Sarah had been thinking very hard for weeks now about whether to stop taking Zoloft. The blogs she had read in her initial research about the drug warned of a “numbing effect” as the brain began to block both strong negative and positive thoughts. There seemed to be a lot of truth behind those statements, Sarah decided, feeling nothing most of the time. She could focus with her eyes on just how blue the sky was, but her mind was blank.
Every so often, though, just as Sarah was about to stop taking her daily dose of dulling, something would happen to make her want to stay the course. Once, a happy couple floated by her on the street and she felt surges of a recent, palpable anger. She noticed that the woman’s face was clean and smooth like a freshly polished mirror, and she imagined clawing it in just a few spots. Unsurprisingly, she immediately felt shame for those thoughts, a self-hatred that only made her more skeptical and resentful of people who didn’t seem to be struggling at all.
It was this vicious cycle that had finally convinced Sarah to start taking Zoloft. That wasn’t the first time she had realized there was a problem. In fact, her therapist had given her a diagnosis a while back, but it seemed arbitrary, or maybe temporary.
According to the therapist, Sarah had OCPD, not to be confused with a disorder of a similar name. “While people who suffer from OCD adopt compulsive behaviors and experience high degrees of anxiety,” the therapist explained clinically and carefully, “those with OCPD are obsessed with perfection and seek out structures or systems that help them be as efficient as possible.
“You see, the thinking is: the more perfect I am, the less opportunity there is for someone to criticize me, hurt me or put me down.”
Even at the time, Sarah knew in her heart how much this applied to her. She understood how it felt to strive to be beyond reproach, even if it was a futile exercise. But to her, admitting she had a problem with perfectionism felt a lot like learning her apartment building had been accidentally demolished. She couldn’t figure out how she’d start over.
Besides, she blamed a lot of her pain on the recent breakup with Jon. She had worried that he would eventually reach his limit with her, but she hadn’t expected it so happen so definitively. One minute, she was his ideal; the next, he told her that she was dogmatic, impossible to please and no longer someone he loved. His voice was firm and unapologetic, and when he walked out carrying the last box, he answered a phone call. His voice trailed off down the hallway, but Sarah could tell that he was smiling all the way.
Since the very beginning of their relationship, Sarah had been insecure. It all started with the things she found herself doing for the first time. Messy things that were easy to do but hard to talk about. Not returning the calls of a friend who had been less than loyal for a while. Focusing on Jon’s laughter over dinner instead of worrying if she looked good in her new dress. Agreeing to be blindfolded and handcuffed while Jon took all control. The more she did, the more worried she got. What if this didn’t last?
One night, as Jon lay asleep, Sarah slipped outside onto the balcony with a wine glass filled to the brim and a pack of cigarettes. With each sip and exhalation, she got more anxious. There’s really so little I know about Jon, she thought.
She flipped through old pictures of him on Facebook, heart pounding and lungs tight. There were a lot of girls, but there was one that Sarah stopped to observe. She had a bright complexion, white teeth and the kind of perfectly messy hair that women spent money to get. She closed her eyes and leaned back against the prickly stucco wall. Come on Sarah, what’s wrong with you? Every guy has a past. Other women don’t obsess about stuff that doesn’t matter. He’s with you, remember?
The night before Jon broke things off, Sarah had also had problems going to sleep. She grabbed Jon’s phone from the bedside table and snuck into the bathroom, investigating through the glow of the screen. She drank directly from an open wine bottle, alternating between tears and under-the-breath curses from numb lips. How dare Jon be so friendly in his texts with other women? Who is Ana anyway?
An hour or so later, when Jon came into the bathroom, he found Sarah asleep on the floor, head pressed against the base of the shower. His phone was besides her, pooled in broken glass and wine. When he left later the next day, after packing everything he owned with unparalleled speed, Sarah was still groggy, slowly sweeping up the mess, listening to his smiling voice disappear.
Later that week, Sarah told her therapist she was ready to start taking Zoloft. Even with the feelings of loss and shame, though, she was unsure. Wasn’t this just another external system for her to overly rely on?
Now after several months of sertraline rushing her brain, here Sarah was. Feeling nothing much at all. Hating, but secretly enjoying, the moments of jealousy and anger that suddenly emerged, like shark fins in still water.
She sat on her balcony, flipping through photos of Jon’s online female friends, looking for clues, trying to find the one who caused such uncontrollable smiles. She could barely taste the tobacco dripping down her throat, or the sweat dotting her lips. She lost herself in the sea of images, digging her jagged fingernails into the crook of her arm. Finally, she prepared to leave, to meet some friends for dinner. As she moved inside, she repeated words to herself. I didn’t do anything wrong. I didn’t do anything wrong. I didn’t do anything wrong.