DEPRESSION has always coloured my experience of sex – the illness itself, issues with treatment, and lack of understanding about its impact.
I had my first serious spell when I was 16. It came out in the form of godawful mood swings, hours-long crying fits, being exhausted all the time, and becoming withdrawn, pessimistic, and distrustful of everything and everyone.
My doctor was determined not to medicate me – I was too young, and the best drugs at the time had a tendency towards zombification. My doctor, parents and I fervently hoped it was a one-off that would clear with time and a bit of care.
It did, sort of. Enough that I aced my exams, got a summer job, and fell madly in love with a boy. Of course we were going to have sex! It was a struggle to wait until we had a decent, not-going-to-be-interrupted-by-relatives-or-park-keepers, opportunity. From deciding we were ready to getting that chance felt like the longest two weeks of my life.
The advice columnists in the teen magazines were always saying that sex was a big deal emotionally as well as physically, but I was still in no way prepared for the impact. It was like we were attached through our belly buttons. I’d never felt closer to anyone in my life.
But the all-consuming physical urge for sex that seems to rage through every cell of the teenaged body was for… this? It was a bit of an anti-climax, to put it mildly. It wasn’t unpleasant, but it wasn’t something I’d seek out. He could have been giving my back a companionable rub for all the thrill I got out of it.
The magazines said it would get better. It would become more enjoyable as we worked out what we were doing, got to know each other physically, and I’d eventually see what the fuss was about.
As it was, post-sex, the bodily urge would die off for a while – and I could deal with the physical disappointment during the trial and error stage if I got to feel that close to someone.
BY THE TIME I was 20, there was no pretending my depression was a one-off. My university boyfriend was the coolest, cutest, most fascinating person I knew. I wanted to be with him as much as I possibly could. But he had come to accept it was a good day if I wasn’t constantly weeping or struggling to deal with necessities like going to the loo. Sex was understandably not a priority.
I was diagnosed with clinical depression and prescribed paroxetine. Within a month I was showing interest in leaving the house for more than just food and lectures, taking care over what I wore, and acting more like my old self.
But the suggestion of sex would make me shiver with horror. Despite my lack of experience, I’d come to suspect that orgasms weren’t something I was capable of – not like other girls seemed to be anyway – and I knew feeling sick at the thought of sex wouldn’t help.
I failed completely in trying to explain that to the boy. The constant arguments about why I didn’t want to, mutual unease around showing affection for fear of it being misinterpreted… The relationship went south rapidly.
SOME YEARS LATER, seeing the impact of depression, and the side effects of the otherwise helpful drugs, reassert themselves over the convenience of a regular shag, another boyfriend eventually attempted to negotiate a deal with me. Interested or not, repulsed or not, I would have sex with him at least once a month, because men need sex, not just porn. He wasn’t interested in the problems behind my reluctance. I might have agreed out loud but I wasn’t having any of it, and I really should have ended it then.
One day I was in a serious state of the Horrors. I wanted to try to lift myself out of it, so we went to an exhibition I wanted to see. After about ten minutes he had to lead me to the cafe, and feed me tea and slices of chocolate cake, because I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was going to explode, hurt someone, hurl myself under a bus. When we got home and I’d had a really good wail, I realised I wanted sex. I loved him, and on a day when I absolutely couldn’t be in the world, he helped me feel connected to it again in a non-nightmarish way. I wanted to thank him, and make the connection not just non-negative but positive.
You’d think I’d asked him to have sex with a chicken.
He was horrified and insulted that I could ask him to do something purely to make me feel better, with no consideration for how he’d feel.
He failed to see the irony.
When we finally split up I decided the sensible thing was to swear off men and sex. It was simpler.
BUT SOMETHING STRANGE happened.
A couple of years back my depression got much worse, and it seemed sensible to me and my doctor to increase my dose to help with the symptoms. I was used to feeling about as horny as a paperclip, so as my depression eased I was baffled by the stirrings in my stomach and the images flashing through my head.
Paroxetine had always killed my libido. Now, with more of it than ever before coursing through my body, I was feeling… raunchy.
I had no idea what to do with that feeling, or how to express it – and I still had the self-confidence of a used tissue.
Lots of things happened almost simultaneously that gave me hope, and a renewed interest in trying. I’ll cover that in another post or two, but in the space of just a couple of months I was reintroduced to sex, feeling desirable, and the brave new world of sex toys.
What I was in no way expecting was how getting back in touch with myself sexually would open the door for other parts of me to begin rebalancing themselves, or make dealing with the rest of the world easier. Starving myself of love starved me of good mental health, and vice versa.
I can think of no better reason for continuing to play and explore than my long term sanity – and that is, at least in part, why I’m here.