Contraception: A Think Piece

Contraception is a scary word. It is a topic akin to a minefield, full of urban legend, side effects and plenty of speculation. 

Before I came to university, I decided that I wanted to explore the implant as an option for contraception. I met with the nurse practitioner, because my doctor’s surgery told me I couldn’t see a doctor about it. This is a common answer; I’d been turned away before about my periods causing me extreme pain, and was given the usual platitudes of ‘it’ll settle down eventually’. 

I can accept the belief that doctors are prone to not taking teenage girls as seriously as they do their male counterparts and older people – I’ve experienced it myself. At age fourteen, I began a worrying pattern where every three months I would experience period cramps so bad that I would vomit, pass out, be unable to walk, speak, and at one point, went blind for ten minutes and had to crawl along a busy street back to my house. I had been given a chart by the doctor in order to track my pain, but by the age of eighteen, I knew this wasn’t a solution anymore. I couldn’t go to university with this problem. I wouldn’t have a parent to collect me from school when I fainted, or to help me get into bed when I couldn’t move. So, I did some of my own research (uh oh) and came to the conclusion that the implant would be a slightly better idea than the pill, as It was long term, and I was likely to forget to take my pill. After three attempts at booking an appointment, I was told by the Nurse Practitioner that he knew very little about the procedure, and that I had to go to the bathroom and take a photo of the A4 poster tacked on the back of the door for more information. I was shocked at the way that the clinic perpetuated the taboo of female contraception.

It was in another town, only open a few days a week, and had walk-in sessions. I asked my mother to drive me to the clinic well within walk-in hours and I was met with borderline hostility. Yes, it was still walk-in hours, but they didn’t want me to see a doctor, because they weren’t taking people during this slot anymore (there were two hours until the surgery closed). It was empty apart from one girl. I wasn’t asking for the implant straight away, I knew I’d need a consultation, or at least some paperwork, and it took a fair bit of arguing to get my point across. The girl in the waiting room was in school uniform: fifteen, maybe sixteen, alone, chewing her nails. I wondered, even then, what would’ve happened to me if I had come this far when I was her age. I probably would’ve just taken what the woman at the desk told me as gospel and let myself be turned away. It’s also worth noting that my home area has one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in the country – which makes you wonder whether these two phenomena are linked. 

Once I did reach a doctor, a week and a half later, she was wonderfully informative. She explained the side effects to me comprehensibly, and made it very clear to me that if x, y or z happened, I was to see a doctor. 

According to statistics from 2018, One-third of women who have the implant suffer no side effects and are very satisfied. Two-thirds suffer the well-known side effect of having a very long period, in which case, it is encouraged to see a doctor after more than a month, and to try the combined pill. Moving on from this: you either finish the combined pill and it’s sorted you out, or it doesn’t, and in that case, the implant just isn’t for you.

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When I’d first told my friends that I was looking into the implant, I was met with dismay. One friend boasted to me that she’d been on the pill and had had her period for three months. I asked her why she hadn’t seen a doctor to adjust her dosage or try something else and she scoffed – what could a doctor do? It’s a normal reaction, apparently, for women to try and scare other women when it comes to contraception. Yes, there are side effects. But what I noticed more than anything was a wilful dismissal of medicine in favour of being able to flex the fact that you’d had a period last for several weeks. I’m seeing it more and more – most recently, a girl posted a video on TikTok stating she’d been on her period for seven months. Seven months! And yet, there I was in a doctor’s office, being given all of the information I needed to be able to avoid that. 

Is this a case of varying doctors giving varying amounts of information? Why wouldn’t you go and see a doctor after being on your period for more than a month? What could you possibly stand to gain from not seeing a doctor beyond trying to scare your friends? Is it the widespread belief that doctors don’t take teenage girl seriously? I understand that if you’ve spent years being dismissed by people who are supposed to help you, you’d have some aversion, but I don’t think my aversion is strong enough to suffer through a three-month long period. 

And I did suffer side effects - I was on my period for six weeks before I managed to see a doctor, and I was prescribed the combined pill. When I came off the combined pill after Christmas, I went straight back to non-stop bleeding, so I simply had the implant removed and continued the pill. No fuss, no drama. So why are we all so hell bent on scaring each other? Is it possible that so many young women have been discouraged by the dismissal of doctors that they simply won’t listen to the side effects clearly set out for them? 

It seems that these two factors are inextricably linked, but what I find most worrying is the growing trend in ignoring doctors who are specifically trained in sexual health. Contraception in the UK is free, and while my experience had its ups and downs, I don’t think I could’ve continued the way I was last year without seeing a doctor. It was affecting my sleep, and I couldn’t walk up Park Street without wanting to vomit. 

Insisting on taking the side effects of the implant, pill or even the coil on the chin is brave, yes, but also a little foolish, and I am beginning to wonder if we have become somewhat complicit in our own treatment by the medical professional as a whole by refusing the help of the few.