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Wednesday, Sep 22, 2021

My story with birth control

I started taking birth control after my first ever trip to the gynecologist. I went in looking for answers to the typical questions: Why does penetration hurt? Why does my period feel like the scene in “Prometheus” when Noomi Rapace births an alien? It felt like I only received one question back: Why aren’t you on birth control? 

Although I came in feeling like a strong woman taking charge of her health, I immediately felt like a teenage girl being warned not to get pregnant. My doctor took me through a birth control tour unprompted, showing off an IUD like a brand new Mercedes. I said I would think about it.

When an ultrasound technician found a cyst on my ovary, I received a phone call that amounted to: “You have a cyst, we’re putting you on birth control.” I was given no information on the type of ovarian cyst I had (there are many), no other treatment options, and no time to discuss which method was best for me. 

According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Office On Women’s Health, hormonal birth control can be broken down into two subtypes: long-acting reversible contraceptives and short-acting hormonal methods. 

Short-acting hormonal methods include the pill, shot, patch and vaginal ring. These methods work by releasing hormones into the body that thicken the cervical mucus to block sperm and can prevent ovulation altogether, according to Planned Parenthood. Long-acting reversible contraceptives such as hormonal intrauterine devices (IUD) or hormonal implants work the same way, but don’t need to be used on a schedule.

I started on the combination pill, which contains estrogen and progestin. Three weeks later, during the week of my “placebo pills,” I got the flu. I ran a fever, had bouts of shivering so bad I couldn’t walk straight, and couldn’t even keep Gatorade down. 

To give a better sense of just how sick I was, I alerted my roommate to check on me every few hours in case I needed to be carried to the emergency room. I paid $60 for a last-minute Tamiflu prescription and totally recovered within a week.

For the next three months, I got the flu on a consistent schedule of every four weeks. Recognizing that something was up, I made another doctor’s appointment (I would rack up about $350 in copayments by the end of this story).

My doctor called my case “unusual,” but did little more than a basic blood test before sending me home with a new prescription for a slightly lowered dosage of the same pill. Between January and April, I tried two new pills that would surely fix my mystery illness, yet I continued to get sick every month like clockwork.

I missed parties that my friends still reminisce on and full weeks of class. I showed up at one male professor’s office the day a paper was due, mumbling something about “hormone levels” and “blood tests” because I knew one mention of my period meant he’d stop taking my problem seriously. 

If you’ve ever suffered from a recurring health issue, you know that after a while people start to blame you for not getting better already. I felt like I was constantly over-explaining, trying to prove that I wasn’t just having bad periods; I was suffering every month. 

When the semester ended, I braced myself for a serious conversation with my doctor. I was leaving for a two-and-a-half-month internship in South Africa, and I couldn’t miss work or a travel opportunity because I was sick. 

She started me on the Nuvaring, which is a self-inserted vaginal ring containing hormones. She said that the localized hormone dispersal should make my symptoms less severe. 

I got on the plane with a box full of Nuvarings and awkwardly told my new roommates that yes, there were contraceptives in the fridge. I had such high hopes for this method that when I still got sick, I called home and cried.

I stayed home instead of going to see the Southernmost tip of Africa because of my birth control. To make matters worse, I felt like my peers didn’t even believe I was sick because I couldn’t explain what I was sick with.

Research has shown that women are more likely to have their pain dismissed by medical professionals and less likely to receive diagnosis or treatment, according to The New York Times. I couldn’t stop thinking about how maybe if birth control were a men’s health issue, there would be a name and an explanation for what was happening to me. 

I decided then that I would quit hormonal contraceptives cold turkey as soon as I got back to the U.S. 

When I told people I was done with birth control, a lot of them responded with, “What are you going to do now?” in a disapproving tone, as if I couldn’t be trusted to make decisions about my own body or keep myself from getting pregnant.

Increasing awareness about sexual health is a good thing, but sometimes hormonal contraceptives are painted as the only responsible option. My story with birth control has shown me that the most responsible way to approach reproductive health is to know your body and trust yourself to decide what it needs. 

If you decide to use hormonal contraceptives, it should be because you want to, and it should be prescribed by a physician who will listen to, believe and treat you. 


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