The voice in the shower is back – that scolding, merciless, how-could-you growl that erupts in moments of solitude. You shouldn’t have sent that e-mail. You sure screwed up that meeting. You don’t know anything.
For the two years I was on 20mg daily of Celexa, the SSRI antidepressant, all I heard in the morning was the rush of water. The blaring radio of self-recrimination became benign static. I never told myself I was an idiot while conditioning my hair.
As of a couple of months ago, I’m off the meds, and the negative monologue is back in transmission. My fuse is way shorter. I have days when I feel sad for no reason. Routine setbacks can feel like the end of the world.
And yet, I decided to go off the drugs anyway, and to resume my acquaintanceship with the Voice. Yes, it’s lousy, and its friends are worse: The Emotional Roller Coaster. The Shame. The Social Anxiety. But I have made peace with them because of one cherished member of the entourage: the Libido.
Two years ago, I was overwhelmed by the responsibilities of a stressful job and a small child. When I started crying, I found it hard to stop. I made an appointment with a psychiatrist and told him I thought I was having panic attacks.
“There’s no crying in panic attacks,” he said, echoing the “no crying in baseball” cliché. “You’re depressed.”
Hearing that just made me cry harder. But I took the prescription, and enjoyed two years as an ultra-sane, extra-productive member of society. I raised my kid. I kept my marriage functioning well. I wrote two books. I kept the house reasonably clean. I saw friends. I was a multitasking advertisement for SSRIs.
I was an antidepressant evangelist, even, until the drug’s emotional protection started to feel more like a dirty windshield than shining armor. My husband complained about how placid I was even during fights, how it was like I was floating above events rather than being a part of them.
The official word was that maybe I didn’t need them anymore. My therapist said the brain benefits from its time in the SSRI bubble, and forms new pathways and new ways to cope with stress. It learns, he said, what it feels like to be happy, so it’s easier for it to go to that place even in the absence of the pills.
When I forgot to take a pill one day, I decided to go cold turkey. Big mistake. Three days in, I had vertigo, what’s known as “brain zaps,” and nearly fainted on a subway platform — all phenomena of “discontinuation syndrome.” (Discontinuation syndrome is eloquently described in this New York Times article by science writer Bruce Stutz.) But once I started tapering gradually, the brain zaps and other unpleasantness slowly went away.
And what was left was desire. I suddenly remembered what it was like to actually want to have sex. And not like, “Sure, why not?” a few times a week, which is what my sex life had become. But actually wanting it. Thinking about it at inappropriate times. Lusting after people behind counters. Having more fun in bed, and a whole lot faster (those who have been on SSRIs will know what I mean).
Along with thinking about sex all the time, I was writing a lot. I started keeping a journal (longhand!) again for the first time in probably 10 years. I started discovering new music and really being into it. I stayed up late just to read and write, and not for work, but for fun. It was like the feeling of falling in love, but not with anyone in particular — although my husband was the beneficiary of the sudden nymphomania.
And still now, a few more weeks in, I feel extra-engaged with the world, for better and worse. I snap at my son and husband way more than before. If the kid won’t stay in his bed at bedtime I can get so annoyed I have to go into the other room and take deep breaths until I calm down. But I also hold them closer and laugh louder at their jokes. I’m back to getting crushes on strangers. I blush more. I reloaded my iTunes with the Replacements. I bawled at “Toy Story 3.”
As an amateur student of brain chemistry, I wasn’t surprised that I’d been quasi-neutered by Celexa. Helen Fisher, Ph.D., the author of several popular books, talks about how antidepressants inhibit our ability to feel romantic. “An estimated 70 percent of patients taking these medications suffer diminished libido,” she writes in “Why We Love,” “And these drugs can often induce apathy, what psychiatrists call ‘emotional blunting.’”
When I went on the antidepressants, I figured a little muting would be fine. In fact, faced with an emotional meltdown, some detachment from reality sounded like a pretty great idea.
And when the lower-libido side effect kicked in, I didn’t think feeling a little less sexy mattered that much. I was in my early 30s, a mother, and was still regularly sleeping with the same man I’d been with for almost a decade. Who was complaining, right?
But there’s a difference between getting things done and savoring them. In those two years, I never stayed up until 2 a.m. just to read a novel. I never cried at a sad movie. I never looked forward to sex all day: the euphoria of it. The intimacy of it. It’s a natural counterpoint to the agony of self-recrimination, because it lets the self take a break.
Maybe emotional volatility and sexual enthusiasm always go together, or maybe it’s just me. Yes, I worry that my depression will return and trading sanity for sex will seem like a bad bargain. But as long as the lows aren’t crippling, I want to try to ride them out. Antidepressants save lives all the time, and I know for a fact how good they can be when you’re trying to climb out of an emotional pit. But now that I’m out, I want to see if I can throw the rope away without falling back in.
The author Lev Grossman has a great essay called “Writing and Antidepressants: A Match Made in Purgatory,” in which he says of his rush of feeling after stopping his meds, “My brain was having ideas and making connections and generally hyper-functioning … All the little blinking lights were on. I don’t think they’d been on in a while.”
That’s how I feel now: like the lights are on, and blazing — some that should probably be off, sure, but also the ones that must be on for anything as complicated as desire to flourish. It’s not like I’m having a better time right now, but it feels like a more real spiritually gratifying time. Being off antidepressants has meant appreciating the value of discomfort. Sex is messy when it’s done right. And maybe so is life.
Ada Calhoun is the author of “Instinctive Parenting: Trusting Ourselves to Raise Good Kids.” For more, see adacalhoun.com.