How I took charge of my healthcare when hormonal birth control impacted my mental health
Some of my friends swear by the pill, and it has helped stabilize their mood swings. One person’s experience with the pill doesn’t define another experience, but also doesn’t invalidate it. I think talking about our individual experiences using the pill, which are all equally valid, is the first step in breaking societal myths about the pill. This is my experience.
My 18th year was full of firsts. My first time studying away from home. My first time taking the birth control pill — and first time experiencing depression.
Most of my friends defeated their battles with acne when they were 15 or 16, but mine only began when I was an 18-year-old in my final year of high school. Initially, I went on antibiotics for six months to help deal with my acne, which was effective. However, not long after beginning college, the feared pimples returned and I went to see a doctor again. Since the effects of the antibiotics were short-lived and I wanted to avoid Accutane’s side effects, I opted to try the birth control pill instead.
About a month after starting the pill, I noticed a visible improvement and was beyond happy with the results. But as it turned out, my experience with acne was trivial and irrelevant in contrast to what I would experience during my third month on the pill.
My depression crept up on me.
During the day, I was exhausted and withdrawn. I remember listening to my friends speak with such enthusiasm, and wondering when I’d ever feel that way again. I had no interest in engaging in conversations, with my friends or anyone. I wanted to escape human interaction, even though being around people made me feel better.
Nights were so much worse. The combination of the sun going down, being alone, and knowing that, once again, I wouldn’t be able to fall asleep, put my mind into a dangerous place. Thoughts began as harmless, and then turned toxic. If I was innocently thinking about a friendship or a college assignment, I’d eventually convince myself that my relationships were doomed and no one liked me, or that I was incapable of getting my degree.
These negative thoughts would develop into full-blown panic attacks, leaving me sweating and in tears. Then I would make the mistake of looking at the time. 4 a.m. Four hours until I had to wake up for class. 5 a.m. 6 a.m. And my alarm would go off.
These panic attacks and racing thoughts didn’t make sense for my usual mental health state. I had worked through my insecurities when I was much younger. I knew my own worth, and I knew that my friends — many of whom I’d been close with for over six years — loved me unconditionally. Where was this coming from?
I would phone my mom and unleash the darkness in my mind. Her familiar and loving voice always made things seem a little less dark and a little less lonely. She’d ask questions, looking for the answer to my sudden onset of depression. She recommended I keep a diary — writing things down can often lead to answers, in addition to being therapeutic. I took her advice.
Despite the frequent conversations with my mother and time spent writing my thoughts down, I couldn’t find answers. Before the depressive episode, I was happy, I was confident in my studies, I had amazing friends, I was in a supportive environment.
I’m not saying that you can’t have all these things and still be unhappy — but that hadn’t been the case for me.
Eventually, I realized that the only major change in my lifestyle over those months had been starting the birth control pill.
I remembered the horror stories people had told me about the pill. I had written off changes in PMS and major mood swings as “urban myths.” Realizing I may have been wrong, I immersed myself into investigating the pill.
After a bit of googling, I discovered so many cases like mine. I found accounts from women who had been living with depression for years before discovering the potential link to depression for the particular pill I had been using. Reading this information made me relieved that I was not, in fact, losing my mind — but I was also angry that there is hardly any awareness of the risks involved with hormonal drugs.
I realized that conversations about women’s experiences with the birth control pill are not openly discussed in our homes, schools, and communities. Without these conversations happening, it is harder for people like me to identify between myths and the realities of women’s lived experiences.
The following day, I visited my doctor. I told her about the depression, insomnia, and anxiety, and my theory for why I was experiencing them.
After asking a few questions, she told me that she didn’t have answers for me, but that everyone experiences hormonal drugs differently. She recommended that, if my gut told me to go off the pill, then that is what I should do.
In the meantime, she prescribed me sleeping pills and anxiety pills.
Within a few weeks of going off the pill, and before I’d finished the dose of sleeping and anxiety pills, I’d greatly recovered — almost entirely.
My experience with depression, although thankfully short, is something I wish to never return to. It’s something I wouldn’t wish on anyone. But it’s also something I’m glad I went through, as the darkness and isolation made me far more aware of how all-consuming depression is — and why mental health can never be taken lightly.
I’ll repeat what I said at the very beginning:
Some of my friends swear by the pill and it has helped stabilize their mood swings.
One person’s experience with the pill doesn’t define another experience, but also doesn’t invalidate it. I think talking about our individual experiences using the pill, which are all equally valid, is the first step in breaking societal myths about the pill.
Ultimately, the most empowering thing we can do in all aspects of life, including the use of hormonal contraception, is try and look after our mental health.
Alice Draper is a journalism student in South Africa. She enjoys spending her free time reading, writing, with friends, or binge-watching shows. Follow her on Instagram: @alicedraper