Trying to Be Creative When You're on Antidepressants Isn't Easy
Starting Lexapro, I had no idea the toll it would take. Sure my intense panic attacks dulled, but losing your emotions feels like dying.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK
I always thought I wrote best when I was depressed. A lot of writers say the same thing. There's just something about feeling sad, anxious, angry. It makes sense. You're not sitting in a dingy room, listening to some droning song by The National, writing gloomy poetry when you're loving life. Happiness isn't something you question.
Depression forces us to reflect on every bad moment and find reason in it. Or at least find somebody to blame, usually ourselves.
Four years after being diagnosed with clinical depression, I just got sick of constantly fighting it. At 22, I'd tried every natural remedy available—meditation, yoga, adult coloring books—and felt out of options. I needed a quick fix. Each day meant increasingly intense panic attacks and it was slowly killing me.
So I went on Lexapro. I took 20mg every day for 11 months without missing a single dose—unless you count that time I accidentally double dropped on NYE last year. As it turns out, Lexapro is also Kanye West's drug of choice—he mentions it on "FML" when he says, "You ain't never seen nothing crazier than this n***a when he off his Lexapro."
I never considered the side effects of antidepressants before taking them, I thought it was simple, take a pill, everyday, and be alright again. I didn't think it was going to kill the one thing I loved to do, which was writing.
At first, I was certain my regular habit for procrastination had just dialed up a notch. But I started to notice a trend. I stopped crying. I had to go to my grandpa's funeral and, even though I was shattered, I was the only person there who wasn't tearing up. I got so paranoid people were judging me that I ducked away to the bathroom, frantically dabbing water under my eyes to give the impression I was crying.
Lexapro turned me into a zombie, riding through the motions of life without feeling. Things that made me angry became irrelevant. There was no twinge of sadness watching Tom Hanks in Philadelphia. If you're wondering whether something is off, that's a sure sign. Whenever I picked up a pen to write, I had nothing. I couldn't even write about the damn rain. If you're a creative writer who can't poetically describe the rain, you're in trouble.
The dulling of emotions by Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) is known as emotional blunting. For most people this means antidepressants will stop them feeling depressed, which is great. But for others, SSRIs can kill all emotions, whether you like it or not.
It's a catch-22. You take SSRIs to stop being depressed, and that works, but then you're depressed because you can't feel anymore. Lose-lose. But I wasn't crying myself to sleep or getting anxious every time I entered a room. Wasn't that what I wanted? I should have been happy, but I wasn't.
I wish someone would've warned me before I started antidepressants. Of course, doctors tell you how much your life will change when you start taking SSRIs. There was no mention though of the emotional toll that not feeling would take. I could handle the brain zaps, constant dizziness, and sleep problems. But losing your emotions feels like dying.
Creativity is subjective, which makes it difficult to measure with any accuracy. But googling around I found researchers have tried to understand the link between feeling bad and feeling creative. And Columbia University social psychologist Modupe Akinola found a correlation between the two.
Working with Harvard University's Wendy Berry Mendes, Akinola asked students to write down their career aspirations. Then they were given feedback that was either positive or dream crushing. After this, the students had to create an artistic collage. As it happens, participants who got negative feedback—and felt shitty because of what the researchers termed "social rejection"—made collages that were more creative than those who were unaffected.
I decided to stop Lexapro around six weeks ago. It wasn't really a case of "going off your meds." After weighing up the pros and cons, I just decided it was time for me to let go. The drugs worked too well. Some people definitely want to feel emotionally numbed, but I wasn't cut out for that life. I missed being creative.
Within two days, the emotions I craved raced back. But I spent a month going through intense withdrawals. There was the extreme fatigue, random electric shocks, and mood swings. It was challenging, but I don't regret stopping.
I haven't recovered from depression, I'm not sure I ever will. But I do feel like I'm in a much better place than I was a year ago. All of those negative emotions that used to overwhelm me, I've gotten better at channelling them creatively. I guess I learned my artist self and human self aren't two separate things—you can't ignore one for fear of losing the other. There has to be balance.
If you are struggling with depression or suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
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