The male pill: now we can share the burden

Darcy Ramsden, Bristol University’s Women’s Officer, talks about her distressing experience of pills and coils and asks if the male pill could be the answer.

A year ago, I came off the combined pill after it gave me ten months of recurrent health problems that steadily made me more and more miserable and stressed. I joined the four month waiting list for a coil and switched to the mini pill in the meantime, which gave me a period every two weeks. Then, when the time came and they put the coil in, it was so painful that I passed out and my friend had to come and collect me from Student Health on her birthday.

The coil wasn’t worth it. There were four blissful months of no side effects and no periods, then about a week after a difficult break-up, unpredictable periods and other side effects kicked in, which was the last thing I needed. A month ago, sick and tired of the side effects of a contraceptive I didn’t even need (the side effects also meant I couldn’t have sex anyway, go figure), I marched back into Student Health and demanded they remove the coil. But no – they insisted that going back on the combined pill for two months on top of the coil would stop the bleeding and I would look forward to four years of no more stress. With new hope and another shiny new prescription, I skipped home with promises echoing in my ears, ready to pump yet more hormones into my already fragile and confused body.

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Since then, I have found it almost impossible to get out of bed in the morning. I have struggled to do any work, I have struggled to find the effort to cook and eat. I keep boiling the kettle and then sitting down in bed, unable to go back downstairs to finish the process of just making a cup of tea. Social events have been exhausting. I wake up numb and it’s not just because my student house is always about -3 degrees…

It has taken far too long for me to realise that all this began when I started taking the combined pill again. Having seen so many articles linking the pill to depression recently, I emailed friends to ask if they have had similar experiences and a ridiculous number came forward with their own horror stories. Here are just a few:

Heavy periods every two weeks. Six month long periods. Depression. Anxiety. Panic attacks. Acne in their twenties. Scars from having the implant removed. Hours and hours waiting at walk-in clinics after school for prescriptions. Weight gain. Massively reduced sex drive. Breasts swelling up so much that they leave stretch marks when they return to normal. Months on waiting lists. Infections caused by the coil. Ridiculous amounts of money on pads and tampons for endless spotting.

Of course, this isn’t the case for everyone. Some long term contraceptives do exactly what they say on the tin for many of us… but everyone’s body responds differently to different combinations of hormones. It’s often a case of trial and error, and this process can sometimes be extremely long and stressful.

Long-term contraception, despite all of its faults, has of course been incredibly liberating for those who menstruate. Birth control has meant we can focus on our careers, have worry-free sex, and has made family planning so much simpler. But will men ever appreciate what so many of us put ourselves through just so we have the basic opportunity to go to work every day and still be sexually active, without the possibility of an unplanned pregnancy? It’s so much more complicated than whacking on a free condom from the clinic.

If you’re on the pill you have to remember to take it at the same time every day and stock up for future months in case you run out. If you get the injection you have to book appointments every couple months. Those of us who still have periods have to buy tampons and pads and make sure we don’t run out or you might experience what I once did – having to awkwardly ask every girl in the line for the Lakota toilets if they had a spare pad. It already costs us money for our ovaries to function normally, unless you’re down with free-bleeding. If clinics can hand out free condoms to men, why can’t they hand out free pads to women? It’s a joke, but at least here in the UK, contraception, abortion and childbirth is covered by the NHS. Over in the USA, contraception isn’t always free. Pads aren’t free. CHILDBIRTH isn’t free.

The ‘male pill’ hopefully means we no longer have to be the ones pumping our bodies full of hormones and chemicals just because – were there to be a pregnancy – it would be our bodies that support the foetus for nine months. Hopefully, if a male pill becomes available, we can have a “seahorse scenario”, where they share the stress of birth control and family planning. Of course, some men are very understanding and supportive. I can’t thank my last boyfriend enough for supporting me through my contraception nightmares, and I know one heterosexual couple where the guy goes with the girl to the clinic every time she has to go and waits with her.

With such long waiting lists for appointments, I’ve ended up agreeing to appointments at the same time as seminars or lectures because I need one asap and I don’t know when the next available time will be. It’s unfair that women are the ones who have to disrupt their lives in this way. May I also add, that all of these things are assumptions for self-defining women and heterosexual couples. LGBTQ+ people and couples around the world get a whole other set of things to worry about as well on top of all this.

I’m a strong advocate of investing in making a ‘male pill’ available to the public, because any medication or birth control that creates or aggravates mental health problems desperately requires safer alternatives. On top of that, there is no reason that long term contraception should be solely the responsibility of people who menstruate (and therefore a sexist issue). The pill has advanced women’s liberation over the years, but now it’s holding it back. We need to look into other alternatives, and the ‘male pill’ could well be the answer.

In the meantime, focus must be on self-care. If you think the pill might be making you feel depressed or anxious, or causing stressful and unwelcome side-effects, book an appointment with your GP. There are so many different kinds of long-term contraception that chances are you will eventually find one that works without any problematic side-effects. Mental health must be prioritised, and communication with friends and partners instead of keeping worries to yourself is vital.

Image by Darcy Ramsden

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