Trying to Be Creative When You're on Antidepressants Isn't Easy

This piece was originally published by Vice.

I always thought I wrote best when I was depressed. A lot of writers say the same thing. There's just something about feeling sad, anxious, angry. It makes sense. You're not sitting in a dingy room, listening to some droning song by The National, writing gloomy poetry when you're loving life. Happiness isn't something you question.

Depression forces us to reflect on every bad moment and find reason in it. Or at least find somebody to blame, usually ourselves.

Four years after being diagnosed with clinical depression, I just got sick of constantly fighting it. At 22, I'd tried every natural remedy available—meditation, yoga, adult coloring books—and felt out of options. I needed a quick fix. Each day meant increasingly intense panic attacks and it was slowly killing me.

So I went on Lexapro. I took 20mg every day for 11 months without missing a single dose—unless you count that time I accidentally double dropped on NYE last year. As it turns out, Lexapro is also Kanye West's drug of choice—he mentions it on "FML" when he says, "You ain't never seen nothing crazier than this n***a when he off his Lexapro."

I never considered the side effects of antidepressants before taking them, I thought it was simple, take a pill, everyday, and be alright again. I didn't think it was going to kill the one thing I loved to do, which was writing.

At first, I was certain my regular habit for procrastination had just dialed up a notch. But I started to notice a trend. I stopped crying. I had to go to my grandpa's funeral and, even though I was shattered, I was the only person there who wasn't tearing up. I got so paranoid people were judging me that I ducked away to the bathroom, frantically dabbing water under my eyes to give the impression I was crying.

Lexapro turned me into a zombie, riding through the motions of life without feeling. Things that made me angry became irrelevant. There was no twinge of sadness watching Tom Hanks in Philadelphia. If you're wondering whether something is off, that's a sure sign. Whenever I picked up a pen to write, I had nothing. I couldn't even write about the damn rain. If you're a creative writer who can't poetically describe the rain, you're in trouble.

The dulling of emotions by Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) is known as emotional blunting. For most people this means antidepressants will stop them feeling depressed, which is great. But for others, SSRIs can kill all emotions, whether you like it or not.

It's a catch-22. You take SSRIs to stop being depressed, and that works, but then you're depressed because you can't feel anymore. Lose-lose. But I wasn't crying myself to sleep or getting anxious every time I entered a room. Wasn't that what I wanted? I should have been happy, but I wasn't.

I wish someone would've warned me before I started antidepressants. Of course, doctors tell you how much your life will change when you start taking SSRIs. There was no mention though of the emotional toll that not feeling would take. I could handle the brain zaps, constant dizziness, and sleep problems. But losing your emotions feels like dying.

Creativity is subjective, which makes it difficult to measure with any accuracy. But googling around I found researchers have tried to understand the link between feeling bad and feeling creative. And Columbia University social psychologist Modupe Akinola found a correlation between the two.

Working with Harvard University's Wendy Berry Mendes, Akinola asked students to write down their career aspirations. Then they were given feedback that was either positive or dream crushing. After this, the students had to create an artistic collage. As it happens, participants who got negative feedback—and felt shitty because of what the researchers termed "social rejection"—made collages that were more creative than those who were unaffected.

I decided to stop Lexapro around six weeks ago. It wasn't really a case of "going off your meds." After weighing up the pros and cons, I just decided it was time for me to let go. The drugs worked too well. Some people definitely want to feel emotionally numbed, but I wasn't cut out for that life. I missed being creative.

Within two days, the emotions I craved raced back. But I spent a month going through intense withdrawals. There was the extreme fatigue, random electric shocks, and mood swings. It was challenging, but I don't regret stopping.

I haven't recovered from depression, I'm not sure I ever will. But I do feel like I'm in a much better place than I was a year ago. All of those negative emotions that used to overwhelm me, I've gotten better at channelling them creatively. I guess I learned my artist self and human self aren't two separate things—you can't ignore one for fear of losing the other. There has to be balance.

Why Aren’t We Talking About Human Trafficking?

Many Australians wrongfully assume that human trafficking only affects the people of third-world countries. Though human trafficking crimes committed in Australia are not as prevalent as countries such as India, Brazil, Bangladesh and Slovenia, our proximity to Asia has led to the rise in what is known as ‘modern slavery’.

Anti-Slavery Australia — our nation’s only specialist policy and legal centre that aims to abolish slavery — defines trafficking as 'the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of a person for the purpose of exploiting that person through slavery, forced labour, servitude, debt bondage, organ removal or other forms of exploitation’. Since 2004, the Australian Federal Police has investigated over 340 suspected cases of trafficking, only fifteen of them cases have resulted in convictions. Over sixty percent of reported cases relate to sexual exploitation. Authorities admit that human trafficking is a hard crime to police as victims become fearful that they are not going to be able to rebuild their lives if they testify. 

Forced marriage is a bigger problem than some people realise. Forced marriages only became an illegal activity in 2013 within Australia, but unfortunately, many African, Asian and Latin American countries consider the marriage between child brides and adults as a recognised legal practice. Global Partnership program Girls Not Brides admit that one-in-three girls in developing countries marry before the age of eighteen. Over seven-hundred million women alive today were once child brides. 

Australia is not immune to this form of human trafficking. According to the End Child Marriage Australia report conducted by the National Children’s and Youth Law Centre (NCYLC) in 2013, research findings discovered that there was an estimated 250 cases of forced marriage involving children over a twenty-four month period. In many of the cases, it was discovered that the child was removed from Australia and sent to the country of their awaiting husband. The report also supports the theory that victims are often reluctant to report crimes as child brides often exhibit similar behaviours to those involved in family/domestic violence. Indicators that a child has been forced into a marriage include extended absences from school for overseas trips or lack of socialisation with peers, though these are not reliable indicators as they may relate to another issue or form of abuse. The only way to truly prove that a child is a victim is if they admit that they have been forced into a marriage — the lack of solid indicators is one of the problems associated with policing the issue.

One of Australia’s most notable cases was when a sixty-two-year-old man from New South Wales sold his twelve-year-old daughter to a twenty-six-year-old man so the proposed husband could have sex and marry the child. The pair were illegally married by a Muslim cleric in the father’s lounge room after he wrongfully gave consent to the marriage. Though have made steps forward since banning forced marriages in 2013; we still have a long way to go. So far, the Australian government along with The National Roundtable on Human Trafficking and Slavery Communication and Awareness Working Group has created an information pack that details how community agencies and authorities can notice the signs of this form of trafficking and what they can do to intervene. The following signs the document notes includes a sudden engagement of marriage, absence or withdrawal from school, nervousness about an upcoming overseas family trip and evidence of family conflict. If they suspect a potential case, they are to report the case to the Australian Federal Police. But is this sufficient enough?

Some Australian traffickers are also asserting their economic dominance in developing countries as they know that the people of them countries are easily manipulated due to their financial position. An infamous case involves the molestation, murder, rape, torture and selling of young female girls in the Philippines by Australian Peter Scully. The leader of a paedophilia syndicate in the Philippines, Scully specialised in the creation of made-to-order child pornography of young girls being raped and tortured, the youngest being eighteen-months-old. His rap sheet also includes the murder of an eleven-year-old girl whose family he paid and promised he would give her an education and provide her with free housing. Instead, she was murdered with the remains found under Scully’s kitchen. The eleven-year-old girl was sold as a sex slave and repetitively raped by Scully’s syndicate (that also featured another Australian).

As mentioned earlier, human trafficking related to the sex industry is the most reported type of trafficking in Australia. According to the 2016 Trafficking in Persons report released by the US government, Australia is primarily a destination for women and young girls subject to sex trafficking. Some women who arrive in Australia from countries in Asia are held in captivity and are manipulated through physical and sexual violence and illicit drugs to remain in the sex trade. The report states that Australia is only meeting the bare minimum standards for eliminating trafficking and that we should be robust in the investigation of these crimes and improve our education of those working on the frontline. The report also recommends that we educate those working in the sex industry on the difference between prostitution and trafficking, as many victims are not familiar with how they differentiate. US Secretary of State John Kerry has described Australia’s efforts as ‘modest’ in comparison to the measures performed by other nations.

There is much more Australia can do to combat this form of organised crime both domestically and internationally, yet our government is failing the victims of this tragic crime. We must appoint a commissioner in government who will do everything in their power to protect those affected by this form of modern slavery. We need someone who can guarantee that every Australian (and those entering Australia) understands their human rights and that they will not be exploited or manipulated by traffickers. This person must be responsible for collating data on human trafficking and then know what to do with it and how it can be used to bring change. 

We’ve ignored human trafficking for long enough; it’s time that modern slavery receives the attention that it deserves.