‘Persistence, pain and the pill' : My contraceptive experience and the importance of informed choice

By Emma Randall

There is absolutely no doubt that the pill as a form of contraception represents a pivotal movement in history towards the emancipation of women. The contraceptive pill has enabled women to become sexually liberated and has allowed for progressive advancement within the ongoing campaign for women’s rights. It is arguably one of the most influential medical developments in history, the autonomy provided for women has transformed many generations for the better.

However, while the pill has provided this unprecedented freedom for many women, the lack of information and awareness surrounding the side effects of oral contraception on women’s bodies, paired with the ongoing stigma and secrecy which shrouds issues of fertility, menstruation and pain, represents a larger issue within the medical field.

There is evidently a lack of understanding, compassion and a heavy taboo attached to issues surrounding women’s health. This is particularly true in instances where women are looking to deal with the pain associated with periods. With the absence of other treatments, a common medication prescribed for women suffering with menstruation or fertility related issues is to be given the choice to go on the contraceptive pill. Women who suffer from Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, Endometriosis or acne are also often told to go on the pill all without being made aware of the possible ramifications and consequences that the pill could have on their body and hormones.

For a variety of reasons, the contraceptive pill is prescribed to more than 3.1 million women in England alone. Therefore, you may assume that due to the large proportion of the population being on a number of varying contraceptive pills, the medical knowledge would be vast. Yet, this is not the case.There is also no evidence of innovation in contraceptive methods. New methods introduced since 1960 are just different delivery methods for the same types of hormones used in the pill (implants and injectables) or newer versions of the IUD. Nothing genuinely new has been developed. Research surrounding the contraceptive pill is still needed to ensure women are making informed decisions that will affect their body. Gregory Pincus, the endocrinologist who co-invented the pill, initially struggled to get any funding from drug companies or backing from universities. We wouldn’t have the pill today if a wealthy benefactor in the shape of Katherine McCormick hadn’t stepped in and poured her own money into it. With a lack of funding from the medical field to scientists carrying out research, the black hole of question and suspicion around what the contraceptive pill really does to our bodies is ever-growing.

My personal relationship with the pill is tumultuous. For so many women the word ‘period’ conjures up a range of emotions, with half of the population juggling to manage all the trials and tribulations that life alone brings, the added impact of having to deal with periods every month causes an all too familiar story of annoyance and pain. After struggling with painful periods for most of my life, I experienced a range of common difficulties, from staying off school with debilitating pains to lying awake in agony and battling the range of overwhelmingly intense emotions that come with Premenstrual Syndrome. Finally having enough of the pain, at seventeen I decided that I was unable to carry on being controlled by my cycle and started to investigate a treatment plan. I visited the doctor’s office and was faced with lots of different options of contraceptive pills which were promised to ease the pains. Seeming too good to be true, I could not believe that after struggling with period pains for most of my life I was finally being given an option to stop this pain. Through trialling many different contraceptive pills, I eventually found a pill which appeared to cure my troubles.

After a year of being on this contraceptive pill I developed a range of symptoms whilst on holiday. I kept feeling as if my body was being permanently drained of all its energy, simple movements such as keeping my head up or even being able to stand-up became almost impossible. I also developed a relentless migraine that completely dilapidated my body. I had never felt any pain like this before and didn’t know what was happening with my body. At this point I had just turned eighteen and was supposed to be living my best life before university- being bed bound wasn’t really the plan. As the symptoms proceeded to get increasingly worse, I was hospitalised. I was completely confused and lost within a world of new medical terminology and I struggled to see a way out of the confusion as I was faced with nothing but unsure doctor’s suggestions. No one could give me answers to my many questions as to what was going on with my body and the pain that I was feeling during this time was left untreated and unanswered.

After seeing numerous neurologists, receiving multiple diagnoses and being prescribed a plethora of tablets, I was gradually getting more and more unwell, becoming unable to cope with daily life, yet there was no real explanation as to what had caused my symptoms. I had only been on the contraceptive pill for six months and there was absolutely no suggestion from any of the doctors that my illness could have been as a result of the contraceptive pill. However, out of desperation, I decided to try and come off the pill to see if it would make any difference and to my surprise, month by month since I had come off the pill my symptoms improved and became less frequent. When I had visited numerous doctors not one of them had mentioned that the pill would or could have contributed or exacerbated my condition. So why then, when I came off the pill, did my symptoms improve? I felt extremely alone during this journey and particularly isolated due to the lack of a definite diagnosis. However, after talking to other women, I found out that this story was often a shared experience and particularly common within women who had tried going on the pill at some point – most of them had shared a story like mine at a period in their lives.

With growing anger and frustration, I was stunned by the lack of awareness within the medical field and society around the subject of negative side effects of the pill. The lack of open and honest conversation regarding this topic may cause other women, like myself, to feel pushed aside by medical professionals when they disclose negative symptoms that have been brought on by the pill and from personal experience, I know that this can be challenging to cope with, especially dealing with feelings of not being heard or taken seriously by doctors.

I will never know for definite whether or not my illness was caused by going on the contraceptive pill, but sometimes it feels as if we are forced to get on with the health challenges we face because they are considered part of ‘being a woman’. I hope that in the future more awareness surrounding the contraceptive pill and the negative side effects that are also attached to it are made universal public knowledge. I think that it is very important to give women the full insight into what taking the pill could potentially do their body, whether it be through a more accessible leaflet in the packet of the contraceptive pill or an open conversation with the doctors when discussing the pill, it is vital to ensure that women are given autonomy over their health. Furthermore, doctors should consider whether contraception should be used as a remedy for non-contraceptive health concerns. As the contraceptive pill can potentially cause such a risk to an individual’s health, it is important to assess whether the first option for doctors is to prescribe the contraceptive pill when dealing with a patient who suffers from period pains, is an outdated notion. As more women come forward and tell their stories of the contraceptive pill causing negative side effects and impacting their daily life, I hope that there will be a growing movement towards finding and fighting for a better solution for all women. Ultimately, I also hope that one day women are given more of an informed choice as to what they are deciding to put in their bodies.