We all know the benefits of birth control pills: they're safe, effective, regulate your period (hello, cramps and flow!), help fight acne, and when taken properly, prevent pregnancy. Your hormones are under control, the sun is shining and birds are chirping your favorite song.
But what happens when you go OFF hormonal birth control pills (BCPs)? This is something rarely discussed –- or at least, discussed much less than what to expect when you go ON BCPs. So, let me share my story with you.
I went on BCPs as a teenager to help regulate my periods. They were, in a word, horrendous. I'm talking 10 days of bleeding, most of them heavy, with cramps that would double me over in pain. There was also the dreaded PMS that made my friends and parents run for cover. Birth control offered a much needed respite from all of this. It was like a magical pill -– within a couple of cycles, my period's duration was cut in half and I no longer considered buying stock in Super Plus absorbency Tampax. My skin was also clear and my cramps nearly non-existent. I was no longer debilitated 1/3 of every month. The only downside was that I could no longer get out of chores because of cramps or gross my dad out with talk of my heavy vaginal bleeding and clots. Cue the sun and singing birds.
Now, fast forward 13 years. My husband and I would like to start a family soon, so I consult with my GYN and decide to stop taking my beloved BCPs. I understand that it could take a "couple" of cycles to regulate, but otherwise, I blindly expect a smooth transition. With a mixture of excitement and trepidation, I throw out my last birth control pack. That was nine months ago.
Cue the storm clouds and dead, silent birds falling from the sky.
Within days of stopping BCPs, I start bleeding. But it's a weird bleed –- not at all like a typical period. It lasts a couple of days and then disappears as quickly as it started. No biggie. Just my body regulating, I decide. A few more days pass and I wake up to discover that my face has literally EXPLODED overnight. I went to bed with clear skin and somehow was transported back in time to age 13. Not only are there breakouts all over my face, but suddenly (and I do mean suddenly), parts of my skin are oily that never were before. Ah yes, and the "backne" also set in, which I've never ever had before.
That was only the tip of the iceberg.
I'm also extremely emotional. It gets to the point where my husband won't say hello to me when he gets home from work until he's surveyed the situation. He opens the front door to our apartment and cautiously peaks his head in. Am I curled up on the couch sobbing? Hurling insults at the cat for her "attitude"? Manically dusting everything in sight?
I also have trouble sleeping. I'll sleep for a few hours and then wake up, sweating all over, tossing and turning. The lack of good, sound sleep only adds to my unbearable bitchiness. Even I can't stand myself.
Fifty seven days pass with no period. After confirming with home pregnancy tests that I'm not pregnant, I make an appointment to see my GYN, who wants to check my hormone levels. But because these blood tests have to be taken on days 3, 14 and 21 of my cycle, I first have to bleed and jumpstart my cycle. My doc prescribes a course of synthetic progesterone that does just this. The blood tests confirm that while my hormones seem alright, I'm not ovulating. Which, by the way, isn't something you want to hear once you've decided to try to start a family. All there is to do is wait and see if my body starts to cooperate.
A couple of more months pass, and I have a period. But it lasts two days and is scanty, despite the horrible cramps that accompany it. Strange, but at least it was a period, right?
Let me add that by this point, my face hasn't cleared up and I'm the mayor of Bitchville. It's safe to say that I scare my husband and my cat won't come near me for snuggles anymore.
Another month passes, and out of the blue, I get excruciating pain in my lower left abdomen. Not to be confused with menstrual cramps, it feels like something inside of me is literally bursting. And I get so bloated I can't button my pants. This lasts for 3-4 days and I start to panic. Back to the GYN who, after examining me, informs me that I'm (finally!) ovulating -– what I feel is my follicular cysts bursting. Apparently, I'm among the small percentage of women who have painful ovulation. Yippee. Two weeks later, my period arrives, hangs out for a few days, then peaces out. Just like when I was a teen, the cramps are awful.
That was three months ago. Since then, my cycle seems to have FINALLY regulated – not your "typical" 28 day cycle, but a 35 day one, on average. I still have painful ovulations but have learned to cope (thank you heating pads and Tylenol). And while I'm sleeping better, my skin is still a proverbial shit show. I'd also like to think my moods have stabilized, as evidenced by both my husband and cat being open to snuggling and spending good quality time together. I guess you could say I'm taking the good with the bad.
I realize every woman's experience is different. Some transition quite easily from being on hormonal birth control to cold turkey, while others, like myself, struggle. Given the panoply of women's experiences, why aren't we talking about this more? Perhaps if we did, I would have been more prepared to deal with the hormonal fall-outs and the uphill battle to regulate my cycle.