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Illustration by Katrin Friedeman

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My copper IUD experience

One size does not fit all

Top things to know:

  • The copper IUD contains no hormones

  • IUDs are one of the most effective methods of birth control

  • Forms of birth control suit everyone's body differently

I started taking the pill at 18 after getting my first “real” boyfriend. For the next six years, I was on and off the pill, but mostly on—the off moments were due to an inability to afford the pill before the Affordable Care Act kicked in (thanks, Obama!) and lasted no longer than a month at a time.

During this time I became interested in minimalism, which was a lifestyle approach that fit well with my low bank account balance and student habits. This evolved into an interest in natural body and health care, which often goes hand-in-hand with the minimalist movement. I tried the “no poo” shampoo method (and failed miserably), began using aluminum-free deodorant crystals and stopped drinking five cups of coffee a day.

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I eventually decided that hormonal birth control was the last barrier to the more holistic life I wanted to live. A friend of mine suggested the copper IUD, since she had a great experience with it. I became even more convinced that this was the birth control option for me when I finally decided to move to Germany after graduation. Getting this long-term, hassle-free birth control device before a big life transition to a country whose healthcare system I knew nothing about seemed like a no brainer.

I made my appointment at Planned Parenthood and during finals week got the copper IUD inserted in less than 20 minutes. I knew there would be some initial pain, but insisted on driving myself home. Maybe not the smartest decision, but I made it and suffered through the cramping along with my last final.

Within a month, the effects of the copper IUD combined with no additional hormones began to appear. My skin broke out worse than it had ever been, even as a teenager. My moods were erratic and unmanageable. I would have a heavy period for seven or eight days straight, and for the first few days I would sometimes be unable to walk because of the pain. I would regularly get hit with a wave of nausea and dizziness, to the point where I would almost pass out. I was pale and tired most of the time, and possibly anemic. Because my periods were so heavy, I was unable to wear my menstrual cup as it would immediately leak and I’d have to change it every hour or so. I had to resort to thick pads, which for any menstrual cup convert knows is a very difficult thing to go back to. I soon realized that I wasn’t living some medication-free life if I had to take loads of ibuprofen seven days a month in order to function properly.

Another negative effect was the awkward and sometimes impossible sex. If not done with the most careful positioning, I risked of a sharp, debilitating pain on my left side. I had to be so conscientious that it minimized my ability to relax, feel pleasure and generally killed the intimacy between me and my partner. Everything I read and was told by doctors stated that the copper IUD could not cause painful sex. I decided to do some research and found many stories similar to mine, including the specific pain in the left side. I know the internet is not the most reliable source for information so I proceeded with caution, but after reading through dozens of stories from people who’ve had the exact same symptoms and were told the exact same thing from doctors, I began to question what could be true about the copper IUD.

Through all the pain, discomfort and negative changes, I swore I loved my IUD. I was convinced that these were just temporary symptoms that would go away eventually. There were so many reasons to love it—it’s cost effective, long-acting, I could forget about it and of course it was hormone free. So why was I having such a terrible time with it? I still held out hope that maybe there was some mechanical problem with the IUD rather than the IUD being the problem itself.

I made an appointment with a gynecologist recommended by a new friend in Berlin to see what we could do to fix the issue. I’m glad I reached out when I did because it turned out I had multiple ovarian cysts that were on the verge of bursting and potentially could cause a tremendous amount of pain. The gynecologist was kind and comforting but still maintained a stereotypically German straightforwardness—which is exactly what I needed to hear. I told her all the problems I was having, and she responded very matter-of-factly, “Well, then why don’t we just take it out and try something else?” It sounded so simple, but wasn’t something I had seriously considered. After the scan, she said that hormonal birth control would help diminish the size of the cysts and would help control their growth in the future. With all the given information, and after six months of unendingly bad skin, bad sex and too much pain to function, I had to accept the fact that the copper IUD and I just weren’t a good match.

I’ve been back on birth control pills for three years and I don’t regret my decision for a second. Sometimes I feel judgement and derision from people for the same reasons that I would’ve given before my experience: “Why would you choose to take hormones?” But they work for me—my moods are stabilized, my skin is clear, I no longer have painful sex and my ovarian cysts are under control. Given the many IUD experiences I’ve heard about, including my own, I now understand that there’s no umbrella “right” or “wrong” birth control method for everyone.

IUDs are getting a ton of attention these days, which is something I’m really glad to see happen. Despite being one of the most effective methods of birth control, the IUD is still severely underrepresented and is far less widely used than the pill or male condoms. But just because of the amazing powers of the IUD, plus its increase in popularity, doesn’t automatically mean that it will work for you. My experience is my own and no one else’s. I may have had a negative experience with the IUD, but the reason I got it in the first place was because a friend of mine who loves hers had recommended it. My goal here is not to discourage anyone from getting the copper IUD, but to remind everyone that one size does not fit all. Everyone has different needs, preferences, beliefs and opinions about what’s best for our bodies.

Remain open-minded about your health decisions, and don’t ignore red flags. If something doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, and there’s no reason to force it. Always try to take a step back and approach a health trend from a more objective point of view. I had a vision of a hormone-free me that clouded the reality of my health and made things unquestionably more difficult. Don’t be disappointed in yourself or your body when things don’t work out the way you expected. Remember that even if something doesn’t fit into our own personal narrative, your health and safety are what matter most.

This article was originally published April 13, 2017

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