Every time I get the initial flow of menstrual blood, the same question crosses my mind:
In this moment, how many people have their period along with me?
How many, globally?
How many different layers of emotions do we feel? Millions, since every individual has a different perspective. Our time of the month can bring confusion, shame, celebration, pain. And perhaps:
The shock of a very first period.
Fear of how much the cramps may hurt.
Anger at having to smile despite discomfort.
Annoyance that this is the way biology works.
Relief at an empty uterus.
Disappointment at an empty uterus.
The birth-control user’s lack of surprise.
The birth-control user’s betrayal…
“You’re using protection, right?” I asked my friend, who lives in Texas with her boyfriend. We were chatting on the phone about the state’s new law which bans abortions later than 6 weeks.
“Yea, yea, I’m on the pill,” she told me. “Don’t worry.”
“Might want to stock up on pregnancy tests anyways,” I said, half-joking.
That night, she took a pregnancy test, half-joking. Then she took another. And another.
Pregnant when you don’t want to be, in Texas. Yikes.
The pill is not 100% effective at preventing pregnancy. No contraceptive is 100% effective.
My friend was able to make the choice she wanted. She was 5.5 weeks along, just under the cutoff for legal abortion in Texas. And yet, she was only one day late on her period. I don’t even understand how that’s possible?
The human body remains a mystery to me in many ways, but in my early 20s I had even less of a grasp on the reproduction process. I barely understood how babies are made. All I knew was SEX=PREGNANCY. So in college, when I began dating my first boyfriend and became sexually active, I went to the student health clinic right away.
“I need birth control,” I told the nurse.
“Are you a forgetful person?” he asked.
I scratched my head. This felt like one of those personality quizzes where you think too hard about an abstract question and end up miscategorizing yourself.
“I guess sometimes I can forget things,” I told him, although the last time I forgot anything important was sometime back in 2009.
“Well, with the pill, you have to remember to take it at the same time every day,” the nurse told me. “But there’s another option: you can get a shot in your arm and it will prevent pregnancy for 3 months.”
“Wow!” I began to roll up my sleeve, “say no more!”
A few weeks later I was an emotional wreck. Tears streamed down my cheeks as I rode my skateboard to classes. In the back of classrooms, I hunched over my notebook as tears dripped down and stained the pages. It seemed like I cried a pint of tears per day.
If I wasn’t crying I was lost in a mental fog. I spent evenings curled in my upper bunk bed, feeling like I’d already died and was now trapped inside this warm body. When my boyfriend knocked at my dorm room, I would open the door just wide enough to poke my nose out and say “please go away.” The birth control shot was working. I was too depressed to ever have sex.
At first I thought I was going crazy. Then I stumbled across a Reddit thread that made me realize I was not alone. It clicked: I was having side effects. Since the shot is strong enough to last 3 months, it can really mess with your body’s chemistry. But there’s nothing you can do except wait it out.
As soon as those 3 months of hell were over, I returned to the clinic.
“Please, give me the pill instead,” I asked the nurse. I showed him the daily alarm I’d set on my phone. He nodded in approval.
It took another few months to feel like my brain was getting back to normal. After half a year on the pill, I was no longer so numb. But I still didn’t feel like myself. My mood vacillated between irrationally angry and jumpy over nothing. I blamed everything else in my life, except the pill. How could that be the culprit? Isn’t this what every modern woman takes?
One morning when I was skating to my job at the campus bike shop, I had a panic attack. My skateboard escaped from beneath my feet and swiftly rolled downhill until it collided with a tree. My vision blurred and my lungs stopped taking in oxygen. I had to sit down on the edge on the sidewalk because my legs were shaking too much to stand.
After that day, I stopped refilling my prescription. And I gave up on trying other forms of hormonal birth control. It just wasn’t going to work for me.
I turned to the baskets of free condoms near the entrance of the health clinic. These gave me the freedom to be sexually active without getting pregnant or destroying my mental health. But of course condoms can break, so this period of my life was not worry-free.
Fast forward a few years. Now I’m married, and although I hope to have kids in the future, I don’t want to get pregnant until my husband has a job and health insurance.
So not too long ago, I took a deep breath and began to research birth control options.
I realized there was a lot I still didn’t know about reproduction. For example, the female body cannot get pregnant at any time of the month. What? I was stunned to learn that there is a fertile window during which conception can happen, and throughout the rest of the cycle it’s not physiologically possible.
If I could learn to accurately read my body’s cues to keep track of when I was fertile, I would feel a lot more knowledgable and secure about having sex.
This is far more scientific than the guesstimation of the infamous Rhythm Method. When you observe more than one fertility indication, it actually has decent effectiveness, better than condoms (See Sympto-Thermal method on this list.) Of course, pinning down ovulation is not as straightforward as tracking menstruation. There’s a definite learning curve and diligence required. This method isn’t for everyone, because no single birth control is right for everyone.
Since I’d always assumed birth control was one size fits all, it took me too long to accept that I was having a bad reaction to synthetic hormones. I wish I could go back and tell myself to be more discerning and ask questions before taking the first prescription offered. And I wish I could go back to tell myself how empowering it is to understand the biology of my body.
My friend who was betrayed by the pill told me she felt uncertain how to move forward. I suggested she double up. Along with the pill, she could use fertility awareness to plan when to use condoms. Can’t be too careful in Texas…
These days when I get my period I still feel a moment of solidarity with everyone else in the world who also has it. And I’ve added a new emotion to my personal list: excitement.
Oooh, I get to start a new cycle chart!
In this era where women’s right to reproductive choice is being curtailed, let’s remember:
“We want far better reasons for having children than not knowing how to prevent them.” — Dora Russell