How Getting Off Of Hormone-Based Birth Control Changed My Life
My journey with hormone-induced anxiety/depression, discovering who I was off of them, and why we as a society NEED to further studies on birth control options.
It’s wild, realizing that I might have never had anxiety/depression. It’s wild knowing that it all might have come down to my hormones being tampered with. It’s confounding knowing that an equally reliable, fuss free, non-to-minimally-invasive-hormone free birth control option literally does not exist. But we’ll get to that later. Four weeks ago I took out a birth control device I’ve had in me for the last seven months, and it is the first time I have been hormone free in the last five years. After years of being told by multiple psychiatrists and my parents to try antidepressants (and me down playing it like they were WAY over reacting and saying I was fine), I gave my last ditch effort. I needed to see what happened if I didn’t have any extra influences.
WHO AM I IN MY PUREST FORM?
Five years of being pumped with hormones. These were from ages nineteen to twenty-four… truly formative years. In these five years I went through my last three years of college and graduated, did my post graduate studies, went through several relationships/break ups, moved/traveled/taught abroad, and finally had my first year and a half of living in LA.
Needless to say there were SO MANY LIFE CHANGES, so my fluctuating happiness and often inexplicable outbursts of emotions were never a question of me, but of my circumstances and how I was dealing with them. “Highly functioning anxiety/depression disorder”. That’s what they called it. It hasn’t been until these last nine months when everything was *perfect*, that I realized something else was wrong (me).
In the last nine months, I have been elated with building my career in LA, found a great support job, fell in love with the most *perfect* boyfriend (yes, actually), adopted and raised the most incredible little kitten you will ever meet, created a clean and inspiring apartment for a killer rate (YAY Koreatown!), have a wonderful roommate, everyone I know and love and care about it alive and kickin’, my health is excellent…
EVERYTHING IS GREAT. SO WHY DO I FEEL THIS WAY?
I asked myself this question every day for nine months. Of course, nine months ago is not when these feelings started, but when I had nothing else to pin them on. This was unlike my first 6 months in LA, when things were very rocky (searching relentlessly for support jobs, many weird dating experiences, apartment hunting and moving, not enough time to focus on my career with so much life stuff, etc.).
So why when everything finally became good and steady did nothing inside of me change? I did many things to interrogate this question. I have always obsessed over my external influences (or potential influences). I’ve tried every kind of diet and nutritional lifestyle change there has to be tried to see if food could heal my mind, to no avail. Last year I stopped drinking for several months, but that didn’t help. This summer I worked out every day, but that didn’t change too much (except a burst of endorphins post work out and a smaller waist line yay!). The week before I went off of hormones I surrounded myself with people (I am the world’s largest extrovert), and even THAT did not make me feel better. Then I started to think maybe there was some dark psychodrama I hadn’t confronted or even weird past life stuff that wasn’t yet remembered (yes, I considered literally everything).
But then I realized I had never considered influences coming from inside of me, like my own body. I had done nutritional testing in the past to see if I was deficient in anything. Positive! Needed thyroid medication and a few vitamin supplements. So I made sure to take those consistently, had more energy…. roller coaster emotions were still the same though.
Then suddenly I had many physical changes along with the emotional turbulence, and one random October night turned to good ol’ trustee Google. I typed in my list and to my horror (and relief) found blog after blog after blog of women discussing how hormone-based birth control had plagued them with THE EXACT SAME LIST AS MINE. I stayed up until 3 am that night, reading about how my years of “being too sensitive” and “freaking out all the time for no reason” was utterly and completely validated in these women. We weren’t “women being women”. We were wonderful but clueless human beings who had to figure out the very hard way how destructive additional hormones can be in some human bodies. I finally had my answer!!! It was the adult version of drinking a warm glass of milk before bedtime.
This is what I had told myself for so long. Not to be so sensitive. Not to take on all the other crap of other people and situations as my own. To own my energy field, my mind, my life. To take life by the horns. But it never felt that easy. Forget about easy, it never even felt possible to pep talk myself out of the bouts that came on. You see it’s very hard to talk your way out of a chemical reaction. I did several months of therapy, had endless meditation/positive mindset audio books, decorated my mirrors with affirmations, had beautiful, magical conversations with friends and loved ones. And yes, those things were always sweet.
But that’s just the point. They were sweet. Lovely. Occasionally gratifying. Never moving. Never moving those feelings away. But why? Why couldn’t I just remind myself about how inextricably lucky I was and how many beautiful things I had in my life and feel better? Why did I cry endlessly, often, for absolutely no reason? That’s the hardest thing to describe: what hormone-induced anxiety/depression felt like.
MY DARK CLOUD, INTERROGATED.
My hormone-induced anxiety/depression was one of three feelings. Any one to three of these feelings happened at any moment. In no particular order, the first feeling was anxiety. Anxiety made many days feel like a little person was hammering away inside my chest cavity. That caused the relentless, inane panic. I would often gasp for air until I realized it had been a while since I had inhaled. Sometimes I would come home at night and feel like I was panicking as I was just brushing my teeth and trying to get ready for bed. Other times it was the smaller stuff like hating every possible text response, so just not responding and making the situation worse.
Anxiety looks calm, but behind it is a plethora of overthinking and questioning of one’s self. This was especially evident in the last kind of birth control I was on, it was only Progesterone based. Progesterone is supposed to make people feel calmer if anything. But for me it only sedated my impulses, which made me feel like my confidence was waning day by day. I questioned everything I did and calculated myself often into a state of silence or inaction. The paralysis Progesterone gave me felt everything but calming. It was maddening. Worst of all, it made me question the people and things I loved most and felt closest to in my life. I was quick to see the worst and was always afraid I was being taken advantage of. Fortunately the paralysis prevented me from taking action to ending any of these relationships/endeavors. Now this all makes sense as some studies show that the risk for anxiety/depression can run up to 34% higher in a progesterone-only based birth control.
Anxiety escorted my choices of what took precedence at the moment-to-moment level. So albeit knowing my categorical priorities in life, my choices didn’t reflect them when the anxiety came on. Meaning no matter what really mattered, if I felt pressed about something specific I would rail to the ends of the earth to make it happen. For example, one night a stronger bout of anxiety hit me and I suddenly decided I desperately needed to clean… despite already having plans with my wonderful boyfriend who I had not seen all week and who was already on his way up to LA. I thought I was just in “one of my cleaning whirlwinds”. But because of this bout, I was so stressed and upset about wanting to finish cleaning that I was still unshowered and in my PJs, scrubbing the floors in my frizzy bun when he walked in ready for our movie and cocktail night. He insisted on helping but I shut down all offers, so he made me a drink in the meantime and patiently sat while I finished cleaning. That night we ended up staying home and going to sleep early. He was always calm and did what I asked throughout my bouts, but the point is he shouldn’t have had to. He deserved someone thrilled to see him and ready to decompress and have a fun night after a long week, and I deserved that night too.
The second feeling was the depression. It could make me randomly devastated for no reason in the most inane moments. These were the days when anything could set me off and I spent all of my energy holding back tears. I would fall silent because talking lifted the upper palette in my throat and anything other than clenching down would let the tears out. The depression was random. It wasn’t like I was just more apt to be upset after a hard day. It was tears, so many tears, and constantly getting sick of the tears. I would be in the middle of a meeting and suddenly feel the need to hole up and cry. Sometimes I told myself I had thirty seconds to cry while my coffee re-heated up in the microwave, after that I had to be done. I would get off the phone with someone I love and just start bawling, for no apparent reason except that maybe something we said on the call tapped into something I had not yet subconsciously recognized. I usually blamed myself. I remember this perfect Sunday afternoon I had with my boyfriend last spring (yes apparently he is the person in every antidote…patient guy). We went to the beach and rode bicycles up the sand, strolled around the farmer’s market, came home and made coffee, did cooking and some work for the week, and finally ended the night with a movie and a bottle of Cabernet. Yet somehow amidst this absolutely perfect day, I was on the verge of crying all day. I felt so incredibly sad, distant, and worried. Was there something I wasn’t picking up on? Everything felt like this complicated, crazy, whirlwind puzzle that there was just never enough time to figure out. The confusion made me further spiral.
The third feeling was just a melancholy backdrop hanging behind even the most beautiful moments. There isn’t much to describe in this, except that I could be sharing wine with friends or at a birthday party or watching Netflix with my cat (all things I love), and just feel bummed. Not sad, not anxious, just sort of blandly disappointed. This is when I just felt like a brat. A mopey, ungrateful brat. Then the disappointment would turn into a sedated anger, and I would just feel pissed off at myself (and then by consequence, others). When it translated to how I felt towards others, I felt like everyone was in my space, bothering me, needing to back off, needing to give me space. Whether or not the melancholia morphed into anger, I eventually trickled into a state of numbness. I would look at people I absolutely love and think, “Logically I know I love them. I just don’t feel any affection or adoration for them. Maybe I will by tonight.”
It is important to say that ALL of this came in waves, so every day wasn’t a horrible struggle. Sometimes it would just be a quick bout in the morning and then my day would balance out, or I would have a great day and then end the night with one. I sometimes had four-day stretches without any dark clouds or anxiety attacks and they were WONDERFUL. Life made sense. Kind of. I mean not completely but in a decently manageable way that felt “normal” at least. I could brush my teeth and get ready for bed without panicking. I could have someone be really horrible to me and laugh it off. I could even go the distance with my man and be sad, but not heartbroken. Those were great days. I hid many of my hard days, not because I didn’t trust my loved ones, especially my significant other, but because they held me up so often (he talked me down for an hour the night before, she came down and visited me on a hard week)…that it felt like they deserved happy time with me too, so I did my damn best to make our time together happy (especially when that time was limited). I now recount the last five years and think of all of the fights, the tears, the break ups, the time my best friend came in my room to tell me I was being horrible to our friends and was hurting their feelings, the times I didn’t say goodbye or forgot to call, the classes I skipped and the party invites I ignored — all because I was always caught up in this emotional whirlwind that I was mildly cognizant of and definitely did not know how to tame. I’m young and still have time and many deeply cherished memories, but I can’t help but feel cheated out of so much happiness in the last five years.
SO THEN I WENT HORMONE FREE
And in only four weeks, my life has completely changed. I mean not any of the actual events- I still have the same career, job, man, cat. But my sparkly, extroverted self feels stable and happy 98% of the time. I feel like seeing people again! Well don’t get me wrong- pizza and Netflix will always beat going out. BUT in general I don’t feel like being a hermit. I talk to everyone I can. Every human being I see is just like this rapture of stories and love I have yet to learn about. I feel like working out again, I’m falling in love with hot yoga. Even when things are sad or annoying, it’s like I have this energy barrier where nothing gets to me that much.
I’m nowhere near numb, but I’m steady. I feel a lot, but my heart is usually okay now. And when it’s not I know exactly why and what I need to do. For so long I deeply feared my mind, because it felt like it jumped on me at the worst and most confusing times and plagued me with emotions I had no way of understanding. I detested whatever hidden darkness was inside of me. But now I feel like my brain is this child I found and decided to nurture and take care of. And now it feels like it loves me back. And it’s funny because I can feel this difference in the people around me as well.
The day after I had my hormone implant removed I already felt so shiny (fuller and happier), and a stranger approached me on a plane. He said, “Hi. You just seem to have amazing energy and I want to get to know you. Even though this is the middle seat I’m going to sit by you.” I was baffled but we talked non-stop for the next three hours about every topic there has to be talked about and when we landed he and his girlfriend gave me a ride to my hotel. The next day we three went out for mimosas and we are still in touch. That would have never happened when I was on hormones.
More profound to me though is that this kind of change doesn’t seem to be an isolated incident- even my everyday conversations are different. I hear my loved ones suddenly saying I am their light, and customers at work are asking why I smile so much. And it’s so funny because for so long I was just trying to not impart my feelings of being too much/on edge to others. And maybe what I’m hearing them say now was going on all along and I just didn’t have the clarity to hear it… but I don’t think that is the case. Whatever it be though, now more than anything I can’t believe how much I’m falling back (and even deeper) in love with my people, my life, and myself.
That said, it is a process of getting off of these hormones. The first week I could feel an IMMEDIATE difference. As soon as my body wasn’t being pumped with additional, synthetic hormones, I felt alleviated of all things dark and heavy. But now I am adjusting to letting my body regulate itself, and it’s hard letting it do that. The weirdest part is seeing what is me and what wasn’t the hormones. I found that while the anxiety used to drive me to rail to the ends of the earth to immediately start and finish any random idea I had (like I talked about above), that it is still in my personality to want to stubbornly accomplish any idea that bubbles up. The difference is that now (without the additional hormones) I have the perspective and discipline to control these ideas and implement them in a timely manner that better suits me and those it could affect. There are also days when a diluted version of the bouts I used to feel attacked by still creep up. Usually that happens around my period. There was a week when I was eating a LOT of soy, and a mild bout snuck up on me that week. I am now soy free and feeling great.
Maybe my brain chemistry is just particularly sensitive to any hormonal shift. But more likely my natural hormones have just been manipulated for five years and are now like patients in rehabilitation learning to walk again, where they are extremely sensitive to any and every physical influence. So letting my body learn to regulate itself is a process. I’m trying to help it out by going on a hormone free diet right now, which includes lots of whole grains, vegetables, legumes, and lean protein (organic, hormone/antibiotic free), with little to no sugar, alcohol, and processed foods. I have learned that dairy has lots of additional hormones from the cows being perpetually impregnated to meet the speed demands of the dairy industry, thus resulting in estrogen-laden dairy. Organic dairy is better, but I’m having fun substituting with lots of nuts too (cashew cheese is AMAZING). I have also learned that the liver is where additional hormones are processed out of the body, so going light on my liver gives it the chance to do its work in getting all of this synthetic junk out and letting my natural hormones re learn how to run their course. This process could take several months, and as my hormones learn to stabilize I am learning to be patient with my brain chemistry.
It is truly a process of self-love and nurturing, and if anything good has come from all of this it is that. Getting to wake up and practice patience with myself is something I have never cognitively prioritized. Funny enough it is making me calmer and far more patient/compassionate with others as well. I feel like I have this ribbon of grace I never got to play with until now. And likely the hormones had me so on edge that “grace” was the last virtue on my mind…blame and indignant self-defense was more like it. But now I’m learning patience with myself and grace with others. That sounds like a hokey Hallmark card that even I would laugh at, but these things truly are the silver lining in all of this.
It’s terrifying writing all of this to the public. It’s even scarier thinking about people I know and love reading it. I think most people I know will either be blindsided that I felt these things and they couldn’t tell, or will feel like I wasn’t as bad as I say, that I was still very much myself. But it’s not like I was keeping this from others. I myself did not even realize this is what was going on. I certainly did not like calling my bouts “anxiety/depression”. That felt so dramatic. I just thought I was a more emotional person. And what do you do when you keep randomly bursting out crying? Just call people and tell them that? I called my mom a lot. She was tremendous. Other than that I tried to resort to iron reason. And reason told me not to make my problems other people’s problems.
Unfortunately emotional turbulence is a socially embarrassing thing; it feels like you’re someone who just doesn’t have it together yet. I guess another silver lining in all of this is learning to be vulnerable with others (despite the painfully uncomfortable process of that poetic ideal). Emotional paralysis is not a visible thing, if anything it looks like placidity. Anxiety can look a quiet matter, despite feeling anything like quiet. Depression was the hardest part and the one I excused the most, because that was the one that I thought was me just being desperate, or needy, or all kinds of overly sensitive. ALL of this said, I have not recounted the gritty emotional details of my experience for a sob story. I certainly don’t want pity and I am not using this as an emotional catharsis (I have a sparkly journal for that like a former therapist once recommended).
SO WHY AM I WRITING ALL OF THIS?
Well, for two reasons. First and foremost, this is a call to women to take stock of your body on hormones. I never even considered that my birth control was dictating the last five years of my life like it did. I know I’m still young and it was only five years, but there is so much time I wish I could get back- time where I was ME and not the version of me under a chemically-induced dark cloud. I do however think it is important to recognize that several women are completely okay on hormone-based birth control. My best friend has the very implant that caused me so many problems and she is doing GREAT. Everyone’s body is different. And if hormone-based birth control works for you that is amazing! And incredibly convenient. However I thought I was 100% good on it, (I even remember feeling bad for women who couldn’t use it)… and it turns out I most definitely was not. It is crucial for women to take care of their minds, even if it is the untraditional, less convenient route for reproductive freedom or relieving period symptoms. You’ll figure out an alternative for the meantime. But you have to take care of your mind first. So TAKE STOCK.
Secondly, this is a call for male birth control studies to be resumed. I know many people are enraged over this issue, and I myself feel restless over it as well. At the end of the day, we need to do what is best for everyone’s body in the baby control department. I don’t think men should have to deal with negative side effects just like women do, because I don’t think ANYONE should have to deal with negative side effects. If hormones negatively affect you (male or female), you should get off of them. BUT if our medical researchers are willing to risk women feeling moody on hormones (which I think people see as mildly more sensitive or pissy- but clearly it can go as far as hormone-induced anxiety/depression), have injection site/muscle pain (women can get this on the current Depo birth control shot just like men did in the recent study), increased acne (many researchers are saying acne is in fact decreased not increased, which is simply not true for many people; it certainly increased for me), not to mention further potential, severe symptoms on the current hormone free IUD (like the uterus wall being punctured, infertility, severe pain when getting it in and every month following for three to four months as the body literally tries to push it out)…Then we as a society can certainly at least RISK men having symptoms like we do for women.
Since this article is focusing on the mental health effects of hormone-based birth control, we can do a comparison. We have years and multiple types of comprehensive research done on women vs. literally one study on men, but we will work with the numbers we have. 10–15% of women go on antidepressants from hormone-based birth control every year (this is the lowest percentage I found; some studies suggest up to 80% of those otherwise unaffected by anxiety/depression experience it on hormones. But here I am using the lowest percentage found just for benefit of the doubt). Yet on this male birth control study ONE person (not percent, person) experienced depression out of 320, so a whopping 0.003125% of men compared to 10–15% of women). It absolutely must be said that sixty-five men experienced mild moodiness, but sixty-two of the sixty-five happened at one control center, so researchers speculate this correlation was tied to an unknown factor at that specific control center. Even still they consider moodiness one of the top reasons for ending this study early. Is it okay that men felt that? Absolutely not. Just like it isn’t okay for anyone to feel those things. But when we look at these numbers, it’s incredulous that the studies were ended early. Of course more side effects were reported- increased libido, acne, injection site pain. But we have already covered those adverse comparisons above. I love what Elisabeth Lloyd (faculty scholar at the Kinsey Institute and professor of biology/adjunct professor of philosophy at Indiana University Bloomington) said in a CNN interview:
“You have to compare what women are doing in terms of taking hormones with what men are doing in terms of taking hormones. Are they taking their life in their hands when they take the hormones? Women are. And that needs to be put right up in front when considering the risk.”
(Here she is specifically referencing potentially fatal strokes and blood clots women risk every day on hormone-based birth control, vs. the non fatal, fertility risk of this male birth control…of which one man walked away infertile. Still horrible! But so are these numerical comparisons.)
Of course in some couples the woman could be symptom free on hormones. That would be amazing! Especially if that’s a couple where the hormones affect the man. Other times the woman might certainly not be okay on hormones (like me), but the man could be totally okay on them. My boyfriend and I most certainly wish we could at least explore this option. Even other times both parties in the couple could be affected by hormones negatively. This brings me to my final point.
We need to be looking into further hormone free birth control options, that are reliable, fuss free, and non-to-minimally-invasive. The fact that the copper IUD is the most reliable option right now is ridiculous. I feel like I have to choose between prioritizing my mind/emotions by going hormone free, OR my body by staying away from the IUD. We as a society need an option with BOTH. Maybe that’s male birth control. Maybe that’s another reliable hormone free option. Maybe it’s both. I don’t know the answer. All I know is I had to write because I don’t want another human being to go through the incredibly discombobulating journey that I found myself on.
Originally published at thoughtcatalog.com on December 30, 2016.