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Zoloft Put the Pleasure in My Sobriety

I've been on antidepressants for 20 years, and can still remember exactly when the first one started to work—allowing my recovery to begin for real.
 
 
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Drug addicts and alcoholics are surprisingly conservative when it comes to psychiatric medications. We’re willing to try virtually anything to get high—but when it comes to taking drugs to get better, we tend to get all “Just say no.” For me, this tendency led to years of suffering before I finally had no choice other than to try antidepressants.

Part of the problem can be attributed to widespread skepticism about these medications, which is prevalent in some 12-step programs. This fear has two facets: the first, a justified anxiety based on historical claims about certain medications not being addictive, which later proved false; the second, a more problematic moralizing that use of medication to “fix” an emotional or mental problem is somehow “cheating.” 

The issue of AA members telling people to stop taking—or advising them never to try—psych meds became so acute by the early ’80s that a 1984 conference-approved  document, “The AA Member and Other Medications,” explicitly warns against “playing doctor” and states starkly:

AA members and many of their physicians have described situations in which depressed patients have been told by AAs to throw away the pills, only to have depression return, with all its difficulties, sometimes resulting in suicide.

Although I attended 12-step groups daily for the first five years of my recovery from cocaine and heroin addiction, I never thought that I bought into the extreme anti-drug line. Indeed, I handed out that pamphlet to many people who had been reprimanded for sharing, or felt otherwise beleaguered, about taking medication—and yet I resisted it for myself.

And so I continued going to meetings and trying to get on with my life, even as I wrestled with feelings of self-hatred and anchorless fear. I’d spend hours on the phone, analyzing tiny incidents of social rejection, thereby ruining the friendships I actually had but felt I didn’t. I tried talk therapy, but several years of ruminating about my childhood didn’t change much.

Throughout this time, my mid-20s, my career was taking off and I’d managed to sell my first book. At the lowest points of my life, work was the one area of life where I’d always felt good about myself. But when the publisher killed the book, I found myself paralyzed by apprehension.

I thought the problem might be the structurelessness of my freelance life, so I got a job. When even working on an AIDS documentary—something that normally would have energized me—didn’t change the state of deadness and dread, I knew I had to try something else, especially when I found myself unable to stop crying at the office.

The next day, I managed to get myself to a psychiatrist, who rapidly prescribed Zoloft. It turned out to be lucky that I took the oblong blue pill for the first time on a weekend. Several hours later, I experienced an oddly familiar sensation.

It was a feeling in the pit of my stomach that things were about to get weird—the vaguely nauseous lurch I’d often experienced after taking acid, right before the drug kicked in. Soon, as with LSD although less intensely, I was seeing multidimensional red and green geometric shapes if I looked at anything bright for too long.

Concerned, I called my psychiatrist, and she said it would pass and that I should take my next dose on time, but halve it. And indeed, the hallucinations soon diminished to the point where I felt normal enough to go back to work on Monday. Ironically, I missed my colorful visions: although the hallucinations hadn’t lifted my depression, they had at least distracted me from it.

 
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