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.