I was sixteen. I was coming back from a camping trip when I had my first anxiety attack. I thought I might be dying. My heart was racing, I felt light headedness on repeat, and I was overcome by a complete sense of derealization. I knew I was in the car, I knew my friends were laughing, chatting, saying my name. But everything was playing in slow motion. When I spoke I said the words but what came out of my mouth didn’t belong to me. I was sweating and hot and full of a sense of dread. I tried to convince myself I was fine but my body was struggling to pay attention. I had several anxiety attacks in short succession after this day. My heart would race and I was convinced I was going to die. I left class early every day for a whole week. Finally, I went in for an echocardiogram.
Not much earlier I had begun taking hormonal birth control for the first time.
I didn’t want to correlate my anxiety to birth control because I wanted to be on birth control. Being sixteen, I was able to easily differentiate to myself the symptoms I was having from the pill I was taking. It couldn’t be the birth control, loud noises make my heart race. Bright lights make me uncomfortable. The sense of derealization goes away after a while. My doctor told me it was anxiety but after doing the echocardiogram I felt slighted. My symptoms felt so tangible and being told I had anxiety felt like a slight. It was as if they’d told me I was just a little stressed out. Maybe I should meditate more, take some vitamins, drink some water, go to my happy place. They sent me home.
The anxiety attacks continued so they told me to start taking GABA, a neurotransmitter to help me calm down. I appreciated the start of a connection to something more tangible, but either because the GABA didn’t work, or because I didn’t believe in it enough for it to be a placebo, the anxiety went on. Finally I asked for something more serious and they prescribed me Lorazepam. Lorazepam is also given to treat seizure disorders.. I cut my pills in halves or quarters because they replaced the derealization with a steady absence of feeling. This was, during most attacks, preferable to panic.
The first ten years I was on birth control I took Loestrin 24FE. It still rolls around in my head like a drug commercial. I’d read the pamphlet so many times, folded and stuck in that little pharmacy bag. After a few years, the anxiety attacks began to fade away, and then stopped altogether. When I was 26 I attempted to get my usual refill from our campus health center and they told me, for whatever reason, it was no longer available to me. They prescribed me something similar and sent me on my way. Whether it was my body changing as I moved into my late 20s or something about this new pill that didn’t quite agree with me, I felt the presence of new symptoms for the first time since I had felt that anxiety.
Birth control comes with a whole host of potential symptoms like weight gain, headaches, acne, anxiety, depression or moodiness, and decreased libido. A natural menstrual cycle can have all of these things on it’s own. What had followed me after the anxiety was high blood pressure. Tell someone that you’re a 20-something with high blood pressure and they might be a real dick about it. I knew something else was wrong, but I butt heads with the idea that it might be my birth control.
As a women who values control over her own body and her own sexuality, birth control is important to me. The ability and accessibility of birth control is important to me. Having regular periods is important to me. Having a regular cycle is important to me. Not getting pregnant is important to me. My doctor suggested that I might go off of birth control to see if the pills were raising my blood pressure. I didn’t want to, so I asked for a birth control with a lower dose of hormones. She gave it to me and I bled for a month straight.
This isn’t exactly unusual when switching pills or going off pills or moving to a lower hormone pill but it felt like my body was trying to kill itself. Like I had cracked open and become a wound that might never heal. Instead of acting, I re-acted. I asked for another pill and I started taking it continuously, a choice that fairly effectively stops your period altogether. And then I started getting anxiety again. It wasn’t so much the dizziness and derealization of my earlier years but instead a sense of emotional instability. I was high and then I was low and I was happy and then I was sad and I was, more or less, going completely nuts. I could feel it. A buzzing sensation that resonated through my whole body and collected in my mind.
So one day I just decided to stop taking it altogether. And now it’s been four months.
- I immediately dropped ten pounds.
- I feel less bloated, less heavy.
- The buzzing, busy, emotional chaos went away within a week.
- My face started to break out. My back and chest started to break out.
- My cycle was totally erratic. I skipped my first period entirely, my next cycle was over 50 days long, the one after that was just over 30 days.
After the first month, my blood pressure went down.
I’m giving my body the opportunity to figure out what’s going on. I hope, really hope that it finds a sense of regularity on it’s own, without hormones. I can read my body fairly well, but there is some magic in knowing down to the day what’s going to happen, and when. I’ve spoken with other women who have made the choice to go off of birth control. From the few I’ve spoken with so far, freedom seems to be an important keyword. Birth control made me feel detached from my body – but I didn’t understand that sense of detachment until I felt connected to it again. Of course, freedom comes with birth control too. Do we have the choice to choose if we’re on it, or not? How freely do we make those decisions?
I’ve thought about getting back on a low hormonal option again, or even non-hormonal birth control. The IUD is very popular right now because it provides women with many many years (potentially enough to get you past the Trump years) of protection against pregnancy. I can’t explain it, and maybe it’s confounding, but this option doesn’t appeal to me either.
So for now, I enter the birth-control-free abyss. If anything, my body seems to be thanking me for it. Maybe yours would, too.
What kind of birth control are you on? What about your partner/s? If you’re in a non-monogamous relationship do you feel this puts extra or different responsibilities on you throughout the discussion of protection? Have you felt increased anxiety or depression or other negative side effects since starting birth control? Or have you been on birth control – like myself – for so long that you’re not really sure what it would be like without it? Leave your thoughts in the comment box, or submit an anonymous question about birth control, condoms, pregnancy, or women’s health to www.suggestivetongue.com/ask. This month we’re drawing a focus on women’s health. When we share our experiences we normalize what bodies really go through. This is more important than ever.