How The Pill Ruined My Life – My Story (The Full Length Version)

Ok, let’s start with a bit of housekeeping. Boy has it been a minute since I last Sphynxed. In case you don’t know, I publish weekly over at Peaceful Dumpling and frequent the Gram (did I really just write that?) on a regular basis. So, if you want more, I suggest heading over to either of those.

My life is akin to a whirlwind these days and unfortunately I am simply unable to update this blog as much as I’d like. I’ll be a PhD candidate in a few months too, so the excuses will no doubt continue then *sob*. However, I’ll be moving abroad, so I imagine there will be at the very least a sprinkling of Third Culture Kid anecdotes in due course. Not to mention some nerdy science talk about brains and stuff. I’m really selling myself here, aren’t I? Stay tuned.

Something I talk about a lot in person and across the internet is my absolute loathing of hormonal birth control. After all, it stole nearly a decade of my life from me. I’ve previously called it “man’s last exercising power over women” and that belief still rings true. I think it is an abomination that young women aren’t better educated before interfering with their endocrine systems; that we hand over the most sacred, core part of ourselves to an industry that tells us we are dangerous, baby-making machines; that we’re told the problems we’re having with our menstrual cycles are best masked with synthetic hormones instead of being tackled head on -nevermind that they’ll just sit there dormant ready to cause problems later in life…

I’ve been through some horrendous stuff as a result of taking the pill, as you’ll shortly read. But despite it all, I don’t think I’d change it. I love the woman I’ve become, but I do wonder what I could have done with all that stolen time; where I might be if I hadn’t had my mental health affected in the way that it was. God damn do I want things to be different for the next generation of young ladies, so no one has to live the lie I did. I write this in hope.

I so desperately wish that society had been different when I was an eighteen-year-old packing my bags for university. Even prior to that, I wish that the school curriculum in the US and UK where I grew up hadn’t failed me so. Why did no one properly teach me about my menstrual cycle when I was 12 and getting my period for the first time? Why was I led to believe that once a woman gets her period, she’s a baby-making machine? Why did no one tell me that actually, I was only fertile for a small window of the month? Why did no one tell me how important diet was for my endocrine system? Perhaps if I knew what I needed to at the time, I wouldn’t have gone in to the GP to request that fucking pill when I was 18. I went because society told me that that was what responsible women my age did. And responsible I was.

I was in and out of the doctor’s office that day in a matter of minutes and looking back, this horrifies me. “Do you have a family history of DVT or breast cancer?” are not sufficient determinants as to whether the pill is right for someone. Not even close. But it’s all I was asked. So off I went with my first prescription.

So, I’m 18 and I’m popping the pills and heading off to university in a new town with my bags, my books and what felt like adulthood neatly packaged behind those little foil blisters. I remember thinking to myself that I felt like a real woman for maybe the first time. I was taking responsibility for my fertility (or so I foolishly thought) and prioritising my studies.

Then things got weird.

I should have been out and about socialising, but instead I was withdrawn and anxious and spent a lot of time hiding away. To put things into perspective: I’ve moved around a lot in my life and I’m a really outgoing person. This was unusual behaviour for me. On paper, my first semester of uni was a really exciting time, but all I wanted to do was escape to somewhere else… be someone else.

After taking that goddamn pill for a few months without any real reason to (my periods were never a problem and I definitely wasn’t getting frisky), I simply didn’t collect any more from the pharmacy when the pack ran out. In a matter of weeks, I started to feel myself come back to life. Thankfully, I got the chance to enjoy a really great second half of the school year, a fun summer abroad and fulfilling first semester of my second year. Then I met a boy who quickly became a boyfriend.

Back to the doctor’s I traipsed, asking to be put on a different pill because of how badly the Microgynon had fucked with me. He obliged and hooked me up with Marvelon.

Ah, marvellous Marvelon. It seemed to do the trick. The relationship was a trainwreck waiting to happen, but I was definitely more sociable and, you know, in love. Things were pretty good, so I quickly forgot about the pill. Like many women, I swallowed it mindlessly day after day on autopilot. Every morning at 7am. For the next 7 years.

Less than a year after I started taking Marvelon, I began experiencing sharp, stabbing pains in what felt like my ovary. Whenever I’d contort my body while doing yoga or getting sideways and sweaty, the cramps would come. They were unbearable. I mean, we’re talking pass out on the cold bathroom floor when you get up to pee in the night unbearable. Having your housemate discover you with a towel half-pulled over you that you’d used for a blanket because you couldn’t make it back to bed unbearable. There was blood loss too, when I had one of these attacks and I’d be left doubled-over, physically unable to stand up straight for up to 48h afterwards.

I headed to the doctor again and again and again and after trying an elimination diet (because we initially thought it was something wrong with my digestive tract rather than my ovaries) and pressing him about the abnormal bleeding, he finally sent me for an ultrasound that revealed a cyst on my right ovary. It was about 5cm in diameter.

I got scheduled for a laparoscopy during the summer before my third year of uni was due to start. Bear in mind that this is like core data-collecting time if you’re a keen student like me, who wanted to get her disseration sorted ASAP. It was savage having to take time out for surgery, but such is life.

The surgeon did a fantastic job and I don’t have any scarring, so I’m eternally grateful. But I’ll never forget sitting in the follow-up appointment and having him tell me that it was really important that I stay on the pill for the rest of my fertile life because “it’s an excellent way to minimise your risk of developing another cyst, which you might be prone to“.

As you can probably imagine, after the ordeal, that guidance from a medical professional embedded itself deeply into my subconscious. The pill became like water: an essential that I would never be able to live without. (Apart from, you know, baby-making and the on-set of menopause.)

My relationship ended and I stayed on the pill. I met a new dude and a few years went by. We were happy for a while. We moved in together. Then things took a turn for the worse.

I went for an annual pill check-up and the nurse noticed the “old fashioned” pill that I was on and recommended I switch to one with a lower dose. “It’s probably for the best“, she said, “You’re only young and will probably want kids someday, so it’s a good idea if we reduce you to a lower dose.” She sent me home with Loestrin-30 and away I popped.

It wasn’t long before I spiraled into a deep, dark depression and it’s crazy looking back now that I didn’t put two and two together and realise that this turn had coincided with the pill change. But there we go. Hindsight is a funny thing.

I spent a year or two moping around, oscillating between desperately unhappy and numb to the point where thoughts of suicide crossed my radar more often than not. I’d walk the walk and talk the talk, working, socialising and taking care of the fort, but all the while I felt like a complete shell of myself. Again, that pining like I’d had with Microgynon at the tender age of 18 to be somewhere else…someone else.

It’s hard to describe to people who haven’t experienced pill-induced brain fog quite how bad it is. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. I can only describe it like being sat in a tinted glass box looking out at the world. No one can see you and you can’t interact with any of them. As you sit there, you question who you are as a person; as a woman. You wonder why you feel so emotionally unstable; why you can’t seem to get to where you want to be; why you feel so disconnected from everyone – even those closest to you.

I went to therapy. We talked about my past. Some of those conversations helped me tackle other, unrelated demons in my life. But for the most part, I spent a lot more money than I really needed to, trying to fix a girl I was breaking on repeat, each day I drugged myself with that pill.

Twenty-seventeen rolled around and I decided to do a year of mini, month-long challenges rather than vague and unattainable new year’s resolutions. This changed things in a pretty big way for me. I was on a journey to my most authentic self, trying to eat better, look after my body and take care of my mental health. Naturally (thankfully) I came to the realisation that the pill I was taking (which I now began to suspect might be the source of my anguish) was perhaps the most inauthentic thing I could possibly be doing to myself.

Let’s think about it: the pill puts our bodies into shutdown; throwing into disarray an effective endocrine system that evolution has taken hundreds of thousands of years to perfect. It floods us with synthetic compounds that interfere with over 150 bodily functions. Because that’s just it; it’s not only the reproductive organs that are affected. There’s our digestion and our mental health and our skin and our cardiovascular system and just about everything else, all because we’re terrified we’ll get pregnant every time we have sex? Or because some doctors shamefully think the solution to heavy periods or PCOS is hormone shutdown rather than looking first at diet and lifestyle?

We only make an important change in our lives when the worst case scenario that might result seems less bad than the reality of the current trajectory. For me, ditching the pill was exactly that. I really didn’t want to get pregnant, but it got to the point where I’d rather possibly find myself with child than live another day as a shell of myself. So I bid it farewell.

Ditching the pill can be really overwhelming, even when intuitively it feels like the right thing to do. I started slow, did my research and utilised some incredible resources. I prepared myself for what might happen to my body as it detoxified itself of the synthetic hormones I’d been pumping into it for years. I prepared myself for how the dynamics might change in my relationship. And then I sat back, tried to relax and armed myself with lots of nourishing foods and skincare as I waited for the hurdles to make themselves known.

I was surprised by how little time passed before I started to feel more like myself again. My relationship was falling apart due to unrelated issues, but I was starting to notice a new confidence budding within me and intuitively knew that this was the start of the rest of my life.

Time passed and the skin eruptions started. Painful, cystic acne that I’d never had before began scarring my face and leaving me self-conscious. I am a swimmer and so being bare-faced is a part of the deal. It was tough having the confidence to stand tall and do so, but I knew it would eventually get better.

I’ll mention that this is the point at which many women go back on the pill. I honestly don’t blame a single one of them. If you’ve experienced years of glowing, clear skin and suddenly have to try to navigate being an adult woman dealing with acne, I wouldn’t be the first to tell you that it isn’t great for your self-esteem. But I persisted.

The months rolled by, my relationship ended, my sex drive reappeared and I looked in the mirror and saw a woman looking back at me with knowing and integrity. For the first time in my adult life, I knew who I really was and what I wanted. And for the first time, I wasn’t scared to go and get it.

In the past year, I have changed my entire life beyond anything I could have ever imagined for myself and I dread to think what kind of hole I’d be in if I hadn’t made that decision to ditch the pill those 18 months ago.

The skin issues have passed, along with most of the growing pains. These days, I pause for a moment most mornings and thank the universe that I made that decision way back when to get to know myself. And I thank myself for sticking with it while my body navigated the chaos.

If you’re thinking of ditching the pill, there are numerous amazing resources available to help you get through the crazy. I recommend starting here. And please do not hesitate to get in touch if have any questions. I am totally here for you girl.

From the bottom of my heart, I want you to know that life can be so much better than how things are right now. The universe is just waiting for you to take that leap of faith and get to know your real, authentic self.

Photo by Paulo Evangelista on Unsplash

6 Comments

  1. Stacey Caine
    19th July 2020 / 3:04 am

    I was on the combination pill 30mg of it since the age of 15 I am now 34. I was first on the Dianette pill then Gederel which I’ve probably been on for the last 15years. From the age of 15 onwards I have always had anxiety, never linking it to my pill just thinking unfortunately that just must be what I’m like. Before 15 I was confident, lots of friends, did dancing on stage things like that. So fast forward to now 34 my anxiety is worse, also some depression, relationships not last past a few months, no energy, fuzzy head all the time. Doctors telling me to go on antidepressants without even considering it could be this tablet I’ve been taking every day for nearly 20years. I decided to come off my pill 2 weeks ago now, I talked to another doctor about it and she completely agreed and understood which was nice to hear. And I’ve got to say I now have a clear head, I feel more awake, not worrying about things, not feeling anxious right now or depressed, and actually wanting to enjoy life and get out and do things. I’m single and do date, so of course it’s a bit of a worry I’m not on the pill anymore, but there are other ways to be careful. But it means more to me that I’m happier and enjoying life after 20years of not feeling myself. I’m a bit angry with the pill and doctors for not noticing over the years that could be the problem. I had to decide myself in the end to come off it and now I’m looking forward to the future.

    • sphynxkennedy
      Author
      19th July 2020 / 9:13 am

      Hello! Thank you for sharing your story with me. I can completely relate to those feelings of “who I was pre-pill” and “who I am now” and it sucks! I’ve been off the pill for a few years now and still battle cystic acne, anxiety and some gut issues that I have to work really hard to keep on top of. It’s tragic that so many women like us suffer the effects for years afterwards and still it goes under the radar of mainstream health. I’m *so* glad you’ve found clarity since ditching the pill and I hope things only get better and better for you!

    • JG
      14th September 2020 / 4:29 pm

      I was on loestrin and ortho cyclen and I was always regular my periods always on time never too early and never late my entire life I was dating someone I got pregnant already have two kids and he has 1 I didn’t keep it and I got on the pill I put on weight I had so may mood swings my regular periods became irregular all the doctor would do is change my pill so I day u just quit and it’s been 5 months my periods are irregular and shorter and I’m scared I’ve done harm to myself never again I would never go on it again

      • sphynxkennedy
        Author
        14th September 2020 / 4:34 pm

        I’m so sorry for your struggles and I’m right there with you! It’s so frustrating feeling like you’ve done permanent damage. Our bodies are resilient and with the right diet and lifestyle, we can certainly mitigate some of the damage, but I feel we have a responsibility to protect the next generation from doing the same harm. I hope you find some healing x

  2. Vague Gina
    26th September 2020 / 8:17 am

    I feel your pain entirely. I was prescribed Dianette back in 2003, aged 17, partly for contraceptive purposes, and partly for the bonus of having clearer skin. I was in a relationship, and finishing my A Levels, and my mother, who got pregnant at 16, was adamant that the same thing wouldn’t happen to me before I attended university. My start to the final A Level year hadn’t been great, as I’d suffered from tonsillitis/glandular fever, which had caused me to miss a lot of school, and made me permanently fatigued when I went back – so, I wasn’t in particularly great health to begin with, which probably made my experience of the contraceptive pill a lot worse… .

    I had suffered from depression from a fairly early age (although no one in my family really took it seriously, either dismissing it as “teenage hormones”, or just me being “difficult” or “overly emotional”), but mental health issues weren’t discussed as a potential side effect. So when I did begin to experience mood swings and depression, I concluded that it was just my own faulty brain chemistry.

    My relationship (which had been pretty rocky anyway) broke up before I went away to uni, and I found it difficult to view it as a fresh start. Socialising was difficult for me, and any friendships I did make, I found hard to maintain due to my anxiety and moodiness. I met a new boyfriend, had a very passionate yet unstable relationship, which was neither helpful to my mental health, nor my studies. I was also constantly hungry, and so worried about putting on weight that I exercised every spare moment I had. And felt exhausted as a result.

    Due to the on-off nature of the romance, I decided I didn’t want the cycle to continue, and dropped out of this university to avoid moving in with this person. I came off the pill that summer, but it seemed to take a long time for the depression, fatigue and hunger to wear off. I started a new course at a different university, but suffice to say it ended badly, the on-off ex made a reappearance, and the same issues arose.

    Ever since then, I have tried at least 4 or 5 other pills, but have given them up before the recommended 3 month trial period. Doctors and boyfriends alike seemed to react angrily to this – as if I was being deliberately feckless and irresponsible – but I just wasn’t willing to wait and see if my body “adjusted” to the medication, because I just knew I never would, and the side effects always outweighed the benefits!

    It was rather hurtful that both the medical professionals and the people who were supposed to love me didn’t seem to agree that my mental wellbeing was more important than using a method with pretty extreme side effects to dodge pregnancy… 😐.

    With every pill I tried, my body seemed to gain a new minor yet debilitating complaint – Cerazette (as well as causing me severe anxiety and insomnia) made my periods heavier; with the three I tried in succession afterwards, my digestive health seemed to suffer. (Disclaimer: I was also, at that point living rather unhealthily and partying, which may not have helped!)

    It was only at age 31, when I’d made the connection between my diet and its physiological effects on me that I tried an elimination diet (excluding gluten and dairy)…and voila! Finally, for the first time in my adult life, I didn’t have acne, or a bloated stomach! I’m still a fairly hypersensitive and emotional person, but my moods definitely became fewer and more manageable.

    Happily, I also discovered the Fertility Awareness Method of contraception (the app I use is called Natural Cycles), which I personally believe should be discussed more during sex education lessons in schools. It’s not bullet proof, you do have to remember to take your temperature at the same time every day, which can be a bit of a faff, but it’s well worth it to avoid all the anguish of hormonal contraception, and you feel a lot more in tune with your own body and natural rhythms.

    Apologies for the length and ranty nature of my comment. But I felt the need to get my story out there, the same way I believe other women need to tell their story, and try and convince medical professionals to take our concerns seriously, and actually LISTEN to us. Thank you for writing this article!

    • sphynxkennedy
      Author
      16th October 2020 / 10:10 am

      Oh my goodness – thank you SO much for sharing! I can relate on so many levels. Every pill seemed to throw an added obstacle at me. I’m now on the cusp of turning 30, live with a sensitive gut, anxiety, bouts of insomnia and I’ll never know how much of that could have been avoided if I hadn’t taken hormonal birth control for years. I’d recommend documenting your story on Medium; many women would be truly grateful to read about this. I recently wrote a piece documenting the dark history of the pill since its development in the 1950’s. I hope you’re well and continue to heal x

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