I’m Still Taking Birth Control After 20+ Years, But the Reason Has Changed

a pink sign being held up that says "Don't take away my birth control" in front of a building
Image by Charlotte Cooper / CC BY

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been terrified of getting pregnant.

I suppose it didn’t help that one of my formative experiences surrounding pregnancy involved a teen mom who looked miserable. She was the daughter of one of my mom’s friends. Had gotten pregnant in high school. And whenever my mother and I would stop by to visit her friend, this teen mom daughter was inevitably there, chasing a toddler with a weary look in her eyes.

I’d seen that look before. She looked trapped. Done with everything.

I was in kindergarten or first grade at the time. Made a note to myself, “Don’t end up a teen mom.”

Later, when I got to middle school and a few peers got pregnant, I thought to myself, If that ever happened to me, I’d kill myself.

Because getting an abortion seemed like a logistical impossibility. In the Maine woods with a mother who monitored my every movement. Never would have allowed me the privacy or space to abscond and go off on such an adventure. Let alone something like give parental permission.

If I got pregnant, she’d expect me to raise it. And I’d get the same trapped look in my eyes that her friend’s daughter always had.

I’d read stories about newborn babies being found abandoned in public places. In Walmart bathrooms. Dumpsters.

While I never thought of giving birth and abandoning the newborn as a good idea, part of me understood that desperation. What would lead someone to that. I didn’t think of myself as any better than women who did that. Because to me suicide really seemed the only realistic path I’d have if I got knocked up.

Protecting Myself Long Before I Was Subjected to the Risk

At 11, I asked my older sister, the person I trusted most in the world, if she could buy me condoms. She handed these to me two days later, pressing them into my palm, telling me, “If you ever need anything you can’t ask from Mom, you call me. You need a ride home? Even if you’re somewhere you shouldn’t have been… you call me. I won’t ask questions.”

She was 18 but grounded and mature. Being the only out lesbian in a small town does that to you. You age quickly. And stop giving a shit about things that other people do.

Besides, she knew how much of a terror our mom could be. How hard to come to about anything that mattered.

I carried those condoms around, not actually needing them. But I felt safer with them in my pocket.

I went on hormonal birth control as soon as I could figure out how to get it without parental consent and to afford what it cost out of pocket without insurance since if my insurance were billed, my parents might see what I was up to. I didn’t trust the doctor’s assurance that she’d tell them it was to regulate my periods.

“They’ll never believe that,” I told them. “And they think it’s a sin no matter why you’re taking it.”

So at 14, I started buying my own birth control at the community health center, using money I earned gigging and taking as many free samples as the nurse would give me.

And in spite of having condoms on me at 11 and taking the pill since 14, I didn’t actually have sex with a boy until I was 17. (I did have sex with girls, however, starting around 12, although that obviously posed no pregnancy risk).

But that’s how scared I was of pregnancy. I didn’t want to wait until it was actually a credible threat to protect myself against it. I wasn’t taking that risk.

I Tried to Come Off the Pill, But I Couldn’t

While the exact formulation changed depending on what was going on in my life at the time (i.e., gained or lost weight, wanted clearer skin, etc.), I took hormonal birth control from the ages of 14 to 33.

When my male partner got a vasectomy and later the lab confirmation that it had taken, I decided I’d come off the pill. I’d been dealing with miscellaneous side effects of the pill for about 20 years (different ones depending on which type) and thought maybe I’d lose weight a bit easier if I weren’t on hormones.

So I stopped taking hormones. And a curious thing happened over the next handful of months.

I developed debilitating chronic abdominopelvic pain. I’d have episodes where I’d be gripped with pain so severe and even radiating down into my right leg that I could barely walk. Particularly around the time of my period as well as during ovulation.

In spite of the fact that I hated going to the doctor and feared she’d roll her eyes at me for coming in with what were essentially monster cramps, I went in.

She examined me, ordered tests. After a series of visits and examinations, we discovered I had endometriosis.

The treatment for this? Hormonal birth control.

Lovely.

It was entirely possible, she told me, that I’d had this condition my entire life and had been treating it without realizing it, taking the pills for another reason altogether.

Not Being Able to Defend Myself Against An Unspoken Allegation and Judging Myself for Even Wanting to

It was curious the first time I went to the pharmacy after my diagnosis of endometriosis to fill the prescription, and the person waiting on me gave me the look. That look. If you’re a woman who has ever bought condoms, birth control, or the morning after pill, you know the one I’m talking about.

The one where the person behind the counter is judging you. The one that says Of course this chick is picking up whore pills.

They don’t say it of course. But you can tell which people would refuse you service if they could. If those laws protecting healthcare workers’ right to refuse to treat patients on religious grounds ever took off in a broad way.

And when she did, when she gave me that look, it was profoundly confusing to me. In the past, my usual tactic would have been to reply in my head, Damn right I’m taking the “whore pills.” They’re delicious. They taste like freedom. Shame on you if you can’t understand that.

But I found myself irritated, confused.

I wanted to tell her, “Look, you need to stop judging people. I’m taking this because I have a chronic pain issue. And there are people out there who are in the same boat, for reasons that have nothing to do with sex. Your sex negativity is crappy all of the time but particularly misguided right now. I need these to function. I could be celibate, and I’d still need to take these.”

But I couldn’t. I couldn’t defend myself against an allegation that wasn’t being made aloud.

Especially not an allegation that I could have very well been imagining. A product of a paranoid and unfair interpretation of her facial expressions.

But my gut told me that I was on to something. And I left, feeling layers of conflict thrum through me. Frustrated that I couldn’t defend myself against an allegation that wasn’t being made aloud.

And irritated with myself that I even wanted to. Because there’s nothing wrong with taking hormones to prevent pregnancy. But my urge to argue with her hinted that I might not fully believe that. That I may have just pushed that shame down low where it wouldn’t interfere with what I needed to do but where it still festered, out of sight.

I made a promise to myself then, to never again scan the face of anyone at that pharmacy. No need to subject myself to such useless information, like whether or not the person behind the counter judged me.

*

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