I do a lot of weird middle-of-the-night Googling or various medical conditions. I mean, I kind of assume everyone does this, but maybe not. I stopped looking up symptoms on Web MD a long time ago because lord knows that no matter what you type in there, you’ve got cancer or else some uncommon neural disorder. I have enough strange health stuff in my genes that I don’t need to be looking at that shit, thankyouverymuch. Anyways, for the past six months or so I’ve been doing pretty exhaustive research on the pill—combined hormonal contraception, if you’re nasty—and my weird midnight research along with years of suspicion and discomfort have lead me to quit that shit for what I hope will be forever.
Okay, so I’ll get into my concerns and the side effects I was experiencing while taking the pill, but I want to include a disclaimer first. I am a feminist. Access to (preferably free) birth control and an environment in which we can express our sexual freedom is part of my fundamental belief system. I realize that I exist in a space of privilege, in that I am a middle-class woman living in Canada (among other things), and that this grants me fairly easy access to affordable birth control as well as time and space to seek out alternative methods that might not be viable options for all people who are seeking birth control. In a long rambling way I’m saying I am so happy that the pill exists, I think it’s an indispensible freedom in many ways, so what follows in this series applies to my personal experience with the pill and the general lack of other options that are readily presented to young people (and older people too!).
One of the main reasons I wanted to start documenting my pill-free journey was that when I started searching on the internet for stories of people who were experiencing similar things as me, I couldn’t find a whole lot. There’s definitely a lot of medication sites where people discuss the shitty side effects they’ve experiences on particular brands of pills, but most people just referred to switching brands rather than kicking the pills all together.
Then there are the wellness focused websites that have definitely started to pick up stories about women being unhappy with the pill and having ditched it, but most of them seemed to end in the women adopting some sort of fertility-awareness method of birth control. That’s cool, but at this point in my life (I’m a student and an artist) that seems like a fucking scary option and one that would leave me constantly worrying whether I was pregnant or not.
Oh yeah, this is also where I should say condoms are awesome and another indispensible part of our reproductive, sexual, and general health. I use them without question whenever I’m single. I’m in a long term monogamous relationship at the moment though, so this option was also out for me pretty fast.
Since this is the prologue, I’m going to start at the very beginning. Or even before the beginning. When I was sixteen, I had my first long term/monogamous boyfriend. At some point, my mom locked me in the car while we were speeding down the highway, and suggested that I go on the pill. Instead of duck-and-rolling into the ditch (which I seriously considered), I agreed. It seemed like a natural next step, and like a very grown-up thing to do, and as a teenager I was super interested in anything that made me seem more grown-up.
I went to the Planned Parenthood clinic in my small town and got myself a shiny prescription for Alesse. The clinic was great—I ended up volunteering there for three years, and still feel passionately about the services and support that they deliver—but honestly there wasn’t a whole lot of real talk discussion of the pill and long-term health. Just the general run-of-the-mill you might experience minor acne, mood swings, headaches but everything should smooth out after three months. I don’t blame the clinic or the wonderful people that worked there. This is the general approach to birth control prescriptions—they’re super easy to get, and once again I think that’s great and necessary, but that there does perhaps need to be some shift in the super easy breezy attitude we take towards a medication that takes the hormonal reins of your body cause man, estrogen is one hell of a drug.
Okay so—in the twelve years since I got my hands on that first prescription, I’ve used the following forms of hormonal birth control:
–Alesse (combined hormonal)
–Tricyclen (combined hormonal)
–Yasmin (combined hormonal with special progesterone)
–Mirena (IUD with progesterone)
–Marvelon (combined hormonal)
–Plan B (Hormonal emergency contraceptive)
Briefly, this was my experience with each:
- Alesse: I didn’t experience the spotting that some people get with this pill, in relation to it being a lower dose pill. I did, however, experience mood swings on this pill that were total bullshit even as a moody-ass teenager.
This is a monophasic pill, meaning you get the same dose of hormones throughout the month, which seemed to be a poor choice for me from the start. But hey, it’s low dose and was the pill that the doctor prescribed to all the teens at the clinic as a starting point. All things considered it wasn’t super terrible.
- Tricyclen: This is a triphasic pill, meaning each week the level of hormones gradually increases, thus it’s meant to mimic a natural cycle. This pill is marketed as doubling as an acne medication, which is maybe why it took me so long (literally years) to realize that this pill made my acne worse. My period was really light on this pill, which was nice. I used to skip my period while I was on Alesse by “piggy backing”, or taking one pack right after the other (it’s only recommended you do this for three months at a time). You can do this with triphasic pills as well, but it means having to switch between two packs of pills and gets pretty complicated (or at least, too complicated for me). Tricyclen is higher dose than Alesse. Whenever I missed a pill and had to take two in one day, I became super nauseated and usually threw up. It also made my breasts really tender and super veiny, and when I went off of it my nipples were sensitive and erect for literally a month straight (wtf!?).
- Yasmin: Because of the nausea and because I was starting to feel suspicious of the pill in general and wanted something that wasn’t so high dose, I switched to Yasmin. Yasmin was new when I was volunteering at Planned Parenthood. From what I remember, it has different progesterone than most pills, which can be a bad thing for people who have a history of depression, something that doesn’t seem to be communicated to be that often. Yasmin kind of cleared up the acne I experienced with Tricyclen. It’s a monophasic pill, so I skipped my period with this one as well.
- Mirena: Then I was in another long-term relationship, and also had student health insurance that got my 90% off prescription drugs—including this hormonal form of the classic IUD. I remember giving Methods talks at Planned Parenthood (go through all the options of birth control with people), and telling people that doctors don’t usually like to insert IUD’s unless you’ve had a baby because it involves dialating your cervix. I remember this freaking me the fuck out when I was a teenager. But then suddenly I was in my early twenties and this shit only cost me like $75 dollars and it lasts for five years. Also, you stop getting your period all together with this shit. The insertion was brutal. I went in there like such a hot shot and it brought me to my knees. I almost passed out, demanded orange juice from my doctor, and then had to get my mom to pick me up and drive me home because there was no way I could drive my car after that without risking hitting a pedestrian. It was bad. Anyways, I stopped getting my period, my skin was kind of the same (mild acne), and I didn’t have to worry about taking a pill everyday. So—this might sound weird, but something I hated about it from the start was that I felt like I could feel it in my uterus. Like really feel it. And it made me uncomfortable, for lack of a better description. Along with that, I kind of hated not having my period ever. I missed it. Which is maybe fucked, but anyway. All in all though—pretty great option for hormonal birth control.
- Plan B: I’ve taken this a handful of times over the years for various reasons that I don’t feel like stating. It’s essentially a very high dose of birth control. Some people experience serious nausea after taking this, but I never really did. You can take it for up to five days after having unprotected sex, but each day it’s efficacy is lowered. It is not an abortion pill–if you are already pregnant this will not unpregnant you. You are supposed to get your period a week after taking it. This is readily available at pharmacies where I live in Canada, and you can also get it from OPTIONS/Planned Parenthood clinics, I believe. From the drugstore, it’ll set you back around $40 and you can get it without a prescription from the pharmacist. If you DO have a prescription for it, it’s covered. This infuriates me because presumably if you’re running into your pharmacy to grab a Plan B, you probably didn’t have time to wait around in a walk-in clinic for three hours for a doctor to prescribe it to you. This seems like a shitty money trap if you were, say, super young and needed to get your hands on this without alerting your parents or family doctor. Anyways, I’m grateful that it exists and is widely available.
- Tricyclen again: I got my Mirena out after a break-up because I didn’t like the feel of it anymore and because I figured I was going to be single for a while and just wanted to stick to condoms and give my body a total break from hormones. That worked well for a while, and then I started dating someone again. I went back on Tricyclen. In the past it made my acne worse, for sure, but this time OH BOY. It broke me out sooo bad. Like full on, adult cystic acne. It sucked. I’ll write more about it later. It also made me puffy. Bloated, but everywhere and especially in my face.
- Marvelon: I went to the doctor finally and was like I am fucking twenty-seven why do I still have acne and it turns out that Tricyclen is pretty high in androgens, which can give you stupid fucking acne. So she switched me over to this puppy. Skin cleared up within three months, breasts grew almost two cup sizes, all was well and beautiful in my world and then my libido crashed and burned so incredibly hard. I have never in my life had a problem with libido so this took a pretty big blow on my self-esteem as well as my sexual identity, and was honestly probably pretty hard on my partner, not because we weren’t having that much sex, but because I was constantly freaking out about not wanting to have sex. It really messed with my head, I honestly felt like a stranger in my own body.
And that leads us up almost to today. In my next post I’ll go into more detail of the symptoms I was experiencing, including some shitty long term ones like gallstones, and ways that I’ve been trying to effectively manage or eradicate them since burning all the pills (I didn’t actually burn them, didn’t want to risk inhaling estrogen smoke).
Anyways, in closing: While I am deeply appreciative to the healthcare and birth control that’s been at my disposal, I feel like my real birth control and sexual health education didn’t start until my mid-twenties, and it took many years of sacrificing my health in the name of staying on the pill. Little by litter over the last year, I’ve begun the real work of getting to a place where I’m finally beginning to feel empowered in the choices I’m making for my body and my sexual health. But I’m still early in the game, and there’s definitely been some weird and enlightening surprises thus far. Until next time…