I spinelessly moved my fifteen-year-old lanky body onto the stiff medical paper-covered chair, and slowly placed the heel of each foot neatly into the stirrups. I gazed at my chipped red toenail polish and hoped the doctor wouldn’t notice. Tilting my head back I saw two comics pinned to the popcorn ceiling tiles; The Far Side. I guess this is their lackluster attempt to help you relax, regardless of the impending doom of the speculum.
My doctor, petite in frame and eyes wider than mine introduced herself. “Hi honey, how are you feeling today?” How am I feeling? My emotions are clouded by the hormones rushing through my body. After a very public meltdown in Starbucks weeks prior, the cause of which is unknown to me, my mother decidedly scheduled an appointment. The only thing I can remember is waking up on the ground in the fetal position, and my mother standing over me, tears welling in her eyes.
Before this incident, I hadn’t attached my emotions and thoughts with anything in particular. I chalked it up to being a teenager. I started my period at 11 and my emotions began to shift. I was irritable and emotional to the point of tears nearly every month. The week prior to my period was horrific. Tears and screaming at the minuscule of events; the wrong cheese being stocked in the fridge. My mother misconstrued my tone for an attitude. Everything was a blatant attack and a disregard for my emotions. In all honesty, a lot of those times prior to birth control are a blur.
I have fragments pasted together in my mind, but the overwhelming sense of these memories is rage; rage followed by depression. I would harbor so much anger towards anything I perceived as a slight towards me. Then after my hormonal rampage, I would feel guilty about my behavior. My guilt morphed into depression. I knew it wasn’t rational or warranted, but I figured this is just how periods worked.
I wasn’t ignorant of the culture of ‘her time of the month’ and I adopted this as mine. I accepted this as my normal. I would have to adapt and cater to this monstrous flaw of mine throughout my life.
I never pressed needing to visit the gynecologist. I truly thought these unbearable emotions were just my plight in life. The people around me noticed. My friends would console me after an emotional breakdown. Or pity me with their “Are you about to start? I know you have awful periods.” Luckily, my mother was one of them. Her intuitive mind definitely could sense my heightening agitation and tension, coupled with my admiration for laying in bed for hours on end. All symptoms happening at the same time in the month. Something was different about her post-pubescent daughter, and she cared enough to figure it out.
“You can take your feet out of the stirrups, I’ll let you know when I need you to go up there.” I was thoroughly mortified, revealing myself as a novice and so eager to just finish this exam so I can get McDonald’s on my way home. The ultimate status symbol upon returning to the school day and watching the common folk eat their lukewarm cafeteria Bosco Stix.
My first gynecological exam went quick enough, I slid off the table and slipped into my clothes as quickly as possible. I was given a starter birth control pack, left with a gray-blue sheet scribbled with a prescription for Sprintec. “We will start with this one and see how it works out for you.” Little did I know this would be my first of five birth control experiments, as none seemed to ‘work for me.’
My doctor mentioned “PMDD” as she handed me the slip. Foreign and intimidating I decided to look into it, Premenstrual dysphoric disorder sounded too close to depression for me. In reality, it is definitive of the condition. PMDD is like severe PMS. It is a condition in which a woman exhibits distressing depression symptoms, irritability, fatigue, and paranoia before menstruation. Trying to rationalize I would play on repeat in my brain “I’m not depressed, I’m fifteen.” I’m moody, I’m a kid. But her diagnosis equipped me with hormonal consistency. She did everything in her power to keep me off antidepressants and on a more traditional route. Nevertheless, I still wondered what effect this little pack of pills had on my ever-changing body and brain.
After conversing with my friends it seemed we all started the pill, around the same time but for a variety of reasons. All of us, strolling into our sophomore year, bodies coursing with synthetic progestin and teenaged estrogen wondered how many girls actually took birth control and, “like, what does it do to you?”
Simply put, birth control stops ovulation. This tricks your body into thinking you are pregnant.
My sophomore year of high school, I spent my free time in the pharmacy picking up pack after pack of lo-estrogen, lo-lo-estrogen, and all variables in between trying to curb my hormones. My thoughts were wild. Never teetered toward suicide, but hopelessness was an understatement. I would bounce between sleeping in for hours and not being able to sleep at all. At my worst insomniac stage, I would wake up at 4:00 am. I would paint my nails, do jumping jacks, hands stands and dance, trying to tire myself out. Desperately, I started to take NyQuil to try to steal a few more hours of sleep from the night before the sun rose.
My relationship with birth control became extremely tumultuous. I loved that it allowed me to process my feelings clearly, gain sexual independence and make my own decisions. But I feel chained to it. To this day I am reliant on artificial hormones to either regulate my natural ones or suppress my feelings: Will I ever be able to be off of birth control and regulate my own emotions? Am I forever indebted to a blue pack of 28 pills that help me make sense of what my brain is doing? What is going to happen when I get pregnant, can I handle that?
Even with my admiration for birth control and how it laid my life bare in a practical and digestible form, I am still curious about my brain without it. Why are my hormones and my emotions so wildly unpredictable? I am scared to get off of it. There is no weaning period. I often wonder if a similar situation to the Starbucks Meltdown will happen again without it. Will my friends, significant other and co-workers, realize a change in me?
Who the hell am I without it? I like to think other women have similar thoughts. Most of us started our periods and birth control fairly young. In the United States, the average age a woman starts taking birth control is 16, the average age a girl starts her period is 12 years old. Women then typically remain on some sort of contraception until they are ready to conceive. A window of four years. We only have four years of preteen hell in which we are not supplying our bodies with simulated, pregnant or postpartum hormones.
Birth control dramatically changed my life and allowed me to tackle my emotions clearly. I am thankful for my mother noticing a change in her daughter, and my gyno for quickly and efficiently pinpointing my issue and working towards solving it. I question whether those hormones were inflamed by my fifteen-year-old body and if I were to have the same reaction to my natural hormones now, at twenty-four, if I were vacant of birth control. Although, I am not anywhere near willing to risk my sanity to see if that could be true.
Gen Z and Millennial women are the first generations to be prescribed birth control for the majority of their post-pubescent lives. This is in part due to social acceptance of birth control, and the brave women in the generations before us that were slut-shamed for seeking autonomy. However, our generation hasn't experienced our emotions and moods devoid of artificial hormones. It is common knowledge amongst women on hormonal birth control that it is linked to depression. There are even studies to prove the relationship. This may not be news for the millions of girls and women taking birth control, as the symptoms are clear as day. The changes in sleep, appetite, self-esteem, energy level, and concentration are the markers of hormonal onset depression. The tell-tale signs that we all experience on birth control and chalk it up to c'est la vie. Women constantly are put into a position where their comfort and safety are overridden by a male’s ability to impregnate them.
We sacrifice our mental health to be able to fuck without being chained to some one night stand’s offspring. I don’t see this changing very soon either. The attitude of birth control producers seems to be “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” However, many women understand just how broken it is. Its brokenness is measured by their ever depleting mental health and their yearning to control their bodies sans side effects.
Birth control presents as a magic pill and a feminist symbol of sexual freedom. It has liberated countless women from unwanted parenthood and is absolutely necessary for most sexually active women. Not to mention all of the other non-birth related reasons to partake in birth control, like my PMDD. But, the long term effects are to be determined.
Madison is a writer from Cincinnati, Ohio. Her writing is feminist at its core, inquisitive and sometimes controversial. Her goal is to start a conversation about taboo subjects that are often shamed into silence. Her experience as a white-passing biracial woman and first generation American has gifted her with a perspective that includes racism and white privilege. This voice is displayed through her writing and deeply connected to her brand of feminism. Instagram: @madkashley / Facebook: Madi Ashley /Blog: https://madisonkashley.wordpress.com/