How Antidepressants Affect Selfhood, Teenage Sexuality, and Our Quest for Personal Identity

Brainpickings – “Great art was born of great terrors, great loneliness, great inhibitions, instabilities, and it always balances them,” Anaïs Nin famously wrote. But what if it doesn’t balance out? What if the emotional excess, believed to be essential to creativity, was of the negative and crippling kind? One need only look at such tragic heroes as Sylvia PlathDavid Foster WallaceMarilyn Monroe, and Kurt Cobain to grasp the gravity of the proposition. And yet we remain ever so culturally ambivalent about alleviating the anguish of mental illness with the same arsenal we use against physical pain: drugs.

In Coming of Age on Zoloft: How Antidepressants Cheered Us Up, Let Us Down, and Changed Who We Are (public library), Katherine Sharpe explores the heart of this ambivalence through an intersection of her own experience, conversation with medical and psychiatric experts, and in-depth interviews with forty young adults who grew up on psychopharmaceuticals. Having spent a fair portion of my own life on antidepressants, and having recently resumed treatment, I was instantly fascinated, both as an observer of culture and a living sample size of one.

Sharpe begins with an anecdote from her college days, in which she and her six roommates arrived at the accidental and highly self-conscious realization that each one of them was, or had been, on one form of psychoactive drug or another — an incident emblematic of the pervasive and profound cultural pattern at the heart of Sharpe’s book. She writes:

It is strange, as a young person, to realize that you have lived through something that can be considered a real historical change, but that’s exactly what we had done. When I was a child, in the early 1980s, taking psychiatric medication was decidedly a fringe phenomenon. Prozac came onto the market in 1987, the year I was eight. The first member of a family of drugs called SSRIs (for “selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors”), it quickly became the leading edge of a psychopharmaceutical revolution. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Americans grew ever more likely to reach for a pill to address a wide variety of mental and emotional problems. We also became more likely to think of those problems as a kind of disease, manifestations of an innate biochemical imbalance. Depression, social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and the like went from being strange clinical terms or scrupulously hidden secrets to constituting acceptable topics of cocktail party conversation — talk that was often followed up by chatter about the new miracle drugs for despair.

Artwork by Bobby Baker from ‘Drawing Mental Illness.’

But more than a mere statistically swelling phenomenon — less than two decades after the introduction of Prozac, SSRIs had outpaced blood pressure medication to become America’s favorite class of drugs, popped by about 10% of the nation — Sharpe points out a troubling corollary: In permeating everyday life so profoundly, antidepressants also embedded themselves in youth, with an ever-growing number of teenagers taking psychopharmaceuticals to abate depression, ADHD, and other mental health issues. And while relief from the debilitating and often deadly effects of adolescent depression is undoubtedly preferable over the alternative, it comes with a dark side: Antidepressants confuse our ability to tell our “true self” from the symptoms of the disease, and from the effects of the medication, at a time when the search for selfhood and the construction of personal identity are at their most critical and formative stages. And given the teenage brain responds so differently to life than the adult’s, the implications are even more uneasy:

Rightly or wrongly, antidepressants command powerful emotions; they can lead people to examine their deepest assumptions about themselves and the world.

[…]

The notion that depression distorts the true self and that antidepressants merely restore what was there all along has often been invoked against the fear that by taking antidepressants, we might somehow be betraying our true natures. But that belief in particular is one that people who start medication young cannot fall back on. Worries about how antidepressants might affect the self are greatly magnified for people who begin using them in adolescence, before they’ve developed a stable, adult sense of self. Lacking a reliable conception of what it is to feel “like themselves,” young people have no way to gauge the effects of the drugs on their developing personalities. Searching for identity — asking “Who am I?” and combing the inner and outer worlds for an answer that seems to fit — is the main developmental task of the teenage years. And for some young adults, the idea of taking a medication that could frustrate that search can become a discouraging, painful preoccupation.

Coming of Age on Zoloft is fantastic and pause-giving in its entirety, embodying the rare bravery of asking important, complex questions in a society that fetishizes simplistic, sensationalistic answers. In a culture where just about the most embarrassing thing is not to have an opinion, Sharpe invites us to form one that is truly our own, however inconclusive and full of what Keats called“negative capability,” rather than a borrowed one that is easier to don but devoid of true understanding.” Full Article + More Artwork on Brainpickings

Maintaining Muchness While Hanging In Limbo Over The Abyss

Hard as I try, I’m still fighting off days of not feeling very Much of My Muchness…

I have a few good days then something (usually family-issue related) spins my head ’round til it’s all backwards and downside-up and then *SPLAT* my brain overloads, explodes while it implodes – and I fall over to play dead for awhile. Lookit me in my possum tree! It’s survival of the asylum; self-preservation and protecting what little Much I have left right now. Unresolved issues, hurts I thought long-dead; current gatherings that strain the brain with familial pain covered over with alcohol aided smiles. Weekends like the one past – so many people brought together in a life-celebration(a wedding)…so many of us in stages of grieving; raw nerves, hurting hearts, happy times…new beginnings, beginnings of endings all jumbled & tossed & spun into one. Stay standing, stay standing; smile, cry a little but smile again and ring-around-the-roses with pockets full of posies, ashes, ashes…we all fall down. At least, I know I fell face-first into 2-day oblivion once obligatory activities were over and the fun was done. 

♫ L-I-M-B-O ♫

Limbo is the hardest state of existence for me. Free-falling with a blindfold on is an easier place to reside because you know you can only fall for a limited time before you crash and recover. Limbo just strings you up across the canyon bound with a few stringy threads of web…someday they will snap…one…by…one…maybe, someday. Someday…soon? Maybe. It drives me batshit crazy and worse, it’s making Dad crazy, too, so I get a double-dose of the canyon-limbo dance. “Sonofabitch! I didn’t think the process (of dying) would take this long! Can we get this shit over with already?” he asks…and I sigh with the pain of understanding that frustration. Allow too much of that feeling and I’ll eat a dose of guilt later…tread lightly, don’t shake the threads and make them break before they should…*Sigh*

And again, I retreat to my Possum Tree, share a Slice Of Cake as a status, take several deep breaths & fall into slumber – even if only halfway. I care for those I can – hubby and Dad and kids and me – the Others who refuse to do their own damn work & try to grab onto my thin web must be cut loose…for an hour, a day, a week…until I can reemerge, slightly recharged and able to weave the limbo-webs tighter and stronger…at least for awhile.

~♥~ The Abyss ~♥~

I fear The Abyss; last time I fell in I didn’t think I’d ever see the light of day again. Worse than being bound up by stringy webs, The Abyss dropped me into a bottomless pit – the worst of both worlds – Freefalling In Limbo. I didn’t know Grief then, Continue reading

Caging Our Kids

“The YIA cellblock is home to 53 kids who are rarely permitted to leave the unit, due to the dangers posed by the adult prisoners just outside their door. But once a youth offender turns 18, they begin the immediate transition into the general prison population, where thousands of adult prisoners await…”

And as if locking children up for longer periods of time than many adults will ever serve isn’t shameful enough, we make matters worse when we then isolate them in solitary confinement. They get no human comfort or contact, no education, no mental health care…the system literally helps to drive troubled young kids stark raving mad.

children behind bars

Is this really the best we can do for our kids…for our future??

Learn more about the dangers of harsh sentencing and use of solitary confinement on children -

Kids In Cages

If this article disturbs you then please take a moment and check out my new endeavor – a blog partnership with my husband as we return to prison advocacy volunteer work and try to raise public awareness about the cost, dangers and alarmingly expanded use of solitary confinement as a form of rehabilitative punishment.

“The SHU” “The Hole” “Control Units” “Isolation Cells”…”HELL”…”Deprivation Chambers”…”Mind Destroyers”…”Madness Makers”…

AST Promo

We blog about some general prison issues but our primary goal is to raise awareness about all aspects of solitary confinement in prisons and the detrimental effects it has on the human mind, body and spirit. Thanks to my husband, Steve, for jumping right in with help & support! ♥