Antidepressants Tanked My Libido — But Led Me to An Even More Fulfilling Sex Life
At 27 years old, I was ready to make peace with the fact that anxiety and depression were always going to be a large part of my existence. For as long as I can remember, I've been susceptible to anxious spirals intertwined with depressive episodes that felt like trying to function with a heavy cloud over my head. Per the suggestion of my therapist, I previously explored antidepressants twice but failed to stick with them in order to actually see results. That is, until this past spring when a highly stressful job and break up pushed me to seek medication again.
By June, I was regularly taking a selective serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (SSNRI), that helps with depression and anxiety. My mind was noticeably calmer, more grounded, and it was easier to let go of anxious thoughts. I raved about it to friends. I did it! I cracked the code — kind of. (Related: The Stigma Around Psychiatric Medication Is Forcing People to Suffer In Silence)
Then I realized the medication made another big difference: It absolutely killed my sex drive.
Along with anxiety and depression, I've also always had a high sex drive (at least, IMO). Once I started taking the medication, I was no longer latching onto anxious thoughts — but I was also rarely having any sexual thoughts or urges. Whenever I tried to masturbate, it would take a lot of porn to get me aroused and I felt like I was working twice as hard to get off — if I didn't give up altogether in frustration. I was happy with the new mental real estate in my brain, but I was wondering if the cost was my sex life.
Turns out, many people are in my shoes. Depression is a common mood disorder, affecting 5 percent of all adults worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. About one in 10 women over age 18 in the U.S. take antidepressants, according to Harvard Health Publishing — and one of the the most commonly reported adverse side effects are problems with sexual desire and sexual arousal, including struggling to orgasm. Medications like mine (SSNRIs) or the even more commonly prescribed selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) both work by affecting neurotransmitters — such as serotonin, which regulates mood — in the brain, according to the Mayo Clinic. However, these medications can also prevent the hormones that control arousal from sending the appropriate messages to your brain, says Tatyana Dyachenko, a sex and relationship therapist in London.
Slowly but surely, I started to date again and met someone who I was strongly attracted to and felt chemistry with both inside and outside of the bedroom. I enjoyed the first couple of times we had sex, but I felt like I was just going through the motions. I was totally in my head. It wasn't long before my partner noticed and asked how he could help me reach orgasm.
I was happy with my medication outside of my sex drive, so after speaking to my psychiatrist, I decided against changing it. Instead, I tried exploring other options for getting comfortable with my new sex life.
For starters, I needed to tell this new partner what was going on. After seeing each other nearly every day for a few weeks, it felt like the right time to tell him about my medication and how it impacted my sex drive; I trusted him enough. (Related: What Is Intimacy and How Do You Build It with Your Partner?)
While these conversations can be intimidating (since you're being quite vulnerable), they're important to have. "Communication is the key to a good sex life with your partner," says Dyachenko. "The more open and honest you can be, the better."
When addressing something like this, it's important for both partners to focus on mutual respect, openness, and honesty, says Dyachenko. She suggests starting the conversation with a gentle approach, like saying something has been on your mind, so your partner is aware you're going to bring up a sensitive subject. I feel lucky to have a caring partner in this instance — but for others struggling to navigate this conversation, a professional therapist could be a helpful guide. (Related: How to Talk to Your Partner About Your Sexual Past)
Aside from talking about it, Dyachenko's largest piece of advice for navigating the decreased sex drive that comes with medications like antidepressants is to "make time to be intimate together but without the pressure of 'performing.'" It can be hard to let go of all the things you think "should" be happening during sex — orgasms, fancy positions, loud noises, or perfect bodies. But part of releasing this pressure on yourself and really enjoying sex is letting go of those expectations and trying to mindfully enjoy whatever is happening during the moment.
Of course, that's easier said than done. A few ways that you can get there are through sex toys, fantasies, and dirty talk, says Dyachenko. "These things can raise sexual tension and help people get lost in the moment," she says. "Sex toys can also reduce pressure and allow partners to relax and enjoy the pleasure since there's less work involved."
So I started to let go of the idea that pleasure was something I needed to chase after. Instead, I tried to think of sex as more about exploring and getting lost in the build-up, even if it was slow, with my partner. It also helped me let go of shaming or judging myself if I took longer to get aroused — the journey was the fun.
Although we had only been seeing each other for a little more than a month, our connection was fiery and we felt excited to visit the sex shop to see what caught our eye. For the first time, I played with butt plugs, lube that imitated ejaculation, and nipple clamps — with no expectations other than to have fun and try something new. I also finally upgraded my seven-year-old vibrator for one of those powerful wands (a total game changer, let me just say).
Bringing new toys into the bedroom is always exciting, but for us, it really improved our foreplay — which I learned is a major part of keeping me aroused. It works for me because my mind is distracted by the toy. For us, sex means taking our time and exploring each other without even thinking about the orgasm. We'll often tease each other all day to build up the sexual tension in text messages and watch porn together before jumping into anything physical. (See: How to Introduce Sex Toys Into Your Relationship)
We've explored different fantasies together as well as role playing — sometimes in tandem with toys and costumes, which is a first for me — and discovered a few scenarios that are almost no-fail at getting me turned on. My partner is big on dirty talking and, as a writer with quite the imagination, I enjoy matching his level. Being immersed in role-playing with dirty talk makes it easy for me to let go and lose myself in the moment. In the past six months or so, I've reached orgasms from creative ways I've never given much thought or time to before, such as mutual masturbation while watching porn.
Of course, there were some misses, too. I also discovered what I didn't like — for example, being the dominant person in bed.
But at the end of the day, what was most liberating was rethinking what satisfying sex looks like to me. It's no longer about the final climax, but also the fantasies, the toys, and spending time pleasuring each other. In fact, it's made sex more dynamic and pleasurable to me and I'm excited to move forward with this mindset — and my stocked pleasure chest.
While my sex drive still isn't necessarily what it used to be, it might take me longer to get aroused, and orgasming doesn't always happen, I still feel pretty damn fulfilled by my sex life. So, yes, you can have your antidepressants and eat your sexy cake too.