Guest Post by Holly Grigg-Spall, freelance writer (“Sweetening the Pill“)
The popularity of the birth control pill is an essential element of our cultural attitude towards menstruation, and women’s bodies as a whole. After taking the pill for ten years I recently decided to stop, for good. I have this month had my first real period in a decade. I didn’t decide to come off the pill because I want a baby, it’s because I want to blog, and have been blogging about the pill for several months. My blog ranges from my own personal ramblings about taking the pill, to adventures in the world of women’s studies. I am not religious, pro-abstinence or anything like a hippy, I just came to realise that I was taking a very powerful medication every day and I wasn’t sure exactly why.
I had an understanding that the pill was a wonderful invention that liberated womenkind, but ten years in and on Yasmin I was experiencing panic attacks, constant anxiety, paranoia and depression, as were many of my friends and friends of friends. I began to research how the pill actually works and was amazed to discover the whole body impact and potential side effects of this impact. I didn’t know the pill suppressed my hormone cycle every month and that this suppression had consequences for many functions of my body, most interestingly the system underpinning my mood and sense of well being. I didn’t know this, and soon discovered most women didn’t know this either and were blithely popping a pill they thought safe, easy and effective, and not even just for contraception when contraception was needed – they were taking it at fourteen years old and continuing for a large part of their lives. Aside from internet forums for medications discussion I could find no one intelligently criticising, analysing or considering the potential effect of the pill’s impact. Anyone who did so was considered to have a conservative, anti-women agenda.
Considering the pill’s mythology and legacy it has been hard to get the word out there that some women will experience insidious effects on their mood and emotional state and that women should know more about the pill if they are to truly be making an informed decision about their bodies. Margaret Sanger fought for education, availability and freedom of choice – the dominance of the pill, and the culture of pill pushing has created a situation in which many women do not know what they are taking, what it does to their bodies or what they could use as an alternative that would be just as effective, or even get hold of these alternatives if they do know and want them. There are still many women out there who are unnecessarily suffering as I did with depression and anxiety, doubting themselves and their sanity. I always say – yes women who don’t take the pill feel bad sometimes too – but it’s very important that women taking the pill know that if they do feel bad it could be that medication they take every day, so casually, it seems odd to even call it a medication.
Coming off the pill I have been experiencing what I can only describe as withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms are similar to what I experienced at my worst points on Yasmin – a growing sense of dread, insecurity and anxiety. When on the pill it’s hard to decipher these feelings but retrospectively it’s not so much a matter of your feelings of sadness or worry being abnormal in every day life, it’s more that the extreme levels of these states and your inability to cope with such feelings is definitely abnormal, a side effect. In life you may feel low sometimes or angry sometimes but there’s always a mooring of the wider perspective, a strength in your sense of self, a foundation of reality – the pill’s effect on your hormones and endocrine system cuts you off from this mooring, making the experience like quicksand in your mind with nothing to hold you steady.
Studies show many women start the pill and stop because of side effects and this leaves a very wide survivor effect gap, where their experiences aren’t registered. However I think that there may be more women stopping the pill now than previously – I think the negative press around Yasmin has a lot to do with this, and I wouldn’t underestimate how many women were seduced by that pill’s clear skin and weight loss promotion and subsequently had problems. If one pill is questioned it’s not an easy leap to question them all, and unfortunately the few articles that have been in women’s magazines have offered other hormone-based methods as alternatives, rather than non-hormonal. The injection, the ring, the implant – they all suppress the hormone cycle just like the pill, and if women begin to feel unwell they can’t just come off it the next day. The injection Depo Provera is used for the chemical castration of sex offenders in some US states and some European countries. It worries me that women concerned about the pill and not knowing enough about how it works might take these options from their doctors.
A piece on ABC News recently spoke of the withdrawal symptoms experienced by women on Depo Provera. Because the injection does not contain estrogen it has been considered safer, due on the lack of blood clotting risk which is usually associated with the estrogen element of the pill. Although with the current seventy plus law suits against the makers of Yasmin the case is against the type of progesterone used. Drospirenone is also the reason behind the particularly extreme emotional side effects experienced by some women on this one brand. The progesterone in the injection acts on the adrenal glands to wipe out testosterone production – testosterone is not just a male sex hormone, it effects energy levels, cognitive function, body strength, motivation, drive and life interest in women.
The side effects experienced after this treatment are similar to those experienced from the pill – nausea, headaches, insomnia, anxiety, depression and it’s no wonder – hormone based treatments are very crude, aggressive methods of preventing pregnancy and have whole body, insidious effects. I have had many women write to me in the last couple of weeks about coming off the pill. I am glad they can find support and comfort in hearing others are going through the same, and maybe find resolve, but unfortunately when women want to know how long it will last, there’s little to tell them. Every woman’s body is different, every cycle is different and so although anecdotally it tends to pass after three months, some women might not get their normal menstrual cycle back for much longer. It’s this difference, and uniqueness, this delicacy of balances, that makes taking the pill akin to a bodily lobotomy. The pill keeps your hormone levels low and flat and when you stop there will be an increase in estrogen all of a sudden, then your endocrine system will need to rebalence and find the rhythm that keeps you healthy. Some of the new feelings won’t be side effects at all, they’ll be how a woman’s natural body normally feels, but it’s hard to know this when you have taken the pill from fourteen years old.
Although I have been feeling pretty bad of late, I am determined to put a stop to what I see as my ‘addiction’ to the pill and raise awareness of society’s addiction to this method of contraception and question what women’s health activist Barbara Seaman called all those years ago its ‘diplomatic immunity’.