It was over a year ago that, awoken in the middle of the night by a severe headache that would cause me to miss work the next day, I began to realise I needed to take a break from the pill.
I started taking the combined pill, Yasmin, when I was 16, to improve typical teenage skin and hellish monthly period pains. Having discussed it at length with a brilliant contraceptive and sexual health nurse (full disclosure: she also happened to be my mum), I went to my GP, who agreed that it would be a good choice.
For seven years, Yasmin and I were perfectly happy together – or so I thought. I suffered from monthly headaches and felt highly emotional around the time of my period but, as far as I was concerned, that was just my lot. I was aboard the emotional rollercoaster of womanhood and, by all accounts, I was enjoying the ride. Artificial hormones had made my skin clearer, alleviated my period pains, protected me from unwanted pregnancy and (unexpected bonus) caused my boobs to grow. I assumed that the other symptoms would be there with or without the pill.
The NHS online lists ‘headaches, breast tenderness and mood swings’ as ‘minor’ and ‘temporary’ side effects of the combined pill, advising people to try a different pill if these don’t subside after a few months. Years after starting, I was suffering from all of these monthly but, like many others who started taking the pill in their teenage years, I couldn’t distinguish these symptoms from my ‘normal’ state.
When my headaches became more regular and intense, beginning to resemble migraines, my mum told me it was time to take a break. More and more reports of women turning away from the pill emerged, both in the press and in my personal life. Just last week, the BBC reported that the use of oral contraceptives has fallen in the last 10 years, with alternatives (such as the coil or implant) almost doubling in popularity from 21% of women in England in 2007 to 39% in 2017.
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I knew I needed a break too – but I was scared. I wouldn’t be able to skip periods and would have to risk my skin flaring and (horror!) my boobs shrinking. Combine this with a growing sense of dread about telling my boyfriend that we’d have to start using condoms and it was incredibly easy to keep putting it off. For six months, I found excuse after excuse, it was Christmas, then I had an important event coming up, then I was off on holiday – there was never a convenient moment to kick the habit.
As well as the inconvenience, my reliance ran deeper. It dawned on me that, like plenty of other young women, I had absolutely no idea what I was like without the pill. I didn’t know what my normal adult mental state was like without the input of artificial hormones and would downplay the increasingly negative effects (even to myself) to avoid the emotional and physical upheaval of giving them up. I began to wonder, was I addicted to the pill?