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 theatre 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.)
Zoloft transformed me into a person-shaped shrug — and I liked it. Until I didn’t.
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 patronising, 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.
What had first felt like a break from the constant, churning worry started to feel like indifference. I began to feel flat. More worryingly, for someone who previously would have burst into tears if somebody looked at me funny, it took a surprisingly long time to realise that, in addition to the dullness and my generally more Pollyanna-ish outlook, I wasn’t crying. Like, at all. In fact, I couldn’t cry. I first noticed it in therapy, a place I often cry easily. Usually, my crying there happens in a backward-seeming way: I’ll be talking about something I don’t even realise has upset me, but then there are tears and that’s the signal that we’ve stumbled on something important and visceral to unpack. That hadn’t happened in ages. And then I remembered talking to a relative who’d been on Prozac for years, and her saying that she couldn’t cry when she was on it. “You could have told me that my house had burned down, my husband had cheated on me and I’d lost my job,” she said. Then her voice trailed off and she gave that telltale antidepressant shrug. None of it would have mattered at all.
So I started asking around. My friend Courtney takes Effexor and Lithium for generalised anxiety disorder and persistent depressive disorder. Did she have the same crying arc that I did? “Before I started antidepressants I was crying seven days a week, sometimes at the smallest things,” she said. “My dad once asked me what I wanted for dinner and I found that question to be so anxiety-provoking and sad that I just started crying and said I couldn’t make that decision.”
Another friend, Melissa, had a similar experience before starting Prozac recently. “I’m an emotional person anyway,” she says, but in the depressive period that led her to start an SSRI, “I was crying a lot at work and couldn’t hold it in. Every time my boss or somebody else was condescending or mansplaining or micromanaging me, I would cry immediately. It would make me really angry, and I would just immediately start to tear up and leave my desk.”
Even though crying was such a constant in our lives — and heightened to an acute degree pre-antidepressants — it took all of us a while to realise that it had stopped. “It took me a few months before I had the realisation that not only had I not been crying, but also that I couldn’t cry, no matter how much I wanted to,” Courtney says. “At first I found it liberating — it felt as though the medication was working. But, over time, it became frustrating. I had all of the emotions ready and waiting to make me cry; I even got that little tickle in my throat that signalled I was about to cry. In many ways, I had the physiological response without the satisfaction of a tear.”
Melissa’s reaction was virtually the same: “I remember that I was talking about my mum, who passed away, and my response is always to cry whenever I talk about it, and I wasn’t crying. It was very weird. I had a knot in my throat, I was getting hot and flustered, but no tears came.” Think about that feeling when you want to sneeze but can’t. It’s like that.
I asked Melissa if not crying about her mum and realising it was just the antidepressant felt like false progress — a healing red herring. “Honestly, I thought it was kind of awesome, because I was like, I’m such a crier, and I can talk about this now and I don’t immediately go to sobbing. But my mom’s come up a few more times and I haven’t been able to cry, and it now makes me upset, because crying is such a release and such a healthy thing. Not having that be part of my experience is really difficult for me. I don’t want to cry as much as before, but I don’t want to cry not at all.”
'I’d cry, but I can’t because of my antidepressant' is my running joke, the line I put forth in a dry monotone to elicit a laugh from whomever I’m with.
When Melissa’s crying was at its height, she felt self-conscious about it, and worried that she was making other people feel uncomfortable or that she was annoying. Now that I’m on Zoloft, I have the opposite worry: When I find myself in a situation that calls for tears — seeing a friend I’ve lost touch with for the first time in years, sitting at the funeral of a friend’s parent — I feel self-conscious about not weeping. “I’d cry, but I can’t because of my antidepressant” is my running joke, the line I put forth in a dry monotone to elicit a laugh from whomever I’m with, but also to explain: I want to cry. The real me would cry. But I simply can’t, any more than I can do a backflip or sleep through the night. My body just won’t allow it.
For Courtney, the lack of crying is a reminder of just how much a part of her the depression and anxiety have become, as if they are personified extensions of herself: There were times she couldn’t cry and “felt guilty that I wasn’t able to fully experience my depression and anxiety, that I was cheating them in some way. It’s an irrational guilt, I know, but I still felt it nonetheless.”
It’s a trade-off. Many of us on antidepressants miss crying but not enough to stop taking the drugs. According to Courtney, ”Perhaps what I miss the most about crying is that crying reminded me of who I was before I entered the medicated world, a world I struggle to accept that I’m a part of. Crying became more of a symbol that my body was still my own and not owned by a tiny white pill.”
I’ve never worried about being owned by a pill (I love pills!), but I did run into that problem so many people do: I was feeling so much better that I decided I no longer needed antidepressants (without stopping to consider that I felt better because of them). So, in June, after consulting my doctor, I dropped my dose from 50 milligrams to 25, with the goal of weaning myself off of the medication completely. My symptoms — insomnia, anxiety, exhaustion — came roaring back worse than before, and back up to 50 milligrams I went.
Then something funny happened: There I was in therapy, like I am every week, and as we were talking — it’s hard to remember about what now — suddenly I felt it — that telltale welling right behind my eyes, and then a tiny tear. I wasn’t sobbing, I wasn’t losing control, but I was crying. “I’m crying!” I shouted, elated. “Oh my god, I’m crying!” Which made me cry more. And it’s been that way ever since. I can cry again. Not a lot, and not all the time, but it happens. I don’t know if it was the dosage reset that did it, but no matter the reason, I’m grateful. The antidepressant hamster wheel is a weird ride to be on. But it’s one that, for now at least, I’m staying on — with or without tears.