As a 14-year-old in Los Gatos, California, going on the birth control pill was a no-brainer. I was in my first serious relationship and it seemed like all my peers were going on it. Some to regulate outrageously heavy periods, some for acne and others because they were having sex, plain and simple.
Sure, there might have been an underlying fear of teenage pregnancy coming down from our parents and pediatricians. But who could blame them? This was the ‘00s (or the “noughties?”). The decade that brought us shows like “Teen Mom” and “16 and Pregnant.” What a hell of a time to hit puberty.
It was also a high time for prescription drug use in minors and a general pathologization of puberty. Almost everyone I knew had a prescription for something in grade school. Think birth control, Adderall, Accutane… whatever it took to avoid being an awkward, scatterbrained adolescent.
When I say going on birth control was a “no-brainer,” I mean it. There wasn’t a lot of thought involved. There was no debate or grand discussion. No moral dilemma whatsoever. Choosing to go on birth control was a non-event. I don’t remember if it was my own choice or if my mom suggested it. I might have asked for it to “regulate my cycle,” but it was definitely for birth control. My period was light and relatively painless before going on the pill.
Thinking back, I don’t even remember getting my first pack. I don’t remember my doctor’s name or what she looked like. I don’t remember feeling any different on the pill.
I do remember failing to take it for days at a time, doubling doses and skipping periods altogether by starting a new pack early (my doctor said it was totally safe to do so, and I took full advantage).
Freshman year of high school. The year I went on the pill.
I was on the pill throughout high school and college with no problems. I was healthy and didn’t get pregnant. Achievement unlocked.
Ten years later. 24 years old. Still on the pill. But, no longer in the U.S.
I moved to Berlin to work for Clue in May 2015 (#bestjobever #downloaditnow #yesimonthemarketingteam) and with that, I started learning a lot about my own reproductive system.
I had no idea that I wasn’t even ovulating on the pill. I had no idea that my period was withdrawal bleeding and not a real period at all. I had no idea how short the fertile window is for people not taking hormonal birth control (up to 7 days depending on sperm strength, by the way). I had a vague understanding of ovulation from high school biology class, but if you asked me what it was, I probably would have froze.
I didn’t have to think about my reproductive system on the pill. I knew when my periods were coming, they didn’t faze me and I could even plan when to have them.
The health risks of the pill never reallllly crossed my mind.
Except when all those legal ads started airing on TV about pill-induced blood clots, heart attacks and strokes. Those were pretty alarming because at any given point I was on Yaz, Yasmin AND Ocella. And Zarah. And maybe Nikki. This is starting to sound like a Petey Pablo song.
Working at Clue naturally coincided with more tracking and awareness of my own cycle. I started to wonder:
Is it okay that I’ve been taking artificial hormones for over ten years?
What would happen to my body if I went off the pill?
What about my emotional stability?
I started to wonder if I should go off the pill, but I was concerned about the drop in estrogen levels and what that would mean for my mind and body.
When I was 22, my doctor recommended swapping my prescription with a lower dose pill. She said the pill I was on could cause blood clots. Like a good patient, or any regular person who doesn’t want blood clots, I made the switch right away.
But the lower hormone dose made me go totally berserk. My mood was all over the place, so I re-upped my dosage to restore a level head.
This little snafu didn’t exactly motivate me to lower my dose again, let alone go off the pill, but I was still curious to see what would happen if I quit cold turkey.
After three months in Berlin, my CVS prescription was dwindling, so it felt like the opportune moment. I stopped the daily pill popping in July 2015 and started to track what happened.
How fun! Well, not really. After three months off the pill, I felt like an ogre. It was bad. I experienced:
My periods were excruciating and my cycles were short. I was getting my period nearly every two weeks. I was in so much pain that some days I had to miss work (like many other women around the world).
Oh, and declining self-confidence DOES NOT pair well with increased sex drive.
My Clue calendar. Two periods per month.
Everyone told me it would take a while for my body to adjust, so I rationed for a few shitty months. But it didn’t get better. Not even after six months. I felt disconnected from my body.
And this is when shit hit the fan. The first days of each period were debilitating. I was going through tampons every 30 minutes. Before and during my period I would cry for no reason. I never woke rested. I was sleeping in late and had no energy (for someone who’s been a spastically energetic morning bird my whole life, this was telling). Even when I wasn’t on my period, I was uncomfortably wet. I was breaking out worse than I had when I hit peak puberty. I hated who I saw in the mirror.
I lost myself. And you know the saying, “if you don’t love yourself, who will?” Well, yeah, that’s true. It was hard to maintain a romantic relationship during this transition.
Pro-tip: Don’t make any radical changes to your prescriptions during a big life transition or move. Being on a new continent likely amplified my symptoms and made the whole chemical imbalance more overwhelming.
I decided to take action. I was done feeling like crap. I was sick of hearing how terrible the pill was when it helped me so much. On top of that, I was done feeling judged for my choice of birth control. Since coming to Europe last summer, I noticed people over here are generally more skeptical of the pill and more keen on natural family planning (fertility awareness). Because of this, I felt impure and slightly judged by people when I told them I was on the pill.
Before running straight back to estrogen and progestin, I wanted to see if there were any alternative treatments, so I went to a new gynecologist in Berlin.
Like most German doctors I’ve seen so far, the appointment was quick and to the point. She asked me what was wrong and firmly said: “The pill is the only option.” I pleaded with her and said, “there’s got to be another option — is there any treatment for heavy and irregular periods without hormones?”
Then she proceeded to write a prescription without asking me if I wanted it. Within five minutes, I was walking back down Adalbertstrasse, and I was mad. Why is this my only option?
I didn’t want to cave in so easily, so I didn’t go to the pharmacy and fill the prescription. I wanted to keep my experiment going a little bit longer. Plus, I refused to believe that I needed the pill.
So on my next trip to California, I saw a doctor at the trusted Palo Alto Medical Foundation.
My American doctor said I was experiencing heightened levels of male hormones and recommended an antiandrogen. So I tried out spironolactone, which was primarily for hormonal acne, but seemed to be promising for my other symptoms as well.
I didn’t feel much better after a few weeks on spironolactone. And I didn’t like having to take two pills a day, morning and night. This is when I decided to go back on the pill.
New German prescription
So after eight months pill-free, I’m on MAYRA now. And yes, that’s a fiery redhead on the box. Pill branding is terrible in Germany too.
Since starting again, I’ve literally taken back control of my hormones and my body. And most of the annoying symptoms diminished within the first cycle.
My period isn’t an issue any more. The emotional window before my period is less intense. Little things that really irked me during PMS are less dire now. I’m able to move on. The painful cramps are gone. My skin is clearing up. I’m waking up early again, and with energy. I’m happier.
Sure, the pill is not for everyone and I’m definitely not trying to convince anyone to go or stay on the pill. Everyone is different. Our genetic makeup, lifestyle and environment play a huge role. For some people, being ON the pill has just as irritating side effects.
There is no one-size-fits-all treatment. Do what feels best for you. I know that might seem painfully obvious, but it’s not as easy as it seems. Especially without understanding the ins and outs of your own system.
We’re lucky to be living in a time when people are becoming more and more aware of their bodies. Being a part of the progress at Clue gives me hope that my daughter won’t ever be rushing down the street, frustrated and torn over what to do to achieve hormonal harmony. She’ll never feel out of control of her body. And hopefully, she’ll have a few more options.