Coming of Age on Zoloft…, by Katherine Sharpe – Finding Relief



And then one day, the Zoloft started to work. At first all I felt were some of the side effects I’d been warned about: headache, dry mouth, a new and different kind of sleepiness. A day or two later I stopped crying, just like that. The tragedy I’d been watching came to an unexpected end, and I collected my coat and walked out into the street, surprised to find myself thinking about something other than life, death, the infinite. Not only was I free not to think about them, but for the first time in weeks they didn’t seem any more interesting than anything else: plans for the weekend, say, or conjugating Latin verbs. In the mornings, my stomach rumbled for breakfast.


I found this private research soothing. The idea of having depression made my life feel out of my hands in a way it never had before, and trying to master the topic seemed to go partway towards restoring the missing sense of control. Sam had upped me to a stronger dose by then, the pills not blue but a pale, pleasant yellow, a color that would have looked right on the walls of a guest bedroom in the country.


I started taking [Lexapro], and within a week, I felt like a human being again. I could feel something changing inside of me. I could feel this different kind of light, this support, this capability that I didn’t have before. It was very supportive. It was kind of like someone was holding my hand the entire time. —Shannon, age twenty-six


To me, I haven’t changed at all. I’ve just shed the tremendous weight of depression and anxiety that was stifling my actual personality.”


The people I interviewed also reported taking on new activities and having new feelings about old ones. Often they did this consciously, out of a sense that they could try to make up for the effects of medication with modified habits. Many said that exercise had become vital to them, and that it made a difference: Shannon did yoga; Isabel and Abby signed up for gym memberships. “Exercise has helped me a lot,” said David. “This summer I’ve been running, and it’s been amazing. I don’t know what I’m going to do when winter comes.” Quite a few people had used trial and error to arrive at a belief about what kinds of changes made the biggest difference for them. Shannon was trying to eat fewer processed foods, and Alexa said that she’d moved getting enough sleep to the top of her list of priorities.


Coming of Age on Zoloft…, by Katherine Sharpe – Breakdowns




I could see that the day was beautiful, but I was still waiting for it to produce in me the happiness that I expected from crystalline October days in Virginia. What I felt instead was that biking seemed harder than I remembered. I could feel my breath ripping unevenly in and out of my chest. I tried to shift down, but the gears seemed to behave exactly the opposite of the way I expected them to, and it got even more difficult to pedal. I was on familiar streets in a familiar neighborhood less than two miles from my home, but for some reason I began to panic. Or worse than panic: I felt a wave of despair rise, ripple through my body, and escape as heat from the top of my head. My stomach turned over. I didn’t want to be there, and a moment later I knew that I didn’t want to be anywhere. Merely living suddenly just seemed too hard, too undignified. The burn in my thighs, instead of meaning healthy exercise, felt like an emblem for the pain of life in general, a sickly reminder of every struggle to come.


It seemed as if all the strength and enthusiasm of the past nine weeks were gone, and I was right back to the worst of where I’d been over the summer, feeling unfit for the world and not up to the everyday tasks other people take in stride. These feelings seemed connected to Brendan, at one end, but they quickly spun off into something bigger, a dread without boundaries.


College felt like a fast-moving river. There was no safe time-out place to crawl into, nothing comparable to the gray sofa at home. I felt like I had to be poised and under control at all times, and I was ready to consider just about any solution that presented itself.


Everything meant something, but the meaning was always the same. Even inanimate objects, animals, and trees talked to me about suffering. Sitting by the plate-glass windows in the dining hall, watching a squirrel pick its way across a telephone wire, and wobble, and recover: this was the stuff of high tragedy. In reality, this period couldn’t have lasted for more than a couple of weeks, but in my memory it seems to stretch on forever—a strange little eternity in which shedding tears became a basic bodily function to be fulfilled regularly and by rote, a little pick-me-up squeezed into my hourly, between-class visits to the end-of-row stall in the ladies’ room on the first floor of Vollum Hall.


A lot of my early memories seemed tinged with fear, or just an all-purpose eeriness. I remembered wanting to feel connected to the other kids in preschool and kindergarten, but not always knowing how. They seemed so carefree, so thoughtless, so loud. Sometimes I forgot myself and blended with them. But at other times, the feeling that my dad called anxiety would descend for days or weeks, and nothing would feel right. That feeling clenched my stomach, pinched my breath, kept me awake in the dark while the red glowing numbers of the digital clock marched on and on toward morning.


I did have this kind of generalized anxiety thing, where I would just look at something and a visual something would snap in my brain that would make me feel horribly anxious. Like, it didn’t matter, like a tomato in a commercial, it didn’t make any sense. And that was horrible, it was like anything could throw me off and it didn’t have any sensible story to it. —Rachel, age twenty-eight


Coming of Age on Zoloft…, by Katherine Sharpe – Connecting with Others



Part of the reason why the moment on the porch stayed with me for so long was the sheer force of the relief it brought me to connect, in person, with other people whose experiences mirrored my own.


But there is understanding to be gained in such conversations; partaking in stories of one another is one of the purest and most elemental forms of comfort available to us in our sped-up, surface-happy world. When I conducted the interviews for this book, a number of the people I talked to thanked me. They told me that they didn’t speak about these topics very often, and that they were excited to hear what others had to say.


Midterms came, a week of intensely concentrated stress but also a bleary-eyed camaraderie that affected the whole campus and made the time pleasant in its own delirious way.


She thought, for one thing, that almost all people were neurotic to some degree, and that our society tended to make us so. While she didn’t think that neurosis was healthy, she believed that struggling with it was a basic theme in human life. (As if to underscore the idea, she often illustrated her points with examples drawn from world literature.) I liked the way her theories seemed to imbue mental suffering with a meaning, and therefore a dignity, that had always been conspicuously absent from the discourse of faulty neurotransmitters. Thinking about having a chemical imbalance had always made me feel helpless, the victim of forces beyond my control. To my twenty-first-century ears, the word neurosis sounded strange and old-fashioned at first, maybe even subtly non-P.C. But the idea behind it soothed and heartened me, making me feel legible to myself and connected to other people in a way that nothing else had.


Feeling less unique made me able to talk to other people more openly, and listen better too; when I did, I realized as if for the first time how many of my friends and acquaintances also had problems with depression and anxiety, though it wasn’t always apparent at first.


I began to notice how many of these people also possessed a certain cluster of traits: they were sensitive, moody, empathetic, creative, funny, demanding of themselves, self-absorbed at times, but also capable of joy and a deep interest in the things that moved them. I started to wonder whether people like this tended to cluster in the places I’d been drawn to, like academia and the arts. Maybe being a little melancholic was an occupational hazard of being a certain type of person in the world, an annoyance but also a feature that could pull us toward each other. If that were true, then depression lost even more of its sting; it was a potential to be fought by any means necessary when it became acute, but not something that needed to be feared or rejected for any reason other than its simple awfulness in itself.