I can count the number of times I’ve had sex without condoms on one hand. This isn’t to brag about how I’m some model of safe sex — it’s because with the exception of a brief, two-week period, I have never been on birth control.
I’m not sure if I ever really made an active decision not to go on birth control. When I lost my virginity to my long-term high school boyfriend, we used those lubricated Trojans in the turquoise pack that so many people seem to use as My Very First Condom.
My reluctance to go on the Pill did partially stem from a teenager’s nervousness about telling my parents I was sexually active, though I always could have gone to Planned Parenthood (or my family doctor) and gone on birth control without them knowing. The real reason I avoided birth control was a gut feeling that I wouldn’t respond well to hormones.
As someone who has always been fairly in tune with my body and prone to moodiness, the thought of pumping artificial hormones into my body was something I just knew, intuitively, wasn’t a good idea for me. I told myself there were other reasons — I don’t want to gain weight, I don’t want to lose my sex drive, I won’t remember to take it. But it was always just that the idea didn’t quite sit right. I gave myself other reasons because it seemed silly to say I just know.
Those first few teenage years without BC were sometimes nerve-wracking — I remember in particular one situation that ended with me getting an older friend to purchase the morning-after pill for me while I lurked behind him in the stationary aisle. (You can’t get the morning-after pill without a prescription under the age of 18, and I was a few months shy of that marker.)
As time went on, though, I grew more and more settled in my choice. Condoms really weren’t so bad, and even if I were on birth control, I would still be using them, both for the added reassurance against pregnancy and for STI protection. (One of the benefits of condoms that I find weirdly reassuring is that if you mess up, you have immediate physical evidence. With a 5-second glance you can tell if the condom broke or if there was some other mishap. Also, nothing makes a dude slap on a rubber faster than the words “I’m not on birth control.”)
I told myself that once I was in a long-term relationship, I would reconsider. For the time being, condoms were working out just fine.
In the winter of 2011, I was in a serious relationship and living with my boyfriend. In terms of my mental health I was feeling better than I had in a while, and I figured that after all these years I might as well give it a shot — the worst case scenario was that I would simply go off it, right?
I went to my college’s health services and after a five-minute chat with a nurse walked away with my purse stuffed with samples of NuvaRing. I put the excess in the fridge, since they need to be maintained at a certain temperature, and inserted the first one. I had plenty of friends on the Ring, many of whom loved it, and in my research I found that it had the lowest dose of hormones of any hormonal BC. It seemed like the best possible option.
Within days, I found myself deeply, deeply depressed. I’d been having panic attacks for years, but they grew more and more frequent, and soon I was having them on a near-daily basis.
We were on winter break from school and living in New York City; I had grand plans of using my time off to do all the things I didn’t have time to do while a full-time student — go to the Met for an entire day, wander around Central Park, see the friends I had neglected during finals, try those restaurants I never went to.
Instead, I spent two weeks locked inside my apartment, completely agoraphobic.
On the rare occasions I took the subway into Manhattan from my Brooklyn apartment, I found myself fighting and then wiping away tears on the L train while praying no one noticed, an embarrassing ritual that everyone living in New York goes through at some point.
But there was no rational explanation for my sudden crying jag, or all the others that were happening — the tears would just come upon me with no warning. I had a full-on meltdown inside the Whole Foods in Union Square — I remember standing in the middle of the floor, crying, unable to move, until an Internet acquaintance happened to walk by.
“Anna?” I said, and when she turned to me, I quite literally threw myself into her arms. “You just appeared like an angel,” I wept into her shoulder, unspeakably grateful for this lifeline I had been thrown.
She hugged me until I composed myself and could go back home; if she hadn’t walked by I wonder how long I would have stood there.
A lifelong insomniac, I found myself completely unable to sleep at night. I was newly terrified of the dark, and would have a panic attack if the lights were off, so my boyfriend slept with the lights on each night while I sat awake on my laptop next to him in bed. When he left for work in the morning, I would sleep until he got back that afternoon, at which point he would coax me out of bed and try to get some food in me; I wasn’t eating either. I wouldn’t leave the house without him, I wouldn’t do anything without him.
One night at three or four AM, I shook him awake, sobbing. He sleepily asked what was wrong, and I said, gasping for air, “I can’t stop thinking about killing myself.” The next day he announced that we were taking the Ring out.
I protested wildly, saying that I was just adjusting, that the first few months were always a bit difficult. Until he mentioned it, it hadn’t occurred to me at all that my sudden, severe change in mood was because of the birth control.
We ended up in the bathroom, with him more or less pinning me down while he took the Ring out — I couldn’t reach it myself, and I was so determined to keep it in, to really give it a try, that I would never have removed it on my own. I cried the entire time, of course.
I had been on the Ring for two weeks. Within hours of its removal, I felt my mood lift. For the first time since I had inserted it, I felt like myself again. But once the birth control had triggered it, the effects of my episode stayed with me, and I was deeply depressed that entire spring.
I had taken a full course load every semester previously, but that spring I ended up dropping all of my classes except one. A month after going off birth control, I was still having suicidal ideation that led to me making an emergency appointment with my college’s counseling services and going on behavioral medication for the first time in my life.
Even by summer, I was still so mentally ill that I took the fall semester off, staying at home in Massachusetts while my now ex-boyfriend returned to New York. I went to therapy and found an amazing psychiatrist and did a lot of yoga, and when I went back to New York almost exactly a year after first going on the Pill, I was the best version of myself I had been in a long time.
More than a few people made a mention of having the “old Jessie” back, when in reality I was happier and better functioning than I had been for all of my teen years. I had been depressed and anxious for a long time, and I don’t entirely blame the hormones for my breakdown — I am certain that I would have had a similar episode eventually. The Pill just made it come upon me sooner.
The comparison I made light-heartedly to friends was that the Ring was like a horcrux in Harry Potter. It took control of me, made me different, made me darker — and the last thing I wanted to do was remove it. I fought fiercely to keep it, entirely unable to connect it to my misery. When we talk about it now, I call those months “the dark times,” and that’s all I need to say.
It’s been about a year and a half since that day when I walked home laden with NuvaRings, and I’m not on birth control. I don’t see myself on birth control for a long time.
Perhaps, if I am feeling very, very stable and am in a long-term relationship again, I will give it a try — this time with a format or type of hormone that is as unlike the Ring as possible. An IUD is still an option I am mulling over, as there are non-hormonal versions, but I fear their effect on my blessedly painless periods.
I’m back to condoms, which I’m completely happy with. (Want recommendations? I’ve got ‘em.)
This is only one story, one anecdote. In no way do I mean to disparage the Pill; since its introduction in 1960, it has changed millions of women’s lives for the better. It changed mine, too — that gut feeling I had when I was 17 was right. Still, I don’t regret any of it. The breakdown I suffered that winter had been brewing on the horizon for years, and like all natural disasters, it wasn’t a question of if it would hit me, but when.