My Depressed Libido

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Some time ago a friend complained, as he habitually did, about being single, still single, after a dozen years of dating, cruising, promiscuity, abstinence, personals ads, chat rooms, self-help books, shrinks, and — least sufferable — the advice of well-meaning, non-single friends. Having recently become both non-single and well-meaning, I felt justified in offering a suggestion.


    “Try Zoloft,” I said. “In six weeks you’ll have a boyfriend.”
    What I did not go on to say: “And you’ll never want to have sex with him, or with anybody else, for that matter, yourself included. Because Zoloft will put your sex drive into reverse.”
    Selective serotonin uptake inhibitors (or SSRI’s, of which Zoloft is a popular example), have revolutionized the treatment of depression over the last two decades. In my case, Zoloft may have saved my life: I have a distinct memory of thinking, before I got my prescription, that my life wasn’t particularly worth saving. When you hear yourself thinking like that, it’s time to either find God, quick, or start availing yourself of the blessings of modern chemistry. What could go toe-to-toe with the Almighty but a great drug?
    But like all drugs, great and otherwise, Zoloft has side effects. One of them is the introduction into your life of a series of intractable sexual paradoxes. Here are notes on an ongoing experimental evaluation that may never reach a conclusion.

On Zoloft, I am capable of having a boyfriend. And I am incapable of having sex with him.

    Three years of close, personal study have proven that, while on Zoloft, I can expect to be hit on constantly by attractive and intelligent men. I inevitably wind up partnered with one of them. A few months pass. I discontinue the meds, frustrated with the side effects, expense and residual stigma — not to mention insurance risk — they retain even in this heavily medicated era.

Being on meds is like having your erotic stomach stapled.

Just as inevitably, my relationship rapidly dissolves, the stench of sexual desperation swiftly gathers around me, and I wind up repelling all but the loosest of characters encountered in disreputable environments between the hours of two and four in the morning.
    This loveless, predatory sex life will continue until my therapist du jour prevails on me to resume a more monogamous, medicated life. Then the cycle begins again. Sex rapidly goes from a perpetual hunger to yesterday’s oddly abundant lettuce. On Zoloft, I’m no longer hungry all the time in sight of considerable sexual supply — now I always seem to feel like I’ve just eaten. Being on meds is like having your erotic stomach stapled.

Only now that the thing I lived for is dead am I truly alive.

    I have felt the living death of my libido in every aspect of my life, for the straightforward reason that my libido ruled every aspect of my life before it became incapacitated.
    I see old flames who obsessed me for years and experience them as one does those light bulbs shaped to look like flame; I am no longer taken in. I am no longer aflame. This side effect has side effects of its own, and they are not so bad. When one is not on fire, for instance, one becomes somewhat more judicious. What a relief! Faulkner warned against writing from the “glands.” Try living from them.
    All my adult life and even a few years prior to it, friends have glanced, wincingly, at my sex life and advised me to grow up. Suddenly, I have. The only trouble is that I seem to have gone, sexually speaking, straight from adolescence to senescence without a pause for adulthood.

On medication, I am born again — as an impotent, ancient monk.

    On antidepressants, I regain a clarity of mind and levity of spirit that three decades’ worth of disappointment, death, betrayal, abandonment, artistic and personal failure and other ordinary life experiences have dulled. My youthfulness is restored, except in my erotic life. This came as a rude disappointment to the twenty-six-year-old boyfriend I found within weeks of resuming treatment late last year.
    “You’ve married an old codger,” I plead in my defense as I rolled over away from sex for the third or perhaps tenth night in a row.
    He turned me toward him and looked at me severely.
    “OK, it’s time to put a stop to that kind of thinking right now, because this is the youngest you’re ever going to be in this relationship,” he replied.

Without my sex drive, I’m clean and sober after twenty-five years of addiction and idiocy.

    Antidepressants may inadvertently give you not only erotic progeria, but premature sexual nostalgia. I dimly remember, as I sometimes do the hallucinations of a childhood fever, the humors that drove me out into the night in search of cock. I was happy in those searches, in a transient, miserable way, but do I really want the fever to return? The depression of my sex drive has become my liberation from it. I know the metaphor linking excessive sex drive with drug excesses is tired, but how else can I explain this feeling that without my sex drive I’m clean and sober after twenty-five years of being in a state of addiction and virtual idiocy?

Reduced libido is a side-effect of antidepressants. It is also the therapeutic agent of antidepressants.

    The first time I sought a chemical remedy to my lifelong depression — and a more recent experience with post-traumatic stress disorder brought about by the 1995 suicide of my stepmother — my new MD put me on Wellbutrin.
    I returned two weeks later for a follow-up, demanding to know why he had prescribed a drug that made me so anxious and agitated that I wanted to swan dive from the upper deck of the Bay Bridge. He explained that Wellbutrin was reputed to spare the libido, which he’d gathered was important to me.
    You, sir, are a dumb ass. God, I wish I’d said it. Even then, at the onset of my stormy love affair with psychopharmeceuticals, I knew the libido was a depressant, and a bloodthirsty one.
    After the terrible ten days of Wellbutrin, I swore off medication for at least a year. I remained depressed. Then a therapist explained that, considering the amount of anxiety I reported, Wellbutrin was the last drug I should have been prescribed. She recommended Zoloft. Shortly thereafter my happiness was reborn, and my horniness interred.

It wasn’t just sluggish serotonin causing my malaise: it was sex itself.

    Newer SSRIs than Zoloft, like Effexor and Celexa, are reputed to have less severe sexual side effects. By the time I’d started writing this essay, I’d already switched to Effexor and had noticed fits and starts of randomly directed lust, renewed penile sensitivity and erectile function, and a general willingness to blow off important obligations to spend the afternoon sucking cock with the boyfriend, now my registered domestic partner with the state of California.
    But I stalled on making even this minor change for years after I knew the newer meds existed, and months after starting to date the RDP. I didn’t believe that my depressed libido was a mere side effect of my medicated happiness. It wasn’t just sluggish serotonin causing my malaise, my post-traumatic stress symptoms, my suicidal ideations — it was sex itself. And it wasn’t merely my happiness I feared was vulnerable to my resuscitated libido — it was also the relationship.
    If it sounds like I’m a little down on sex, that’s because I am. Unmedicated, I’m one of those promiscuous homosexuals, the kind who long ago ran out of fingers and toes with which to count sex partners and is now running out of pores. For years, I tried to stave off depression while actually reinforcing it with a regular diet of scruffy club kids who are as aggressively disappointing in daylight as they are alluring in black light and athletic in bed. Feeling bad about myself, my career, my body, my personality, my station in life, my artistic and intellectual capacity — a chronic seizure of self-loathing that peaks in intensity a few hours after sunset — I have found temporary relief in bars, parks and sex clubs, wherever these ratty urban boy-sluts loiter, lubricating our transactions with joints and booze. In therapeutic terms, that amounts to treating depression with a depressing activity in depressing surroundings chemically aided by known depressants.
    Pfizer, which declined to comment for this story, would be loath to hear its product described as a chemical castrator. But that’s the way I’ve experienced it. The question is whether these drugs will be made obsolete by more sex-friendly successors, whether they become curious footnotes in the history of treatments for depression, or whether they come to be seen as a manifestation of psychopharmacological serendipity.
    Why shouldn’t there be a market for antiaphrodisiacs? Aren’t there other men who are tired of living amid the ruin left by their sex drives, candidates for those twelve-step sexaholics anonymous programs who would like to be liberated from that tawdry taskmaster without going to the icky meetings? Still skeptical? Imagine this country — imagine the world — if Bill Clinton had enjoyed the libido-wilting effects of Zoloft between 1992 and 2000.
    Let there be a new sexual revolution, a new chemical age, a new asceticism, a new men’s movement soldiering forth under the banner of liberation from our libidos. We will be smarter, more judicious, more accomplished, more attractive. We will sack the bedrooms and the backrooms, crying out, in unison, “Come, you meds that tend on mortal thoughts! Unsex us here!”

The drug that made work pleasurable has made pleasure into work.

    It’s not hard to imagine a Marxist critique of antidepressants: happy workers are good workers, uncomplaining workers; workers with serotonin flowing briskly through their neural networks are alert, engaged, focused, and not calling in sick so they can spend the day in bed facing the wall and crying. I know because I am one such antidepressed worker, whose productivity has at least doubled since restarting my 50 mg. daily regimen.
    When I wake up the morning, the supposed daily height of the male sexual appetite, I feel like Hillary Clinton: I’m certainly not going to let sex get in the way of my work! I find myself seduced away from bed by anxious fantasies about household projects. Uninvited, questions appear in the bed, muscling their way between me and my boyfriend. Where’s that shopping list we wrote up the other day? and Have I faxed that thing yet for online billing with SBC? and Is that stain in the new sofa going to come out? I have been known to leap out of bed in order to pee, only to be discovered ten minutes later in the bathroom, reorganizing the toiletry shelves. This condition was known by the ancient Romans as coitus interruptus, carpe diem.
    One night, after a big meal, I asked my boyfriend to help me do the dishes. He dropped to his knees, positioned himself between me and the sink, and gave me a blowjob while I scrubbed and rinsed. It wasn’t exactly what I’d had in mind when I asked for help, but I didn’t object that night, or the next night, or the following. After that I bought him a knee mat which we kept under the sink. At first I thought it was hot, getting head while I did dishes, but then I realized that what I was getting off on was the productivity.

On Zoloft, I feel more like a man — everywhere but in bed.

    By “feel more like a man,” I mean that I sail through my medicated life confident, assertive if not aggressive, and not particularly interested in the subject of my emotional well-being. By other stereotypical yardsticks, I fall short of true masculinity. I feel that I have medicated away part of my maleness, a part suspiciously located at the intersection of mood and lust. Is this the male essence produced by the symbiotic relationship of depression and libido, some evolutionarily tested and approved trait that sends men out into the night in search of places to deposit (or receive, in some less evolutionarily transparent cases) DNA? My medicated self is so functional that finally, at age thirty-three, I feel like a grown-up. But in bed I am anorgasmic.

My boyfriend says, Of course we can just cuddle. His boner is a different reply altogether.

     I have sex with consumer electronics and ulterior motives in abundance. In order to come, I need an arsenal of vibrators and dildos, arms and legs, all hands on deck, all power strips plugged in and powered up. Many nights, I don’t really want to have sex with my boyfriend, but I know that in return for sex I will get love, companionship, support, stability. My boyfriend says, Of course we don’t have to have sex, of course we can just cuddle. But his semi-constant boner is a different reply altogether.
    I want to know, but feel I shouldn’t ask him, what he thinks I should do. Would he prefer to be with a brooding, faithless neurotic he can count on to fuck him every night? Or an emotionally functional, virtually sexless adult who does lots of household chores?

On Zoloft I am fearless, and very, very afraid.

    On Zoloft I am self-confident. In most aspects of my life I know what I want and how to get it. I believe in the essential goodness, or at least the neutrality, of the world around me. (Or if not, then at least the incompetence of my adversaries.) Where I used to limp and stumble through life, I now charge.
    Indomitable in the face of the present moment, I cower before the future.
    Will I go to my grave taking this drug or one of its relatives? What happens if I stop? If I do, what will prevent depression’s warped, magnetic logic from swindling me out of the things I’ve accomplished?
    This is what I fear: when the drug wears off, my resurgent sex drive will use every argument in its bloated arsenal to tear down the judgments with which I have fortified my life as a sexless, antidepressed person. These include: I am worthy of being loved by a passionate, beautiful, brilliant person, and I am not only able but happy to leave the beguilingly fraudulent sexual marketplace in favor of sequestering myself with said boyfriend at home and My self-worth does not require a majority vote of an apparently infinite population of shiftless, heedless, chem-friendly sex addicts, of whom I was apparently a prime, nonvoting example.
    In the late twentieth century’s great artistic representations of the future, sex was always neatly disposed of. In Sleeper, Woody Allen relegated sex to the Orgasmatron. When Barbarella wanted to come, she took a pill.
    I careen toward my future astride an untamed, unpredictable neurochemical beast. How will I get off?  

Read other features from the No Sex issue!

©2003 Paul Festa and Nerve.com
‘s essays appear in Nerve, Salon, the Best Sex Writing
anthologies for 2005, 2006 and 2008, and other publications. He is
the author of OH MY
GOD: Messiaen in the Ear of the Unbeliever
, which is based on Apparition of the Eternal
, his award-winning and critically acclaimed film about the
music of Olivier Messiaen. A violinist, he has toured extensively,
given the U.S., Boston, New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles
premieres of Messiaen’s 1933 Fantaisie, and performed with the
Stephen Pelton Dance Theater and the North Bay Shakespeare Company. He
is the official historian of the Presidential Memorial Commission of
San Francisco, and is revising a novel. More info at paulfesta.com.