Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Disability and birth control: part two

Image: Two round pink plastic cases of birth control on white fabric. One is open to reveal the birth control pills inside.

This is part two of a two three-part series for Blogging Against Disableism Day. Part one is here. Unlike part one, this is a narrative. See more of BADD 2010.

When I was 19, hormonal birth control was just what you did if you were “good” about your sexuality. The (notoriously incompetent) nurse practitioners at health services of the women’s college I attended asked every patient if they were pregnant at every appointment, if they needed birth control – even if they were lesbians, even if their male lover was trans, even if they weren’t sexually active, even when they'd already said no. But even if students mentioned problems with hormonal birth control, or that they used condoms regularly, or that they didn’t have penis-in-vagina sex, birth control was still offered, even thrust upon us. It was a mandatory question, with a disapproving look or tut if it was rejected.

I was excited about the pill. The pill is (according to cultural narratives) what a responsible lady like myself does when she enters into a sexual relationship with the potential of pregnancy. I didn’t want to get pregnant – so badly that even with the pill, we still used condoms and the withdrawal method. I didn’t have a lot of shame about losing my virginity – which is a construct, but it was the construct I used at the time – but there were certain rules I needed to follow.

And it was great, for two months. My sex life was (and is) just wonderful, a revelation, a joy. The pill, too, seemed perfect. It was $5 a month. There were no mood swings or weight gain. And it relieved to a certain extent my paranoia about pregnancy.

The problems began when I went home for the summer, new relationship still intact but suddenly long-distance, friends suddenly 2000 miles away. I continued taking the pill over the summer. I wasn’t having sex but hey, once you’re on the pill, you stay on it, right?

I remember, very clearly, the morning I went crazy. It was quite a simple moment.

One day, I woke up and thought, “what if I have AIDS?”

And suddenly, I could not eat, period. I could not sleep, period. I could not think or read or write. I could not work. I could not look forward to my trip to see my boyfriend. I could not.

This remains the most terrifying time of my life – when my brain mutinied, when I literally could not think of anything else.

The fear ostensibly came from internalized slut-shaming. A year and a half prior, I’d given a few sketchballs some ill-advised blowjobs. None of these experiences were good or healthy, and some of them were not particularly consensual (you’ll be hearing more about this in a few weeks). But all of them were low-risk, and my fear of being infected was disproportionate and unrealistic (though an HIV test is a good idea for any sexually active person). When I got into a completely awesome, empowering, mutually satisfying sexual relationship, the previous year’s misadventures seemed more and more horrifying, in retrospect. I felt bad for myself and about myself. And when I took the pill that I thought made my totally awesome sexual relationship possible, it warped and twisted that shame into a monster that coated my every action and thought.

Even in the midst of this debilitating, disabling obsession, I still took the pill when my phone alarm went off at 6 pm. I’d never been good at taking pills, but I was rigorous about the pill. After all, I didn’t want to get pregnant, and the pill was the only really safe way to keep from getting pregnant, right?


I told my mom about it, and it got a little better. I got an HIV test (negative), and it got a little better. I went to see my boyfriend in Virginia, and it got a little better. By the time I came back from Virginia, I felt…okay. Not bad.

I kept taking the pill. I didn’t want to get pregnant.

Two weeks later, at some trivial trigger, my mind, suddenly, was off to the races again, and it just all came back.

It wasn’t health related, or an infection, this time. This time, it was my partner’s ex, and my conviction that he would leave me for her.

One of my partner’s exes began leaving some flirtatious messages on social networking sites. When I saw that, I was garden-variety-jealous and threatened. It didn’t seem like a big deal at first. This is what women do in relationships, right? Cheating with an ex is something we’re supposed to be afraid of, right? But instead of waning as I worked through my internalized sexism, these fears did not leave my mind.

In a paradox: I didn’t actually trust him less – my partner is and was great, and has never done anything to pique my jealousy - but the patriarchy assured me that this competition with a woman unknown to me was normal. My conditioning kicked in and helped the hormones in my body nurse an unfounded anxiety, conditioning me to see my inability to sleep and my waning appetite as okay, as normal, as just part of being in a relationship.

I was in love for the first time, and I was made insecure by the message that society sends heterosexual women: “your man, he is going to leave you. He is going to cheat on you, and another woman will steal him away.” My partner is wonderful and trustworthy and extremely monogamous, and I knew that, and I trusted in him.

But I could not, could not, could not, stop obsessing over it. It was compulsive, too: I checked his social networking page and his ex’s pages several dozen times a day, fearful of the next update or a sudden relationship change that would leave me single and heartbroken.

I wasn’t having sex, but I kept taking the pill. I don’t know why. I just thought that's what you did, didn't realize it had anything to do with my suddenly disability.

I lost 15, then 20, then 25, pounds very quickly. I lived for my partner’s expression of love every night, my one reassurance that everything was okay and I would not lose him suddenly. “Love you”, over IM or phone, would coax me to sleep, slowly – and I would wake up too few hours later and race to check his MySpace. On the rare occasion that he didn’t sign off with an expression of love, I went into hysterics. (He had no idea about my Problems, we’d only been dating a few months at that point).

When I went back to school and regained my support system, things got better. I was still anxious – still on the pill, using several other forms of birth control – but my friends could talk me down from anxiety spirals in ways my mom could not, and self-medication was plentiful. And I saw my boyfriend regularly, which assured me to some extent that I would not suddenly lose him.

In an airport on my way home for Thanksgiving, I finally made the connection between the constant anxiety, nervousness, worry, and the pill. An offhand comment to a friend about it turned to a click moment with her help – maybe this worry wasn’t normal, maybe it wasn’t a natural by product.

I threw away my pills, and things almost immediately got better. I had fun. I gained weight back. I wasn’t free of anxiety, or obsession, or compulsion, but it was no longer interfering.

But it was not the last time reproductive choice, sexism (internal and external) and hormones would gang up on my mind.

Sorry for the lateness of this post - this is difficult to write about. Later this week: Part Three!


  1. Thanks for this post. I have been wanting to write about birth control, but am too self-conscious to do so. I found your story insightful.

  2. (It seems weird to comment at you when I'll probably email you to let you know, haha!)

    Thanks for this post, it's hard to write about things like this. It's interesting to read your insights into the social constructs that prompt OCD and obsession.

    Jess (my gf) has been diagnosed with OCD since childhood and it took a long time for me to realize that, if I don't have it I at least am very symptomatic (I've never discussed it with a doctor per se). I remember staying up terrified that I was going to die from the time I was 7 or 8. Sometimes it was that I had cancer, or a heart attack, or often after that AIDS. I was knew it was totally impossible - hell, at that age I didn't even know that much about AIDS except that it was scary and fatal (although I'm sure my OCD did prompt me to be as particularly interested in AIDS research as I am). In my case, I'm pretty sure it was my mother's position as a doctor, and not any sexual acts, that gave me the head start. Every time I had a stomach flu I was convinced it was secretly cholera ;D although that might have also been the American Girl Kirsten's fault (her bff dies of that).

    Hearing other people tell the same story is pretty much always a weird deja vu moment.

    The fact that the pill can cause/worsen that so drastically is TERRIFYING.

    But my point was actually that OCD is really obnoxious because it's such an ASSOCIATIVE condition: anything you read on the news, or hear someone say, or find comforting becomes something new to be anxious about or create into a ritual. Ugh. And so you're totally right: it IS undoubtedly influenced by society. It can be helped with therapy and anti-anxiety medication, but to a large degree, OCD is a preoccupation with society and the way we interact with the world/the way it interacts with us.

    ...weird or ironic that such a fraught subject as birth control can spawn worsening symptoms of that...or maybe I'm up too late...

  3. For me, it was bipolarism that got worse when I went on Ortho Tri-Cyclin, which as of when I was a freshman in college was what they recommended for people just starting out on the pill. It gives you a different level of hormones each week of the month, which for people with mood disorders can be absolutely disasterous.

    Suddenly, I was having these mood cycles monthly. I was having days where I could predict that I would end up crying over something stupid, or end up flying into a rage over something unimportant. It was frightening, made all the worse because I hadn't been diagnosed as bipolar yet.

    When a few months went by and there was this clear 4-week cycle going on, I figured out it had to be the birth control. I went to Student Health and told them that it was making me crazy. They switched me over to Ortho Cyclin, which has a steady level of hormones, and it stopped right away. I can't tell you how relieved I was - I felt like I was losing my sanity!


  4. (came here from the Shameless Self-Promotion Sunday thread on Feministe)

    I completely empathize. I've never used the Pill as birth control, strictly speaking, but I was put on it for a while when I was underweight (and not sexually active) to try and counteract the effect of my body's lack of hormones on my bones... needless to say, seeing as one of the main reasons I didn't eat was because it meant I didn't have mood-destroying hormonal fluctuations, it didn't go so well. I've seen it negatively impact several friends with mental health issues, too. Hormonal birth control seems... invasive to me, somehow. I can't see it working, it changes my body without my consent, etc.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Blog Widget by LinkWithin