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It’s weird being the only girl in 8th grade on the pill. Anytime someone found out, I’d blurt out my chaste disclaimer: It’s not because I’m having sex. At the time, it wasn’t super widely known that birth control had other benefits besides preventing pregnancy (the Ortho Tri Cyclen “it fixes your acne, too” commercials didn’t come until later).
Turns out, there are tons of different kinds of pills, various brands, and cocktails of hormones that can work with your body — or decidedly against it. I tried about a half-dozen pills. Some of the hormones, particularly the ones that had higher estrogen levels, made me so sick to my stomach I couldn’t go to school. I don’t recall the brand I liked best, but I do remember the snazzy, embroidered, green velvet pouch it came in.
Being on the pill did really help with my heavy, irregular periods. Instead of having the horror-show “heavy flow”-tampon-sized period for an unpredictable, absurd amount of time, I’d have a more typical flow that lasted no more than a week. I could even control when I got my period based on when I took my pills, which was a huge advantage on my middle and high school counterparts, who were often surprised by the arrival of the crimson wave. As a gymnast, having the ability to decide if I had my period during a meet or not was like having a teenage superpower.
It wasn’t until I met my first serious boyfriend at the end of my junior year of high school that I would rely on the pill for its primary stated purpose. But even with condoms, I was still a nervous wreck about getting pregnant. Taking a pill every single day wasn’t easy for me. And when you have to do it not just to regulate your demonic periods, but also to avoid an unwanted pregnancy, it’s downright stressful.
I remember being particularly lax with my pill once I got to college, sometimes forgetting a day or two here or there, then doubling to try to catch up. Of course, it wasn’t long until I had my first real pregnancy scare. My period was nearly a week late and, given how predictable periods on the pill can be, I was convinced I was with child. I didn’t tell a soul, and I even drove two towns over to find a pharmacy where I wasn’t likely to see anyone I knew, and then drove back and took the test in the math building. God knows I didn’t know anyone who was a math major. It was negative, and I got my period the next day. Of course.
By the time I got to college, I had a new doctor who spoke to me about birth control options like I could actually make decisions for myself. She was the first to suggest I get an IUD — but it was 2001, and IUDs were still clouded in mystery that just made me feel uneasy. I vividly remember that the pamphlet FAQs actually said in response to a question about how an IUD works: “We don’t really know!” — not exactly comforting.
The Ortho Evra patch was only a few months on the market when I started using it. Basically, I was a birth control trailblazer.
The patch worked similarly to the daily pill, except I didn’t have to remember to take it every day. I could just set it and forget it. Just like the pill, you take the hormones for three weeks of the month, and then lay off for a week to get your period. However, the patch requires, of course, that you don’t mind having essentially a dirty Band-Aid on your ass or arm for three weeks. Think about that. Or rather, don’t.
By the time I switched to the patch, my high school love had come to an end, and I had entered an extended, accidental celibate phase. So I didn’t mind the "is she trying to quit smoking or is she exercising her right to control her fertility?" patch marks all over my body. I could still regulate my period in the way that I wanted to, like I did on the pill. But in the end, I could only suffer through the sticky residue for two years.
Depo Provera was a life-changer: six years of birth-control bliss. Unlike the pill or the patch or really any daily or monthly hormonal birth control, the shot is administered every three months. It’s an injection that basically suppresses ovulation entirely. So, besides the hassle of having to pull my pants down for a Russian midwife every three months, my periods completely disappeared without any significant side effects. Let me repeat that: I had no period for six years.
I completely recognize this is not the experience most women have had with Depo — especially those who experienced some of the negative side effects. I’ve heard horror stories of severe mood swings, month-long periods, significant weight gain, excruciating cramps. I know I was lucky to have the experience I did.
I had also escaped my accidental celibate period and entered into a newer, more sexual phase of life, so a no-nonsense, extremely effective contraceptive method — again, coupled with condoms — gave me added confidence that I wouldn’t get knocked up by accident.
Alas, toward the end of my beloved relationship with the shot, there were new reports about bone-density loss among women who were on the shot for prolonged periods of time. Given my family health history (strong hips and knees aren’t really part of the Bernyk lineage), those warnings were enough to encourage me to try yet another method.
Looking back, I really regret not giving the IUD another look here. Because I definitely could have done without the NuvaRing in my life.
The ring worked like the hormonal cycle of the pill and the patch. But with decidedly more stuff shoved into my vagina.
Each month, I’d go to my refrigerator, where I was told to store my three-month supply of rings, and then head to the bathroom to awkwardly crouch and insert a relatively large bracelet-type object into my vagina (it was “large” compared to what I expected, at least). Sure, it’s flexible, but it’s not small. And it would chill there for three weeks until I’d fish it out so I could get my period in the off week.
But here’s the thing: Typically, my period wasn’t finished by the time I’d have to insert a new ring, meaning I was still bleeding and using tampons (because I just cannot with pads) when I had to re-insert a new ring.
My best friend and I called this “squirrelling” — the phenomenon of having both the ring and a tampon inside you at the same time. Exactly how much stuff can I fit into my vagina at once? More than you think, as it would turn out. The vagina may be “nature’s pocket,” but it was still unsettling and uncomfortable for me to walk around with so much up there. Then there's the fact that the ring presents a higher risk of blood clot (albeit a very, very small one) than oral contraceptives, which was slightly unnerving, too.
Pro tip: The ring is also not entirely discreet during sexual encounters with a penis. (I can neither confirm nor deny that there’s a chance it could end up lassoed around a penis during intercourse.)
After nearly two years of that awkward mess, I was finally keen to the benefits of the once-mysterious IUD. And by the summer of 2012, all insurance plans were going to be required to fully cover the cost of the IUD device and insertion, saving me more than $700 in up-front costs. #ThanksObama. No really, thank you. Here's hoping women don't lose access to affordable contraception in 2017.
Why the IUD? Well, it’s the most effective form of long-acting, reversible contraceptive out there. After a short, in-office procedure, I could prevent pregnancy and eliminate my periods for five to 10 years, depending on the type of IUD I chose.
I chose the Mirena, a hormonal IUD that’s now good for up to seven years. I read up about the difference between Mirena’s hormonal IUD option and the non-hormonal copper IUD, and given Mirena had the same meds as the Depo Provera shot (which I responded well to), it seemed like the right choice for me.
Let me say that I am deeply, truly in love with my IUD. But like most love stories, there was pain.
The insertion was a very quick and very memorable jolt of pain. Like, you think you know how most stuff feels, but then someone shoves a piece of plastic into your cervix and you’re like, nope, that’s new. But it really was just for few seconds.
I cramped and spotted for about a month, but it subsided. My period slowly faded away until it was again nonexistent. I do still get the occasional “phantom period,” where I get mild cramping and am totally cranky for a day without the joy of bleeding.
Since I got my IUD four years ago, IUDs have gotten way more popular among my friends and colleagues. I was so pumped to see my dear friend Alison Turkos get nationwide attention when she live-tweeted her own IUD insertion to help demystify the process (then, R29 staffer Hayley MacMillen did the same last year, and even Planned Parenthood took notice). I even learned a lot from her experience about how to better minimize the pain for when I have to do it over again, once my current device expires.
By the time I’ll have to replace my Mirena, I will be 37 years old. I’ll probably need one or two more until I’m safely out of the baby-making woods, unless I decide to seriously consider sterilization.