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Mind

The world I discovered when I came off my anti-depressants

When Deborah Hill Cone came off her anti-depressants (on the suggestion of her psychiatrist), she rediscovered her emotions - and great sex!

By Deborah Hill Cone
I am sitting in the doctor's waiting room, to get my son immunised for measles. (Long story, don't judge, better late than never.) They have the radio on and they are playing a terrible song. Actually, it might be the worst song ever.
It is called The Power of Love. You might know the Céline Dion version but this is Jennifer Rush and she does that warbly vibrato thing with her voice, which is probably the 1984 version of vocal fry.
And the lyrics are ridiculous. "I hold on to your body, and feel each move you ma-a-ake." There are '80s electronic drums that sound like a monkey banging on a wet cardboard box.But now I find that the stupid song is making me cry. Proper crying; sobbing – there will be snot. A mother next to me who is wearing tweed Chanel boots shifts away a little.
Her child is wearing a private school blazer. (A lot of badges, but maybe no badges given for showing emotion.) But I can't help it; the tears just keep coming in that shuddery way.
And you know why I am crying? Not because I'm a basket case or need to see my psychiatrist. Not because I'm stuffed. Not this time.
This time I am crying because this absurd, cheesy song – "your voice is warm and tender/A love that I could not forsake" – has moved me. Life is treacherous, and painful, and heartbreaking and beautiful. I'm crying because we want the fantasy and the magic person and we can't have it but that's okay because that is the human condition. And I'm crying because there is goodness in everyone; always and I can see it (even the Chanel matron). Mainly I am crying because I can feel emotions. I can feel everything again; all the good stuff and all the bad.
This is what happens when you go off your antidepressants.
Antidepressants probably saved my life. When I was down in the hole and could see no way out, I think they kept me alive long enough for me and my therapist to climb out together.
Far too bloody slowly for my liking, but that's the way these things work. And we can't do it alone. So I am grateful to my chemical friends. This was not my first time at this rodeo.
But when I went off them (on the suggestion of my psychiatrist) I was not prepared for this. I knew all the bad stuff. I had read about SSRI discontinuation syndrome, the tapering, the withdrawal.
About 20 per cent of people who suddenly stop an antidepressant develop an antidepressant discontinuation syndrome. Some restart antidepressants because it's so bad.
What I didn't expect was all the feels.
I didn't know I was emotionally numb, living half a life, before. Now it is good and bad. It's amazing and it's terrifying. And not just because naff songs make me cry.
Then there is sex. Freaking whoa!
I think I had actually forgotten about sex. I mean, I knew it still existed, out there, somewhere. But if you had done some sort of complicated MRI scan thing on my brain and looked for sex-related bits to light up, it would have been a bit grey. I told myself it was just menopause.
I actually wrote an article about how you didn't have to be a sexpot to have great sex, but really, that's because there was a whole primal filthy part missing. I was sort of proud that I could still try really hard and enjoy sex, but, yeah, well you shouldn't need to get a badge for that stuff should you? It should just come easily. (Ha ha.)
Once I stopped taking the pills it was suddenly like my inner sex goddess had awoken. It is hard to describe that feeling of feeling alive everywhere in your body. To be able to feel embodied love, not just the thought of it, intellectually. There are no words for this.
I hope I've made it clear I am a big supporter of antidepressant drugs, especially for cases of major depressive disorder (sometimes SSRIs get prescribed for other kinds of conditions as well). But I do wonder if we understand what they do to our feelings and our sex lives.
In addition to reducing interest in sex, SSRIs can make it difficult to become aroused and to really see any point in the whole endeavour. This often gets dismissed as a side effect, but more and more people are wondering if it is a main effect and is far more important than we realised.
Anthropologist Helen Fisher, who has studied romantic love and attachment for 40 years, is worried about what antidepressants are doing to our ability to bond with each other. She has nothing against people taking them short term when in severe distress. In fact, she would recommend it.
But more and more people are taking SSRIs long term. She says, "I know one girl who's been on these anti-depressants, SSRIs, serotonin-enhancing antidepressants – since she was 13. She's 23."
They weren't around when I was 13, but I could have been that girl. I haven't counted up how many years I was on antidepressants.
Dr Fisher points out what these drugs do is raise levels of serotonin. And by raising levels of serotonin, you suppress the dopamine circuit. Dopamine, the reward hormone, is associated with romantic love. SSRIs suppress the dopamine circuit; they kill the sex drive. And when you kill the sex drive, you kill orgasm. And when you kill orgasm, you kill that flood of chemical messengers in the brain like oxytocin- associated with attachment. She warns: when you tamper with one brain system, you're going to tamper with another.
"I'm simply saying that a world without love is a deadly place."
Those are strong words. But maybe we should be listening.
Now that I am back to the kind of normality where I can water my plants, get my library books back on time and take my son to get his jabs, there is no need to feel half-alive. I can feel the power of love.

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