By: Halle March
I truly believe that that there is so much power that comes along with the feeling of sexual freedom, and within that it is so important to consider the aspects of ones personal self that can impact your expression of sexuality, such as chronic illness and disability, addiction, mental health, and so many other things.
It’s such a special thing to be able to see yourself in the experiences of other people so I opened up the conversation with three of my best friends about how their use of SSRI’s (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, mostly used to treat depression and anxiety) impacts their sex lives in an effort to normalize something that so many people experience.
Thank you for doing this with me!! Can you start off with a little intro and your pronouns?
E: My name is Elise and I use she/her pronouns. I’m 21 years old and have a history of depression and anxiety disorder.
M: My name is Maya. I am a freelance fashion photographer living on the island! My pronouns are she/her.
S: Thank you for asking me – mental illness and sex are both topics with so much shame and stigma and having open conversations like this helps to smash it. My name is Scarlet Redpath, I’m a graphic design student and multimedia artist from Victoria, BC. My pronouns are she/her.
I guess we will start off at the beginning, how old were you when you started taking SSRI’S? ~
E: I started taking Sertraline when I was 17 years old, and have since switched from Zoloft, Wellbutrin to my current medication Prozac.
M: I have suffered with depression ever since I was 12. I started taking SSRI’s when I was 15, I was on a few different kinds until I was about 18.
S: When I was 15, after my first psychotic episode led to a hospitalization and a diagnosis of bipolar disorder type 2 – I tried every natural cure out there before finally started taking anti depressants and mood stabilizers.
When did you first notice your medication affecting your sex life? What role do the effects play now?
E: I wasn’t sexually active at the beginning of my usage of SSRI’s. When I started having sex I couldn’t figure out why I didn’t enjoy it whatsoever. The confusion over my aversion led me to question my sexuality for about a year, I wondered if I was asexual. I didn’t realize at the time that my medication could be severely impacting the way I viewed sex. Soon after I actually switched to Wellbutrin, since it’s an antidepressant but not specifically an SSRI. I learned to enjoy sex more, however since I didn’t find the medication to be effective enough in treating depression, I again had to adjust to the realities of sex while on SSRI’s.
M: I started noticing the medication affecting my sex life after becoming sexually active when I was 16. I found that when I was on Prozac, I went through flows of very high libido to not at all, but I found during withdrawal/changing medications I had no libido at all. I have been med-free for about 3 or 4 years now, and I have a pretty stable libido after the withdrawal period which for me lasted about half a year.
S: This is interesting because I actually started taking medication before I started having sex. In high school it felt like everyone around me was trying and experiencing these teenage sexual firsts and I was in a glass cage of depression. I was constantly doing medication trials to try to find the right one – which led to me being sick from side effects, too dazed to care about sex or too unstable to deal with the emotions that came from intimacy. It was a really hard time for me, I just wanted to feel normal and have fun but I was going though this invisible fight and I was unable to be open about it because I was so ashamed. I felt broken and that made (and still sometimes makes) intimacy a challenge for me so my first sexual experiences weren’t good ones. I used to go off my meds just to experience the hyper sexuality that comes with being unstable bipolar but I grew tired of cleaning up the remains from the tornado that causes. Now I have been steady on the same medication for years and I feel like I have my groove within that, I feel lucky to be on one I don’t feel affects me too much sexually. I have experienced being on certain ones where I am completely unable to have an orgasm, it feels like someone turned the off switch on my body.
Have you found ways to counteract the effects or have you just had to make peace with it?
E: Sometimes I do fully enjoy having sex, although it’s always a struggle to orgasm. Often everything will be going great until I hit this wall right beforehand, that prevents me from reaching a peak. Unfortunately on Prozac alone, I haven’t been able to counteract it’s effects on my sex life. It was mentioned to me by a medical doctor that on occasion people taking SSRI’s will add
Wellbutrin on top of it, to help counteract it’s preventativeness during sex. I’ve been debating trying that idea to see if I notice any changes. However despite that Fluoxetine can be frustrating in the sex department, I’ve come to terms with it alright. When I do find it to be discouraging at times I have to remind myself that having sex is about enjoying it all throughout regardless of if I orgasm or not!
M: I chose to listen to my body when I wasn’t hyper-sexual. I was with a partner for 4 years while I was on medication that didn’t always respect this, so this question is a bit hard to answer.
S: Truthfully it still bums me out sometimes. Some days feel peaceful and others not so much, like everything it ebbs and flows. I have had to accept it and work on transforming the shame I have around it into affirming to myself that taking my meds is actually an act of self love, because I am giving my brain what it needs to be healthy and stable.
Have you noticed the fetishization that exists surrounding people with mental illness? (ie. the whole “crazy girls are so hot” rhetoric)
E: It’s hard to ignore the fetishization over mental illness when it comes to social media. Or more so glorification even. I see more and more often people with mental/chronic illnesses voicing their real experiences online. Which is great for others with the same experiences to read, or for those without to learn. However It’s sad to me how often people misinterpret what mental illnesses actually are, psychological disorders that can deeply impact a person’s quality of life. The fact that some view someone with anorexia as desirable, or someone with anxiety as cute, is extremely unhealthy for those suffering from it. As far as ‘the crazy girls are so hot’ rhetoric goes, it’s clear to me why some may hold that perception. People that fetishize a person with mental illness whether that be romantically, sexually, or both, may find it easier to manipulate and dominate someone that’s already down. With that type misogynistic or ‘white armour’ attitude being projected, how is someone supposed so pick themselves back up when their romantic/sex partner only likes to keep them down for their own sadistic satisfaction?
M: I definitely found the romanticism behind mentally ill people (woman especially) to be very prominent in my past two relationships. I have been lucky enough to have close friends outside of romantic relationships who respect the fact that I was on medication for that portion of my life, but I always felt in past intimate relationships that it was more of a fetishization of me being the “ill” person who was unstable. I was definitely taken advantage of by partners who wanted to get off on that idea.
S: I have had experiences where men love the idea of me, and my mental illness somehow gives this mysterious interesting edge
that’s intriguing to people, but then when they see all sides of me the fantasy fades. It’s the classic manic pixie dream girl fetish – they want to be with a “crazy” girl to experience her sexually but then can’t handle it when that same girl can’t leave her bed for a few days because she’s actually mentally ill.
How has taking SSRI’s impacted your relationship with others?
E: As far as romantic or sexual relationships go, as I mentioned before, in my journey of of taking SSRI’s, it’s caused me to question what kind of relationship I could see myself in. Although having more experience with antidepressant medications now, I can happily say it has little detrimental impact on my sexual relationships and wellbeing.
S: Most people don’t care and just want me to be well, but I do know what it feels like to not be accepted by people I love and that hurts the most. It makes me feel fundamentally flawed at my core. At this point in my life I don’t have space for anyone who casts judgment on me for this, I accept myself for who I am and I’m actually really proud of how far I’ve come considering how dark it’s gotten. If you take medication – never feel shame baby!! You’ve got this!