Editor’s note: this story contains descriptions of graphic violence and death.
I took antidepressants every day for a decade. You name the drug and I was probably on it at some point—Zoloft, Paxil, Luvox, Lithium, Celexa, the list goes on. The medication, prescribed to me after a bout of severe obsessive-compulsive behavior, left me emotionally numb. Most of my feelings were buried under a thick mental fog, making it impossible to connect with people, or sense the aliveness of the world around me. On a scale from one to ten, excitement, joy and sympathy rarely reached more than a two. I simply couldn’t look forward to anything, or care in the least about anyone. The love I had always felt for my family vanished after only a few months on meds.
This brain fog made life seem unreal. I would often be driving somewhere, or talking to someone, or wandering through a mall, and the whole process went on without my awareness, as though I wasn’t a fully conscious participant, but a dreamer trapped within a dream.
After two years on antidepressants, I found something that gave me a jolt of feeling strong enough to wake me up for a moment. I was surfing the internet one night when I clicked on a mysterious video file called Unknown Soldier(very graphic). Sitting alone in the dark, I watched a young man get his head sawed off with a large hunting knife. As the blade carved through flesh and tendon, the victim’s screams of terror turned into gurgles of death.
I could not believe my eyes. Hollywood movie violence is one thing, footage of a real murder is another. The sheer brutality of the film lifted me out of the fog and into a mildly disturbed state of mind. I clicked the play button again and again, trying to keep my stomach churning for as long as possible. It wasn’t the most pleasant feeling in the world, and I knew I should have felt much worse than I did, but at least I was feeling something.
A month later I joined a shock website called Ogrish, which featured the most gruesome content on the internet—suicides, executions, animal torture, the sickest stuff you can imagine. I saved anything that moved me in a file on my desktop. The problem was that it took a lot to move me, and because I never felt the same way the second time I watched something, I was always searching for the next gut-wrenching image or video, like a drug user chasing an elusive high.
I often visited the Ogrish chat room, where members discussed recently added content. One night, the chat room erupted when a video surfaced of a cat being burned alive. Everyone shared their opinion, but only one opinion caught my attention: “That was the first time I felt anything since going on Paxil,” wrote one member.
I immediately sent her a private message, asking how long she’d been on the drug, and if she knew anyone else on Ogrish who was taking meds. She told me that five other members she chatted with were on antidepressants. She also told me that they watched the videos to “try and stir some kind of emotion.” I could barely wrap my head around it. Somehow my obsession with violence had led me into a subculture of ‘med-heads,’ all searching for their humanity in the same way.
This discovery should have had me running to my family doctor with some concerns. But of course that didn’t happen. I couldn’t think clearly enough to figure things out. To be honest, I still wasn’t sure if we were all crazy, or if the antidepressants had fried our circuits.
I spent the next seven years giving myself daily doses of horror. Sometimes I looked at morgue photos all night long, staring into lifeless eyes until a sense of wrongness slithered through me. When that didn’t work, I read news reports about vicious gang beatings, trying to visualize the crimes and induce an emotional reaction. Any feeling would do—empathy, disgust, even shame for indulging in such morbid behavior. But after a while I couldn’t feel a thing. By 2008 I’d grown so desensitized that I began to question whether or not I was human. That’s when I decided to go off the medication.
To avoid any family drama or protest, I quit the antidepressants on my own, in secret, cold turkey. This was a huge mistake, for the mental fog lifted far too quickly, exposing me to years of suppressed thought and emotion all at once. One minute I’d be weeping uncontrollably for no reason; the next minute I’d be curled up in a ball, paralyzed by anxiety. A constant agitation burned inside my brain. If someone said the wrong thing at the wrong time, looked at me a certain way, did something I didn’t approve of, this flame lit me up with rage. Thankfully I kept it all inside.
It took several weeks for my head to settle down, but when it finally did I noticed many positive changes in my behavior. I no longer had any urge to get drunk, to smoke weed, to gamble like a maniac. These artificial highs were unnecessary. I also had absolutely no urge to watch violent material. Just the thought of going on Ogrish made me queasy.
But curiosity soon caught up to me. Four months later, with my perceptions clearer than ever before, I returned to the website to test my reaction. I could feel my skin crawling, my heart pounding when I entered the video section, which now seemed like such a dark and immoral place. I watched ten seconds of a homeless man getting beaten to death before shutting off the video in a state of shock. It was the most horrible thing I’d ever seen, and as I struggled to understand how anyone could do that to another human being, I became dizzy and nearly threw up.
In the midst of my discomfort, an overwhelming sense of relief washed over me, as I knew that my reaction was finally a healthy one. I never went on Ogrish again.
I’ve been med-free since 2008, and I’m happy to admit that I am an extremely sensitive person. Sometimes I cry when I feel sad, or when someone I love feels sad. Sometimes I get so excited that my stomach fills with butterflies, all fluttering at once. Sometimes I can feel a stranger’s pain or fear, as though I am standing in their place at that moment—suddenly they aren’t a stranger anymore, but a reflection of myself.
My emotions come in a variety of colors, from vibrant yellow to dismal gray, and they remind me that I am awake and alive and connected to the world.
As odd as it may sound, I don’t regret taking the antidepressants, because without that foggy decade in my life, I may have never learned to appreciate what it means to be human.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.