Monday, October 29, 2012

Footloose and pharmaceutical-free?

A quick update here. I am ploughing through the book, working towards an April or May 2013 release. However, I found the time to reflect on a visit to the Catalyst Convention for re:Cycling and to make the suggestion that the self-proclaimed sex-positive take up body literacy:

Footloose and pharmaceutical-free?

Wednesday, August 1, 2012


I realized that it might be helpful to provide a reading list here for those curious to follow me in the learning process that's behind this blog. So, here that is:

'It's My Ovaries, Stupid!' is a good book to start with.

John Guillebaud's 'The Pill and other hormonal contraceptives' is also a good basic read, if a little outdated. Read his wife's introduction too - it's interesting to compare their outlooks!

Elaine Tyler May's 'America and the Pill' is great and thorough with fascinating interviews with 'regular' women.

Miranda Grey's 'The Optimized Woman' - I have loaned this out three times and then bought it again it's so popular.

'The Pill- Are You Sure It's For You?' Alexander Pope and Jane Bennett - great list of books/sources of info in this one.

'In Our Control' from Laura Eldridge follows her personal journey as well as providing a ton of important information.

Susan Rako's 'No More Periods?' - also CEMCOR's website for supporting research and articles. The topic of hormonal contraception is inextricably linked with menstruation so it's also worth reading books about the industry built around menstrual shame - like 'The Curse' by Karen Houppert.

Barbara Seaman's 'The Doctor's Case Against the Pill' and 'The Greatest Experiment Ever Performed on Women.' Of the same era - Elizabeth Draper's 'Birth Control in the Modern World.'

Barbara Ehrenreich's 'For Her Own Good' and 'Remaking Love' are more general on women's health rights and oppression, but brilliant.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

"Lives will be saved": The FDA decision not to ban Bayer's birth control pills

The final decision on drospirenone-containing oral contraceptives.

For the blog re:Cycling I have written a piece on the FDA's final decision on Yaz, Yasmin and other drospirenone-containing birth control pills that was announced last week.

This month I signed a publishing agreement with Zero Books for 'Sweetening the Pill.' I am trying to get my thoughts and feelings on these developments figured out. I've been writing about the birth control pill - and specifically Yasmin - since 2009. I may be cynical and all too aware, but this news still shocks me.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Coming off the Pill - a guide

Could furor over contraception spark a birth control rebellion?

In the past week I have collaborated with Laura Wershler to come up with a response to the currently raging birth control furor. We wanted to produce a considered, practical guide for women fed up with being dismissed and talked over. A plan for action. We're looking for other homes for it too, to get the information out there as widely as possible. But I wanted to post it here as I often get asked by women that are coming off the Pill what they should expect, what the alternatives are, how to access them and although I like to think my blog is riven with that information, it seems like it'd be useful to have it all in one place.

So, here it is:

As politicians, pundits and priests whip the nation into a frenzy over access to birth control, it’s understandable that women of every political affiliation may have had just about enough.
If women are fed up with this furor over contraception, this daily demonstration that their rights to sexual and reproductive self-determination are vulnerable, then maybe now is the time to do something about it: Throw out your pills, rip off your patch, pull out your ring and take back control. There is more to birth control than prescription medications.

One way to take back power from those who would deny, bully or browbeat you is to not need what they are fighting over. This act of rebellion won’t be easy, and it won’t be for everyone. But if you’re mad as hell and not willing to take it anymore, here’s a primer on how it can be done.

Coming off the Pill:

Many of you may have been using hormonal contraceptives for years, perhaps a decade or more -
for most it will be the birth control pill. By coming off the pill, or other hormonal methods, you will be joining an underground revolution. Over the last few years women have been ditching the pill in droves due to unwanted side effects and environmental concerns, or as a result of reassessing, in their late 20s, a choice they may have made back in their mid-teens. These women have taken to the Internet to unearth information, share experiences and gain advice.

Coming off these contraceptives can be a rocky ride – reports of withdrawal symptoms such as acne outbreaks, mood swings and insomnia abound, lasting anywhere between a few weeks to a few months depending on the individual, the type and the length of time that they’ve been taking the drug. Some women find their menstrual cycles do not return or become regular for up to a year, and may feel like they are experiencing a “second adolescence.” Starting the pill in your teens pushed the pause button on your body’s maturation process; coming off synthetic hormones presses the play button, and your body has to pick up where it left off.

But hold your resolve! It is worth the wait.

Look to resources like The Pill: Are You Sure It’s For You? or Coming Off the Pill, the Patch, the Shot and Other Hormonal Contraceptives for information and support on how to manage the transition. You’ll find nutritional advice, practical insight and comforting case studies to help you through what some call a “life-changing” experience. Miranda Grey’s The Optimized Woman gives you an idea of what you have to look forward to when your menstrual cycle returns.

Rebranding the Alternatives:

Condoms hold an undeserved bad reputation for being unreliable and icky. Yet, when used consistently and in conjunction with spermicidal jelly or foam, they are just as effective at preventing pregnancy as hormonal contraceptives. And there are better condoms, advanced in technology and design, than the brands you normally see on drugstore shelves. In Japan, where the pill was only legalized in 1999 and condoms are the primary contraceptive choice, innovation and creativity has led to condom brands such as the top-rated Beyond Seven and Crown, which claim to provide a far more natural, comfortable feel and fit. The added benefit? Condoms are still the only way to protect yourself against STIs – and many of you will have been using them in addition to hormonal methods. Spermicidal gels and foams – Conceptrol, Gynol, Encare – are readily available in stores and online. For those who find that these brands cause irritation and infection, or you just don’t like the chemicals, try the green, clean alternative made by Contragel.

Or, like Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City, get yourself a diaphragm. Once you have been fitted for the correct size at your doctor’s office or Planned Parenthood clinic you can get a prescription to pick one up at a pharmacy or you can buy one online without a prescription. Increased demand from women for this currently little-used, but effective alternative will produce better options and access. Research is underway for a one-size-fits-all diaphragm.

For a full run-down on alternatives to hormonal contraception, read Laura Eldridge’s In Our Control: The Complete Guide To Contraceptive Choices for Women. For many years she worked closely with women’s health activist Barbara Seaman, whose motto rings so true today: “Let’s not start and stop what we have to say about contraception with the Pill.” Eldridge tells the story of how she came off the pill and chose the diaphragm.

You can increase the effectiveness of these methods even more so by becoming aware of your ovulatory cycle and studying the Fertility Awareness Method – more about that later.

Managing Menstrual Cycle Disorders Without the Pill:

If you were taking hormonal contraception to manage serious menstrual problems, you’re no doubt concerned they will return if you stop taking your pills. Yes, the standard medical treatment for such problems has been to prescribe the pill, but there are other treatments that work.

Dr. Jerilynn Prior, a Canadian endocrinologist with over 40 years of clinical practice, has effectively treated a range of menstrual cycle problems without using hormonal birth control. At the website of the Center for Menstrual Cycle and Ovulation Research founded by Prior, you can find information on how to treat heavy bleeding, painful periods, PCOS, ovarian cysts, endometriosis, and amenorrhea. The bonus to this approach is that it can also restore or protect your fertility, meaning if or when you want to get pregnant, you’ll be able to. Prior includes articles on the website for health-care providers that you can print and take to your doctor.

Naturopathic doctors and nutritionists can offer support to ease menstrual symptoms. Alternative therapies for disorders such as endometriosis are also available.

Look for blogs and websites that share tips and information about menstrual cycles. Bloggers write regularly about menstrual cycle and birth control issues.

Return to Ovulation:

When you come off hormonal contraception, your interest in how your menstrual cycle works -what’s normal, what’s not - may increase. And most women coming off the pill want to know if and when they’re ovulating.

Ovulation is a hot topic. Dr. Prior’s work on the protective powers of ovulation is must reading. It seems that contrary to what women are often told about too much ovulation being bad for them, ovulating consistently with each cycle actually protects women’s breast, bone, and heart health. The health benefits of not using hormonal contraception are worth knowing about.

In addition, regaining ovulatory menstruation can increase libido, improve athletic performance, solve digestive problems, and benefit mood disorders.

To fully grasp how a healthy menstrual cycle unfolds read books like Taking Charge of Your Fertility by Toni Weschler, first published in 1995 and long a bestseller. If you’ve got a teenage daughter or younger sister, give her Weschler’s other book — Cycle Savvy:The Smart Teen’s Guide to the Mysteries of Her Body. The pink girly-girl cover harbors subversive content that every girl in America – preppy to punk – should have access too.

Understanding Fertility Awareness:

Fertility awareness, like riding a bicycle, is a life skill. If you can knit a sweater, read a balance sheet, or master French cooking and Adobe InDesign, you can learn to observe, chart and
interpret your menstrual cycle events.

Referred to as natural birth control, the secular Fertility Awareness Method (FAM), and its religious-based counterpart Natural Family Planning (NFP), are based on observing and interpreting scientifically proven signs of fertility to prevent or achieve pregnancy and monitor your reproductive health. FAM is absolutely not the same thing as the ineffective Rhythm Method, which tries to predict fertility based on the length of past cycles.

Don’t believe those who tell you that FAM doesn’t work; women using it can achieve effectiveness rates as high as the pill – 99.4 percent. But unlike Catholic NFP, FAM is pro-choice and incorporates barrier methods, emergency contraception and abortion.

Women who have regular healthy cycles can teach themselves the method for free by downloading the User’s Guide for the Justisse Method of Fertility Awareness or by reading books like Weschler’s Taking Charge of your Fertility and The Garden of Fertility by Katie Singer. You can join online forums for assistance, and download smart phone apps like FemCal Period and Ovulation Tracker to chart your cycles.

You can find certified instructors through the Fertility Awareness Network or Justisse Healthworks, which trains Holistic Reproductive Health Practitioners who teach the Justisse
Method and provide clinical support to women struggling with messed-up cycles. Skype and online webinars offered by orgs like Red Tent Sisters make it possible to connect with a FAM teacher no matter where you live.

Retooling Relationships:

Talk to your partner, boyfriend, husband or lover about planning for a hormonal contraceptive-free future. If you’re single you should know that using the Fertility Awareness Method in conjunction with condoms with added spermicide during your fertile phase has been shown to be 98.2% effective at preventing pregnancy – so it’s just as suitable for the one-night stand as the committed relationship.

Generally, women report an increased libido when they come off the pill, but if you've been on it for your entire relationship it’s possible you’ll feel differently towards your partner. Your body's natural hormone cycle plays a part in physical attraction.

For men, too, hormonal birth control has long provided a sense of reassurance for spontaneous, worry-free sex, and so it is important to discuss with your partner the effectiveness and ease of use of other methods. Perhaps he’s never liked condoms - shop around and have fun trying out different kinds like the Beyond Seven and Crown barely-there brands. If you’re following FAM and in a monogamous relationship, you won’t need condoms when you’re not fertile.

Partners may benefit in other ways: Many women are more responsive to sex once free of synthetic hormones. If, to be super-safe, you want to avoid penetrative sex during your fertile phase, get creative. Use this time to explore the imaginative and the experimental.

If you chart your menstrual cycle, involve your partner, so that he, too, can be aware of the days that you are fertile. Do your own study – find out if your guy can hear (in your tone of voice) and smell when you are ovulating. Knowing that you can only get pregnant during these days will allay his anxieties, as it does your own. Sharing this new experience can bring you closer and foster intimacy.

Some guys get a geeky satisfaction out of their new understanding. In fact, Ernest Hemingway – the ultimate man’s man – charted his first wife’s cycle on the wall of their Paris apartment.

Taking back control:

For decades, women have been quitting hormonal contraception for various personal and health reasons. With the ongoing culture war over contraception, it remains to be seen how many might be compelled to give it up for political reasons, taking back control of their bodies from politicians, pundits, priests and drug companies.

Laura Wershler is a pro-choice sexual and reproductive health advocate and writer who has volunteered or worked for organizations affiliated with International Planned Parenthood Federation for 25 years. She supports increased awareness of and access to non-hormonal contraceptive methods.

Ovarian Gang Sign:

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Why can't we criticize the Pill?

This week I've written a piece for the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research's blog, re:Cycling, regarding the difficulty of criticizing the Pill at a time when the Republican front runner in the Presidential race is calling for a ban on contraceptives. It's an issue I've long tried to figure out. There were some very interesting comments in response to this post.

'Why Can't We Criticize the Pill?'

Dr Jerilynn Prior of CEMCOR asked, "When will The Pill no longer be a sacred cow for industry, for physicians and for women?"

Jacqui added, "You have to hand it to the pharmaceutical companies: they are that good at what they do. We have been and still are sliced and diced by these guys. They have the entire game stitched up so that they make the rules, they effectively control the so-called independent bodies that are supposed to regulate them, and with only a small percentage of doctors reading independent medical literature – 10% is the statistic in Switzerland – and presumably only reading what the pharmaceuticals send them, it feels like EVERYONE is on Team Pill except the few people like Holly speaking out."

Last week, in the wake of Obama's so-called 'compromise' on religious employers providing free birth control through their insurance policies to employees, the Washington Post asked me whether I thought the fight over access to birth control was distracting us from considering the potential health risks of the Pill and other hormonal contraceptives. Here's the article that came out of that:

'Obama birth control compromise distracts from issue of whether the pill is safe, activists say.'

Of course, I don't think the religious Right is the only obstacle that is stopping us criticizing the Pill - I think the power of the pharmaceutical companies is a far bigger factor, otherwise in the UK and Europe the debate would be more open and honest than here in the US, and it is not.

It's just interesting to me, and disturbing admittedly, how little concern has been shown over Yaz and Yasmin dabacle considering the sheer number of women effected and involved in law suits. That Rick Santorum is out there wanting to do away with all contraception, at this particular time, I think is one reason behind this, but I don't think I could say it would be any different if this information about Yaz had come out last year instead.

As I have written about in this blog - the position of the Pill, I believe, has to do with ingrained historical and social concepts of women and women's bodies, it has to do with misogyny within the medical industry, it has to do with how women see themselves and how they are willing to change themselves, it has to do with support for women using the Pill being built into the structure of our society.

Consider that there is no direct-to-consumer advertising in the UK or Europe, plus for the most part birth control is free through a national healthcare system. The power of the pharmaceutical industry is not as obvious and overt, although it is still present in the companies' relationships with doctors. But they do not receive visits at their surgeries from representatives plugging certain products. The industry's influence has to be more subtle, more undercover. And yet women are prescribed and take the Pill just as enthusiastically in these countries.

There is so much more behind this silence.

I added these thoughts as an addendum to my piece for re:Cycling:

The power of the pharmaceutical industry is a major factor in this issue. Doctors are massively influenced by money, research and advertising by the workings of this industry. Its primary aim is not to save lives or alleviate suffering – but to make money. Saving lives and alleviating suffering are essentially by-products of this drive. The concept of suffering and illness is stretched and manipulated in order to create voids that can be filled with profit-making medications.

The Pill has a huge market – all women that are fertile and want to avoid pregnancy and now these days all women who are fertile and want to avoid acne, moodiness for a few days a month, bloating before their period, periods in entirety….

I frequently consider other pills that have been revealed as dangerous and the reaction there was to them. I compare and contrast, and see that SOME pills are considered critically. But often the machine makes it seem like we have a need that is more pressing than potential side effects.

I recall Seroxat/Paxil – the anti-depressant that can make young people more depressed and suicidal – and there the debate went along the lines of…well how do we know if it’s the drug doing this or if it’s just the person’s natural state? Even when a mildly depressed person suddenly wants to jump off a cliff. And when people complained that when they tried to come off of the drug they had horrible withdrawal symptoms – and people were committing suicide – the answer given by the industry was – well, don’t come off it then! This all seems very similar to the Pill – it makes women depressed, anxious, it makes them have flu-like symptoms, adrenal fatigue – well, how do we know? They’re taking it for much of their fertile lives, so maybe this is just normal changes that would happen anyway. And they have withdrawal symptoms coming off of the Pill? Well, don’t come off then! – until you want a baby and then we as an industry can send you in the direction of infertility drugs, and they’ll sort you out.

Just like with drugs for psychological disorders there are some people who really, truly benefit from taking them – it totally stops them suffering and turns their lives around – but for a big middle section of people (those with mild depression, grieving, issues that need to be helped through therapy – or for the Pill say, those with slightly heavy periods, some pain, those who just have light, regular periods) drugs that you take every day are not the answer – but they ARE the answer for an industry looking to increase its market. I understand, for example, that some people with, say, ‘attention deficit disorder’ really benefit from a drug (I assume they do) – but there are tons of adults, and children, who have mild concentration issues, are not being attended to at school properly, are doing a job that doesn’t satisfy them, who are going through a difficult phase, for which drugs are not the right choice. The industry’s aim is to open up markets, open up markets and find new customers.

Yet I see a lot more critical thinking out there in regards to psychiatric medications than in discussion of hormonal contraceptives. So there’s more at play here. The threat of the Religious right, yes. But more than that. As I write about in my blog – acceptance of the Pill, enthusiasm for the Pill, I believe comes from ingrained historical and social concepts of women and women’s bodies, and from the resulting willingness of women to change and behave in certain ways in response to these concepts.

In response, Heather D. summed it up with - "There are larger gender issues involved here... (we can) link this to larger issues of women being accustomed to molding themselves for others’ gazes and purposes. Therefore this is about large-scale ideological forces as well as large-scale economic and political forces."

Those that are criticizing the Pill are immediately tagged as having a religious agenda. They are dismissed because the religious Right is the only group of people that are given a voice and a platform - or that takes that platform by force. Those, like me, who have very reasoned concerns about hormonal contraceptives are lumped in with the group that takes up the most column inches in the papers. In a sense, it's an easy and simple explanation for any criticism used by those who have not done much thinking about the Pill. It works to elevate the Pill's position even higher, and to undermine even the most scientific and least religious arguments. Putting us all in the category of 'crazy' allows everyone to stop thinking about what we're actually saying.

It's an odd experience to watch Jon Stewart, say, or Bill Maher or Rachel Maddow take the populist stance in protection and praise of hormonal contraceptives. I don't expect to know better than them.

There are plenty of women coming off the Pill, and plenty of women who have vowed to never use it again, and many who try to talk to their friends about the potential health issues but we, as a group, can't find our footing and get organized when we feel the need to be guarded against accusations of Catholicism and misogyny. It's a fight for sure, but it's a fight worth having.

Thursday, February 9, 2012


'Just how safe is Yaz? Women need to know!'

Today Ms. magazine posted a piece I wrote regarding recent developments surrounding Yaz and Yasmin. As I outline here, and to quickly precis - it has been discovered in the last couple of months that Bayer intentionally hid research regarding the drugs' blood clot-causing risks. Multiple pieces of new research have shown these two birth control pills, and any of the generic kinds that contain the same synthetic progesterone - drospirenone, hold a risk of causing the women using them to develop a blood clot at a rate that is 50% to 75% higher than other birth control pills. The FDA called for a reappraisal. The decision made by a panel of advisers to the FDA had the potential to take Yaz and Yasmin off the market. The panel voted by a slim margin to keep the pills available, stating that the benefits outweighed these risks. An independent watchdog group - POGO - investigated and found that at least four of the advisers had significant financial ties to Bayer (the pharmaceutical company that makes Yaz and Yasmin). Anyway, I'll let you read the piece at Ms. as I explain it far more clearly. But I would like to post a link to the letter written by representatives of POGO to the FDA which outlines this finding, and more:

POGO Letter

There has been very little media coverage. The Washington Monthly published this very thorough article:

'The Yaz Men.'

Otherwise, there was Jezebel, the women's issues-orientated blog. The only other feminist or female-centric blog I could find that covered this story. I would have been pleased if they hadn't written something so very arrogant and ignorant.

'New FDA Decisions Don't Mean Birth Control Is Killing You.'

Right within the first paragraph the Jezebel writer claims to be more concerned (and angry, apparently) that there was ANY coverage of the FDA reappraisal and the findings regarding the blood clot risks, than that this massively important information on one of the most popular birth control pills had been at first covered up and then disregarded. According to this piece we should have all just shut up and kept quiet about our concerns over Yaz. All the women that suffered with blood clots - and as a result heart attacks and strokes - should have kept their problems to themselves. The families of the women who died should have stayed silent. Why? Because talking about Yaz and Yasmin having a 50% to 75% higher likelihood of seriously injuring or killing you than other birth control pills is going to make women stop taking the Pill. And women who stop taking the Pill become pregnant. So women like this one here:

'My Birth Control Gave Me A Pulmonary Embolism.'

Well, according to Jezebel, they just don't deserve the attention. I was horrified to read this piece. I couldn't believe Jezebel could publish and support such backward logic. I'm so angered by this post that I hate to even link to it here. Jezebel doesn't fully explain exactly what the new findings on these drugs say, the writer just skips right to telling us that we shouldn't be worried because all things considered pregnancy holds a much higher risk of giving you a blood clot.

Like I've said in my Ms. piece this suggests that there are only two states of being women get to live in - pregnant or on hormonal birth control. Strange that, as I've lived in an entirely different state - still fertile, not pregnant, not even a scare, and using condoms,spermicide and fertility awareness for my birth control. Non-hormonal methods of contraception hold no risk of blood clots. None. But I saw not one article remark on these alternatives. Surely if we are so worried that women will be scared into coming off the Pill then we should at least educate them on their other choices to prevent pregnancies? Instead, Jezebel decides we all just need to stop criticizing the Pill. We shouldn't let women know the dangers involved. They're too dumb to understand fully and they'll just go and get pregnant - is Jezebel's message. Talk about 'Trust Women' ! - this is the name of a new campaign advocating access to birth control.

The writer decides that Jezebel is not 'the media' (which is talked about more and more so as though it were a entirely separate entity to society and not just a bunch of people working jobs like writing and editing and living in the same world as everyone else). 'The media' - this piece says - is unable to convey information in a 'non-hysterical' fashion. If 'the media' is hysterical then I think Jezebel fits right in. What could be more reactionary and hysterical of a supposed feminist blog than saying, in the wake of very important findings regarding a very popular drug used solely by women, to say we should all just shut up about it because otherwise we'll have an unwanted baby epidemic on our hands. Rather than presenting the information and considering that perhaps the reason women come off the Pill and get pregnant accidentally as a result is because they are not properly informed of all their choices and have little to no body literacy as a result of the Pill hegemony.

Jezebel doesn't think there's anything 'scandalous' about these drugs. The writer mixes up moral objections to birth control with practical, real world, actual scientific findings that are making an important point about one particular kind of birth control that many, many women use. In conclusion, she says that criticism of the Pill plays into the hands of far-right wingers who want to ban it. It's true that the neo-conservatives are preventing women from understanding their choices. The conservatives are preventing accurate information coming out, yes, but they're having a lot of help from writers like this who are doing the exact same thing. The conservatives are doing it to supposedly protect women from sex, and protect society from sex, and the Jezebel feminists are doing it because? They love the Pill unconditionally? They want to protect women from real knowledge of their own bodies? They are just plain hell-bent on stopping unwanted pregnancies no matter what the cost? That's funny, because I think there are conservatives who believe that's what they're doing too.

I do happen to find the Pill 'morally objectionable' and I am not a neo-con or far right-winger. I have an agenda. Jezebel tries to pretend it does not. My agenda is to raise awareness of the potential negative physical and emotional impact of the birth control pill. It is to make women aware this is not their only choice. It is to ask that women view the Pill with a critical eye and not just swallow the mostly falsified information they receive through doctors, teachers and yes, 'the media.' That includes you, Jezebel.

I was heartened to read the comments on this blog post, published by a website advocating the use of clean, environmentally-friendly cosmetics:

'What's Your Take On The Pill and What Happens When You Go Off It?'

I found it interesting that they included such a cautious disclaimer and introduction to the post. Although I don't 'judge' anyone who takes birth control pills (hey, I took them myself for ten years!), I do reserve the right to be as dogmatic as I want to be. In fact, I think considering the cacophony of voices promoting hormonal birth control, singing its praises and even sending out misleading half-truths in a bid to blind women - I take it as my absolute responsibility to rage loudly and as often as I can. I have for guest blog posts been asked to temper my views and I don't like to precisely because I feel the pro-Pill brigade (and by pro I mean zealously enthusiastic as a rule) don't need any of the help they'll gain by me being wishy washy about my thoughts.

That said, this post was heartening as many women offered sound advice for how to cope with coming off the Pill. Particularly regarding the blogger's concern of increased acne. This is what women need - open, honest discussion about how the Pill effects their lives. I have often heard women say their main fear for coming off the Pill is the return of acne. I myself struggled with this. I still do. I am in the process, two years off the Pill, of cleaning out my diet to address lingering issues. However, I know that if bad skin is the price to be paid for not being on the Pill - considering how brilliantly improved the rest of my life has been as a result - I can get by. I find it interesting that these women seem to have arrived at the decision to come off the Pill via an interest in healthy diet and environmentalism. For me, it seems to be the other way around - once I came off the Pill I started looking critically at the rest of what I was putting in and on my body. I started wondering what other half-truths I had been fed. I started looking into the health benefits I'd assumed - not without help - to be found in meat and dairy, for example. I am now vegan.

The writer says she was on the Pill for two years and decided to come off. She explains why:

"The best way I can put it is, I sort of felt like a prisoner in my own body. I’m not sure why, and no, I can’t elaborate, but something never felt quite right. It was FINE. But FINE has never been all that appealing to me."

She also didn't have her period for a year after coming off. This happens to so many more women than the explanations suggest. I read again and again how the Pill doesn't impact beyond the time you stop taking it. To be honest, I sometimes feel that somewhere between its chemical impact and the psychological pathways it built in my brain, I will never be the person I would have been if I hadn't taken the Pill. When you spend so long anxious, depressed and paranoid - the synapses in your mind become fused to make you react to certain situations in a way that is more stressy than is strictly necessary. It's like, you come off the Pill and THEN you also have to deprogram yourself from all the behaviours you'd come to use to cope with how the Pill made you feel.

However in the last two years I have changed jobs several times, most recently taken on more responsibility than I've had in any position previously, got and stayed married, moved to a city I'd only visited for one week and all without having a nervous breakdown. I think this suggests what I experienced when on Yaz was not due to stressful circumstances. That I was taking Yaz when I was racked with fear, dread and anxiety was not a coincidence. I'm going to say, and I'll keep on saying it (loudly, so Jezebel can hear through their arrogant bubble) that coming off the Pill was one of the best decisions of my life. My experience of life has entirely changed for the better. I would never take the Pill again.

This week I called up one of the main lawyers involved in the 10,000 law suits against Bayer. I called up the US Drug Watchdog group. They both said they could not believe there was not more of an outcry over the FDA ruling that Yaz and Yasmin's benefits outweigh their risks. Especially considering the corruption that helped this decision come about.

Let's quickly recap that these drugs prevent pregnancy with the same effectiveness as all other birth control pills. So, the FDA was saying which benefits of these drugs exactly outweigh the risks? Their ability to clear up acne and prevent bloating? Because if so, that is ridiculous.

I said in response that I knew too well why there wasn't an outcry and it had to do with no coverage in magazines or on TV, sure, but it also had to do with the fact that we're not allowed to talk about it. We are not allowed to criticize the Pill - and that includes Yaz and Yasmin - and that includes even if they injure and kill women. Thank you Ms. for publishing my post. Please share it around. Not for my ego, but because it is vitally important.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Constructive criticism

There have been two very important and insightful events in the last couple of months. The FDA investigation into Yaz I will be writing on this week, once my piece for the Ms. blog has been published. Today the pharmaceutical company Pfizer announced a recall on one million packets of their birth control pills. Errors during processing caused these packets to have inactive sugar pills placed out of sequence - putting women at risk of becoming pregnant. I was quoted for The Washington Post health blog this morning (quotes taken from a piece published on the 50th anniversary of the Pill):

'Pfizer recall the newest troubling development around birth control.'

I was then contacted by the writer for my reaction to this event. I am happy to see this article draw attention back to the Yaz debacle as it is otherwise being conveniently hustled out of sight. Here is how I responded:

Although I feel anxious for those women who will be effected by the Pfizer recall (and I ask, who will help with the ensuing medical costs of those who do get pregnant? Will there be compensation for those wanting an abortion but not those who decide to continue with the pregnancy?), I do hope that this event puts women using birth control pills back in touch with the reality of taking a pill every day. I hope it reminds us all that the Pill is a drug (and a product of a billion dollar industry) and should as such be viewed with a critical eye. Women are encouraged by medical authorities and society as a whole to take a powerful drug every day, often for a decade or more, often from when they are in their teens. We need to discuss this fact and ask why.

Much discussion skirts around the reality of the Pill - see for example the recent 'new' research reported as finding that the Pill treats period pain. The Pill does not prevent period pain, the Pill prevents periods. Many women do not even know this, they do not know the bleeding that occurs inbetween packets is a withdrawal bleed and not menstruation. They believe the Pill regulates periods, when it does not. I think considering there are millions of women on this drug that this situation seriously questions the validity of their assumed informed consent.

What is interesting to me here is that in the reports on the Yaz findings it was emphasized that there are far more health risks involved in being pregnant than being on the Pill. In the reports on the Pfizer recall the emphasis is that the pills hold no 'safety risks.' Well, which is it? Either pregnancy is a safety risk, a state that is bad for your health, an illness to be avoided - as is so often emphasized by medical authorities and surrounding media in birth control discussions, or it is not. We cannot manipulate truths and half-truths to produce propaganda for the Pill and hormonal contraceptives as a whole. If women who have taken the drug can get pregnant accidently well within the usual logic of these discussions the pills do hold a safety risk. And again, who is going to compensate them for the risks involved in any ensuing pregnancies that the women decide to go through with? Pfizer?

Of course women do not only have two states of existence to choose from - pregnancy or on the Pill. If women are scared into coming off the Pill, as many will fear, by these reports on Bayer and Pfizer's products and they get pregnant as a result this only goes to show how women are not being given proper information about alternative contraception methods. There are alternatives and some are as, if not more, effective at preventing pregnancy. And all of them hold far fewer health risks than hormonal contraceptives.

I hope women are led to question their trust of the Pill because of these events. I hope that we as a society are forced to take the Pill off its pedestal and elevate the non-hormonal alternatives, make them more visible and talk honestly about their use and reliability. I hope women consider educating themselves about their bodies. Understanding their own cycle is key to prevention of unwanted pregnancy whatever method of contraception they choose to use. The dominance of the Pill over alternatives in birth control discussion does in itself cause women to take it incorrectly, miss pills, become pregnant, precisely because they are so often kept in the dark as to the reality of how it works on their body and how their body works. The information most often available is always misleading and slanted - I believe to support the billion dollar pharmaceutical industry that has been getting an easy ride on its most widely used medications for far too long.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

"Less stressed, thinner and more interested in sex."

'Off the Pill, Off the Magazines.'

I've written another guest post for re:Cycling - the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research's blog. It is a great source of information and alternative opinions regarding periods, the Pill and body politics in general.

As you'll see, the title quote comes from a doctor responding to the question - how would I be different if I hadn't taken the Pill for the last ten years?

In my own experience coming off the Pill made me swap celebrity news and diet tips for the New Yorker and the Atlantic. On the Pill, these magazines were cheering; off the Pill they are either boring or depressing. When I was on the Pill I was always looking for something outside of myself to make me feel better and for answers as to why I felt so low and anxious. I had thought it was down to my life lacking in comparison to those celebrated in the magazines. I didn't consider it might be to do with the birth control I was using. On the Pill I couldn't concentrate or think clearly enough to enjoy an essay, now I will tear through an issue of them in a day. And then turn around and try to write my own.

Update: I will soon be posting here on the latest developments on Yaz - an FDA appraisal, the revelation of industry ties - which I am currently working on for a women's activist website. In the meantime, it has been discovered that the pharmaceutical company behind Yaz - Bayer - paid the women's magazine Allure to include a feature advocating Yaz in one of its issues in the first months of the drug's release. I don't think I'm a conspiracy theorist for suggesting that if they paid Allure, they probably paid other magazines too. I distinctly remember seeing Yaz mentioned in UK women's magazines which don't even hold direct-to-consumer drug adverts.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

"and that the Pill robbed me of six years of my life."

I find it very...eerie I guess would be the right word...that many women share the exact same experiences when taking the Pill. The sense of fear and dread, the same paranoid thoughts of impending violence and destruction, the suspicion, the inability to be creative.

My friend Suzanne's story shares a lot of similarities with my own, and with the story of the woman I quoted in my last post. I feel it lends support, if more were needed by the still skeptical, that it is the Pill that is behind these psychological issues and not just the dramas of each woman's individual life experiences as I have often heard argued.

Suzanne told me her story soon after I made my decision to come off the Pill - I was going through difficult withdrawal symptoms both physical and mental and she gave me much support although at the time we did not know each other very well. I took comfort in the fact that she had gone through this too, and was now well. I also found comfort and strength in her ability, as a creative writer by profession, to capture her experience with a very expressive and thoughtful choice of words. I often find myself using her turns of phrase to describe to others the potential impact of the Pill. In describing her feelings so eloquently she allowed me to place my own and then take control over these feelings and not let them run wild with my sense of self and sanity. I too had at one point considered I was developing a mental illness, so severe was my emotional breakdown. Talking with Suzanne helped me understand which parts of my experience were me and which were down to the Pill.

I have been off the Pill for just over two years now. During that time I have moved cities, living many miles away from my family and my closest friends, and had three job changes (far more upheaval and drama than I experienced during my worst time on the Pill, with Yasmin). I have felt calm and clear-headed and confident throughout this time. I plan on soon detailing a comparison of my reactions and feelings between my time on the Pill and my time off the Pill, as precisely as I can. But for now, I will let Suzanne take over, and just say that I am constantly delighting in my current Pill-free sense of well-being. Suzanne:

"I went on the birth control pill Ortho-Micronor in the autumn of 1991. I was eighteen and in my first serious sexual relationship, so terrified of getting pregnant I didn’t worry about any possible side effects, except maybe blood clots.

My mom became pregnant with me in 1973 after reading an article about a woman her age dying of a blood clot attributed to taking the older pills with much higher doses of hormones. Once my doctor reassured me that blood clots were rare, especially in someone my age, I started on the pill.

I had no idea what I was signing up for.

I never had bad skin, but my doctor put me on Ortho-Micronor, touting its ability to clear up acne. Within a month of taking the pill, my skin started to look different. It began to develop a dewy sheen, as if I lived in a perpetual state of afterglow. I enjoyed this new, fresh look and didn’t notice anything much different about the rest of my body, except for the fact that I stopped wanting to have sex with my boyfriend.

My libido died. And I was still technically a teenager. It wasn’t so much that I wasn’t attracted to him anymore. The thought of having sex just literally never entered my mind.

At the six-month point of being on Ortho-Micronor I started to lose weight. Of course I saw this as another unexpected bonus, dropping thirty pounds in the course of a year. What looked near anorexic to other people I interpreted as sexy, young, light. Except I was also losing my hair in large clumps when I showered.

After a year on the pill I switched boyfriends. This new boy loved to travel, but I was finding it hard not to feel paranoid almost constantly. I had stopped writing, which is the art form I decided to pursue in my life, stopped having any creative thoughts at all, stopped seeing friends, having sex. I felt afraid everywhere we went that we would either get in a fatal car accident or be murdered. I had never had thoughts like this in my life and was afraid I was exhibiting early signs of schizophrenia.

Once my periods became erratic even on Ortho-Micronor, I went off the pill and realized I wasn’t even attracted to my boyfriend anymore. I didn’t relate or find pleasure with his body, his scent, his way of moving through the world. We broke up. He accused me of becoming demanding and of acting crazy. I cried all the time. For no reason at all.

I went back on the pill in 2006 right before getting married. I was afraid of relying on condoms, and they seemed to be a barrier between my soon-to-be husband and I. I craved intimacy, and felt condoms stood in the way of that. It seemed ridiculous to marry a person and never even know what his body felt like moving inside of me.

This time, at thirty-two, the doctor prescribed a pill with a different combination of hormones - Ortho-Novum. I was nearing the age of concern over blood clots. Right away, in less than a month of taking this new pill, I felt awful. Bloated. Sad all the time. Not only did I lose my libido again, sex became extremely painful. So painful I could only tolerate having intercourse the one week a month I was off the pill. Sometimes sex made me bleed, my body felt so delicate. I could not be touched anywhere on my body without feeling overly sensitive. Oral sex became the only thing that felt bearable, and even that didn’t afford the pleasure I was used to before taking the pill. My own scent changed. I didn’t smell or feel sexual anymore.

My husband and I had this nightly ritual of listening to the Coast-to-Coast Radio Show in bed before falling asleep. I have always loved shows about aliens, monsters, those things that go bump in the night. While I was taking this new pill I again felt paranoid, like I was literally losing my mind. My husband looked at me with deep concern when I told him not to camp in the desert anymore for fear that he might be abducted by aliens. But if he dared bring up going off the pill, trying to hold me and reassure me that sex was wonderful with condoms and that he could not tell a huge difference either way, I accused him of being grossly insensitive, then cried myself to sleep.

Again I stopped writing, which by this point had become my occupation. I have no real memory of those years year on the new pill except sort of floating through them, dissociated from both my body and my mind.

I decided to go off the new pill when I developed break-through bleeding and read that, in rare instances, one can become pregnant even while on the pill. I instantly missed the intimacy of not having to use condoms, but I felt, after a month of coming off the pill, which included night sweats, insomnia, crying jags and strange resentment towards everyone, that I was regaining my sense of self.

The pill had caused me to fold in on myself, to become a zombie instead of a functioning woman. I learned to understand what being fertile feels like, that the times I felt sexual or didn’t were normal, cyclical, and that the suppression of hormones by taking the pill had robbed me of six years of my life.

I feel like I was frozen in time those years I took the pill. I have regained my sexuality and my sanity. Even though my regular menstrual cycle returned within a few months, it took about a year to feel normal again.

The most insidious aspect of being on the pill is the fact that, while on it, I didn’t even realize anything was wrong. I was irrational and reactive, could not remember that sex isn’t supposed to hurt, that it is abnormal to feel a sense of constant and persistent dread, and that my husband being abducted by aliens out in the desert is the least of my daily concerns."

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Occupy Yourself

As I posted recently I wrote a piece for feminist blog The F Bomb regarding specifically teenage women and their decision to take the Pill. I received some quite aggressive criticism from one commenter that made me very thoughtful about why I have not posted on this blog for around a year. Essentially her main argument was that my experience had no significance. Here's a quote:

"(Your) experiences don’t belong in this article as any kind of evidence towards a broader social/ medical problem for every girl, so I hope you just intended it as unnecessary back story. The way you made your personal decisions has little to do with anyone else."

Also -

"You’ve especially avoided facing the realization that your personal experiences have nothing to do with anyone else."

More significant, in her view, is the pharmaceutical companies' research. Despite the fact that the reason the company behind Yaz was recently scrutinized is that a large number of individual women's experiences of blood clots and the resulting health problems, as a consequence of taking Yaz, came to light. It was discovered that the company - Bayer - had covered up findings that the progesterone used in this Pill - drospirenone - held, in its make up and ratio to the estrogen component, an increased risk of producing blood clots. However unsound the argument against the importance of personal experience, I had to acknowledge it is this particular brand of criticism that has deterred me for months from writing on the Pill.

I didn't believe any less in the validity of my position - and I was getting and still do get emails from women frequently who have had very similar experiences to me (which I hope to soon share here) - but I was told over and over that my thoughts have no significance without a medical background for support, and without citable published research. Of course, if we had lots of citable published research on the direct emotional and psychological impact of the Pill - well, then I wouldn't need to be writing this blog. Even as the F Bomb commenter was arguing her point, someone else detailed their own story in this comment:

"I stopped taking the Pill because I was single and simply didn’t feel like renewing my prescription. Within that same month or two I started feeling really positive, awake, and alive. It was so dramatic that people around me noticed the change. I eventually realized that this burst of joy – which has not subsided in the three years I have been off the Pill – synced up with when I quit the Pill. I had been depressed for so long that I did not even know I was depressed. I thought that I was just an unhappy person."

My decision to stop taking the Pill was instigated by my reading the experiences of other women in forums and on comments boards. The lack of articles in magazines I read that criticized the Pill, alongside the consistent qualification of any research that did surface in the newspapers regarding negative effects with a hasty celebration of the Pill's otherwise resounding goodness is a huge part of why I kept taking the Pill long after it had truly turned on me and ruined my physical and mental health. If there had been other voices out there I may have questioned my decision to blame myself for my radical change in personality and endless illnesses earlier on and saved myself, and those around me, from a lot of suffering.

Although I have never pushed my views on friends in conversation - although most are aware of how I feel about the Pill - a number of friends and acquaintances have come off the Pill since I started this blog, often several months after I first mentioned my experience to them. In all cases the change has been positive. I plan to have some of them share their stories here too. One acquaintance (we went to high school together), who got in touch way back when I first started writing on this subject and whose comment that coming off the Pill was for her 'life-changing' really set me on the path to produce this blog, recently wrote to me to fill out her experience further. Here's what she said:

"I feel so strongly about this, but I haven't managed to convince any of my friends re: my experiences of coming off the Pill.I'm sure you've read that news story that reported that women on the Pill are attracted to different men than women who are not on the Pill? When I read this it TOTALLY confirmed my experiences of being on the Pill and I really think it's REALLY scary, that we could choose our life partners based on fake hormones that skew who we're attracted too.I think the report also said that women on the Pill are less satisfied with their sex lives, and this too confirms what I went through. When I exclaim to friends and family about this, (especially friends in long term relationships, on the Pill and dissatisfied with sex life - a recurring theme)no-one seems to care or believe me, so reading this was like YES!

I'd been on the Pill for 10 years, having originally been prescribed it for my teenage acne, then I carried on taking it for extra double strength contraception - but without thinking about or knowing about possible side effects. Then when I was 26, I suddenly decided I'd had enough. I think it was hitting the 10 year mark that did it. I felt like a cloud had been lifted, as if before I had been living in black and white and now i was living in full colour. I know this sounds mad, but it felt like I was just more alive. I also had these feelings of being more womanly, more attractive and more sexual and sexually powerful. People commented that I had blossomed and it really felt like that too. I just felt things more, more feelings of lust especially.

What I found most surprising was that I also felt so much more creative. I am a textile designer, and it felt like all my creative juices were flowing, so I wonder if there is a link between hormones, sexual feelings and creativity? I don't know but I really did feel like I'd been awakened creatively too. That is how I would describe the experience of coming off the pill - an awakening. And feeling really alive. And I would never go back on it, as I want to experience the real me. I must say my PMT is REALLY obvious now but I kind of love that, as I relish really feeling the true experience of the rhythm of my cycle."

This one young woman's brief comment on my blog spurred me on to keep documenting my experience of coming off the Pill, to hunt down some space in a national newspaper for my story and seek out interview opportunities. I like to think that for every one woman who emails me saying she was inspired to come off the Pill, that there are many more who got up the courage to do so too.

As we enter this new year I believe there is a perfect storm brewing for a real reassessment of what the Pill is truly doing for us. The Occupy Wall Street movement expressed and spread sentiments that I'd previously only heard from those deemed radical in their politics. People are questioning institutions that many have always felt were working to protect us. Of course, they should be working for our good but they aren't. The food industry is coming under scrutiny with more and more people turning away from meat and dairy in protest of its reckless disregard for not only our health, but the environment. Doubts once kept to the margins are becoming mainstream. It's the right time to question the Pill - and the pharmaceutical industry as a whole - and see the Pill for what it really is - a product.

Again and again I hear from women who say the Pill made them feel disconnected, repressed, deadened. Through reconnecting with our bodies, and as such our selves we are in a better position of connecting with others, and with the natural world. This connection is vital for any changes to be made to reverse the damage being done by the institutions that have revealed their agenda. On the Pill I felt divorced from my reality, and from reality as a whole. I was shut off, behind a veil, muted. I was in no state to do anything more than deal day to day with the stress and strain even the slightest conflict caused in me. The recent appraisal of Bayer for its promotion of Yaz has revealed its agenda, and it doesn't include helping or protecting women.

Ridding myself of the Pill made me ask a lot more questions about the rightness of many of the things I have been told throughout my life. A culture supported my decision to take the Pill, even when it was making me sick. I'd always been more aware than most, I thought, but for this I was easily kept in the dark. I was brought up to question institutions. Many people start with worrying over what they eat, and then turn to the tablet they take every day. For me, it was the other way around - I stopped the Pill two years ago and only now I'm understanding such things as milk isn't actually the only source of calcium and that meat is not an essential source of protein. Other things too, knowledge that I think is always there within us, but somehow gets submerged.

There's a phrase going around right now - Occupy Yourself. To some it seems to mean being vigilant, conscious, aware of your place in the world. For others it means critically analyzing the thoughts and beliefs you've long held in your own mind to be true - in the same way occupying wall street is drawing attention to the problems within this system. Like Descartes said, take out all the apples and examine them for rotten parts before putting them back in the basket. I had to examine my long held beliefs about my body, my femininity and my cycle - and write them out in this blog - to be able to get off and stay off the Pill and understand why this was so important for me. The quote 'Be the change you want to see in the world' means to me something slightly altered in that when I was on the Pill I felt stagnant - physically, mentally, emotionally - I could not progress, I would get stuck in emotions and thoughts, I could not think clearly. I could not progress. Off the Pill, my body goes through changes through the month, waves and peaks and ebbs and flows and it all moves me - and this movement is energizing and galvanizing. My self is back in my body. I am occupying myself. Every new cycle spurs action. A revolution - in every sense of the word.

Step out of the system and back into yourself.