A (Very) Honest Discussion About Birth Control
“When did everyone stop taking birth control?” When Byrdie Beauty Director Deven Hopp raised the question on our site in March, it was immediately clear that it struck a chord with many of our readers, who leapt to share their own stories and reasons for going off the pill. Some detailed their experiences with how it impacted their bodies (“I firmly believed that it genuinely made me crazy,” said one) while others talked alternative methods of BC, like low-hormone IUDs.
What made this whole discussion particularly intriguing to me is that I didn’t stop taking birth control—I never started. The thought of messing with my hormones has always been a huge deterrent for me, and while I obviously didn’t relish in reading the tribulations of other women, their stories were enough for me to feel somewhat validated in my decision. That being said, I also know some people who have had great experiences on the pill. I have other friends who love NuvaRing and still others who sing the praises of IUDs—enough that even I’ve decided to get one.
Sometimes, the discussion isn’t about the birth control itself but the red tape involved in obtaining a prescription or booking an appointment—insurance and expenses complicate things greatly, especially when taking different state laws into consideration. (California recently passed a law allowing women to purchase the pill over the counter, but as you’ll read here, it’s not quite that simple.) It’s immensely frustrating when a very complicated decision is complicated further by systematic roadblocks. The irony is that the reason so many of us nevertheless traverse this messiness—both in the impact on our bodies and the process itself—is for peace of mind.
Can talking about it make the process of getting birth control immediately any easier or change the way our bodies react to a certain method? Maybe not. But we do have the power to learn from each other’s experiences, and that alone is a great reason why we should be talking about it.
Read on as we candidly discuss our own personal histories with birth control, how it impacts our relationship with our bodies, and more—and as always, we love it when you share your own stories too. (#SafeSpace!)
Relationship status with BC: Like my first relationship that was totally tumultuous and on-and-off for years, I'm so glad I've moved past the pill. Or as Bey would say: Boy, bye.
Your thoughts on hormonal birth control, summed up? It's a great option for some people, but not for me.
Relationship status with BC: I'm committing to an IUD.
Your thoughts on hormonal birth control, summed up? After seeing so many women I know have tough experiences on the pill, I'm glad that there are more and more alternatives becoming available.
Associate Features Editor
Relationship status with BC: On a break.
Your thoughts on hormonal birth control, summed up? I get why it freaks people out, and honestly, high-hormone BC skeeves me out a little too. But my NuvaRing made my life so much easier, and I miss "us."
Associate Social Media Editor
Relationship status with BC: Currently on the pill.
Your thoughts on hormonal birth control, summed up? It's complicated.
VICTORIA HOFF: What’s your current birth control status?
AIMEE JEFFERSON: Me and the pill are in—hold on, let me do the math here—we are about to enter into the seventh year of our long-term relationship.
VH: Which pill do you take?
AJ: It used to be called Loestrin. They didn’t even really change the formula—they just made the tablets chewable and changed their name to Minastrin. But yeah, I’ve basically been on the same formula since I was 16. I’m currently in a phase where I’m flirting with other forms of birth controls that I want to try, especially because I have this friend who has the stick in her arm, which is really huge in France. I think it’s really cool, but I’m scared.
AMANDA MONTELL: I enjoy all the verbiage you use to describe your relationship with the pill. It sounds very romantic.
AJ: I mean, as gross and obvious as this is—and I hate being one of those people who says it—my pill allows me to have my romantic relationship! Like, to the fullest extent without a fear. Pregnancy is just not on my agenda, so I have to remain in this relationship with the pill—I’m indebted to it. That sounds horrible, but yeah!
AM: When you first went on the pill, were you given multiple options, or were you just told This is the pill. This is synonymous with birth control?
AJ: I was not given multiple options. Again, I was 16, so my mom went to the gynecologist with me and then left the room so we could have a “private chat.” And my biggest reason that I went on it at the time was because I got my period when I was 11, and at 16 I still had really irregular periods. I’d get my period two or three times a year, and when I got it, it would be for seven days, and I couldn’t walk my cramps were so bad. I was like, I could kill anyone who comes within a three-foot radius of me. I’m going for blood, so to speak. So I needed a hormone regulator, and she said that that one didn’t have a lot of estrogen, so that’s what we went with. But it wasn’t a choice, which is weird—that gynecologists don’t say these are all of your options. Kind of strange.
AM: So my current situation is I’m not on birth control. It is by choice... and it isn’t. It is, because I am a human with free will in America, but it isn’t, because it’s just so unbelievably inconvenient to renew my prescription that laziness and convenience have just chosen [this situation] for me. I was on the NuvaRing for five years, and I loved it. I went on it right when I first went to college, just because it seemed like the most responsible thing to do. I just went to the NYU health center and said, “Yo, I want to go on birth control.” And my mom had suggested that I go on the IUD, because I think that’s what she was on, but it sounded a little invasive and scary. I went to this doctor, and she gave me a bunch of options and kind of recommended the NuvaRing, because I think she was on it and told me all the perks. It was also low-hormone, [and] I didn’t have to remember to take a pill every day, which I definitely would not be able to do. I am not a creature of routine, so it was nice that I could stick it up there and forget about it for a whole month. And also, I was in a long-term committed relationship, so there wouldn’t have to be any weirdness of explaining to people like, "This is my NuvaRing."
So I was on it for five years and I renewed my prescription every month. At first I had to pay $20 for it, and then it was free, so it was really affordable and so great. It made my period super light, super regular—I could control when I wanted to get my period, how long I wanted to get my period. It was like magic. I was playing goddess, if you will. But yeah, I got my final prescription from Planned Parenthood, and then I moved to L.A. and it ran out after a year and a half. I just couldn’t get an appointment with a doctor who made me feel comfortable. I couldn’t get an appointment with any of the doctors I wanted, and I was like F*ck this; I’m just going off of it. It’s like a form of protest. Like, if this isn’t easy for me to acquire—which is absurd, because as far as I know, no one ever died from using a NuvaRing—I should really be able to get this over the counter easily. But I can’t, so I’m just gonna try to reclaim my control of the situation and pretend like I’m going off it on purpose.
VH: What’s interesting is that in California, lawmakers just made it so that you can get pills over the counter.
AJ: I was wondering about that because my old insurance got me three packs of birth control—so, three months’ worth—for free. With my new insurance, I can only get one pack at a time, and it’s $50 because my doctor now has to call and say that this is an authorized drug that I absolutely need every month, which is so absurd.
AM: So yes, this new law was just passed in California where you can get birth control from a pharmacist at your local Rite Aid, which is wonderful. I jumped for joy! This became fully legal about a month ago. In that time, I have called every pharmacy in the f*cking city. I’m telling you: Rite Aid, Walgreens, CVS—all over the city, I’ve called them all. It’s unavailable, and they don’t know when it will become available, because there’s red tape in pharmacies, and you have to go through training for every drug that becomes available in your pharmacy. But this is so new for them, and there are so many cobwebs above them that they have to comb through until the permission trickles down to the point that I might not be able to access birth control at my local Rite Aid until a year from now. But they don’t know that for sure. I’ve called them and said the same thing every single time. I put on my reporter hat and say, “Do you have any idea when it will become available? Can you give me information about this and that?” One pharmacist said that he didn’t even know that the law had been passed.
AJ: I bet once it becomes available, it’s going to A) sell out in five seconds and B) be the lowest brand, high hormone, or generic. I have a feeling it’s not going to be a good birth control; it’s just going to be for those in dire need. Like, when you need it, you need it. It’s gonna sell out.
VH: It’s just so frustrating. Not to take make things super political, but it is a political issue. It is really frustrating as a woman in this country when you look at countries in Europe, for example, where it’s cheap as hell and really easy to get. I mean, I think I recently read that it’s $6 to get an IUD in Australia. Here, if you’re not covered by insurance, it can be upward of $1000. And there’s so much red tape no matter what type of hormonal birth control you use.
AJ: It’s also about which insurance and which policy you have, which is even worse. The insurance game is making it unfair for women’s bodies.
AM: A million percent! And I’m covered by the best insurance in this country, and even so, it’s difficult for me to acquire my birth control!
VH: Even I’ve experienced some of that, and I’ve actually never been on hormonal birth control. I’ve just always used other methods.
AM: I imagine you use sheepskin condoms crafted by Buddhist monks.
VH: Yes, that is in fact exactly what I use.
AJ: You don’t really use a lot of chemicals in general, so I’m wondering when you say other preventative measures, what that means.
VH: I’ve always just used condoms, but I actually just made an appointment to get an IUD, which is very new and different for me. The thought of artificially regulating the hormones in my body always just kind of skeeved me out. Even more so as I’ve gotten older, because with so many women around me—of all different ages and situations—I’ve seen how hormonal birth control has impacted them: from weight gain to skin issues to just feeling off. I know for some women it just works wonderfully, but it just kind of always bothered me—I mean, I won’t even take Advil. I don’t take anything unless it’s a dire situation and I absolutely need an antibiotic because I have bronchitis or something.
AM: That’s like the type of mind-set that I kind of put myself in after I went off of it. In order to rationalize that whole thing, I was like, well, it’s really messed up how this can alter your body. It can mess with my future fertility. That’s what I told myself, but if I dig deep, I would go on birth control right now. I would shove that NuvaRing up me right now.
VH: Yeah. And that’s where the conflict is—I didn’t get my period for years because I had this eating disorder, and that irregularity also just runs in my family. I did visit a gynecologist during that time and asked if I should go on birth control to bring it back, since I was afraid that by not having my period, I was messing up my fertility. She said that going on birth control wasn’t going to make a difference: It might make you bleed, but that doesn’t mean that you’re fertile or ovulating; it’s just putting your body through the motions. She actually said that if that was my sole reasoning for going on it, she wouldn’t recommend doing it. So I just kept doing what I was doing.
But things are different now that I’ve recovered. And I’m honestly sick of the methods I’m using, and everyone I know who has an IUD has had a great experience. Also, it’s a lower dose of hormones than the pill, so I feel more comfortable about it. It all finally sounds appealing enough for me to just go for it. I’m going to get one next month, and I’m really excited about it. I’m seriously lucky I’m covered by insurance because it’s expensive, for sure.
FAITH XUE: For me, I started on the pill when I was in college with my friends. We literally took a field trip to Planned Parenthood and all got it. It wasn’t, like, anything I knew about. I knew at school, girls took it for acne and other reasons. I didn’t even think about the effect it had on my body, and honestly, at the time during college, I don’t think I was aware of any effect it had on my body. And then I ended up going off of it for a year or two, and it was when I went on it again that it was terrible. I started getting migraines for the first time in my life. I was in a terrible mood all of the time. I just didn’t feel like myself. It was also really hard to get the one I wanted because it wasn’t covered under our insurance, so that whole process was so annoying. It was, like, a six-month process of me trying to get another prescription from my gynecologist, going to the drugstore, her telling me it’s not covered, me going back to my gynecologist—it was just so terrible. Then I started getting these night sweats. I went to see that ayurvedic doctor for a story I wrote for Byrdie, and she asked, “Do you have excess heat in your body? Do you see this manifesting itself in any way?” And I was like, “Yeah, I’m getting night sweats.” She asked if I was on birth control, I said yes, and she basically said, “You need to get off that. Now.” And I was already thinking about getting off of it, so it just seemed like the final push that I needed. The more I research, the more I’m like, I don’t want to be putting stuff in my body when I don’t need to. And I’ve been off of it for—six months? I feel great. Haven’t had a single migraine or headache since being off of it, and I feel so much better being myself. I’m in a committed relationship, and it sucks to have to use a condom every single time, but it’s worth it to me.
VH: We’ve had this discussion before, but I feel like so many of our co-workers, so many women we know are going off of the pill. They’re just not into it anymore, especially now that there are more options.
AJ: For me it’s really difficult because I’m like, I hate condoms, and not that it matters, because it’s my body, but I don’t think there’s a man out there who’s going to say that he loves condoms. I really don’t. So I think it’s really hard going through this time right now when I’m thinking about going off the pill and switching to something else. I’m just like, how does that affect my relationship?
AM: Honestly, I can say from my personal experience from someone who was on birth control for the first five years of my relationship and then going off it for the last year, it’s not good.
AJ: Oh, really?!
AM: Yeah, like there’s just something about not being on birth control that casts a weird shadow over everything because there’s not that security that you once had. You can’t just be spontaneous and whatever, you have to have supplies. And if something happens, whether that’s an STD or pregnancy, you’re forced to make these really difficult decisions—especially if our healthcare system has failed you because you couldn’t get something you should have the right to have.
VH: That’s why (or at least one of the reasons why) I’m getting an IUD. For more peace of mind, for sure, and more comfort and convenience. They basically just stick it up there, and it hurts like a mother for a little bit and then it’s fine.
AJ: Yeah, I hear it’s pretty uncomfortable.
AM: Wait, explain it to me, because I can envision the IUD in my mind’s eye, but where does it go?
VH: They implant it in your uterus.
AM: Through the cervix? That’s crazy!
AJ: For NuvaRing, you have to put it up there yourself. I can’t do anything like that. That’s why I’m contemplating the stick implant. You get a ton of painkillers, so you don’t feel it. My friend actually has it—it’s plastic and it’s good for three years. Actually, the one thing that she and her boyfriend don’t like about it is that she doesn’t get a period. He’s like, “This is the one thing that is supposed to be telling you you’re not pregnant—it’s not happening and yet you’re not pregnant. I feel like this is all a lie.” But yeah, she’s still literally getting the best of everything.
FX: That reminds me, that’s one of the main reasons I got off birth control. The new one that she recommended for me that was covered made me stop getting my period, and it freaked me out. It didn’t feel natural. That was another thing that the ayurvedic woman said to me. She was like, as a woman it’s important for you to get your period. I don’t know if this is totally true, but she said it’s important for you to get your period every month because it’s your body’s way of getting rid of whatever’s built up.
AJ: My gynecologist told me the opposite. I mean, I had been on the pill for almost seven years, so they’re getting so much lighter, but I almost didn’t even have one for a while in high school. She told me, “Honestly, if you’re on the pill, you don’t need to get a period every month.”
VH: I would see what Faith is saying as more of a spiritual argument, like what kind of relationship you have with your body and your womanhood.
FX: I think it’s important.
VH: I think so too.
AM: For me, it’s less a spiritual thing and more of a mental health thing. I like that it’s a reminder that I’m not pregnant, and also that I’m not so medicated that there’s not some semblance of what [my body] would be otherwise.
VH: But when you’re on hormonal birth control and you get your period, is it a real period?
AJ: I’ve been on it so long, and my period is so light that if I didn’t put a tampon in, I wouldn’t even know it’s happening. It’s so light and it’s only for one day. To be fair, when I got my period two or three times a year, it was more than a week of the open floodgates and it was horrible. So now I’m like, I’ll take it. I still know my body can create the period, which is really all I care about, but it’s definitely weird that I would not know if I didn’t check.
FX: A gynecologist told me that the actual stuff that’s coming out of your body when you have a period on birth control is not the same as when you were off birth control and having your period.
VH: Yeah, your body’s just going through the motions.
AJ: How interesting!
VH: The joys of being a woman!
AJ: I get what you guys are saying, and I do truly feel that way, but I like knowing that my body can create a period every month because I know that even though it’s different when it actually comes down to fertility, there are just so many amazing things as a woman that your body can do. The fact that your body can create a human, provide food and nourishment for that human, bring that human into the world, and then still feed that human all on your own—that’s badass! It’s so cool! And you immediately have this close bond with that human because you’re like, I made you and fed you. Like, we are bound forever. So I think it’s really interesting when you talk about your period and how things like that relate to your health. It’s just—you want it because you want to know that you can do it, even though going through it is sometimes hell.
AM: Do you ever think about how crazy it is in the modern day and age that our bodies are the same bodies that humans had 10,000 years ago?
VH: Like, how did they deal with this ish when there were no tampons?!
AJ: My sister just had a home birth. Like, a home water birth with midwives, and I’m so jealous. I used to think it was disgusting, but now I really want that experience. Her midwives gave her things to prepare, like prenatal yoga and all of these things to get her body ready. Which is weird, to go back to your point, Amanda. Back in 3000 B.C., women were not getting their bodies ready for birth in the same way, and women were having babies much younger.
FX: They were also dying.
AM: But do you ever think of how funny it is that we are, like, the same animals that those people were, but instead we live in this crazy age of technology where we’re having a roundtable discussion on birth control, whereas 10,000 years ago...
AJ: You didn’t talk about it—you just did it.
VH: We actually all have a co-worker who is married and doesn’t use birth control—she just uses natural techniques.
AJ: She has to take her temperature in her waking moments, and she matches her cycles with the moon and all of this stuff, but she was also on the pill for, like, 17 years, and it ruined her body. Like, she hadn’t had a period in over nine months after going off.
FX: See, how can you hear stuff like that then not think the pill is affecting your body in a negative way?
AJ: I mean, my goal is—I feel like this is a weird goal, but as a woman, you need to sit yourself down and say, What am I doing here? Like, my goal is to be off the pill by the time I’m 27. If that means I’m married and ready to have kids, awesome. If that means I’m single and figuring it out, awesome too. But I think by the time I hit 10 years, I’m going to hit my max on extra hormones and need to get to know myself off the pill.
FX: I think I’m going through that right now. I don’t ever see myself going back to birth control. Maybe it’s because I have a very loving, understanding boyfriend, and if he were against it, it’d be much harder for me to make that decision. But he’s been so supportive of me and just doing what’s right for my body, and he’s seen how miserable I was on the pill when I couldn’t get out of bed because I had migraines.
VH: Also, it’s not the boy’s decision! Ever!
AJ: It’s not, but it makes the decision of never going on it again easier.
AM: It’s interesting what you said about getting to know your body off of birth control, because even though I didn’t feel like the NuvaRing did anything to me other than positive wonderfulness, now that I’m thinking about it, I’m actually glad that I know what my body’s like off of it. And it’s not bad! That said, I still want to go back on it.
VH: I do want to bring up—because I think it tends to be a point of contention—the difference between copper and hormonal IUDs. I was first going to do the copper (the Paraguard), because it's the only one without hormones, but then I actually was reading about some of our readers’ experiences with it in the story Deven wrote recently about birth control and was horrified by all these stories of the crazy side effects. I always associated hormonal birth control with quirky side effects, but apparently the copper IUD is really harsh on your body in different ways. So that's why, ultimately, I settled for the hormonal one.
AJ: I have a friend that has one and she seems really happy.
VH: All the people I know who've had it love theirs.
FX: Are you still supposed to get your period?
VH: Yes, but it's much lighter and infrequent. Unless it's the copper one, then it's much heavier.
FX: Do you feel like your gynecologist is helpful in terms of coming to that decision and what birth control is the best for you?
VH: I actually haven’t really consulted with the gynecologist I’m using here about it yet, because I just moved here and wanted to get my appointment on the books. This is based on my own research, and I’ve also spoken about options with my old gynecologist in New York City. Actually, she was great because she was very holistically minded but still very grounded in Western science so she could give me a well-rounded decision. She was always like, don’t go on hormones unless you feel like you really have to. It was really refreshing; I was surprised. Most people I talk to really love Skyla, which is why I’m drawn to it. It’s the smallest and has the lowest dose of hormones on the market, and it’s effective for three years.
AJ: I would love to go to an ob-gyn who was more holistically inclined.
FX: Most are like, Birth control’s fine! There are no side effects!
AJ: That’s another difficult thing. There are so many doctors who are a little more holistic than others that I would love to go to, but for so many of them, you have to have such a premium insurance or pay out of pocket.
FX: Plus with a lot of decent places, you can’t get an appointment for, like, three months.
AJ: I’ve literally started researching doctors just so I can see one by July or August. How crazy is that, that in this city, I have to make an appointment that far in advance?
VH: That’s why I just went ahead and made my appointment for my IUD! The earliest I could even get in for a consultation was two months later.
AM: It’s so crazy! That’s what I’m talking about. That’s why I haven’t gone back on the NuvaRing. This is why I’ve rationalized all these different reasons I haven’t done it, because it is so mind-bogglingly frustrating that it takes months, and sometimes hundreds of dollars to get this thing that maybe you’ve already been on for years! In this past year, I’ve told myself that this is my choice, because the fact that it isn’t kills me.
FX: I think I’ve blocked that period in my memory of me trying to get a hold of my gynecologist to get a different prescription.
AJ: I’m still in it, and I hate it. You’re on the phone nonstop with the insurance company, and then the doctor, then you’re at the pharmacy. Everyone’s telling you something different, and you’ll do anything—like, Will someone please tell me the truth? I’m an adult; I can take it. I just want my medicine. Tell me what I can do to get my medicine at a reasonable price.
AM: I want to bring up one other thing I feel like we haven’t said yet. I just want to say, people think that birth control is just this silly thing that people worry about. The thing that is so crazy to me is that birth control affects absolutely everyone. It should be something that everyone is passionate about and cares about. Not that it’s just a lady problem.
AJ: It’s an every-single-breathing–human being problem.
VH: It kills me that for a country that should be so progressive in that respect, we’re still lagging.
AJ: We’re lagging. So many other modern countries have figured it out. The rest of us need to follow suit.
What’s your own experience with birth control? Have you ever made the decision to go off the pill? Share your story in the comments below.