I’ve alluded to it many times on the blog and in other places, but I’ve not really discussed in depth what happened to me when I stopped taking the Birth Control in March 2013. In light of the kickstarter campaign to make the movie “Sweetening the Pill” which only has 15 days left, I thought now was the time.
I had recently quit doing a master’s degree program that wasn’t right for me, and switched jobs to working in an intense corporate environment, which was unsettling in and of itself. Big life changes, and all that. In short, I hated the new place from the get go, and as soon as I started working at this new company, I was already plotting my escape route.
In light of weighing career options, my husband and I started talking about when we were going to start a family. We’d already been together for 6 years, married for almost 3, and it came down to ‘what were we really waiting for?’ Happily, after some discussion, I tossed my remaining birth control pills in the trash, not at all knowing what hell I was soon to go through.
It’s hard to remember all of the specifics now, over 2 years later, partially because I think my brain just has blocked out what a terrible time that was.
Backing up, I should share that I was on the pill pretty much constantly from age 16 to 26. I’m actually not even sure whether I took a break at all during those 10 years. My doctor had put me on it as a teenager for heavy periods and heavy cramping. NOT because I was even sexually active. There are studies out now that putting teens on birth control is really not a good idea at all, which I’m sure Ricki and Abby will discuss if the Sweetening the Pill documentary is made, but there are also studies that say it increases breast cancer rates. By a lot. Which is just fan-freaking-tastic considering breast cancer runs in my family, and it's very possible I could carry the BRCA gene mutation.
Now looking back on it, logically it makes total sense that it would NOT be healthy for your body to suppress it’s natural hormonal functions for an entire decade. Part of what makes us women is our hormonal functioning. The supposed "freedom" found in light of the birth control pill and other hormonal methods feels an awful lot like oppression to me. I have other friends who came off the pill and had really sporadic periods or sometimes none at all. Doctors confirm that they see patients who are having a hard time conceiving after many years spent on the pill. But which of them are telling these 14, 15, 16 year old girls (and their parents) - "So this might clear up your acne for now, or regulate your moods, but by the way, 10 or 20 years from now when you want to start a family, you may have trouble conceiving - if you are able to at all - and you could have a mental breakdown. Oh yeah, and you could also get a fatal blood clot."
At the beginning of this hormonal disaster, my husband Chris said it seemed like I was having withdrawals from heroin or some really hard drug. I felt like my body was vibrating at times. I would sweat and shake for no reason, I had unexplainable pains in all sorts of places. When after a few cycles, I think my body figured out how to actually ovulate again, we ended up at urgent care because I had pain so bad that I literally thought I might have an ovarian cyst, cancer, something. I was dizzy and lightheaded all the time. I couldn’t focus on anything. I lost a ton of weight. Quit drinking coffee. After crying much of the day, evenings were spent holed up watching TV in the dark, trying to forget about the symptoms and the days. It was horrible.
The thing that was probably the worst of it all was the mental changes. I have always been a pretty high strung person, with occasional bouts of anxiety, but this was whole other level. I had multiple panic attacks. I was constantly afraid of having another one. I remember one day leaving work calling one of my best friends to meet me at a freeway exit to help me get home. I barely made it off the freeway, called my husband sobbing uncontrollably on the phone, for no apparent reason. (Those are the friends you want to have by the way, the ones you can call when you are having a panic attack on the freeway – love you Steph.)
Some days at work, I would be texting my mom from the office bathroom stall for shreds of encouragement to claw my way through the day. "I can get through one more hour." I called my dad or Chris most lunch hours and just cried. I remember watching literally my favorite movie – Love Actually – and just crying through it. Because Chris was working out of town a lot during that time period, it made things even more difficult. At one point I woke up in the middle of the night shaking uncontrollably, and one of my other best friends who was pregnant at the time – love you Anna – came over in the middle of the night to sit with me. I’ll never forget us just sitting in my bedroom scrolling on our phones, googling what could possibly be wrong with me. I remember her saying "Well they aren't figuring it out!" At this point I’d been to multiple doctors, specialists and no one seemed to have an answer or consider pointing to the fact that the birth control withdrawals could be causing a lot of this.
That, I think, is the scariest thing. Doctors throw these pills at us like they are candy cure-alls when there REALLY hasn’t been enough research done on their effects, especially long term. They just don’t know enough about them. I spent HOURS and HOURS on Google, on different women’s health forums and discovered that so many others had had similar situations to mine. Some had the mental symptoms, others felt like they were no longer themselves. Some likened it to menopause. It was comforting, eye opening, and also made me completely livid. How could doctors do this to us?! How could we let them? How could we not be educated that this was a possibility? How was this feminism, when we were basically losing control of our bodies, of ourselves??
I could go on and on.
Eventually, I started seeing a psychiatrist who helped treat my anxiety and depression. (Also a therapist and taking the MBSR program) At that point Chris and I had decided to stop trying and to just focus on getting me well….but of course that was when I got pregnant. And I am so thankful for that. My hormones worked to rebalance themselves during pregnancy and postpartum, and while I still have bouts that are connected to my hormonal shifts, they are my NATURAL hormones and I am so much better able to manage and anticipate the swings.
Not everyone will have this reaction to the pill. Not everyone is already on the anxiety/depression spectrum giving them a higher chance of this. Some people may do fine on it. Some may think they are doing fine when something underlying is going on that they have no idea. Heck, I was "fine" while on the pill, I didn't realize the havoc it was wreaking until I stopped it. But the fact that something so intensely terrible could happen and does happen as a result of taking birth control is something that should be seriously considered when being prescribed a medication such as this.
We as women can’t be empowered unless we are all informed. And the Sweetening the Pill documentary seeks to do just that. I am thrilled that Ricki and Abby are planning to make this documentary, and I am proud to be a backer of their kickstarter. I hope that you consider donating any amount. Every little bit will help reach the goal.
After my experience, I will never again take hormonal birth control pills and I am a huge proponent of the Fertility Awareness Method. (this is NOT the rhythm method – click the link to learn more) The other day my mom asked me what I was going to do when Clare was a teenager when it comes to this stuff. Without a shadow of a doubt, teach her about fertility awareness and condoms.
As women, we need to take control of our fertility, our education and our choices. My biggest advice is don’t just go blindly into anything when it comes to your health.
Do your research.
I still have PTSD from those few terrible months of my life. While it was only a sliver of time in the grand scheme of things, it is something I will always carry with me. As a woman, mother, childbirth educator, and women’s health advocate I hope that I can be a small difference in this world giving women the power of knowledge and choices when it comes to their health.
It’s time for #betterbirthcontrol.