From what I can tell, owning a uterus/vulva/vagina is a messy, expensive, complicated, and painful business whether or not you were born with it.
I’ve always had difficult pre-menstrual symptoms. In high school, I would spend several evenings on the couch with a hot water bottle and Midol.
Towards the end of college, my symptoms got even worse. Pain in my pelvic region so bad I could not stand up straight. Nausea from the pain, which lead to either not eating and dizziness/fainting or eating and vomiting. I would spend two days a month bedridden, sobbing, nibbling saltines, sipping ginger ale, and trying to sleep the time away with a heating pad turned up on high.
Before I moved to Texas for graduate school, I went to the gynecologist to see what they would recommend. The doctor said I might have endometriosis, but the only way to tell was an invasive procedure, so she recommended birth control pills first to see if that helped my symptoms. I was hesitant, but knew I couldn’t miss graduate-level courses two days a month, so I relented.
It seemed to help for a few years with no obvious side effects, bringing my symptoms down to a manageable level. I was terrible at rememebering to take the pills at the same time every day, however, so my periods became highly irregular (before starting the Pill I could have set a clock by my cycle). I went to the doctor and switched to the patch, but decided instead to take a break from birth control since I had to wait until my next cycle to start the new method anyway. After around 7 months, my symptoms returned. I got dizzy at work and had to keep sitting down. The pain made it hard to complete the tasks I needed to.
So I went to Planned Parenthood for advice. I was prescribed the Nuva Ring, and the doctor dismissed any of my concerns about possible negative side-effects. After about three months of use, my sexual desire was completely non-existent and I was an emotional mess. Depression, anxiety, severe mood swings. I would break down in a hysterical sobbing fit almost every week. I was miserable, hopeless. And I might as well have been numb from the waist down. No desire for sexual activity or release. Even when having a sexual encounter, I was indifferent to orgasm, which is highly unusual for me. I also found it completely impossible to be around other hormonal women, and ended up quitting a job as a result.
After an intervention from my partner, I went back to Planned Parenthood and was prescribed a lower-dose pill. For a while, I seemed to be doing better. I gained ten pounds and had intense food cravings for two weeks out of the month, but perhaps I could live with that. Then, over the past four to five months, I noticed an increase in depression and anxiety symptoms. It was like I was constantly activated, and any outside stressor would send me over the edge. I found myself in a constant state of low-level depression. I could get out of bed, I was functional, but I was never happy or joyful. Nothing in my life felt particularly exciting. I had to force myself to spend time in public, even around people I cared about. Again, I found myself getting into fights with other hormonal women, and lost a roommate in the process.
I could have sex, and occasionally even desired it once or twice a month, but it wasn’t as satisfying as normal. And the desire was emotional rather than physical. I am usually a very touchy-feely person, but often the thought of cuddling even with friends would make my skin bristle. In my heart I craved connection, but my body wasn’t on the same page.
Over the course of a week I saw a few articles about PMDD in my Facebook timeline. What I was reading made some amount of sense. I track my cycle on mymonthlycycles.com, so I compared those calendar entries to my calendar. Sure enough, reliably, day 12 of my cycle and the 4th day of my period were marked by intense mood swings. I stopped taking the pills and made an appointment with my doctor.
Within days, I felt like a completely different person. For the first time in months, I felt happy. Not just “okay,” not just “fine,” but good. When I was on the pill, no amount of sleep or self-care seemed to help. I needed so much alone time I was hardly spending any time with friends. I was tired all the time. Stressed out all the time.
Now, it’s true I’ve made some changes in my life recently, but I started those changes before I stopped taking the pill, and I only started feeling differently about the future the past few days. I’m glad my mood encouraged me to make some changes to my life, which I believe will improve my future. But now, I don’t think my mood was actually a result of my circumstances at all. All the same stressors are there today that were there last week, but they feel so much easier to manage.
I feel like an entirely different person, in the best possible way. I have more energy. I feel motivated – energized. I feel much more calm and centered, as if I can tackle the challenges in my life. It’s like a veil has been lifted. I don’t feel trapped inside my body anymore. I’ve been inspired by several possible writing projects. Rather than staying up until 1am surfing Facebook because I can’t sleep, I’m up, engaged, working on projects.
I went to the doctor today to get her advice. There is a lower-dose pill I could take. Otherwise, the options she laid out are IUD or Depo shots. I was hoping for non-hormonal options, but even those I’ve researched on-line (endometrial ablation or hysterectomy) have the potential for severe negative side-effects. I have a prescription for the lower-dose pill, but I’m not going to start it right away.
I finally feel like myself for the first time in a long time. I’m even starting to question my belief that the first pill I was prescribed had “no negative side effects.” Up until a few weeks ago, I assumed all the symptoms I was experiencing were due to life stressors. And right after I started taking birth control pills, I moved halfway across the country to start graduate school. Talk about stress! Would my graduate school experience have been easier and more joyful without the pill? Would I have had fewer meltdowns about my research? Would I have been less functionally asexual? It’s difficult to say.
I’m going to attempt herbal remedies and supplements, combined with yoga, taking walks, and abdominal massage. I’m sure owners of uterus/vulva/vagina were experiencing symptoms like mine since the dawn of time, and must have had some method for managing them. Pills, shots, patches, and IUDs are relatively recent inventions.
And I don’t want this to come across as negativity about modern medicine. Pills can be beautiful things. But for something like high blood pressure or high cholesterol, doctors also often recommended changes in lifestyle and diet before prescribing medicine. I know there are some conditions which we only know how to solve with pharmeceuticals. But I also think that often the pharmeceutical route is the first thing a doctor recommends. Sometimes I think it is our culture which is making us sick, but rather than change our culture, we attempt to change our chemistry to match what is expected of us.
What does it mean that birth control is lauded as a panacea for all kinds of ills? That owners of uterus/vulva/vagina are expected to take a pill daily for 30 years? And then, if that pill causes depression, to take another daily pill to counteract that? And if those pills cause female hypoactive sexual desire disorder, here’s yet another pill to counteract that (except not)? Women used to be witches, midwives, and healers. Then, a bunch of men created medicine and persecuted the women for their knowledge of plants and bodies. I don’t think all “natural remedies” work, necessarily, but there has to be something to at least some portion of that knowledge. And science as we know it is discovering that some plants do indeed have medicinal properties.
But no one is terribly invested in researching alternatives that aren’t based in synthetic hormones, it seems. Because if women on hormonal birth control become moody, depressed, and not that interested in sex, doesn’t that just reinforce cultural stereotypes about “what women are like” anyway?
I know that birth control has done a lot of good for a lot of women. So I’m not trying to discourage anyone who it helps from taking it. But I have heard the stories of so many women who – like me – seem to experience side-effects which far outweigh any possible benefits. And we are told, by our peers and doctors alike, to just keep trying different pills until one sticks.
But I’ve already lost almost 18 months of my life to this. Closer to four years if it turns out birth control was fucking with me in graduate school, which I may never be able to verify. I’d rather lose two days a month than the next 20-25 years of my life. This is affecting my relationships with other people – both friendships and romantic/sexual connections. It’s affecting my personal well-being and the satisfaction I have with my life. Never experiencing joy again is too high a price to pay.
What does it mean that thousands upon thousands of women experience intensely painful periods each month yet no new research has been done, no new methods of dealing with it created? Yet pharmeceutical companies are trying to push a “female viagra” pill to treat a condition which does not exist. Because our culture does not understand or celebrate female sexuality. So we try to shape it to look more like male sexuality or just shut it down altogether.
As a sex-positive feminist, I want to find joy and pleasure in my own body. Even if that only means platonic touch. Or masturbation. I don’t want to feel this constant disconnect between what my heart craves and what my body will allow me to experience. My partner described it as a chemical straightjacket for my sexuality, and that is a brilliant metaphor. We’re putting women in straightjackets. Because does it really matter to the patriarchy if we’re sexually satisfied?
Again, I’m not saying birth control is wrong for every woman. For some, it may be the best choice. But I believe women have a right to make an educated decision about their lives and their bodies and their sexuality. And I do not believe the current medical establishment facilitates that in any way. On-line message boards are full of women telling horror stories about all the ways various birth control methods have destroyed their sexuality and their health. Yet, in my experience doctors are frequently quite dismissive of any possible negative side-effects of hormonal birth control. This is possibly political, as conservative politicians would love to get rid of the pill if they could.
The pill should be AN option for women. Not THE option.
I’m going to try herbal supplements, tea, yoga, and evening walks, now that it’s heading toward fall in Texas. I will write updates here, in the hopes that what has worked for the women I know and what works for me might help some other woman out there who is also struggling.
Chasteberry, maca, diindolylmethane, red raspberry leaf, rosehips, naproxen, cramp bark, magnesium, omega fatty acids, vitamin B6, black cohosh, primrose oil…….. there will only be anecdotal evidence for all of these. But trust women who have said what works for them. Your experience is evidence, even if it isn’t backed by medical science. These are the remedies I have heard of. I will let you know what I find that works. Let me know in the comments what has worked for you. The Internet can cultivate a resurgence of women’s knowledge for those of us who choose to operate outside the medical system in this respect.