Picture this. You’re getting help. You’re doing ‘the work’. You’re taking medication. But, what you didn’t sign-up for, are the libido-killing side effects that come with most antidepressants and antipsychotics.
While you might be feeling much better emotionally and mentally, more stable, more in control, experiencing a detachment from your desire can be pretty devastating – not just for partners, but for your relationship with yourself.
A changed interest in sex is more common than you think
Even if you aren’t taking any medication, having low interest in sex is normal. Having an elevated interest in sex is normal. Having zero interest in sex is normal. As Emily Nagoski puts it in, Come As You Are, “Treat cultural messages about sex and your body like a salad bar. Take only the things that appeal to you and ignore the rest. We’ll all end up with a different collection of stuff on our plates, but that’s how it’s supposed to work. It goes wrong only when you try to apply what you picked as right for your sexuality to someone else’s sexuality…”. This might mean reimagining what sex can be, rather than what the mainstream media portrays it to be.
There’s no wrong way to have a body
Whether you’ve lost tactile sensation due to physical injury, surgery or disability, or experience dulled sensations due to medication or other mental health struggles, we’re here to remind you that the brain is a cunning agent of change; capable of cultivating and amplifying sensation. As Rebecca Bedell and Lafayette Matthews suggest in Bang!: Masturbation for People of All Genders and Abilities, instead of focusing on what your body doesn’t or can’t do, celebrate the things it can and go from there. Society is pretty convinced about ‘what’ and ‘how’ we ought to be. But that doesn’t make it accurate or even close when it comes to our own sexual identity and abilities.
S-E-X and SSRIs
SSRI’s or Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors are one of the most common classes of antidepressants prescribed in Australia. They work by regulating the levels of our favourite neurotransmitter, serotonin, and are clinically (and anecdotally) known to negatively affect libido in 60-62% of patients. The reason? SSRIs increase the levels of serotonin in your brain, preventing surrounding cells from recycling the serotonin released. This prevention creates a build up of serotonin, which keeps you feeling happy, but notably decreases your libido and even delays your ability to ejaculate.
Get a second, third, fourth opinion
Not all antidepressants work in the same ways. There are a bunch of medications that have been proven to address anxiety and depression without causing sexual dysfunction. Always check-in with your doctor or a medical professional to discuss the most suitable options for you.
Ways to navigate pleasure when you’re numb to it all:
- Reacquaint yourself with your body. If you can, touch and acknowledge every inch of yourself, from the tip of your nose to your toes, finding pleasure through curiosity and gratitude. Then, if you feel comfortable, share this practice with a partner.
- Throw out conventional notions about sex and the way it ‘should’ progress (i.e. the idea that foreplay comes before penetration) to what feels good in the moment.
- Experiment with stopping and starting at different points (massaging or kissing, anyone?) and intervals at your leisure.
- Talk to your partner. Feeling awkward? Feeling stuck in your head? Tell them about it. The sooner you shine a light on the elephant in the room, the sooner you can work past these feelings and overcome them as a team.
- When toys feel too aggressive, experiment with lubes and accessories. Feather ticklers, nipple clamps, etc.
- Getting straight into penetration can feel intimidating. Prolong foreplay so that it almost becomes the main course. In fact, go straight to dessert.
- Figure out what does and doesn’t turn you on. Complex underlying trauma has sneaky ways of entering our thoughts when we’re trying to be intimate. Be kind to your mind, and work through these thoughts slowly.
- Speak to a sexologist. Not only can a professional help you and your partner(s) navigate changes in libido and sexual expectations, they can provide you with personalised tips and techniques to help you flourish.
- Reconsider what feels pleasurable to you and build-out your pleasure practice. (Why not check out what a pleasure practice is over here). Is it a hot shower when it’s cold outside? Is it the sensation of fingertips on your skin while submerged in a bath? Is it the vibration of a Doxy wand over your nipples, dulled through the layers of your clothing? Is it a naughty novel?
The brain that changes itself
Twelve-years ago I was advised to go on antidepressants; roughly the same time I farewelled my robust sex drive. Upping my dose, halving it, then going off and back on again, I have cried, cry-wanked, and made others cry (because I couldn’t wank). What I’ve learnt is that the brain is a marvellous, plastic, ever-changing organ that can kickstart new and exciting pleasure pathways for your whole body to enjoy; despite medication.
When you practice something pleasurable, your brain makes note and forges a stronger neural pathway to reinforce that behaviour. Forgotten old ways to cum? No worries. Map new ones and practise that pathway until it feels like a second nature.
I am not a doctor and these opinions reflect my experience anecdotally. Always speak to a medical professional(s) about your situation, experience and options to find the right fit for you. Whether that’s a change of medication, a number of lifestyle changes or a combination. By any means, do not stop taking the meds you’re prescribed. It’s neither wise, nor fun, and may end in a case of the brain zaps.
If you need mental health support, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or chat online.
If you require immediate assistance, please call 000.