When my psychiatrist recommended I begin taking medication, he brought it up casually. As he wrote out the prescription, he reassured my mother and me that it would help me get my anxiety under control.
SSRIs, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, alter the brain chemistry by changing how much serotonin is running through the pathways of the mind. To put it simply, serotonin makes us happy and the lord knows I needed more of that the year I turned seventeen.
He also briefed my mother and me on the side effects of taking Zoloft, the specific SSRI I was prescribed.
“Now, there are some small things you should be aware of when you start taking this. You’ll probably feel a bit sick to your stomach in the beginning and possibly some drowsiness. Make sure you don’t miss a dose or stop suddenly or you will experience withdrawal.”
I looked at my mother apprehensively, not sure how I felt. We stared blankly back at the doctor, listening to more instructions.
“Most people don’t have any serious problems anymore, I’m just telling you these things as a manner of protocol. No need to worry.”
And so I jumped into the unknown and swallowed the pill (with chocolate milk) in my parents’ kitchen a few hours later. Over the next month and a half the noise in my head died down. Not quite to a whisper, but the murmuring there now was refreshing, following the dull roar of fear and sadness that had gripped me since childhood. I felt free. I felt better. I was going to be O.K.
But soon, I can’t pinpoint exactly when, sexual encounters of all kinds became less and less enjoyable. I had not had sex yet, but I’d done other things and they’d certainly felt good. I noticed that climaxes started taking longer and longer to reach, with lower and lower payoff. The sensations began to seem distant and echoing instead of immediate and arresting. Two months later they had quit altogether.
I kept trying, thinking that maybe it was something I was doing wrong. Maybe I had changed. I had read tales of the elusive female orgasm, and I assumed that this new challenge was just part of my body changing as I got older. Maybe this was growing up. By the time I walked on campus for my first semester of college, I no longer felt anything during sexual encounters. No amount of effort could elicit any type of sensation.
But it was OK because this is just what being a woman is like, right? This is how it’s supposed to be, I told myself.
* * *
In the fall of my freshman year, a short and stocky rowing teammate named Bryan joined a group of my friends on a long walk downtown. He carried me back to my apartment when my feet started bleeding through the soles of my fancy shoes. He kissed me under a streetlight and made me laugh so hard people passing by thought we were drunk.
Within weeks of knowing each other, we were “In a Relationship” on social media and held hands. He talked of marriage within the first few months of our sudden first kiss. We slept in the same bed and went everywhere together. He met my parents and took me to the hospital when I got sick.
I was going to sleep with someone for the first time and it was going to be him, I decided. All I needed was another person to help me navigate through the weird world of sex and I could find my mojo again.
I waited for him to find the key to my body, hidden somewhere in the folds of my mind and soul where I hadn’t yet thought to look. He never found it. I pretended that everything was fine and instead played back memories of the past to keep myself engaged in the moment.
No matter how enthusiastic I was when we started, my body never followed suit. Touches that had previously sent shivers up my spine now felt as commonplace as brushing up against someone in the grocery store aisle. No amount of foreplay could elicit the necessary wetness to have any sort of intercourse.
Once I realized things weren’t improving despite being with a partner, I stopped being interested in sex. After I turned the light out, I would say “goodnight” and he would press up against me.
“Yes?” I would ask the dark room.
“I just wanted to maybe kiss or something. It’s been awhile…”
“No, I really need some sleep. Been a long week.”
In the mornings I would wake up and try to leave quickly, saying I needed to do homework, laundry or spend time with my roommate.
Our relationship soured. We still had not been able to have sex despite numerous (painful) attempts. I assumed it was because there was no great love between us. When I broke up with him on the first floor of our university’s cafeteria I told him that I thought I might be asexual and needed some time alone to sort it out.
In the summer months that followed I was alone more than I ever had been before. I rented an apartment in the city, studied for my summer classes, and took lazy bike rides in the golden evenings while my school friends went home for the break. Without friends or a boyfriend to distract me, I started asking questions.
I began by searching antidepressants. I read basic entries on WebMD that listed common side effects with nice slideshows and well laid-out bullet points. Prescription drug reporting websites and medical studies soon followed.
On several websites, I learned that sexual dysfunction is a known side effect of SSRIs. Mostly I found resources about a lack of interest in sex caused by the medication and ways to make it seem more appealing. Since school was out of session and I didn’t see many people anyway, I decided to stop taking the pills. Everything I’d read led me to believe that I could stop taking the medication in times of low anxiety and my sexual function would return. After two weeks of strange headaches that felt like electric shocks and bouts of nausea that left me lying helplessly on my bathroom floor, I turned my attention to my sexual problems and whether there had been any progress.
The long three months of summer passed by and nothing improved. I read countless articles filled with female masturbation tips like “Stay focused, but not too focused,” “Take your time” and “Think sexy thoughts” to no avail. Occasionally I could feel something vaguely pleasurable, but it felt so muted that it only upset me further. School was starting soon and I needed to get back on the medication. That’s when the worry set in. Why wasn’t three months chemical-free enough for normalcy to return?
For many people experiencing SSRI-related sexual dysfunction, the problems go away when they stop taking the medication. But a small percentage of patients report intense sexual issues that begin or continue long after the prescription is over. Called Post-SSRI Sexual Dysfunction Disorder, the phenomenon is little studied and even less understood.
According to a 2014 study conducted by the North Wales Department of Psychological Medicine, at least 12% of people who take the drug I was prescribed (referred to as Sertraline in the study) report symptoms like mine. There is no known cause, and therefore no known cure.
I found online discussion posts from people who had been meds-free for years and still had no feeling returned. Reality set in: This was not a blip. This was not growing up. This was a largely unknown side effect of a drug that science has just begun to acknowledge (let alone explain) and I was powerless to change it. Through my sophomore and junior years of college I came to grips with the concept that sex might never happen, and if it did it wouldn’t be “normal.”
I made an appointment with the psychiatrist I had last seen as a scared high school student. I described my symptoms in diplomatic language while staring at the art on the walls instead of making eye contact. He nodded with sympathetic eyes and assured me that what I was experiencing was very common, that some patients have to wait years for normal sexual function to return after stopping medication. All was well, he said; I just had to be willing to wait.
I broke out all of the medical studies I had read and began to share the knowledge I had gathered trolling the online forums. He brushed me off, telling me not to worry. I felt completely powerless, only armed with my personal experiences up against a wall of Ivy League degrees. He shuffled me out the door with a kind word and a recommendation I talk to a counselor about my problems with sex.
* * *
On most days it felt like a distant problem hovering on the horizon that I did not have to confront. I lost myself in papers, homework and studying trying to get away from it. I stayed away from dating and the possibility of meeting someone who would force me to face the unknown.
Then, after another budding romance was ruined by my inability to connect sexually and the frustration that stemmed from it, I decided to go on a quest. My goal was human connection, both personal and sexual. I wanted to stop hiding behind my shyness and condition, and find out how I could be the best I could be. I wanted to figure out how to bridge the gap between desiring someone and making it happen. I wanted to do the thing that scared me enough times that it became a manageable drop instead of a flying leap off a steep cliff.
I went on first dates, second dates and third dates. I went to dinner, walked on the beach and got drinks. Each time it got less and less scary until I could do it in my sleep. I ripped the mask of fear away and found my voice, even when I was terrified.
As far as sex goes, that was tougher. When I felt nothing from the touches of one experienced stranger I was overwhelmed with frustration. Partway through I began to cry. After awkwardly walking out on a few people and crying on at least one more, I finally lost my virginity at the age of 21.
After meeting John, a young Navy sailor with close-cropped blonde hair and blue eyes, on an online dating site, we casually dated for a few months. I decided I trusted him enough to try to go all the way. Instead of going through an awkward routine of explaining myself before we had even taken any clothes off, I let it happen. Finally having penetrative sex took some patience and I did my best to hide my winces by burying my face in his neck.
When it was all over, I jumped off of the bed and whooped in victory. Crying with happiness, I explained all that had happened and how much what we did meant to me. I hugged him tight while he looked on in fascination.
I felt like I had finally broken through a wall and figured out how to bridge the gap between others and myself in the most basic of ways. With this newfound success, I forged ahead. I found other partners and kept trying. Even so, there is nothing stranger than looking into the eyes of another person who is slowly coming to the realization that you are not lying and not exaggerating and are indeed as broken as you told them you would be.
Sometimes I can have sex without a hitch. Other times, it feels like blinding pain and I have to stop. I haven’t found the rhyme or reason yet. It feels like nothing, but still strangely everything. Sex is a ritual to connect with other people that I’m constantly on the outside of, but am now leaning toward.
Eight months ago, I decided to go off the medication altogether, but I have so far seen no improvement. At this point I’m doubtful I will ever have normal sex. But what is “normal?” For now, I’m done seeking arbitrary dates to help my social skills. I have gleaned all of the knowledge I can from sex without strings. I’m searching for genuine human connection, inside the bedroom or out.