I went on antidepressants for the first time in March. It’s been an overwhelmingly successful experiment, with one standout caveat: I can no longer cry.
I’ve always skewed more toward anxiety than depression and have always been a crier. I’m 40 now, and I had my first anxiety attack at 12. That first attack, especially when you’re young, is pretty much the most terrifying thing you can imagine. Not only is your body betraying you — first it’s a pit in your stomach, then a shortness of breath, and finally uncontrollable ribbons of sobs that appear out of nowhere (more on that in a sec) — but even worse, you have no previous experience to indicate that the feeling will ever go away. Luckily (or unluckily), because anxiety attacks are rarely a one-and-done deal, the more you get them, the better you get to know them and how to deal with them. You learn your triggers (my biggies are change and lack of structure). You learn how to cope with them (meditative breathing, reminding myself that the feeling will pass, Xanax). Depending on who you are, you avoid or seek out situations that spike your anxiety. I’ve done a little of both (the former out of terror, the latter out of a counterphobic need to feel like my life isn’t passing me by) and landed somewhere in a comfortable middle.
In November 2016, I’d been crying a lot. And not just a lot, but uncontrollably, as in I truly couldn’t control it, no matter where I was or who I was with. I was about to give notice at my job — a place alternatingly infuriating and soul-feeding, where I did some of the best work of my career and met some of the best friends of my life. But, like any workplace, there was frustration there. I had a good job offer, and it seemed like the time to move on. I was confident in my decision and excited about the new gig, yet every day was filled with tears. “Is it possible to have made the right decision but also not be able to stop crying?” I asked my therapist. She assured me that it was.
During that time, pretty much anything could trigger me. Hearing my mom’s voice on the phone. Making a dinner reservation for a month from now, when I knew my life would look different. And nearly every time I found myself sitting face to face with my boss — the one about to be my former boss — I would dissolve into a wet blur. “I’m sorry,” I said to him more than once. “It’s Pavlovian now — I see you and I cry.” (Try sobbing repeatedly in front of your stoic British male boss. Totally not uncomfortable at all.)
The crying, as I saw it, wasn’t a problem. I wondered about it a little — why was I crying so much? — but found easy answers (a new job that scared me, a new president that scared me even more). When I got my tickets to see Dear Evan Hansen on Broadway in January, people warned me: “Get ready to cry.” And cry I did, in alternating quivering, heaving gulps of tears and hiccupy staccato gasps. I cried from the moment the curtain went up all the way through the first act and resumed my crying after intermission, now composed enough that my outpouring was mostly confined to pathetic little chirps. I didn’t much notice that I seemed to be crying more than most people around me and left the theater exhausted.
Also in January, I started seeing a psychiatrist for the first time in my life to get the Xanax I’d come to rely on, and he’d been keen on my trying antidepressants (specifically, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs) instead. My regular therapist had warned me that this might happen because psychiatrists love to prescribe. (I’d always gotten Xanax from my general practitioner, but during my last physical, he’d commended my recent significant weight loss and warned me, “Don’t gain it back!” When I inevitably did, I couldn’t bear to return. I was pretty sure a psychiatrist wouldn’t weigh me.)
I’d been through the Xanax/Klonopin/Ativan whirl, and they all helped a little, but I’d never tried antidepressants, because I’d never really felt depressed. But a month into my new job and the new administration, my anxiety and constant crying were joined by new symptoms — insomnia and debilitating exhaustion. When my doctor pressed the issue, I figured, “Why not?”
The results were astounding. SSRIs function by making more serotonin available to your brain, and more serotonin means a better mood and less anxiety. Things that bothered me before I started taking Zoloft barely ruffled my feathers now. Pre-Zoloft, if I sent a text to a friend and didn’t hear back, I’d worriedly scroll through my messages to make sure I hadn’t said anything unwittingly offensive and course-correct if I thought I had. Post-Zoloft, I assumed everything was fine, and if it wasn’t, oh well. Pre-Zoloft, if someone were rude or disrespectful or patronizing, I’d have been filled with rage, my mind contemplating a Choose Your Own Adventure of revenge plots. Post-Zoloft, I figured the problem was theirs, not mine, and got on with my day. Zoloft transformed me into a person-shaped shrug — and I liked it. Until I didn’t.