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24 October 2017

Why I'm Done With The Pill



A couple days ago, I decided to stop taking my contraceptive pill – hold your congratulations, because I’m not trying for a baby just yet.

I started taking the pill when I was eighteen. I had been dating my now boyfriend of over two years for about four months, and decided to get ahead of the game and get myself baby-proofed. Like most women are, I was prescribed the combined pill first and gave a full medical history. The doctor told me most women were fine on this pill, and that side effects were rare – if I felt nauseous, or had any headaches, I should come back in to try something new.

A lot of women have problems with the combined pill, and initially I didn't think that I did. My periods were regular, and I could skip them if I couldn't be asked. I didn't have to worry about always carrying condoms (only because I was in a relationship, always use condoms if you don't know your partner is STD free) and I put down my mood swings to the frustrations and joys of my first serious relationship. Mood swings aren't original - so many women get them on the pill. For me, they ranged from non-existent, to crying under eight duvets for a whole evening and not quite being able to figure out why. I took it as part of the package; hey, maybe it was just me. Maybe I was like this now. It’s amazing that I didn’t even think to look at my pill – no one had given me reason to.

After six months on the combined pill, I went to see a different doctor by chance to have my prescription renewed. Whenever you request the pill from a new GP, you have to give your full medical history before they'll sign off on anything. So I sat down, had my blood pressure taken and explained that my mother had blood clots after I was born - the exact same information I'd given my doctors before. The exact same information I'd been prescribed the combined pill on the basis of on at least on two separate occasions.

"You need to stop taking that pill. Now." I was confused. "You're in the second highest risk category for dangerous blood clots”. 

It's hard to avoid the news about pill related deaths as a woman; I didn't sleep for a week when I first went on it, terrified that I might wake up in the hospital because of complications. It's rare, but it's estimated ten women a year die from such complications. As time passed, I assumed I was fine - none of the previous doctors I had spoken to had even blinked an eye, and here I was being told that I was putting myself at risk everyday. I was quickly put on the progesterone only pill and sent on my way again, with the note that I could either have no periods, normal periods, or irregular bleeding. 

For the first four months I didn't have a period, I lost weight I didn’t even realise I’d put on and my mood swings stopped. I felt like myself, and I hadn't even realised how much my mental health had suffered until I stopped taking my old pill. Doctors had waved off my questions about my mood swings and family history, telling me this was the best thing to take. The research and testimony is there, but I wasn't informed about it - and when I asked, I was told it was 'incredibly rare'. So many women I know are coming off the pill because of mood swings and depression - how rare can it really be? The grace period of my new pill ended swiftly, and for the last year I've been at the mercy of almost constant spotting, incredibly irregular and often month long periods. Irregular periods would be an understatement. My libido has been on holiday for the last eight months - I hope it's enjoyed itself, because I haven't. The efficacy of my pill seems to come less from hormones, and more from the simple fact I'm either on my period or don't want to have sex - and I'm not the first woman to make that joke.

It sounds absurd that I haven't quit the pill yet - but for so many women it is thrust at us as the best option; the only option. Alternatives are mentioned if you enquire but the wait lists can be months long and the alternatives are physically invasive. Side effects are played down dramatically, sometimes even put down to women's imaginations. We're left second guessing ourselves, wondering if the fake hormones are the reason we're depressed or have no libido, or whether we've changed. Whether there's something wrong with us. Just from speaking to a couple other women, it’s clear how widespread these side effects are. I let it go on for months because I thought it must be me, and that this was what I had to put up with if I wanted long term contraception. I can’t use any contraceptives with oestrogen in them, and the coil terrifies me – this was the hand I was dealt unless I was ready to start a family. Better just take it on the chin then.

The loss of libido is so often treated as a rumour, and it can feel awkward to talk about. A lot of women don't talk about it - and sometimes with detrimental effects. Harriet, a woman I spoke to about her experience, told me about how the pill ruined her last serious relationship. "The pill made me completely lose my libido. And when I say completely, I mean if my boyfriend even suggested anything sexual...it made me want to curl up in a ball and die. We were together for five years, and I contribute the loss of my sex drive as a huge factor in our break-up".  Heather eventually changed which pill she was on, only to be told by a different doctor two months later that she had been put on a pill known to decrease sex drive – the complete opposite of what she needed. Having done her own research, she's realised she's not the only one - but the fact that side effects like these aren’t publicized clearly is incredibly problematic. 

Anoushka has been on five separate pills - each leading to a serious bout of depression that doctors consistently attributed to her own imagination. "I've been on a journey in my twenties trying to get to the bottom of my mood swings...I realised that I needed to know my body in it’s natural state to get to the bottom of it. I haven't used the pill for two years; I'm much happier having my own hormones dictate my cycle, and I've become better at handling moods because of that understanding". Her friend’s libido disappeared completely after ten years on the pill, and never returned even after she stopped taking it - a problem Heather also faced. Anoushka's doctor told her things like this were normal – but they shouldn’t be. And if they are normal, the disclosure should be in bold writing - not a side note at the end of a doctor's appointment. Women shouldn’t be put under any impression that these side effects are normal, or should just be dealt with, or worse: are just part of their imagination.

The reality of the pill is that we unquestioningly pump our bodies full of synthetic hormones, and are all too often waved away when we complain of life changing side effects. Girls are prescribed the pill, often at young ages, when it’s uncomfortable to probe and ask the questions that need to be asked; what are the risks of depression, complications, irregular periods, mood swings, weight loss or gain and loss of sex drive?  All of these can feel uncomfortable to talk about, especially when you’re young, but they affect the everyday way we live our lives. The long term effects of being on the pill can of course be non-existent for some, but psychologically devastating to others. More and more women are moving to the coil, and even just having a natural understanding of their own cycle. Natural family planning may not be the hot and fast way to prevent pregnancy, but when the alternatives seem like such a gamble, it's hard not to be tempted. 

So a couple days ago I decided to say 'no' to the discomfort that I had been told it was normal to endure, and I won't be going back on any long term contraceptive until my body feels like my own again. Maybe in time I’ll be ready to try something new, but for now I’m going to take Anoushka’s advice and try to understand my natural cycle. I've missed my four days a month to cuddle up with a hot water bottle. I've missed that monthly reminder that my body can do amazing things, but also that it hasn't done those awesome things yet. I miss not having to carry pads in my bag because I never know if today I’ll start bleeding, and never knowing when it might let up for a while. There is no denying that the pill is great for some women, but it isn’t the be all and end all – it shouldn’t be touted as the main, or only, real option. The pill was revolutionary for generations before us, and different contraceptive methods are being embraced by women, but it feels like the conversation has stagnated around the pill. Women complain of the same side effects, the same problems, but nothing seems to change. The very thing that was meant to give us control over our bodies seems, at times, the thing taking that control away.

Anoushka tells me that most of her friends, heading into their thirties, have realised that 'the pill is the only option' rhetoric is bullshit. I agree. 


H&M cap (similar), NAK-D coat (similar), SWEDISH HASBEENS denim c/o (here), ASOS jumper, ACNE shoes (similar), DKNY bag

Photography: Akemi Louise

7 comments:

  1. This is a great post! I'm 21 and looking into going on birth control for the first time ever. I've always said to myself I would never go on the pill or put anything else hormonal into my body so I'm gonna go with the copper coil but let's just say I'm slightly terrified. It irks me so much that as women we are the ones who have to put our bodies through such unnatural processes in order to be safe. I struggle with mental health enough as it is so the coil really is my only option but damn it's gonna hurt. I think it's great you're gonna get to experience your natural cycle again because I'm sure as hell wary about losing mine xxx

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  2. I think the conversation surrounding the pill is well overdue, so it was great to read this perspective. I came off the pill in my mid twenties and can only be thankful that it allowed me to see how my body could naturally be. I tried to return to the pill in the last year after a solid 5 year gap, and could detect how much my body and emotions changed through pill use. My mood plummeted with monthly pre menstrual depression and my period lasted over a month and became irregular. With my partner, I actually felt ashamed explaining what was happening with my body. He became distrustful of me and accused me of lying about my period. Thankfully, this episode highlighted that he was not a correct choice in partner and we split, but I'm sure I'm not the only person who has experienced a partner that expects the pill and expects it to work without giving it any real consideration. It's not just us that are taking the pill that have been wrongly educated - sex ed at schools give the rosy picture that side effects are minimal, but they aren't. They're life changing. This isn't just an issue to be raised for women but men too - it's all our lives that can be affected. Thank you for this article!

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  3. Really love this article - this has been something I've become all the more aware of recently, but only through friends of mine who are training to be doctors. They've all switched onto the coil, and I always wondered why. This post is so relevant because the negative aspects of the contraceptive pill are rarely discussed, both in advice from doctors (other than the generic spiel they give you with your prescription) and between friends. It's really made me question my moods lately, because although physically I respond to the pill well, I have definitely noticed my moods have become a lot more extreme and volatile. Thanks for writing this article - I've shared it with a bunch of people as I really believe people need to question what other choices are out there!

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  4. ‪Thank you so much for writing this! I’ve never been on any type of pill because none is safe due to my chronic migraines.

    However, I’ve constantly been prompted to give it a try by my friends, protucalrly since I started University abroad. Knowing that so many other women I’m close to use the pill made me second-guess not only my thoughts on it, but even those of my doctor.

    Plenty of times I thought that maybe I made a wrong choice by opting for condoms and natural birth control as my contraception methods.

    One of the main issues I’ve encountered is the way that the pill is marketed to us. We’re told about the many benefits of taking it (i.e. clear skin, lighter or no periods) and that the “potential side effects” are just part of the trade-off, but not “really that bad”.

    Personally, I’m glad that the fear of worsening my migraines prevented me from switching to the pill. But I am deeply concerned and angry that we are still being misinformed about the risks of using this contraceptive method. I also want to express empathy with all the women whose lives have been negatively affected for taking the pill. We hear a lot of stories related to fertility and mental health, but not enough about how these issues transcend to women’s sexual and love lives, and even their relationships with themselves and their bodies.

    Thank you for shedding light into how frequently all the “potential side effects” show in women. We definitely need to make sure this conversation continues; and that we help each other make more informed decisions about our bodies.

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  5. Thank you for spreading your story. I think this topic is really important and I really understand your point. I took the pill for four years. I didn´t have a period for four years. In the beginning I thought this was an awesome side effect. But more and more I felt so bad about it. I really missed having a period (something that I would never expect to happen before :D). I tried to talk about my feelings to my doctor but she couldn´t understand my problem. She told me that I should be thankful for not having bleedings. But I hated it. I just didn´t feel myself anymore. Nevertheless I didn´t quit the pill.
    It took two more years until I - finally - made the decision. Just like you I wanted to understand my natural cycle. Since I quit the pill I feel so much better. With the help of a symptothermal method I manage to prevent pregnancy since two years now (I´m 22.. not ready for a baby yet..) :) Of course this method also has its cons (in my opinion there is not the one perfect contraception..) but I feel so much better now and I never regretted my decision to stop taking the pill. I´m also glad that my boyfriend understood my problem and supported me in the best way.
    No matter which choice you make as a woman, you should feel good about it! You are the boss of your body! 8)

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  6. Thank you so much for sharing your story (and others), Camilla. I wish I was as brave to follow your footsteps because I feel like there are many side effects of the pill that I'm not even noticing because I'm so used to them after taking the pill for 6 years. The only thing that's holding me back is that this feels like the easiest and least painful form of anti conception when in a relationship. I sometimes feel like there's no other option but now that I've noticed I'm slowly losing my libido too, which is impacting my relationship big time, it might be time to be myself again. Thank you for this eye-opener.

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  7. Thank you for writing this post and bringing up this subject. My story is similar to your, Heather and Anoushka's. I was on the the combined pill for about six years. Over the years I started experiencing negative side-effects of the pill without realizing the cause; mood swings, loss of libido, yeast infections and finally the symptom that made me question the pill, migraines that affected my eyesight (which I have never suffered from before or after the pill). Initially the doctor made to change to the progesterone only pill because of migraines causing a higher risk of blood cloths with the combined pill, but after 10 months of having a constant period and 3 different pill brands I decided that my nightly routine of taking a pill was over. For about a year I wasn't on any birth control (despite being in a long term relationship) and noticed how I didn't experience mood swings anymore, I actually wanted to have sex, I hadn't had a yeast infection (and haven't to this day) and my migraines had disappeared. Still I wanted to have some assurance of not getting pregnant, but I definitely didn't want to put any more synthetic hormones into my body. I ended up opting for the copper coil and had to really make an effort for doctors to actually agree to this. They were hesitant to prescribe it to a 25 year old who had not given birth and wanted me to try another brand of progesterone only pills which is when I really had to be firm in my decision of no hormones. I have had the copper coil for two years now; my period pains luckily didn't get any worse and the placement didn't cause pain, just a small discomfort. I barely notice it, I don't have to remember to take anything and the best thing is I am myself. I also like understanding my own cycle.
    I wish doctors didn't push and encourage women only towards synthetic hormones, but talked more openly about other options, at least this is my experience is a Scandinavian country. I am so glad people have started to talk more about this subject as I have at times felt like an "outsider" and often when discussing the subject with people or even friends I have been made out that I overreacted to the whole thing. I guess all I can do is open my mouth when the subject comes up as I think it is important for women to be aware of the these possible side effects and that there are other options out there with less synthetic hormones or with no hormones at all.

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