If you've picked up a copy of our latest issue (and if you haven't, you can here) you'll know that our EIC Beccy Hill interviewed Holly Grigg Spall about her incredible research into the contraceptive pill and it's effects on women's mental and physical health. After discovering Holly's work, two members of team Sister decided to chuck hormonal birth control and monitor the results. As it's Mental Health Awareness Week, we thought we'd share our experiences, starting with Rosie Ellis, our online editor.
I've been on the pill since I was 15 years old, and I'm now 26. I've had time off here and there, but in reality I've probably been on the pill for a solid 10 years. That's 10 whole years of putting something into my body without really giving it much thought. I've also been on the anti-depressant Sertraline (Zoloft) for over 8 years and have often felt like I've been walking around in some kind of numb bubble I can't ever seem to burst. As I turned 26 at the end of last year, it was really something that was playing on my mind. I'm always focussed on my mental health, it's a constant work in progress but who am I without these pills inside me? In reality I'd never really been an adult without some form of hormonal suppressant altering my mind and body in one way or another and suddenly that really scared me. One morning Beccy sent me her interview with Holly Grigg Spall for The Strong Issue to proof read, and from that morning I haven't taken a contraceptive pill since. I needed to know more, so Beccy sent me Holly's book Sweetening The Pill and I read it cover to cover that day.
I'm not exaggerating when I say it was as if I'd been asleep and finally woken up.
I couldn't believe the amount of things I'd been ignoring and more importantly the things I'd never once thought to question. The one quote that really hit it home for me was "Considering that women are fertile just six days per menstrual cycle and men are fertile every single day, that the burden of avoiding unwanted pregnancy falls to us, regardless of the burden that might have on our health and wellbeing, is nothing short of sexism." I then went on to read Holly's article from The Guardian which inspired Beccy's article, and the theme of the whole issue. "GPs are less likely to prescribe the pill to women who already have depression and because women who do experience depression on the pill are more likely to stop taking it, this study probably underestimates the potential negative affect that hormonal contraceptives can have on mental health." I was left dumbfounded. How had I never looked into this? Why had my doctor never mentioned it? And how had I not considered that my mental health could be effected with the numerous different contraceptive pills I'd tried over the years? I have an attempted suicide under my belt, have tried numerous forms of counselling referred to by my GP, the same GP who has upped the amount of Sertraline I'm on a few times, yet no one had ever mentioned anything about my pill. So as you can see, I was probably more shocked than most to read Holly and The University of Copenhagen's study, linking depression to the contraceptive pill.
About two months into being pill free I went to see my doctor about something unrelated. At the end of our consultation she was writing me a prescription and asked if I needed my pill added on – I explained I'd actually just come off the pill. I mean her reaction was SOMETHING ELSE. She asked at first if I was trying for a baby - I'm not. Then proceeded to question my decision. I mumbled something about the length of time I'd been on it and that I thought maybe it was time for a break. She then proceeded to tell me that she had three daughters who were all on my pill and that it was by far the 'safest' and if one of her daughters had been on it for over 10 years then so could I. Then gave me two leaflets, one was for the hormonal coil and one for the hormonal implant...
I left feeling embarrassed and annoyed that I hadn't had the confidence to explain my real reasons. But then thought about the fact that I've been seeing this female doctor on and off for years and whenever I had bad side effects to my pill she would always offer me an alternative one. Migraines, dizziness, weight gain, acne breakouts, nausea, lack of appetite, tender breasts....not to mention decreased libido! I mean, I'm no medical professional but surely after 10 years of these varying and profound side effects, condoms seem like the most logical option? Why had a doctor never said to me "Why not try condoms instead?" As Holly frequently points out, condoms are actually the only contraceptive that stop pregnancies and the passing of STI's, yet we seem to have built a fear surrounding them. Of course that's come from countless excuses men love to conjure up which aren't fair ("It doesn't feel as good", "I'm too big", "They're expensive") especially considering that it is their sperm which can get a woman pregnant at any time - another great point made by Holly that I can't believe I'd never questioned!
By the way, I in no way want this article to sound like a bashing to the NHS. It's not. I'm merely sharing my own experience in the hope that it may help someone else and I'm probably bashing myself more for never asking the questions I obviously needed to.
I'm not here to say that I've felt like a new me since coming off the pill, it's definitely been a difficult transition for me. I have Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome so I hadn't had a period since the age of around 20. I actually came off the pill for a short period at the time I was diagnosed when I was 18, but at my follow up appointment they recommended that I go back on the pill and see if that might regulate my periods (FYI, when a doctor tells you this, it's not what the pill does. You don't actually have real periods whilst on hormonal birth control, which is another thing Holly clarifies). It never did. It's been over three months since I last took Cerezette and I've had one very painful and heavy period since. Having my first, let's say, 'natural' period was certainly not pleasurable, but it did fill me with some kind of hope. Maybe this means that I am more fertile than I anticipated?
Apart from feeling a bit teary around my period, during these three months my mood has felt lifted and I have found myself frequenting my anxious bubble of worry less and less. One phrase I can use to describe how I feel now is 'in control' which, when it comes to my own body and my mind, is a feeling I've never been all that familiar with. It's cliché to say that control gives you power but it's cliché for a reason. I'm currently waiting for my Daysy to arrive, a recommendation from Holly which I know will further compliment this autonomy. Being able to potentially monitor when I'm ovulating using my basal temperature feels a whole lot more natural, and without sounding like a complete hippy over here, I truly believe our bodies are well oiled machines that were made to run on their own. We pause our cycles when it suits us but then expect our ovaries to be ready to go when we press play again. Surely that can't be good? From now on I want to trust in my body and listen to it.
In writing this article I questioned if I was a hypocrite because I still take an anti-depressant every morning. And that's when I realised that Sertraline helps to relieve the symptoms of anxiety and depression, it helps to stabilise a medical condition. My fertility is not a medical condition that I need to control with a pill or implanted device. So next time I see my doctor and she asks me what I thought of her leaflets, maybe I'll have the courage to say just that.
illustrations by Jessica Vaughan