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Illustration of contraceptivesiStock / BBC Three

My contraceptive pill and me

Have we fallen out of love with the drug that revolutionised our sex lives?

Edwina Langley

It's more than 50 years since the pill first became available to "all women" on the NHS – and hormonal contraception is back in the spotlight.

From the development of the male pill, to apps which claim to help prevent pregnancy ‘naturally', the headlines over the last year have been contradictory, attention-grabbing and sometimes frightening.

Worries over the safety of hormonal contraceptive interventions have meant some women have undertaken a so-called 'birth control detox' and are increasingly turning to natural family planning methods to avoid pregnancy, which are by no means a guaranteed form of contraception.

The pill remains a very popular form of contraceptive. It was estimated to be used by more than 40% of women accessing contraception through sexual health services in 2017 - but its use has fallen over the past decade.

When taken correctly, it is more than 99% effective at preventing pregnancy.

But a recent survey by website The Femedic, found almost 50% of 1,000 women in the UK had experienced “serious trouble” with hormonal contraceptives. The same research found "just one in four women believe the potential side effects of their chosen form of contraception are explained to them in depth".

Eye-opening considering that in certain circumstances, possible side effects such as bleeding, blood clots or suicidal thoughts could be life-changing, even life-threatening.

Earlier this week, the BBC's Horizon investigated claims that the pill may not be as safe as we previously believed.

The Contraceptive Pill: Is It Safe? is presented by GP Dr Zoe Williams, who says: "We're aware that some people taking the pill can have problems with their mental health, but we don’t yet know the pill is causing this."

BBC Three asked a range of women and men to speak about their experiences on the contraceptive pill – the good, the bad and the surprising.

Lightning bolt through a woman's headiStock / BBC Three

“I had a stroke because of the pill – we need better education about the impact of long-term use”

Sophie, 33

Age 15, I started using the combined oral contraceptive pill. I used it right up until I had my first planned pregnancy age 24, then again until I came off it to have my second baby at 27. I went back on it after that and was totally happy with it.

I've always experienced headaches before my period. But in January this year, I started to suffer really bad migraines. I was prescribed different things by doctors but with a full-time job and two kids, I had to keep going and trust it would pass.

One evening in February my brother called and I found I couldn’t speak. He was asking if I was OK and although I could 'think' the answers, I couldn't physically say them. I’d had a glass of wine, so dismissed my worries and went to bed.

My husband later told me I had a seizure at 4am the next morning. I had three more on the way to hospital. An emergency CT scan revealed I had a blood clot at the base of my brain. I was put in an induced coma for 24 hours to stop any more seizures.

I was out of it for the next three weeks. The part of my brain that controlled my speech was damaged, so words wouldn’t come out. I couldn’t walk, either.

My specialist put my CVST stroke – which is what it turned out to be – down to the pill. They did a case study on me because I was fit, healthy and not overweight. They found there were no other factors that it could have been caused by.

I'm very lucky to be here. It could have been fatal. The neurologist told my husband I might never get my speech back, might never walk again and that people can suffer after-effects such as blindness.

I feel fine today. My husband has since had a vasectomy. We have two healthy children and I don’t want to put anything into my body that’s not natural. He said it was the least he could do – and although it was painful, he was back at work the next day.

It's important that women aren't made to feel scared of the pill but health services should remind them at check-ups that there can be negative side effects, especially if they've been on it for a long time. People should know that one of those side effects could be a stroke. 

Illustration of a Nuvaring deviceiStock / BBC Three

“I’m sick of contraception being seen as just a woman’s issue”

*Laura, 33

I feel like I've tried it all: I started taking the combined pill in my first year of university. Condoms had been great, but were expensive. My boyfriend at the time complained that he was spending too much on them and didn’t like how they felt.

Taking that pill was my first experience of feeling slightly out of my own body. My behaviour changed. I was much more emotional than I had been. When I burst into tears after losing a glove, I decided to come off it.

I moved on to the vaginal ring – a transparent plastic circle with hormonal birth control that's inserted into the vagina.

A friend of mine had used it and was singing its praises. You didn’t need to remember to take it at certain times of day, like they recommend with the pill. It was a no-brainer for me as a student, whose sleeping pattern was, unsurprisingly, irregular. But it was a nightmare.

It's like a condom, without the shaft. You pinch it and place it inside yourself and take it out at the end of the month. It’s supposed to release fewer hormones than the pill, because it sends them right into your ovaries. But I was getting really aggro and on edge, as if I had PMT all the time. It also came out on occasion during sex. 

I tried the hormonal coil next, which is a small plastic T-shaped device that gets implanted by a nurse. By this point, I was desperate to find something that worked for me.

Having the coil put in made me feel surprisingly vulnerable.

The procedure was done in a clinic and afterwards I felt invaded and upset. It was like someone had been tinkering around inside me and it was incredibly painful. It took me by surprise, to be honest.

Afterwards, I had waves of pain and cramping and at one point, was taking painkillers every three hours. Eventually, I had it taken out.

After that, I decided to go for the ‘pull out and pray’ method. I was worried for the first year but became complacent. I wanted to feel like myself, so it felt like the right thing to do.

It worked for six years, until June, when I fell pregnant. I'm married and was ready for a child, so it was a happy ending, although it was still a wake-up call that it's foolish to rely on that method.

I hope there will one day be an option out there that won’t make me feel like I’m losing my sense of self, self-control or my mind.

Illustration of male contraceptive pilliStock / BBC Three

“I got a girl pregnant by accident, now I wish I could take a male pill”

Zack, 23

I was 15 when I first used a condom. The experience was very new to me, only knowing what to do from what I'd watched online.

Condoms have split on me a few times. It makes you feel embarrassed. They come in different sizes, so you'd think bigger ones shouldn’t break, but when they do, it’s like: “Oh, my god…” My main panic is that the girl will fall pregnant.

Last year, I was in a relationship and we used condoms for six months. She told me she was on the pill, so I thought we didn't need them anymore. But she ended up pregnant.

She wanted an abortion, no matter what. I thought, “Why can’t we keep it?”. I was upset, because this felt like my kid, too.

After that, she changed her number and we stopped talking. I tried to get in contact but she wouldn’t let me. It was the most awful situation because I wanted to support her through that process.

A male pill? Give me one. I’d take it to be on the safe side, every day, not a problem.

But if I told a girl I was taking the pill, they’d say, “What, are you serious?”. They wouldn’t believe me, would they?

“I got really bad acne... the pill became my worst enemy”

*Stacey, 28

I started using contraception when I was in my late teens, at the same time as my school friends in Australia.

I was on the pill for a bit, then I got an implant in my arm, which was there for three years. When I moved to England, I had it taken out and went on the pill again.

That’s when I started getting all these migraines.

I was in the doctors most weeks and even had an MRI scan because they were worried I had a brain tumour. Finally they figured out I was lactose intolerant, so I cut out dairy but it took a while for them to realise my pill contained a high dose of lactose as well. I was prescribed a lactose-free pill but came off that in January 2015.

It was then that I went through hell.

For a year afterwards I suffered the worst cystic acne. This is when bacteria gets trapped under your skin and you develop these huge spots (for me, they were all over my chin). I'd grown up with perfect skin and went through my teenage years with not a single one. 

I spiralled into depression – constantly feeling low. I wore so much make-up (which only made it worse), did cleanses, exercised regularly, ate well, but it didn’t go away.

My doctor eventually told me it was due to a hormone imbalance as a result of using the pill. During that time, I also developed ovarian cysts which were so painful I was hospitalised a few times. My gynaecologist said that could often happen from coming off the pill, as well.

Today, my acne has subsided. I don’t use any contraception now. I’m with a long-term boyfriend and we use the old-fashioned ‘pull out’ method. It has been three years and I’ve not had one pregnancy scare but every time we have sex, I feel slightly nervous about it.

If I have ever a daughter I'll never let her take the pill. It was my worst enemy.

Illustration of an IUD in a heart shapeiStock / BBC Three

“I am in love with my IUD – we’re lucky to have the access to contraception that we do”

*Stephanie, 23

I first took the pill when I was 16. Not because I was having sex – I didn’t until I was 19 – but just because… In all honesty, that’s what my friends were doing. I was educated in health class about different forms of contraception and being on it was like staying ahead of the curve.

I remained on the pill until February of last year, when I got a coil which works like the pill but you don't have to remember to take it every day - and it lasts for five years. I'm in love with my IUD. It was the best decision I ever made.

Even getting it implanted was a breeze. I'd built it up in my head so much, that when it happened, the pain was laughable. I'd heard horror stories of people who'd experienced seizures, had been bedridden afterwards and even some who had extreme weight gain.

I experienced very minimal spotting for the first three weeks and only get my period every four to six months now.

It’s such a dream, both financially and mentally. I feel more in control of my sexual health since getting it.

“I got pregnant on the pill – no contraceptive is 100% safe and the results can be life-changing”

*Beth, 31

I was put on the pill by my school nurse when I was 16. She just put every girl on it for no good reason. I wasn’t even particularly sexually active.

It was one that's often prescribed for girls with severe acne but I shouldn’t have been on because I get migraines with aura – where I lose my sight and vomit.

I later swapped to a better, combined contraceptive pill, which is the best pill I’ve been on. I felt normal. But 18 months later, I unexpectedly found out I was pregnant.

I felt upset, overwhelmed and disappointed in myself. I'd taken the pill every day at the same time. I even had an alarm on my phone reminding me to take it.

It was one of the worst experiences of my life. I didn’t want to have a termination. Not because I wanted a baby with somebody I'd only been with a few months but because I didn’t want to go through the trauma of an abortion. But eventually, I realised it was the right decision.

I had the copper coil inserted at the same time I had my abortion. It was excruciating and my body rejected it six weeks later.

I was very wary of men after that. But then I met my (now) husband. We used natural family planning, relying on an app where you enter in the dates of your period and it tells you when you’re less likely to conceive.

We didn’t use condoms and were fine for two years. In July this year, I became pregnant. We’d been trying, so it is the best thing in the world.

Overall, I still think the contraceptive pill is a wonderful thing, as it gives women choice and control over their lives. I hope it becomes available for free to more people globally.

"I plan to be on the pill until I start trying for a baby"

*Harrinder, 32

I felt very grown up getting my first prescription for the pill from my doctor aged 17. My mum went with me to get it, which was really embarrassing, but I knew I didn’t want ‘a little accident' as I had dreams of going to university.

For me, it's been a positive experience. Straight away the pill regulated my periods and made them lighter. It cleared up my spots. It also gave me control of my body by letting me skip a period when I knew I’d be going on holiday or much later, running a marathon.

Looking back, perhaps I experienced mood swings but who knows if they were directly linked to the pill? 

When I was younger, I would stop taking the pill when a relationship ended and I was single again. It always made me feel strangely sad to confine those foil packets to the back of the cupboard, not knowing when they might come in handy again.

I’m married now and have been on the pill for a long time but that doesn’t worry me. Whenever I go to get a new prescription, a doctor always takes my blood pressure and makes a point of explaining about the side effects. I've never felt worried, as I don't smoke and am not overweight. 

One time, however, I read something about being twice as likely to suffer a clot because I was on the pill. I was really upset. I went home and called my doctor who told me the risks were still very small.

So I've continued on the pill and plan to do so until the day I start a family. I know I’ve been lucky to have such a good experience.

*Some names have been changed