One Pill and An Empty Womb
Firstly I would like to acknowledge that contraception has absolutely liberated women. It is imperative that women have a choice as to whether or not they want to have children. Superwomen like Dame Margaret Sparrow have worked hard to secure this for women in Aotearoa. If you are not sure who Dame Margaret Sparrow is... Google search her NOW she is amazing. If you are need help or advice or information about women’s health in New Zealand, Family Planning are great. I have always used and will continue to use their services alongside my GP.
This blog post is my personal contraception story. Other woman will have had very different experiences to me. Take what you like and leave the rest.
For the last 11 years hormones have been put into my body to control the ovulation of my womb. In other words, at the age of 27 years old I have been on some form of hormonal contraception since I was 14. Yes FOURTEEN. Back in year 10 at College I didn’t have any idea what a womb was (except to make babies), so I'm not sure if I was able to make informed decisions about contraception. Though I talk about this like I have some semblance of a clue now. To be honest I still don't know what hormones are or how they affect my body and the bodies of millions of women around the world. In my experience they just don’t teach you about this stuff.
The first form of contraception I was put on, at the age of 14, was the pill. This was not for sexual reasons, instead it was an attempt to control the oily skin and acne I was suffering from that was really getting me down (thank god for getting past puberty). I can’t remember exactly which one my GP at the time put me on except that it increased the risk of blood clots. For me, this early introduction to the pill was not a good experience. Sure, it did slightly assuage my unsightly, red pimples (mortifying for a teenage girl), but the side effects I experienced varied from depression, bloating, weight gain, a feeling of always needing to pee (this totally sucks), sore breasts and eventually when it mattered; a lowered sex drive. All in all, a pretty wonderful combination of side effects.
Another problem I had with the pill (when I was using it for genuine contraception) was forgetting to take it. The advice I had been given was to take the pill the same time, every single day. Otherwise if you forget a day, you can’t have sex - or run the risk of getting pregnant. This was a serious problem for a teenage girl literally struggling to get through life, navigating patriarchy, sexual relationships, the breakup of her parents, school-yard dramas and trying to fit like a square into a round hole into the dull whiteness of a suburban public school. The last thing on my mind was remembering that itty, bitty and annoying pink pill.
When you are a busy teenager, every day is different. If I took the pill at night, some nights I would be tired and fall into bed/sleep without remembering to take it. If I changed pill-time (see what I did there) to the morning, then some mornings I would sleep in and be in a rush to get to school/work/whatever and forget to take it. If I managed to remember and take the pill later, but still on the same day, it was probably okay... but I found myself worrying about it. I mean I had pretty much been told by society that having a baby at a young age is the worst thing you could do other than murder someone. So, I was going to damn well make sure I didn't have one.
Next up was condoms. Yes condoms. The type of contraception we are told is near fail-proof and has the added benefit of protecting against STDs. Too bad it doesn't feel anywhere near as good (let's be honest) and if you are 16 and your dad finds the box in your drawer (how does that even happen) he will likely yell at you and your boyfriend for 2 hours until you both drag yourself off to a party and drown your embarrassment and sorrow in RTDs (true story). Then you discover that you are allergic to latex and the intense burning sensation inside and constant need to pee is an allergic reaction... not from passion.
The next form of contraception I tried was the Depo Provera. On the Family Planning website, the Depo is a 12-weekly contraceptive injection containing progestogen. So once every 3 months I had to book an appointment with a nurse to get the Depo injected into my lower back. Ouchies! Each appointment to see the nurse cost me around $25 so over the period of a year this set me back $100. I don’t remember experiencing side effects from the Depo, but having to go see the nurse every three months for an injection turned out to be a pain and not my cup of tea (or anyone's really). At the time I was also single so I'm pretty sure my thoughts went a little bit like this:
'"Honestly fuck paying $25 for the privilege of getting an injection in my back once a month if I’m not even having sex".
So I was off the Depo and wondering where to turn to other than to full abstinence which didn’t sexually excite me - rather the opposite. At one point I considered the rod or Contraceptive Implant which is described as small rods about the size of a matchstick that are put under the skin in the inside of your arm that slowly release a hormone called progestogen (Family Planning NZ). However even as I was just thinking about it (I have a vivid imagination) I started to feel ill about having a FUCKING MATCHSTICK WTF inserted under my skin and being able to feel it there, so I concluded that perhaps this option wasn’t for me. One upside though is that it is subsidised by the New Zealand government, so wasn’t going to cost an arm and a leg. But that still wasn’t enough for me to want to get rods inserted into my arm. I guess money really isn’t everything.
So where to next? The trusty Mirena. My periods were already heavy, resulting in a diagnosis of Anaemia or iron deficiency, so a normal IUD was a no-go as they can cause further heavy bleeding. According to the Bayer website the Mirena is a hormone-releasing IUD that prevents pregnancy for up to 5 years and can also treat heavy periods in women who choose intrauterine contraception. In medical terms it is a levonorgestrel-releasing intrauterine system (wtf is that!?). I experienced minimal everyday side effects from the Mirena because the hormones are released from the IUD locally rather than throughout the whole body. However, after two or so years I developed an ovarian cyst. Today ovarian cysts are a known side effect of the Mirena, but at the time I don't remember it being discussed. I was scheduled to have surgery to remove the cyst, however the ultrasound prior to the surgery revealed that the cyst had fully dissolved by itself. I have never had any symptoms since.
All up, insertion of the Mirena set me back around $400 including appointment costs. Appointments are only free if you are under 22 which is short-sighted in my opinion because I'm pretty sure women have sex after 22. It sucks that this form of contraception is not subsidised by the Government (unless you meet certain health conditions), because it has been the only form of contraception that worked for me. I don't believe that money should be a barrier for women choosing contraception that works for them (or gives them the least amount of sometimes unbearable side effects). It is also a cost that is only met by women. Men who are in a relationship are conspicuously excluded from the burden of contraceptive costs, even though they benefit from it equally.
In my case the doctor tried three times to put the Mirena in because my cervix kept closing shop (it didn’t want an IUD in it obvs). On the third try they got me to take some pill that was designed for another totally unrelated medical condition but as a side effect was found to relax the cervix. Loving the medication afterthought for women's health there. Third time lucky and with the help of the random and unrelated medication they were able to get the IUD into my cervix. This appointment was particularly memorable for me because of the pair of seagulls outside the window of the consultation room at Lower Hutt Family Planning who were having loud, squawking sex at the time, to the amusement of my mother, the doctor and nurse.
So after a long and convoluted journey including guest stars: acne, bloating, depression, lack of sex drive, latex allergies, weight gain, constant need to pee and farewell to thousands of hard-earned dollars (working in retail during my teenage years didn't pay well) ... I finally found a type of contraception that work for me and my body. I have the absolute privilege of stress-free sex now with my loving partner.
This is my contraception story so far. I and other women would love to hear your story. Everything, the stories, the embarrassment and the laughs. Submit it to the firstname.lastname@example.org or post in the comments below.
Aroha nui x
Awa Wahine, Editor Ataria Sharman is an avid reader and writer. Her manuscript for young adults fiction novel was selected to take part in Te Papa Tupu 2018 - a programme for selected Maori writers facilitated by Huia Publishers and the Maori Literature Trust.