What I Wish I'd Known Before Starting Birth Control

While people bond over period horror stories all the time, periods are not nearly as uniform as we often think.  Some people have periods that are short and light with minimal symptoms; others experience heavy bleeding with a myriad of super fun and painful symptoms.  For some women who experience particularly bad periods, hormonal birth control can help to regulate their cycles and alleviate some of these symptoms. 

However, in the same way that periods are unique to every individual who gets them, birth control can work very differently for everyone who uses it.  This is how I came to discover that fact, aka my birth control horror story.  More importantly, though, it’s a reminder of the importance of being an advocate for your own reproductive health, because although people constantly dismiss the experiences of individuals with periods, no one knows what’s healthy for your body better than you do.

By the time I turned 15, my menstrual cycle was seriously negatively impacting my life.  The week before my period brought migraines, awful cramps, intense bouts of anxiety and insomnia, and constant mood swings.  Once I started having to miss school because of the pain I was in, I quickly realized that there was no way I could continue dealing with these symptoms every month.  That’s when I began to consider starting birth control.  I made an appointment with a local OB/GYN to discuss my options, and shortly after I began taking oral contraceptives. 

What I quickly learned through my experience with the pill is that everyone’s body is different and that there’s no “one size fits all” form of birth control.  I knew this to an extent when I chose the pill over other forms of birth control, such as the implant, the shot, or the IUD.  What I didn’t know was that there are so many different forms and doses of the pill and that not all versions of the pill work for all bodies. 

I started birth control with super high expectations.  I was told by my doctor that because hormonal birth controls help regulate your cycle, I should expect for most of the terrible symptoms accompanying my periods to disappear almost completely.  This was true for the first three months after I began taking the pill, however as my body began to adjust, my symptoms actually got worse.  I was bleeding almost constantly, and my migraines and cramps came back with a vengeance.  In addition, hormonal birth controls are known to worsen symptoms of anxiety and depression, and I could tell that something really wasn’t right with both my physical and mental health.  I called my doctor and she recommended a new prescription, saying that sometimes it can take a few tries to find a pill that works exactly right for your body.  I was told to wait at least three months before calling back for my body to completely adjust to the new hormone.  And so, always the optimist, I moved on to pill pack number 2.

To save you the agonizing frustration that I felt throughout the next two years, I’ll give only a brief summary of pills 2, 3, and 4.  I wanted so badly to believe that the pill could help reduce the severity of my symptoms, but in some ways, it actually made them worse.  I continued to repeat the exact same steps of that first pill – wait three months, suffer through some pretty awful symptoms, call back, get a new prescription.  But the worst part of this entire experience wasn’t even the migraines or the anxiety or the constant breakthrough bleeding – it was the response I got from my doctors when I explained what I was experiencing. 

In the past two years, I’ve played phone tag with my OB/GYN more times than I can count.  My call was always answered by a nurse who told me that I had no real reason to bother the doctor with a phone call.  She’d tell me that she’d just call in a new prescription, and I could call back in three months if it wasn’t working for me.  I was told again and again that I had no other option but to keep cycling through medications hoping one would stick, and that no matter how much pain or frustration I was feeling, meeting with a doctor wouldn’t solve any of my problems.  By the time I reached my fourth prescription, I was completely discouraged.  I had resigned myself to the fact that this was just how my body was, and that I’d continue dealing with it forever.  I had learned how to handle the migraines and cramps, and my cycle hadn’t been normal in so long that I had almost gotten used to it.  In a last-ditch effort to verify that I really had no other options, I decided that instead of calling my office at home this time, I would call Planned Parenthood in Boston.  I didn’t know it then, but that phone call would end up being one of the best decisions I’ve ever made for my body.

Very early on in my conversation with Planned Parenthood, I knew that this was going to be a very different phone call than I was used to.  As I described the symptoms I had been having over the last 2 years since starting the pill, I actually felt like I was being listened to.  Within a span of 10 minutes, I had an appointment to speak with a doctor.  I had been trying to accomplish just that for months back home, and all it took with Planned Parenthood was that one phone call.  I walked into my appointment feeling nervous and conflicted.  I wanted so badly to believe that this doctor would be different, but I also didn’t want to get my hopes up only to be disappointed again.  Luckily, my fears were quickly extinguished.  My doctor made me feel more comfortable talking about my reproductive health than I’d ever been before.  She listened to everything I had to say without dismissing any of my experiences and immediately suggested that I look into another form of birth control. 

Though my doctor at home was adamant about the fact that the pill was my best and seemingly the only option, it was pretty clear to me that cycling through medications and dealing with the symptoms until I found one that was tolerable wasn’t the best thing for my body; having a medical professional finally confirm that was so freeing.  She took the time to explain what other options I had, and I scheduled an appointment for a hormonal IUD insertion the next week.  It has now been a little under two months since that appointment, and I can honestly say that I feel happier and healthier than I have in a very long time.

It is unbelievable to me still that after two years of battling with nurses and prescriptions and awful symptoms back home, it took just one week with a new doctor to find a solution that worked for my body.  Unfortunately, I’m most likely not the only person who has had this experience.  So many people who have periods have had their symptoms dismissed or have been told that their healthcare professionals know their bodies and experiences better than they do.  That is why it’s so important to be an advocate for your own reproductive health. ​ The thing I have chosen to take away from this experience is that I am a much better judge of what is healthy for my body than the person listening to me describe my experiences.  I’ve learned the hard way that sometimes I’ll have to fight to be heard, even with the people whose job it is to listen, and that I should never have to learn how to cope with my own pain just because it feels easier than finding a solution. 

 

I am so grateful for all of the wonderful individuals I spoke to at Planned Parenthood, all of whom finally made me feel like I wasn’t alone in advocating for my own reproductive health.   

 

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