Love on drugs?

After coming out of a serious relationship nearly two years ago, I’ve spent that period of time being very much content and accepting of unattached single life. This perplexes a number of people. When I waste time explaining how content I feel with the number of connections in my life and how full and meaningful my life is and that I don’t feel I need a partner to complete my life in anyway they appear much confused. Particularly when they consider I am almost past prime baby making age and have particularly good skills when it comes to domestic duties such as baking cakes.

I did go on a date not that long ago. It was nice. It was enjoyable meeting someone new. But buzz and excitement to pursue things further? Not really.

One person who is also somewhat concerned about this is Dr M. And there is some – somewhat controversial – research and theory to back up his concerns.

For the period of my singledom, I’ve also been taking a SSRI (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor) form of anti-depressant to help in my recovery. I’ve tried other similar medications in the past, but this particular one I have been on for the longest and I have found it to have the most effective results for me.

Serotonin is one of the “feel good” chemicals in our brain. It is also one of the chemicals that helps to manage our moods. When our serotonin levels are low, our brain can lack the ability to stabilise our moods which can lead to significant mood disturbances. We can also experience feelings of sadness, malaise, worthlessness, hopelessness and guilt. Common symptoms that I have experienced when in a depressive episode.

The SSRIs work by disabling the body from reabsorbing the serotonin after it is released in the brain, thus flooding the brain with serotonin in an attempt to elevate mood.

My experience of taking this SSRI post-depressive episode is that it has smoothed out a lot of rollercoaster emotions. I am on a very, very even keel. My levels of anxiety are almost non-existent. The other night I saw a movie and whilst the hysterical sobbing from the rest of the audience was significantly audible, my eyes were dry.

The other wonderful thing is that my really obsessive thinking patterns have quietened down a lot. I used to be capable to worrying about things that probably wouldn’t happen for days, weeks or months. Now these thoughts can come and go, without to much distress at all.

The feelings that were causing such significant distress and really disturbing my functioning are nearly all but gone, but so are some of the nicer things too. I don’t get as excited about things as I once did. And content is probably as high as I can go on the happiness scale.

By enhancing the amount of serotonin going on in my brain whilst I take this medication, it means that some of my other brain chemicals aren’t able to be as active as they used to be. One of these chemicals is dopamine.

Dopamine is a brain chemical connected with motivation, reward, movement and pleasure. When we engage in a pleasurable activity such as eating chocolate cake or having sex or taking crystal meth we get a burst of dopamine and it makes us feel really good. It also motivates us to do it again.

Studies are finding though that popular antidepressants that work by increasing the levels of serotonin not only affect serotonin levels in mouse brains, but they also seem to “hijack” dopamine signalling as well. So the brain transmitters that are supposed to be carrying dopamine around in the brain end up carrying around the serotonin as well.

So what does this feel like in a non-mouse? Well my reality of taking this antidepressant has been a complex one. This neurological consequence is probably most noticeable in my significant sense of ‘emotional dissociation’ or ‘emotional blunting’. Like I mentioned I have a limited ability to cry and worry, but I very rarely become angry or concerned about particular life matters like I used too. The other thing that has been significant – and incredibly concerning – for me is that there has been a remarkable reduction in my level of empathy and sympathy. Often now rather than naturally experience the emotion of empathy, I will instead cognitively process how I ‘should feel’ or ‘would have felt’ prior to taking the medication.

And here’s the thing – experiencing a connection with someone, feeling really strong emotions and obsessive thinking are two of the main characteristics of romantic love! Furthermore, brain imaging research shows that romantic love is associated with elevated activity in dopaminergic pathways. It follows pretty naturally then that because of the pretty strong and safe bubble between me and the ability to think obsessively and feel strong emotions and my dopamine pathways being hijacked by serotonin, my drive to fall in love right now is probably not heaps strong.

There’s also loads of research about the negative sexual side effects of SSRIs and how such side effects may relate to attachment and intimacy and oxytocin in the brain. But my Dad likes to read this blog. And I don’t want to make him too uncomfortable.

Anyway this theory all seems pretty plausible to me. It’s been a long time out of a relationship, yet the desire to enter the coupled kingdom again really doesn’t hold much appeal at all. And I understand why this seems perplexing to others – it would have once to me too. Dr M and I are considering other medication possibilities, in the chance I’ll regret this down the road. But right now I cannot imagine how I could regret living such a content and full and meaningful life. Single or not.

Comment on this post (1 comment)

  • Jenna says...

    Beautiful, honest and inspiring. Thanks for sharing Sam.

    02 July 2016

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