Dear MKE SEX,
Have you ever been so sad for so long that you don’t remember the last time you even wanted sex? Like, I for sure don’t remember when my husband and I had sex last, but now I don’t remember ever being the slightest bit interested (though I know I was! The stories I could tell about my college years—whew!) I’ve tried to masturbate a few times, but it just seemed pointless. I know I’m dealing with depression. It’s come and gone at various times in my life. Even though it’s not a brand new thing for me, I seem to block out just how hard it is between episodes. My husband understands, and he’s really supportive of me. But I feel like I’m such a burden all the time. If I could at least have sex with him, it might make up for *gestures broadly.* I’m not even sure what I’m asking here. Just, like, is this a thing that happens to other people? Will it ever get better? Or are we doomed to a gloomy sexless marriage for the next 30 years?
You’re definitely not alone, especially right now in the middle of this pandemic that has wreaked such havoc on everyone’s lives. It’s very common for depression to cause a significant drop in our libido. In addition to feeling sad, depression causes fatigue, body aches, changes in appetite, and can even lower our immune function. It’s also important to note that while depression often causes sadness (like you are experiencing), folks with depression can experience a whole range of emotions that don’t feel great like rage, frustration, brain fog, listlessness, and more.
It’s also important to remember that you can’t just will yourself out of depression. It’s an actual illness, not a matter of poor attitude or lack of emotional resilience. Depression is caused by changes in brain chemistry. In oversimplified terms, the depressed brain doesn’t make as much of the chemicals that keep us feeling optimistic or happy. And when those brain chemicals are in low supply, our brain can actually increase production of the chemicals that cause us to feel low.
This leads us back to your situation. All sexual desire starts as a chemical reaction in the brain. When we’re depressed, our brains are making more chemicals that work against your libido, and fewer of the chemicals that make us feel sexy to begin with. Once we understand this, it’s sometimes easier to be gentle with ourselves for the symptoms that we believe are shortcomings.
But I want to be really clear about this: You are not a burden. Your depression doesn’t make you less valuable. You are valuable because you are you, even when you don’t feel well. And even when you don’t believe it. Also, you are worthy of the compassion and patience your husband is giving you. Feeling sad or not wanting sex doesn’t erase any of your inherent value.
I think it’s really great that you know your low libido is related to your depression. The next step is to figure out how to feel better. I’ve met lots of people who want to overcome their low libido without dealing with the depression. Because the two issues are both tied to brain chemistry, this is not successful very often. It turns out, to improve your libido, you’ll likely need to treat the depression. Because your letter doesn’t tell me what you’re already doing about the depression, I’m going to share some general ideas to get you started.
Try to move your body a few times a week for even 20 minutes at a time. It doesn’t need to be an intense workout, or raise your heartbeat to a cardio level. A low-impact walk, swaying to some music in your living room, doing gentle toe touches or slow trunk rotations—any of those would be a great place to start. That little bit of movement can help your brain make a little more of the happy chemicals, which might feel really nice for you.
Therapy is another important piece of feeling better. There have never been more options for accessing trained therapists than there are right now. Ask your physician or friends for recommendations, check out online therapy (TalkSpace and BetterHelp are two of the leading platforms), or reach out to Rogers Memorial about their therapy program. If money is an obstacle, Bread of Healing Health Ministries offers free therapy for the uninsured, and Catholic Charities has a behavioral health program available on a sliding scale. There are several other free and low cost therapy resources here.
If you’ve been dealing with this episode of depression for a while, it may be time to consider medication to help you feel better. Our culture still perpetuates a lot of shame about using mental health meds, which is both unfair and unfortunate. Medications can be a key piece to recovering from depression. You don’t have to feel this way, and the right meds may help you feel better more quickly.
While you’re experiencing a reduced sex drive, you might want to stay connected to your husband in other, non-sexual ways. For a lot of people struggling with depression, developing rituals can be very helpful. Two examples of potential rituals would be making coffee every day and drinking it out of a specific cup, or bringing in the mail at a certain time in the afternoon. Maybe you and your husband can develop a ritual together that both brings you comfort and allows the two of you a daily opportunity to do something together. Watching the same television series every night, playing cribbage together, or making sure to sit at the kitchen table at the same time every morning.
Finally, the book The Monster Under The Bed: Sex, Depression, And The Conversations We Aren’t Having by Jo Ellen Notte is an excellent resource for this very situation. We’re actually discussing The Monster Under The Bed at our online book club in February. Ms. Notte will be joining us for the second half of the event to answer questions and share some of her journey through sex and depression. If you feel like joining, you don’t even have to turn your camera on! You can just watch and listen, and you’d be more than welcome.
Additional Milwaukee-based resources:
414-257-7222 – Psychiatric Crisis Hotline available 24/7. Provides immediate emergency counseling and referral information.
414-777-4729 – Milwaukee County Warmline. Peer-run support line for those with mental illness. This is not a crisis line.
Curious about cunnilingus? Anxious about anal? Do you have questions about queefs or problems with your prostate? Lucky Tomaszek is the education coordinator at The Tool Shed: An Erotic Boutique, Milwaukee’s only mission-driven, education-focused sex toy store. Send her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and she’ll get back to you with an answer.