I’m 27 years old, and like a lot of women, I was put on birth control pills shortly after starting my period. If you had asked me at any point in the past, I would have told you I had never experienced an adverse side effect from my birth control. On the contrary, I loved and appreciated it for giving me reproductive autonomy while improving my acne-prone skin and taking the guesswork out of dealing with Aunt Flo.
My decision to quit the pill five months ago was about 65 percent a result of forgetting to go to the pharmacy and 35 percent curiosity to see if my body was capable of remembering how to menstruate on its own.
As it turns out, after spending half my life on birth control, going off it has been nothing short of a revelation ― one that has made me question why I spent half my life trying to convince myself that the mild mental and physical symptoms I experienced over the years were “natural,” even when they happened to be some of the most common side effects attributed to the pill.
The first thing I experienced after stopping the pill ― in my case, the combined version ― was what I would describe as a total sexual awakening. While I’ve never considered myself asexual by any means, my libido was mostly limited to the surge of excitement one might experience during courtship or after many shots of tequila. But within weeks, that changed drastically: Almost like cranking up an ancient generator stored away in the basement, my lady parts began to hum and pulsate with a kind of energy I had never felt.
Practically overnight, my lubrication levels went from zero to “ripe papaya” – and for someone who has spent their life suffering through relatively uncomfortable, sometimes painful, under-lubricated sex, this was huge. The change was so noticeable that I wondered if there might be something wrong with me, until I began to read the abundant accounts of other women whose sex drives were temporarily extinguished by birth control.
Around the same time, another strange thing happened. I realized I felt happy. I’m happy right now. Even if nothing great happens, I’m quite sure I’ll be happy tomorrow. Quitting birth control was as invigorating for my mental health as that wonderful feeling of sun and breeze on your bare legs when you wear shorts for the first time after a long winter.
I was diagnosed with depression shortly after getting put on birth control – something that doesn’t seem so strange, considering that a recent, massive study concluded that women taking the combined oral contraceptive pill are 23 percent more likely to be diagnosed with depression. Other forms of hormonal birth control present an even greater risk.
Though I traded in antidepressants for my own coping mechanisms years ago, I’ve spent essentially my whole adult life battling frequent waves of depression, mood swings, anxiety, fatigue, and a persistent mental fog. But I can’t remember a time I’ve ever felt as consistently confident, motivated, and happy as during these past months without the pill.
As if truly enjoying sex and feeling good about life for the first time weren’t enough, I’ve also lost weight since going off the pill. It isn’t anything significant – I’ve never been overweight, but, like most women, I’ve always been overly self-conscious about the places where my body jiggles and dimples. Without any changes to what I eat or how I exercise, I suddenly have abs, and lean muscle mass now contours across my body in areas previously dominated by flab.
The only real negative outcome I’ve had since going off birth control is a minor resurgence of acne and oily skin. While this has been frustrating, I’m honestly more than happy to deal with a few pimples if it means that I’m emotionally stable, energetic, confident, clearheaded, and sexually engaged.
I fully recognize that going off birth control isn’t an option for many women, and many of those who do leave it behind probably won’t enjoy the same benefits that I have (sorry).
And don’t get it twisted ― even though my experience quitting birth control was a positive one, I totally refuse to side with anyone who believes that access to birth control, or any other women’s reproductive health procedure or treatment, should be limited in any way, so please don’t interpret this as such.
(While we’re at it, if you have any questions or concerns about your birth control, please consult your doctor.)
Still, for me, quitting the pill has been both empowering and alarming. Why didn’t I do this sooner? Like many women my age, I’ve spent my entire adult life on synthetic hormones. I never had a point of reference for what life was like without them, so I never made the connection between what was going on with me and the pill.
I struggled with depression, mood swings, and a truly lackluster sex drive for years. The notion that these conditions are “normal” for women is reinforced so constantly in our society that I simply accepted that I was naturally a slightly sad, sexless lady.
Over the years, I have been offered antidepressants, therapy, lube, and other solutions to these problems. But I was never invited to seriously consider the possibility that something as seemingly innocuous as my birth control might be the culprit. I suspect this is the case for lots of other women like me.
Despite scientific evidence showing that hormonal birth control can and often does have a negative effect on our emotional and physical well-being ― especially among young women ― we’re still being told that we shouldn’t be alarmed and that it is our “best option” ― often by men in our lives, whether they be doctors, scientists, politicians, or our own partners.
At this point, any argument that seeks to downplay the very real side effects experienced by women on birth control ― no matter how mild or “normal” they might seem ― is nothing short of a sexist attempt to rob women of the validity of their experiences.
This wouldn’t be the first time our society has glazed over the dark side of birth control.
Due to the illegality of contraception in the U.S. in the 1950s, and the lack of American women willing to put up with the unbearable side effects of the earliest forms of the pill, scientists forced their contraceptive experiment upon female residents of a Massachusetts mental asylum and young Puerto Rican medical students, who were told they would be expelled if they didn’t comply. Even when facing expulsion, many women dropped out of the study.
In need of bodies to experiment on, scientists then took the pill to an impoverished neighborhood in San Juan, where hundreds of women signed up for a medication they were told would prevent them from getting pregnant. What they weren’t told, however, was that they would be participating as human subjects in a medical experiment. Three women died during the study, and though the lead doctor determined that the pill had too many side effects to be acceptable, it was released to the public anyway.
The earliest form of the birth control pill contained 10 times the amount of hormones needed to prevent pregnancy. We should thank those who came before us for suffering through that early birth control, but even today, women continue to put up with a slew of common side effects that include mood changes, decreased libido, nausea, migraines, weight gain and breast tenderness.
While women are technically only fertile for a few days out of the month, men, on the other hand, are reproductively fertile 365 days a year. But advances in male hormonal birth control have been slow. The latest promising male birth control formula showed a 96-percent rate of effectiveness, but the study was called off. Why, you ask? Because men reported side effects such as mood disorders, acne, and weight gain during clinical trials, and the study was deemed “too risky” to continue.
To be fair, the side effect rate recorded during the small study was relatively high compared with the average side effects recorded for women’s birth control. Nevertheless, it smells an awful lot like a double standard.
I don’t want to undermine the extraordinarily important role that the pill has played in our society ― from giving us autonomy over our reproductive systems, to paving the way for an increase in women’s employment, education, and wages, to being a legitimate treatment for a whole array of medical conditions.
All I’m saying is that we deserve better. What does it say about our society that serious risks like depression are considered acceptable ― even by those who experience them, like me?
For me, I’ve now passed the burden of birth control on to my partner, who is more than happy to consummate ― oops, I mean compensate ― for my brand-new sex drive with an endless supply of condoms.