Thursday, October 20, 2011

A Few Final Thoughts on Birth Control Pills

I changed a lot in my twenties—went from being a very unhappy, rather dark person to a surprisingly stable, happy, healthy person. That growth came from many things: falling in love and then working (sometimes very hard) to build a marriage, to master two new languages, to adapt to living very far away from home in a rather closed society. I worked in several different places and became confident as a professional. I traveled and learned to navigate the murky world of immigration paperwork. I started going to the gym and dressing like a woman. I accomplished quite a lot in that decade, but I can pinpoint the one thing I did in my twenties of which I’m proudest and that’s getting off the Pill. It didn’t happen until I turned 29, but it happened and that, along with running, has changed me, emotionally and physically, in ways I never would have imagined.
I went on the Pill when I was sixteen. I had a boyfriend and a lot of strong teenage passions: poetry, veganism, radical politics and skinny boys in rock bands. I tried “going off” when I was 19 and studying in Madrid. Not because I had any problems with the Pill (big breasts and clear skin—what was there not to love), but rather because I was single. After a few months off the Pill, I looked like a 14-year-old boy: I was super skinny and had a nasty case of acne, which in turn made me want to just die. Seeing my reflection in the Madrid metro, I hardly recognized myself.
When I arrived to the grime and humidity that is Baltimore in August, I went directly to the dermatologist, burst into tears and begged, “What, what can I do?” And he, like so many American doctors, smiled and said, “Go back on the Pill, my dear.” And so I did, for ten more years.
I was absolutely terrified of ever going off the Pill again and turning into a 14-year-old monster, so when my ortho try-cyclen prescription ran out once I was living in Spain, I took the package to the local pharmacist, whispered my predicament in the tone another woman might use to talk about infertility or incest, and that calm Catalan man skimmed through some thick three-ringed binders until we found a European pill with the same ingredients. In Spain, you don’t even need a prescription for the Pill, just the brand name, “Suavaret, por favor.” And you’re good to go. Suavaret, it’s suave, a light purple color, feminine, kind, easy going down.
When Spanish women hissed about the dangers of the Pill (blood clots, low sex drive, mood swings) I ignored them. They obviously weren’t prone to acne or truly terrified of pregnancy. But, little by little, I began to wonder what my body would be like without the Pill. No round stomach, no big breasts? And my mind? No more mood swings or black-cloud days or sudden crying jags? And—I really wondered about this one—What about that force that fuses body and mind? The ole sex drive? What would that be like?
But I was scared to take the plunge, to deal with the skin problems and possible depression. To catch a glimpse of acne in the closing metro doors and want to scream or hide.
I kept putting going off the Pill on hold. It wasn’t the right time because I had to start a new job, or go on vacation, or fly to a wedding in London, or a book fair in Frankfurt. And then on a flight from Atlanta to Barcelona, my feet swelled up, which sent me on a wild internet search and round of doctor's visits to understand Porque and ended with me saying Basta.
In April of 2008, I stopped taking birth control pills. Did my skin break out? Yes, a little and it still does. Did I get skinny? I lost some weight, but I also started running soon afterwards, so who knows if one thing has anything to do with the other. Did my sex drive come back? Yes! And I never even knew I’d lost it. A whole new world.
Did my mood change? Yes, it was as if a cloud lifted and all the struggles of becoming an adult woman culminated in throwing away the pills I’d been taking every night at ten pm for basically thirteen years.
I felt, and still feel, absolutely fantastic: changed, liberated, recovered. Now, does this mean that I want to tell you “Get off the pill now! Traditional medicine and pharmaceutical companies are evil!” Well, no, not necessarily. I mean, I do sort of think that, but I think every woman has to find her own way out of the labyrinth of hormonal birth control. It’s actually kind of like running, yes I know it’s the secret to life, but I’m not going to proselytize. Every girl has to get there on her own.


  1. This was interesting to read...I've kind of wondered what I'd be like if I'd go off it it myself...I'd like to but at the same time it's almost just easier to stay on it!

  2. I actually went off the pill (later nuvaring) a couple of times during my 20s for about a year at a time, and I was off hormonal birth control for most of last year. I ended up deciding to go back on it a couple of months ago. Off of it my periods are incredibly irregular and accompanied by extremely painful cramps. I also have no desire to have children. So for these reasons it's worth it to me.

  3. Interesting post! I went off the pill for good when I was 32 and about to get married. I immediately lost 10 pounds (a *good* thing in my case) and have felt much better. After my twins were born, I had an IUD inserted and specifically requested the kind that doesn't rely on hormones at all. That's been good for me, too. I agree with you about the pill. I do think there's a time and place for it, but I'm glad to be past that time and place.

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