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.