The Pill: Sugar-coated liberation or corporate-societal control?

birth-control-pillsThis is a really strange topic for me to cover on the blog, and also a really strange one for you to read about.

But I do think it’s important. It feels uncomfortable as well because it involves me being more personal about something that is totally mine – not an ‘issue’, not a phenomenon, not a story: my body. You have a body, too. And the choices you make about it are yours. My choices are mine.

Sometimes, though, our bodies get caught up in things that make them feel like they aren’t ours, like they’re being controlled.

For me, this happened when I started taking a hormonal contraceptive (for information: Microgynon) a few months ago. (Scroll past my personal story to the paragraphs containing bold text if you want the more technical stuff.)

Never having taken anything to regulate my cycle or prevent pregnancy, I walked into my doctor’s office and asked to be put on the pill – she took my blood pressure which was high, but not dangerously so, and put me on the pill with instructions to come back in 3 months for a check-up.

I’d never had any hormonal problems: yep, my skin broke out in my late teens but I treated it topically with natural products. Yep, I was moody when my cycles began as a young teen (sorry parents {yep! This post is family-and man-friendly. Read on, guys…it’s important for you to know about this.}), but I learned to ride the wave of my cycle throughout the month and knew when to have a little chocolate (endorphins!) or just go to bed. I’ve been quite normal, and quite able to recognise and ‘deal with’ (hard to use the right words about something that, in the mainstream, is seen as a problem or something to be coped with) my womanhood.

Enter the pill.

First month: I’m ok. Nausea, a few little emotional wobbles and bloating, but we’re ok. Besides, side effects take 3 months to settle so I’ll wait it out.

Second month I feel physically settled. Life gets more difficult – some things happen that take a lot emotional energy to face up to, and I get less patient, more likely to cry, I feel a bit grey, less sure of how to respond, less confident of what I want. That’s all because of circumstances though, right?

Third month, I feel emotionally on edge. Circumstances settle but I am finding it harder to cope (so the side effects were getting worse instead of better, as ‘they’ say they should be: there have even been stories of women who are fine for the first couple of years and then suffer after that). I have a foggy mind, especially in the morning, I don’t enjoy things I usually do, I’m low on energy throughout the day, I get paranoid or irrational when very tired, and I am struggle to respond to…well, life – in a meaningful, balanced, progressive way.

What I’d heard about the pill was its potential side effect of weight gain. That is what we talk about. I’d also heard a handful of stories about hormonal imbalance causing mood swings, but not enough to think it was a real possibility for me. Plus, I’d always been the steady, positive, balanced girl…surely a little pill couldn’t change that?

Cue a swimming date. I usually LOVE the pool and we set challenges for ourselves to reach in increasing the number of lengths we can swim. It’s a great way to spend time together and do good to our bodies. But nope, not that day. I got into the pool and immediately wanted to get out. I felt exhausted after two lengths, wanted to drop to the bottom of the pool and have a wee lie down (not convenient under water) but then wanted to swim more and then wanted to stop again and then I just didn’t know what to do or how to communicate the fact that I didn’t know what to do. (Is your mind spinning? Mine was!) Something was definitely up. (No, really. I can’t even pin down what the problem was now!)

A few days later, I came off the pill. A couple of days after that, my mind started to clear. I felt more positive. I stopped feeling frustrated at little things. I felt my energy come back. I felt confident and ambitious and ready to do what needed to be done. I think I smiled more in that come-down week than I had in the last month of taking the pill, too. It wasn’t all rosy right away: withdrawal caused my skin to break out a little, and it’ll take a while for my cycle to get back to normal. I also fainted for the first time in my life, which may have been caused by blood pressure issues – I mentioned I had high blood pressure when I was tested before taking the pill, so my body may have balanced out whilst on the pill, causing it to struggle to adjust after I came off it.

I am so glad that this doesn’t happen to everyone on the pill – I have friends who are on it and who are happy to take it.

I have also found, however, that as I have been vocal about the fact that it hasn’t worked for me and have looked into why that might be, others’ stories have also emerged – everything from people who lost relationships because of how they felt on the pill to people who were put on several different pills because each one had significant side effects to people who struggled to get pregnant after years on hormonal birth control. I’ve also looked into some of the legal cases against the pharmaceutical industry because of the impact of the pill. Yep, you read that right!

That is because the pill is a very powerful thing. It makes sense, then, that in countries where a high percentage of women are on it, the gender and reproductive structure of fish is being altered because of the amount of synthetic oestrogen in the water. There are concerns about whether this could also impact human male fertility. And more recently, several studies have found a difference in the choices made by women who take the pill in life partners (it seems we are more attracted to people of a similar gene pool when we are on the pill, and a preliminary study from the University of Sterling suggests we also choose less adventurous partners when on the pill.) After all, the pill carries a loud message – it disrupts a powerful natural cycle to convince a woman’s body that it is pregnant and doesn’t need to ovulate: that’s pretty huge!

So it makes sense that the pill doesn’t work for everyone. The most commonly distributed contraceptive pill contains synthetic oestrogen and a form of progesterone (there is a progestogen-only pill available on request, which is a class of hormones to which progesterone belongs.) These hormones help stop natural hormonal patterns (depending on a woman’s natural hormonal level, this can up to triple when on synthetic hormones from the pill) and ovulation. They can thus impact your mood (these hormones alter the brain’s nerve circuits, and oestrogen acts on the limbic system), create immunodeficiency, interfere with your thyroid and pituitary gland health…as well as the well-known potential side effects of weight gain/loss, skin problems, migraines/headaches and bloating.

The pill was seen, when it was introduced to the market, as liberation for women. In many ways, it was. It gave us control over our fertility and this opened doors in terms of education and professional life. But I felt anything but liberated when I was on the pill. I felt trapped inside a body that was reacting in ways I wasn’t in control of. There is nothing free about that.

Contraception has moved on greatly – there are methods other than the pill (indeed other than hormonal birth control as a larger category which I have made the personal decision to stay away from) that work well in preventing pregnancy without interfering with natural cycles. Most of these, however, aren’t as ‘easy’ as the pill. This seems to be a big ‘pull’: women want to make things easy, smooth, hassle-free. For some, the pill (or the implant, etc…) doesn’t even compute as a cost. For others, it is too high a price to pay…and that’s OK. Pregnancy involves two (almost three) people, and responsibility can be shared. In fact, couples who use the Fertility Awareness Method report feeling closer to each other as they co-operate in family planning. This method doesn’t work for everyone: a big lesson for me in this is that contraception is specific to the person(s) using it.

Which is not really what the message out there is. The pill is assumed. That’s just what we do. My doctor didn’t ask me if I had considered other options. My blood pressure problem was just something we’d have to control as a side effect. It’s just what we do. As I mentioned, I think that’s because it appears ‘easy’ and women feel societal pressure to take sole responsibility for that. A woman is either pregnant or on hormonal birth control. Also, it’s because that’s what the pharmaceutical industry wants. It’s a much easier way for them to control female fertility. The market is huge and there is much money to be made – not only from women (or in the UK, the NHS paying for women) who want to prevent pregnancy, but also regulate skin problems, cramps, bloating, even to avoid periods completely. And doctors, with their busy schedules and multitude of issues to deal with, don’t have time to read around: so they read the material provided by the pharmaceutical industry. And so it goes.

So the only point in this post is to use my voice to say the pill isn’t always straightforward. If reading this post helps someone realise they aren’t ‘crazy’ and they don’t need to be on the pill if they don’t want to, the post has achieved its purpose. Because actually, most people I have spoken to haven’t found the pill to be straightforward and have opted for other contraceptive methods. There ARE other options. And some people are happily on the pill: that is great for them.

What works for you, your body, your relationship?

On this journey, I have found these resources helpful:

Why I’ll Never Take The Pill Again

And I’m excited to read this book when it makes its way to my letter box!

Opening this conversation for me was really therapeutic and led to something really positive. If you want to chat, feel free to contact me privately. I’d love to hear your story – good or bad!

7 thoughts on “The Pill: Sugar-coated liberation or corporate-societal control?

  1. I’m so glad to read of someone else who had negative experiences on the pill – though I’m sorry that you had to go through them. I got prescribed the pill when I was younger due to other medical issues, after a few months I developed a bold clot and was constantly down for a week every month. The only reason they could tell me for why it happened was being on the pill!! Thank you for writing this post and highlighting the mental effects it can cause and for telling others the kill is not the only option.

  2. Absolutely agree. Over the years I’ve tried it 3 times (2 months was the longest I stayed on it) and couldn’t articulate as well as you have how it just made me feel not like ‘me’. Really helpful post thanks for taking the courage to write it.

  3. Thanks for posting this! Stumbled across your blog this week – keep writing – you are very inspiring! The pill isn’t for everyone – I really found that out in a way which was really tough. Girls should be told the dangers before they are given it out.

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