Coming off Birth Control Is Not a Death Sentence

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AS the fight rages on to make the birth control pill more accessible to women in the US, an increasing number are actually turning away from this method of contraception. That said, the Pill has always had high rates of discontinuation, with half of women using oral contraceptives making the decision to stop within six months of starting. The cause behind this decision can usually be attributed to side effects. We often see these side effects debated — particularly in regards to whether they’re real or imagined. We hear that if women think they will experience side effects, they do, as if women suffer from a gender-wide hypochondriasis. We hear that placebos are just as troublesome. We hear that women think they will experience side effects as a result of “gossip” and “rumor.” Regardless, it is the side effects that make women quit the Pill.

Glamour Magazine recently added their two-cents to this discussion with a piece on the side effects of stopping birth control pills. According to Glamour, and ob-gyn Dr. Evelyn Minaya, deciding not to take the Pill will give you bad acne and heavier periods, make you “grumpy,” and definitely not impact your libido. Oh, yes, and you’re bound to get pregnant. Minaya points out that, although you might think your libido decreased on the Pill; that was really just “all in your head.” She dismisses various other side effects of the Pill as “rumor” and hysteria.

When starting a new oral contraceptive, women tend to be told to wait out their initial experience of side effects for three to six months. However, when it comes to going off the Pill we are made to think we’ll be stuck with acne and be in a bad mood interminably. Glamour makes it sound like women off the Pill are never healthy or happy.

It’s true that the transition time between contraceptive methods is when many unplanned pregnancies occur. Articles like this don’t help. Instead of providing support for women who want to come off the Pill, all we seem to get is scare-tactics to try to stop women from even considering it and patronizing platitudes about the reasoning.

Unfortunately, magazines are where many women get their information, with articles interspersed between ads from the pharmaceutical companies. Former FDA commissioner David Kessler made it known that companies such as Bayer have even paid for disguised advertisements quoting ob-gyns on their pay-roll in order to boost sales. Providing real support for women in the in-between phase of contraceptive choices is not the priority of mainstream medicine, but it should be.

Laura Wershler is the former executive director of Sexual Health Access Alberta, and has been associated with Planned Parenthood affiliated organizations in Canada for almost 30 years. She has advocated for decades within the mainstream sexual health-care community for a stronger commitment to serve the unmet needs of women who won’t, can’t, or don’t want to use hormonal birth control methods. She believes that articles like this are focused on dissuading women from making self-directed decisions to ditch contraceptive drugs and devices:

“This is the most useless kind of women’s health journalism. It reduces women’s valid concerns and experiences using hormonal birth control with a point-specific takedown – with evidence that is in dispute I might add – of these complex concerns on the basis of one ob-gyn’s opinion and client-based experience. The tone is patronizing to young women who have experienced quality-of-life threatening side effects from the pill. It seems to say, ‘There, there, don’t worry your pretty little head about what you’ve heard or what you’re experiencing.’ I now equate the qualifier ‘board-certified ob-gyn’ with close-minded, didactic attitudes about what women need when it comes to managing their menstrual cycles and their fertility that dissuades the quest for body literacy and self-directed decision-making.”

When I came off the Pill I found online conversations, usually started in response to an article on birth control, to be really helpful. My doctor could only keep suggesting different brands of Pill and the majority of my friends were still taking it. Online, women shared stories as well as resources such as the Taking Charge of Your Fertility forum, the Aphrodite Women’s Health Forum, and the websites of Justisse Holistic Reproductive Health Practitioners. Reading the comments assured me that the withdrawal symptoms of coming off would pass, and that many, many women feel much better when not on hormonal birth control.

“Rumor” and “gossip” among women is blamed for making us think we will experience side effects — thereby causing us to experience them — which leads to our decisions to stop using the Pill. Mainstream medicine suggests we put the idea in each others’ heads and provoke the perceived health problems ourselves. My own experience was the opposite; it took me years to realize the Pill was the source of my issues. Talk between women going through the same experiences, mostly online, saved me much suffering. Like many others, I came off and I felt better. That was all the evidence I needed. It was the support of other women that helped me navigate the transition.

In her recently published paper ‘What Does Not Kill You Makes You Stronger: Young Women’s Online Conversations About Quitting The Pill,’ Dr Elizabeth Kissling analyses these online conversations and finds that the majority of women blame themselves for their bad experience, for not knowing about the side effects, and for not taking what they see as a personal responsibility to educate themselves. The sheer volume of comments in these conversations and the similarities between these shared experiences would suggest that the problem is more systemic than it is individual.

Kissling details a discussion provoked by a post on going off the pill posted at Pop Sugar in 2010 that has continued for the past four years, with one well-read reader fielding the concerns and follow-up questions of those continuing to comment in the hope of finding support for stopping. On her time spent among these women, reading their accounts of experiences that are very much real to them, Kissling concludes, “Women reject this prescription in self-defense… In seeking solutions online perhaps they are also seeking community, may they also find collective strength.”

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