I recently went off hormonal birth control after being on it in earnest for 12 years. In that decade plus, I enjoyed all the obvious benefits (literal birth control), and some of the fringe benefits too (light cycles, minimal PMS). And while I was IN those years, they felt pretty glorious. Had it been a little hellish in the beginning as my sudden new lifestyle of “hormone management” coincided with my new lifestyle of “recent college grad with no bank account or plan for life management?” Sure. Was my minimal-to-absent monthly period the cause for a ridiculous number of pregnancy test purchases? Well, yes. Was my precise type of birth control quietly switched every time I changed jobs / insurances / doctors without any input from me? I mean, yeah—but that’s like a “health care in America” problem, right? Or maybe my fault, for not asking the right questions, reading the fine print, or befriending my pharmacist properly.
It wasn’t until the clarity of going off hormonal birth control, that I stopped to think about how bizarre the entire enterprise is. Why is it just fine for us to take a pill every day and not know anything about it? For it to be switched without our knowledge? Why do we regulate our hormones without understanding the details? Now, don’t get me wrong. I think birth control in any form should be 100% free and distributed to anyone who wants it no questions asked. This falls squarely under the category, for me, of “feminist imperatives.” And I’m deeply grateful for the power and freedom and control over my life and body that the pill provided me.
But, was I also totally clobbered by the experience of going OFF it? From the insanely heavy period and wildly acute symptoms I got afterward to the sneaky debilitating anxiety attacks (turns out THAT’s a thing! Seriously, google it) that happened a few weeks later? ALSO YES. Was it incredibly emotionally confusing as it was all so tied up with an as-yet-ill-defined desire to become a parent someday? Yep, yep, yep. And apart from all that, was I totally shocked by how deeply unprepared I was? BIG TIME YES. Why had nobody had warned me? Why hadn't my doctor sat me down for any kind of talk? Why was there no playbook??
So I buckled down and “did the reading” myself. In between the weird sweating and tending to the random scaly skin patch that appeared on my (just left?!) cheek, I started to think about what controlling my hormones had actually meant. And I realized that for me, in those years, it meant that I was totally untethered to my own body’s cycles. I mean, I knew that I didn’t really get my period and at the time that seemed mostly pretty cool. I vaguely knew what ovulation was because...well...movies. But not until I did a deep dive into hormones and the phases of the menstrual cycle (what up follicular and luteal phases!) did I start to actually understand all that I'd been missing. Suppressing aspects of my body's natural cycle had also suppressed my own self-knowledge. I realized I'd spent most of my adulthood completely unaware of myself.
So, I'm starting to learn the magic of considering my life through the lens of my cycle. (Turns out there is kind of a playbook after all—it's paying attention to your own dang body. And for the record, you absolutely can and should do it while on birth control of any kind, I just didn't realize it. Please learn from me.)
I'm learning to eat with intention and give my body the nourishment it needs when it needs it. To move with awareness of what phase I am in. To go easy on myself when I’m in my luteal phase and really just want some gentle child’s pose. To be in conversation with my own moods and impulses and reactions and recognize—oh, this is an emotional response, but it’s also a hormonal one. I'm reading books and seeking out (and listening to) the advice of a friend who's a hormonal coach. And you know what those things have all added up to? What they've made me feel most of all?
Less fucking alone.
Turns out, by letting my body behave naturally, and by behaving like I owed it my attention (Yes, I got an app. Yes, I felt silly. Yes, I got over that silliness and really like it now.) I've finally started to really, actually understand myself.