“There’s Still No Best Option”
I remember when the first girl in our school started taking the pill.
She’d whip it out of her bag at lunchtime, brandishing it like a VIP pass to an exclusive teenage girlhood that the rest of us weren’t yet part of. That little foil packet with the arrows and days was like a badge of honour. Whether she was sexually active or not I didn’t know, but it didn’t matter. The status symbol was firmly planted.
I wouldn’t start taking the pill until I was 18 and became sexually active. The sexual health nurse put me on the now infamous Rigevidon, but I took it happily for about six months for me to notice the side effects. My moods were abnormally low and I experienced my first ever panic attacks. Even the smallest things set me on edge and into a shaky, heaving ball. My own body felt alien to me.
I tried a few different pill options which made things increasingly worse until I decided to give myself a clean break and flush it all out of my system. The release felt instant. I was so much happier and in control of my emotions. I had planned to eventually try something else, like the implant or injection, but every time I thought about how long-term that would be, I felt terrified.
It’s been five years since, and I still don’t use any hormonal contraception. I can’t. And it’s fine. Any inconveniences caused by only using condoms are a small price to pay for my mental health.
But more than anything, the whole experience made me think about just how much women have to endure when it comes to contraception – and most healthcare, let’s face it.
We’ve all heard the horror stories – from forgetting to take it to what happens to us when we do.
An estimated 100 million women around the world use contraceptive pills alone, and millions more pick other methods. With the risk of blood clots, strokes and heart attacks alongside the “usual” weight gain, nausea, decreased sex drive and mood swings, how is there not yet a better option? I spoke to 4 women about their experiences with hormonal contraception and the need for better options.
Lucy, 23, from Manchester – The Pill
“I was put on a pill called Dianette when I was 13 to help my hormonal acne. I wasn’t sexually active until I was 16 so it felt kind of strange to be pumping my body full of hormones that I didn’t necessarily need, but the doctor said it was all good and I should see great results. My skin did clear and I kept taking it, attending my six month pill check ups and having my prescription renewed by that doctor.
When I turned 21, I went to the pill appointment and met a new doctor. She asked me how long I’d been taking Dianette and when I told her that it was around seven years, maybe more, she was shocked.
She told me that no one was supposed to take that particular pill for more than six months because it can cause loss of bone mineral density. I couldn’t believe that a doctor had put me on that pill so young and just left me to take it for years and years.
“There could be irreversible damage. It’s just scary!”Lucy
I think doctors are too quick to put young girls on these hormonal drugs to target whatever it is – long or painful periods, bad skin – when they really are too young to understand the short and long-term effects. Half the time we aren’t even told about them…Sure, my skin was bad but I have no idea what taking that for so long has done to my bones. There could be irreversible damage. It’s just scary!”
Sarah, 30s, from London – The Pill and IUD
“I was on the pill for 20 years before I decided to take a break from it. My doctor had talked me through the different options at every renewal appointment as I was at a slightly higher risk of blood clots, but all the alternatives seemed to suck. I used to say I’d wait for better options to become available or for the male pill to finally roll out.
I was keen to avoid hormonal contraceptives as I was nervous after a good friend got breast cancer and was told all the years on the pill could have contributed to that. After weighing up the options and being definitively told that the male pill was still nowhere nearer the horizon, I went for the copper coil.
I knew it could make my periods heavier but it seemed like the only option. The insertion was extremely painful and I cramped for days after. I remember being in a hotel in New York and thinking I was haemorrhaging. There was so much blood and I was crippled in pain. Then the same thing happened the next month, and the next.
“It’s been a real journey”Sarah
It’s been a real journey. The pill worked for me for a really long time, until it didn’t. Condoms ruined my sex life. The copper coil made my periods so heavy I couldn’t function. Currently, and thankfully, the Mirena hormonal coil is working for me.”
Ella, 27, London – IUD
“ I was first recommended the combined pill by my GP to help with my acne. After a few years, the Yasmin I was on appeared to stop working after years of being on it with no issues.I had a period for a whole month, which sent me to the emergency room with anaemia and took a week to recover from. They prescribed me double doses of another contraceptive pill (progesterone only) to stop the period, which worked for a while.That second pill stopped working shortly after, and I was placed on a new pill. This third pill made me cry all the time, which was not ideal by any means to go about any kind of “normal” work or social life.
Eventually I asked my GP to be referred to a specialist. I explained to this gynaecologist about my heavy periods, mood swings and other side effects. They recommended an IUD that could deliver a smaller dose of localised hormones which could help manage the side effects. I had that put in last July and it’s been such a wonderful change.
“I feel like contraception for so many women is so difficult to get right, and sometimes when we try to talk about our side effects they are not taken as seriously”Ella
I feel like contraception for so many women is so difficult to get right, and sometimes when we try to talk about our side effects they are not taken as seriously. I had been so embarrassed to go to the doctor about my month-long bleeding before my mum reminded me that if someone had had a nosebleed for that length of time, they would have sought medical attention much quicker than I did.”
Hayley, 37, Staffordshire – The Pill and Coil
“For approaching two decades I took various contraceptive pills and also had a Mirena coil fitted for three of those years. At the time I thought it was great: no periods, so convenient! Looking back, I now realise that the pill contributed to low level anxiety and depression. I also became totally disconnected from my body and cycle. With no monthly reminder for “down time” during my period, stress and burnout spiraled out of control.
In 2016, I came off the pill. It was like a dark cloud lifted and I could see the world in full colour again. Unfortunately, my fertility didn’t return in the three months usually stated by the medical profession. In fact, my periods ground to a halt. The pill had been masking underlying issues with polycystic ovaries. After two years of managing PCOS, I became pregnant with my son in 2019 and was told the polycystic ovaries had cleared.
“This natural awareness needs to be more widely taught so that women can feel empowered”Hayley
We can only actually become pregnant for 6 days per month, yet we may take a pill every day of our cycle. Our body gives us very clear signs that we are fertile, such as changes in temperature, cervical mucus and positioning. This is why I now chart my cycle and educate my clients (I’m a hormonal health coach and “Womb Wise Woman”) to do the same. This natural awareness needs to be more widely taught so that women can feel empowered and have a real choice about whether to take hormonal contraception or not.”
From such a young age we are rushed to make important, often ill-informed decisions about our bodies that can affect our short and long-term health. A lot needs to change when it comes to the hormonal contraception available to women and fast – for the sake of our sexual, physical and mental health.
Photo Credit: Rex Features
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