Just a little over a month ago now I said I'd stopped taking the pill, for good, after nearly a decade of popping one brand or another. It's been a strange few weeks. Within days of stopping I stepped right into a condom accident freak out. It was barely an accident and most unlikely to have resulted in getting me pregnant, so hardly warranting the stress it caused. I had a miserable day of trying to convince myself I was being unreasonable before giving in and getting the emergency contraceptive pill.
Once I'd taken that, because it wasn't right away I managed to conjure up a fair few pregnancy symptoms in the next week. I notched up nausea, tasting metal in the morning, what I thought was 'implantation' bleeding, cramps and what I can only describe as an over-awareness of my breasts. By the time my period came I was wondering which country I'd want to bring my child up in (Japan or France it seemed).
Even though I'd sworn of the pill under the belief that the build up effect of years of chemicals coursing around my body was clearly making its full impact, I soon popped another pill to try and make my post-pill anxiety, as much as my potential baby, go away. I might be sat here tapping out all these rational, reasoned thoughts but I'm still now struggling with not taking the pill. I guess that helps me to see how important it is to discuss the pill openly, and disagree with that diplomatic immunity it has gained over the years. One moment I'm asking, why are women still taking the pill? And the next I'm eyeing up that Femodette packet waiting in my wash bag.
Some of the changes I was taking to be signals of my pregnancy were likely more to do with my hormone levels figuring back to normal. It felt a bit like a stalled, cold car slowly rumbling to life. Not a romantic image I know. The morning after pill definitely hindered that progress and threw me off balence. In the last few days though I have started to feel different in the way I did a few months back when I experimented with stopping the pill before retreating back again. Stuff tastes better, and feels better - my sense of touch is more sensitive. I don't feel mind achingly tired by 8pm every day. I'm really enjoying just thinking, sitting and thinking thoughts and that leading to other thoughts and on and on. I feel more, not confident, but able to cope - if I feel sad or angry it doesn't overwhelm me, I see my way out of it. Rather than waking up with the feeling that something horrible has happened and I just have to wait until I remember what, I don't feel fearful at all, I feel grounded. I'm intrigued to see where this goes now. I won't be going back this time.
I putting myself through something of a condensed course in women's studies. I've had one of those ding-ding-ding moments with this book Barbara Ehrenreich wrote in the 1970s, 'For Her Own Good.' It explains the history of women through the progress of medicine and psychology. It's brilliant, but mentions the pill just once even though its invention and use completely supports the arguments that are made.
But I'll come back to that, because at the library today I picked up a cheesy looking book called 'It's My Ovaries Stupid!' written by Dr Elizabeth Lee Vleit. It was on the menopause shelf. That this book hardly mentions the pill is actually very useful. Dr Vleit outlines how our ovaries, and the hormones involved in the ovulation cycle, work and what effect they have in the body. So rather than thinking about the cycle from the point of view of how it's effected by taking the pill, I could read how the cycle is meant to function normally.
Many women think, and are told by their GPs, that the pill 'regulates' their natural cycle. This is wrong - the pill stops your natural cycle completely and replaces it with a continuous dose of chemicals created to represent oestrogen and progesterone. The periods you have are not periods at all, but a symptom of withdrawal. That bears repeating. In the 1800s doctors advised that women who were troublesome, argumentative, overtly sexual or too hungry should have an ovariotomy. That's a complete removal of the ovaries. Doctors recorded that women who underwent this surgery were often cured, becoming 'orderly, industrious, cleanly.' The action of the pill can be likened to a modern version of this procedure. Rather than female castration as the ovariotomy was also called, the pill is a chemical castration. The ovaries are shut down, rather than removed.
In 'It's My Ovaries Stupid!' there is a list of changes that occur in the body in direct relation to the hormonal fluctuations of the menstrual cycle:
Blood glucose regulation
Energy levels and sleep patterns
Thyroid and adrenal hormone production
Skin colour, texture
Memory and concentration
Brain wave patterns
Balance, fine motor coordination
Levels of adrenalin
Visual, auditory and olfactory acuity
Concentrations of vitamins
Hormonal fluctuations are flattened out by taking the pill. During a normal cycle the level of estrogen will rise in the first half of the month leading to ovulation, when it will peak, and then levels will drop. Progesterone levels will rise after ovulation and peak in the last week of the cycle. These are significant, dramatic fluctuations. When you take the pill this all stops and is masked with a continuous level of synthetic versions of these hormones with no peaks, and no falls. It is the fluctuations that initiate and regulate all of the above functions, and more. The effect of the pill is not just 'stopping you producing eggs' as that nice doctor once told me.
Reading how hormones work on nearly every organ and tissue in your body makes taking the pill seem like a very crude, aggressive method of contraception. The emotional side effects many women experience from the pill - the tiredness, tearfulness, anxiety attacks, brain fog - and the physical side effects - worsening allergies, migraines, aching joints, hair loss, bladder infections - are the result of the body being thrown completely off balance.