By Nicole Mitchell
Illustrations by Kelcie McKenney
I have chronic “white coat” anxiety—I am terrified of doctors and medical offices. Pair that with the somatic symptoms that come with my anxiety, my heart disease, and other illnesses I’ve had to deal with, it’s been quite a ride—especially when the pandemic hit.
After months of suffering with chronic stress hives, panic attacks, severe cleaning routines for my body and apartment, refusing to go outside, and absolutely avoiding everyone, I decided it was time to try antidepressants.
The good news? They worked! I’ve been taking them since October 2020, and I’ve only had one panic attack since then. And those stress hives? Disappeared.
The bad news? Once I was on those meds, I couldn’t come. And I lost my sex drive, which changed the whole dynamic between my boyfriend and me.
I’ve spent nights googling “natural ways to get your sex drive back” and “SSRI and sex drive.” I bought pills (that I never actually took) from Target to try to help solve the problem.
Turns out, it’s a common issue. Psychiatric nurse practitioner Kim Meehan tells Swell, a digital magazine that focuses on sexual health and pleasure, “SSRI’s”—otherwise called antidepressants or anti-anxiety meds—“impact sexual function in an estimated 25-50% of those taking [them], and from my clinical experience I would estimate that I see closer to 60-75% of my clients [impacted].”
This issue isn’t something women alone experience either. People with penises who are taking SSRIs are typically still able to gain an erection, but there might be a delay in ejaculation. And that’s just the reaction from the meds; if you include anxiety, alcohol, or other outside factors, erections could be paused as well, Carlene MacMillian, Psychiatrist and Clinical Director, tells Swell.
I personally never told my doctor that I was experiencing a decreased sex drive. (I know, I’m a bad patient. It’s whatever). I did that because I really like how my meds make me feel. But for people who do, sometimes a combination of SSRIs are used to help minimize the issue, such as using Bupropion alongside your original prescription.
If it’s so common, why isn’t it talked about more? And why aren’t there more accessible solutions?
After a few months of late-night Google searches, I finally learned something worthwhile to my own predicament and relationship: responsive desire vs. spontaneous desire.
These two labels categorize how we get turned on—you know, how we feel sexual desire and arousal. Vanessa Marin, sex therapist, tells Well+Good, “If you’re a spontaneous type, you feel the mental desire first, then the physical arousal second. If you’re a responsive type, you feel the physical arousal first, then the mental desire second.”
Reading this article led me down a rabbit hole of thoughts and conversations. Had I been aroused in a responsive style before? The answer was yes. There have been times where my boyfriend and I had a romantic night in that led to sex. It just wasn’t the norm for me, so I never thought about it until I had to. After a discussion with my boyfriend, we decided to try out the responsive desire method—and it worked.
We scheduled a date knowing it might end with sex. I took my time preparing for our night out. I used a sweet-smelling perfume and winged my eyeliner in a way that made me feel sexy. We chose a fancy Italian restaurant for dinner and treated ourselves with dessert.
When we got home after dinner that night, I was ready. We finally had sex, and it felt good again—like really good.
Since then, I’ve learned that when I decide I want to have sex, I don’t always need a fancy experience. I do, however, need time to build up that desire. Like time that’s spent cuddling with my boyfriend, listening to a romantic album, or even watching porn.
While my sex drive has changed, I’m slowly finding a way to comfortably live with it. Because after all, I still need my anxiety meds—and I really like my anxiety meds. Know that you’re not alone if you’ve lost your sex drive after starting on antidepressants. And know that your sexual desire can be improved with a little bit of willpower, some time, lots of communication, and potentially talking to your doctor. Your mental health is worth it, and every orgasm is good for your mental health.
Nicole Mitchell (she/they) is a writer and social media manager who graduated December 2020 with a degree in strategic communication. A few of her favorite things include cuddling with cats, listening to Bon Iver, making lattes, and running her book club (even though sometimes she forgets to read the books.)
Kelcie McKenney (she/her) is a writer, editor, and artist who is passionate about feminism, local activism, queer representation, and strengthening community. You can find Kelcie on Instagram with #kcdaddy, where she talks about her three-legged cat Luna, thrift finds, and ways to overthrow the patriarchy.