that growth hormone used for anti-aging purposes can lead to an overload of the hormone in the body, thus stimulating skin changes, including the development of skin tags, moles, a coarsening of the skin’s texture, enlarged pores and excess sebum production in the oil glands, along with sweat.

“There is no doubt that growth hormone stimulates the entire body, and too much can be very harmful,” she said. “If you have an undiagnosed cancer, there is the possibility of promoting growth of the tumor. In the world of endocrinology, we give hormones to replace what’s appropriate for a person’s age, not to give them the same levels as when they were 30. People taking growth hormone for anti-aging are playing with fire.”

So mine is a story of getting burned, except I’ll never really know whether the accelerant, H.G.H., reached its original, intended target: my ankle tendon. In January, when I went off the drug, I also returned to normal footwear and began physical therapy, surprising myself and everyone else with my bounce-back. Was it because H.G.H. had actually helped along the way?

“Hard to say,” said Lee Rosenzweig, a physical therapist at New York’s Hospital for Special Surgery. “Your recovery is better than average. A lot has to do with the condition you were in before the surgery. The only way you’d know is to have the exact same surgery on the right ankle without any H.G.H.”

Hypothetically, I could sacrifice myself for the advancement of ankle surgeons everywhere. But to go through all that for those guys? No way. They’re not my team. I’m with the beauty players. And I still believe in doing whatever it takes to stay in the game.





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