Nina Klaff shares her personal experience with the contraceptive pill.
Birth control has come a long way from the pessaries of crocodile dung used by the Ancient Egyptians. Condoms made of treated linen and animal tissue were replaced by ones made of rubber in the mid-nineteenth century, and the twentieth century especially saw a rapid evolution in contraceptive methods: when Margaret Sanger persuaded Gregory Pincus to work on a pill that could prevent pregnancies, she entered them into a race with chemist Carl Djerassi, who had already begun synthesising hormones from Mexican yams in 1951. Within a decade, the pill had been given the green light for contraceptive use.
For those of us that would rather opt out of drinking a toxic ancient Chinese concoction of Mercury and oil that could leave us altogether infertile, the pill is still an attractive option. However, in the fifty years since its approval, there has been much concern over its safety. In the U.S. alone, there have been a staggering 10,000 lawsuits against Bayer Healthcare Corporation, the plaintiffs being former users of Yaz, a birth control pill that can have side effects such as blood clots, heart disease, and strokes.
The risks of this form of contraception aren’t just limited to physical symptoms. At the end of September this year (2016), the Mail Online reported that “women who use contraception are 70% more likely to be on antidepressants.” This isn’t my usual resource, I can assure you, but the headline brought back vivid memories of trotting along to the Family Planning clinic down the road, under my mother’s guidance. She was not only keen for me to be safe, but thought that perhaps my painful periods would be alleviated by taking the combined pill. The doctors agreed and a blood pressure monitoring and a lecture later, I’d left the practice armed with a year’s worth of Microgynon 30. While I’m reluctant to revisit my own history with depression, I can tell you that in retrospect, the evidence suggests it was more than a mere coincidence that within weeks of picking up my prescription, I was back in my GP’s office taking them up on their offer of free counselling for under 18s.
I am still not clear as to why those 336 pills came with nothing more than a leaflet on possible side effects, which inevitably ended up in the bin. Out of fear of being scolded, and in my naive belief in my own invincibility, I had omitted my smoking from my assessment form. As a result, I wasn’t told that it could not only impact the effectiveness of the pill, but also seriously increase my chances of heart disease, and kept puffing away to the tune of a pill a day. The allure of being able to choose which weeks to miss swimming lessons quickly eclipsed my younger self’s concern for my health, and I often found myself skipping my monthly withdrawals.
After having struggled for years with severe mood swings and a number of other unpleasant symptoms that I began to link to the pill, I decided to come off it in October 2015, and this is when I saw the consequences of interfering with my hormones for a prolonged period of time. When I hadn’t had a period by May the following year, I was understandably anxious. Having been born by IVF, my own fertility has always been of some concern. I sought medical help but my GP simply told me to wait it out, as it can often take over a year for things to go back to normal.
Still suffering from amenorrhea, I turned to acupuncture this September. The next evening – at someone else’s house of course, Mother Nature waits for no party – my friends cheered as they pushed tampons to me under the bathroom door. My acupuncturist asked for some blood tests, which were inconclusive, but when I told my GP of my positive response to the complementary therapy, they wanted to investigate further. I was sent for an ultrasound, and to my relief, was told there was nothing structurally wrong with my insides.
It’s too early to tell if this means I’m all up and running again or if it was just a one off. Either way, it is undeniable that the pill wreaked havoc with my body. For there to be a way of avoiding getting knocked up without these knock-on effects is still too good to be true. After years of holding my hands with my friends as they get plastic hormonal bullets implanted into their arms or their fallopian tubes clasped together, I firmly believe it’s time we all had an equal variety and quality of options to take responsibility for our own sexual activity that isn’t what the bible called coitus interruptus – a.k.a. the pull out method. And until they come up with a solution that also protects you from STIs and STDs, I think I’ll stick to my prescription of healthy fats and condoms.
This article was originally printed in Issue 12. Illustration by Daisy Wakefield and Rivka Cocker.