Help! SSRI Commercials Are Following Me Everywhere
Trying to get off Zoloft in a world of hauntingly-specific targeted advertising
By Matt Wille
The hers ads began mocking me in late May, a couple of months after I’d made the executive decision to start weaning off my Zoloft prescription. They felt—even more than your typical advertisement in 2022—targeted straight at my chest. (For the uninitiated, “hers” and its purposefully all-lowercase sibling company “hims” are millennial-focused health and beauty brands that offer everything from hair loss solutions to sleep gummies to generic Viagra.)
“Starting medication saved me,” a 20-something with a harsh-cut blonde bob narrates in one. She is glowing, bathed in sunlight, as she swallows her hers-branded pills. “Taking antidepressants, I realized like, oh, this is peace, this is joy,” they tell me through the screen. The camera lingers on her soft smile, her pleasant lounging.
As a person of trying-to-rid-himself-of-SSRIs experience, this series of ads soon became a sharp, haunting presence in my life. I could not get through an episode of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills without being reminded of this gauzy, chill life I’d decided to leave behind.
I was being tested. Look how easy your life could be, hers coaxed, if you’d just visit our website. I was in the beginning stages of weaning off Zoloft; the ads, paired with the sertraline still in my bloodstream, served as a clear reminder that I could, at any time, reverse my decision to stop taking SSRIs.
I’d decided, in February of this year, to leave my sordid romance with Zoloft behind. This decision, I felt, must be made with the air of some finality, or it would be far too easy to reverse course in the six months or so it would take to complete the unraveling. I wrote my list of reasons on a piece of paper so as to make them more concrete: brain fog, delayed ejaculation, heavy sweating, weight gain, general malaise and exhaustion. In the five years since I’d started taking Zoloft, I’d become so accustomed to these serious side effects that they’d gone from notable and scary to dull, throbbing background annoyances.
I did some Googling about what it might look like if I really did make my decision final. I swallowed horror stories about brain zaps with my morning Zoloft. I added twice-a-day Wellbutrin to my regimen as a last-ditch effort to avoid the long process of the proverbial flushing of the pills. (The Wellbutrin increased my sex drive and gave me intense night sweats before mostly fading into the background.)
I realized that, while “addicted” might not be the best way to describe how I felt about the pills, it wasn’t all that far off. After five years of consistent Zoloft, I couldn’t miss a dose without feeling physically ill the next day. I wanted to remember what it felt like to not have SSRI residue floating through my bloodstream. Choosing the easy option—coasting on Zoloft ad infinitum—would ensure I’d never experience that again. Moreover, I wanted to feel creative again; I wanted orgasming to be a less Herculean task; I wanted to inhabit my body as fully as possible.
I felt something akin to pride when I finalized the plan with my doctor: from the 100 milligrams dose I’d been taking, I’d go down 12.5 milligrams each month until I hit zero. I told friends, warned them I might be irritable, weighed myself at the gym to watch for the Zoloft weight to slip away, purchased a pill cutter. I expected to feel more anxious each time I decreased my dose, but I did not feel more anxious.
There’s a saying I just made up that goes something like this: When you throw out your lemon juicer, life will immediately throw you many more lemons. In mid-April, weeks before I’d catch my first glimpse of those haunting ads, my relationship of six years ended abruptly. Not an angry, throw-dishes-at-each-other breakup—a relatively agreeable one, as far as these things go—but an emotionally devastating one nonetheless, as the end of any relationship that long is sure to be.
The 75 milligrams of Zoloft I still took each day took the brunt of this hit for me. I cried lots, yes, and I leaned on friends much more heavily than usual, but there was no spike in anxiety. I told my doctor, who asked if I wanted to stop dropping the dose for a bit. But going through such a life-upending event with nary a trace of anxiety served as a reminder of what I would soon be missing. I pushed forward anyway.
By summer’s end, I’d managed to wean down to half the lowest dose—12.5 milligrams—every other day. I found myself noticing these moments of intense clarity, as if I could really use my senses to process the world around me in a meaningful way, not unlike the enlightenment of wearing prescription glasses after not knowing you’d needed them. I felt anxious at times, but nothing inescapable. The hers ads continued to follow me; I resisted the urge, each time they showed, to turn the TV off. And then, in mid-September, I lost my job. It didn’t take long at all for my wishes to come true. There it was, that wily old anxiety I’d left behind in my early 20s, and oh, yes, it struck every inch of my body. It was like riding a bike. The prophecy I’d made for myself: fulfilled at last.
Are you really sure you wanna be raw-dogging life right now? one friend (lovingly) texted me. Another pointed me to the astrological idea of a Saturn Return—a time approximately 29 years after your birth associated with grand, life-changing events. (I will be 29 in December; my full Saturn Return transit, as calculated by this scientific website, ranges from May 2022 to February 2023). Though I am usually only drawn to conversations of astrology after two tequila sodas, this checked the fuck out. Cosmically fated or otherwise, I had, in short, chosen to stop taking my anxiety-muting drugs at the worst possible moment. Not only single for the first time in more than half a decade but suddenly without a work shift every morning to distract myself.
The hers ads called to me anew. I hated them more than ever, my reactions verging on vitriol. The ads now felt coercive. I found myself visiting the company’s website on more than one occasion. I hated the smug faces that tried to tell me I’d made the wrong call, that tried to tell me this solution was for everyone. I felt manipulated by this peaceful woman with the trendy haircut. My parents asked (lovingly) whether or not I was really okay. Everyone on Twitter, it seemed, was feeling much better now that they’d found the right SSRI, thank you very much.
I’d found my anxiety again. I hadn’t thought through my plan past that point. I found myself with a new decision: try meds again, maybe different ones, or figure out new ways to deal with this fresh anxiety. The first option felt very much like giving up, like giving into the many, many voices telling me it would be so easy to find my peace in a pill bottle.
I am, as I write this, anxious, but I am not regretful. I am raw-dogging life and I am learning so much about myself while doing so. Without Zoloft in my bloodstream, I’m forced to find new practices that keep me grounded. I’m remembering, for example, that writing through it is genuinely helpful for me. I am re-learning what it means to be mindful, about being present, these habits I’d found unnecessary to upkeep for the last few years. I am talking through the minutiae of my Saturn Return with those closest to me—and I’m confident I’ll end up more knowledgeable about who I am on the other side of these universe-shaking events. I’m not letting Zoloft brush off my chaos anymore. I’m not very good at it, yet, but I can feel myself growing.
My friends and I let out a collective groan whenever the hers ads show up during a Real Housewives viewing party. We worry aloud at the problems of assuring the public that SSRIs can make anyone’s life the right kind of peaceful; we wonder whether or not it’s actually net good to make getting on SSRIs as easy as ordering a new duvet from Brooklinen. We joke that, serious, society-level mental health consequences notwithstanding, the brand (and its sibling brand, hims) was always doomed for naming itself after the gender binary. We wonder when we’ll see the launch of “ thems.” The laughter rolls through my body like it hasn’t for years.