Sometime around Christmas at age 14, I noticed a sharp pain in the lower right section of my stomach — a telltale sign of appendicitis. I was quickly scheduled for an emergency appendectomy.
But while the doctors were operating, they realized it wasn’t appendicitis. Apparently a huge ovarian cyst had burst in my body, leaving me doubled over in pain.
I remember lying in a creaky bed in the hospital’s pediatric unit, which was decorated for Christmas with lights, trees, and stuffed animals.
All I wanted post-surgery was to watch the movie “Madeline,” because the main character also had appendicitis. I had the doll at home and I could match my new scar to hers.
My mom turned off the movie when a new OB-GYN walked in to check on me. She told me about the burst cyst and sent me home with a prescription for birth control pills to try to keep the abnormal growths in check.
It would mark the beginning of more than a decade of enduring the side effects of the pill, along with other types of hormonal birth control.
But eventually I decided to break up with them all for good. Here’s what happened.
I was 15 when I started taking the pill. I was incredibly self-conscious, struggling to fit in at a very religious high school. The first birth control pill I tried made me puffy with water weight that crushed my confidence.
After 6 months, I switched to Yaz, which brought down some of the bloat. But my doctors and I still didn’t know if they were stopping my golf ball–sized cysts from growing, which was my main reason for taking them.
I eventually went off to college, still taking the pills. By that time, I had been diagnosed with anxiety, and I started to wonder if the pills were making my mental health worse.
In a flurry of frustration, I decided to stop taking them — but the boycott was only temporary. Having sex without the pill just wasn’t convenient, so back on it I went.
My relationship with birth control changed significantly when I was 22. That’s when my dad was diagnosed with a blood clotting disorder called Factor V Leiden, which makes you more prone to developing blood clots if you’re injured.
And guess who had the genetic marker for the condition? Me, the person who had spent years taking birth control pills that increase the risk of blood clots.
I brought it up with my doctor, who explained that my newfound genetic risks made it too dangerous for me to take any birth control pills with estrogen in them.
And thus began my foray into the land of estrogen-free birth control options. I switched to the progestin mini pill, which had to be taken at the same time every day, only to end up with terrible chest and back acne, plus mood swings and missed periods.
I tried an intrauterine device (IUD), but after 6 weeks of terrible cramps, I decided to get it removed.
Eager for another option, I researched the patch, the rod, and other kinds of IUDs. But when my new nurse practitioner explained the side effects of each one, I realized that they didn’t feel worth the risks. I felt trapped.
The final blow to my fraught relationship with birth control was a research article about how our choices in a partner might change based on the type of contraception a person is taking. It made me question whether I truly knew myself at all.
After more than a decade spent taking these hormone-based medications, was my anxiety mine or was it a side effect? Was my husband the right choice for me, or did I just pick him because birth control was tricking my body into thinking it was pregnant each month?
Did I have to endure skipped periods forever? What did my regular cycle even look like?
At my next check-up, my nurse practitioner tried to talk me into the benefits of birth control yet again. But this time, I wasn’t swayed. Instead, I left my new prescription for the progestin mini pills at the pharmacy.
At age 26, I was off hormonal birth control for the first time.
For the next 3 years, my husband and I used condoms and the pull-out method successfully and I relished in getting to know myself without a swarm of symptoms chasing me down. My skin cleared up, I lost weight, and my PMS symptoms reduced dramatically. I felt sure of myself and confident in my choice.
When it came time to think about getting pregnant, there was no waiting period. I could track my 28-day cycles each month. We got pregnant the first month we tried.
My son is almost 1 1/2 years old now, and despite my midwife’s urging, I’ve chosen to remain off hormonal birth control.
I can’t carry the weight of all those additional side effects around with me again, especially after dealing with postpartum post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and a variety of other mood challenges in the wake of my son’s birth.
I’m just not willing to mess with this balance that’s taken so long to find.
When people ask me about the decision to ditch hormonal birth control, I’m steadfast.
I’m among the first generation of people who were put on these pills at a young age, and I wonder about the decision to push young teenagers into taking pills that can mess with their moods and their body’s rhythms, especially during a seminal time in development.
What if there was an option, instead, for education and empowerment? What if we had more of a choice?
And what if, perhaps most importantly, the impetus for family planning landed as squarely on all sexual partners, not just on those who can get pregnant?
Back when I was 15 and held down by bloat, water weight, and the terror of bursting cysts, I might have made a different decision about taking birth control pills if other choices had been presented to me.
And when I watch the world boil about the possible blood clot risks associated with the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, I can’t help but think: Why wasn’t someone more worried about that for me from the start, with Yaz?
I wish people didn’t think of the birth control pill (or any other kind of contraception) as a one-size-fits-all option.
But I’m glad, at least, that I exercised my own power and decision-making skills by stepping away from medications that weren’t working for me when I was in my mid-20s.
It set the stage for making empowered decisions about my body and my health — which feels to me like the most feminist option of all.
Jenni Gritters writes essays, tests products, and creates content for mission-driven brands. She has a decade of experience working in journalism, is the co-host of the business podcast The Writer’s Co-op, and offers career coaching for freelancers. Learn more about her on her website or follow her on Twitter.