Groove

Finding Fertility Awareness: My Birth Control Story

wrote this on March 15, 2014

I know many of you have probably struggled to find a birth control method that is perfect for you and your lifestyle, so I wanted to take some to share my personal birth control story with you. My struggle was a big motivator for starting Groove, so I feel like I should share it! So here it is—the good, the bad, and the bloody.

The Early Years

My struggles began back when I was wide-eyed and bushy-tailed. I experienced menarche (my very first menstrual period) at age 11. I was never particularly excited about the idea of bleeding out of my vagina, and any small amount of anticipation I did have was instantly squelched by the site of that first stain. I awoke in the middle of the night with horrible pain in my stomach. At first, I thought that I just really needed to use the bathroom, but these weren’t any potty-pains I had ever encountered. My mom sat with me in her bathroom, and when I wiped and saw the red, I panicked. My mom seemed relieved that we finally knew the purpose of my discomfort. I, on the other hand, was anything but relieved. I stayed home from school for the first two days of my period. It wasn’t because I was embarrassed or couldn’t bear to go to school in such a state (though this was certainly true). I spent those first two days doubled over in pain that was interspersed with bouts of vomiting and an overall feeling of death. I remember my dad’s concern very vividly: “Is this normal?” My mom’s matter-of-fact “no” still rings in my ears. And so began my journey into womanhood.

Back then, I didn’t know there was a name for the complete and utter agony I experienced every month. All I knew was that I never looked forward to getting my period. I’m sure many of my peers begged to stay home from school; I, however, dreaded the thought of staying home because of what it had come to mean. Thanks to my dysmenorrhea I missed a lot of school, regularly bled through clothes (thanks to teachers refusing to let me use the restroom during class), and often vomited from the pain. Advil, Tylenol, and Pamprin were utterly worthless, and I spent the first two days of each cycle feeling like a knife was being stabbed into my uterus.

Then at age 16, I was introduced to the birth control pill, and it changed my life.

My Relationship With the Pill

My parents were never particularly happy that I wanted to take the pill. As an ICU nurse, my mom always told me horror stories of young twenty-somethings ending up in her care after suffering strokes, heart attacks, or blood clots due to taking the pill. But I didn’t care. I wouldn’t be in pain anymore, and we’re always told those problems are super rare. So why worry? That magic little pill would fix me!

My first pill of choice cut my periods down to only four per year. Who could honestly say “no” to four periods a year? After suffering through years of debilitating dysmenorrhea, I was ecstatic about the idea. It turned out the meds didn’t completely eliminate my pain, but they did ease it a bit; and with only four periods a year, it was much more manageable. I finally felt like I had a life. I felt free.

Looking back, starting the pill definitely affected my mood. At the time, I guess mood swings were kind of expected from a teenager with raging hormones. It wasn’t until starting college that I began to wonder if there was a link between the pill and my severe mood swings, panic attacks, anxiety, and depression. For a while I just dealt with it. That’s just life on the pill, right? Or maybe I was just overdoing it at school. Whatever the case, I stuck with it because anything was better than life before the pill. It wasn’t long until my anxiety and depression started interfering with school and I no longer felt in control. Despite thoughts that school might be a contributing factor, I brought it up at my annual visit with my gyno. She agreed that my lifestyle was probably a big factor, but suggested I try out something else just in case. She prescribed BeYaz, and I was hopeful.

I immediately noticed a change in my mood. I felt more balanced and stable. Unfortunately, it still left much to be desired in the horrible cramps department. I later discussed this issue with my gyno, who suggested that I start skipping the placebo pills to suppress my period. No periods? Okay!

A year later, my erratic moods returned with a vengeance. My mental state felt like a constant roller coaster, and my libido had plummeted; but my dysmenorrhea was nowhere to be found. So it was worth it, wasn’t it? I thought so. That was, until something unexpected started happening. I remember very clearly standing in my kitchen and suddenly feeling as though I was being suffocated. My chest was so tight that I felt like I couldn’t take a deep breath. My heart was pounding and I felt dizzy and lightheaded. I honestly thought for a minute that I was going to die. After about 20 minutes, everything subsided and, once again, I felt fine.

At first I thought it must have been a panic attack; school was stressful and I was also working to support myself. But it got to the point that this was occurring on almost a daily basis; I even experienced a few “episodes” where I almost passed out while driving. Given my extensive family history of what seems like every disease and disorder known to man (I wish I was joking), I decided to make an appointment with my general practitioner. And that’s when the real fun began.

Doctors Know Best

Being in a constant I-feel-like-I-may-drop-dead-at-any-second state is, needless to say, not the most comfortable thing. Here I was—a seemingly healthy, active 22-year-old—and I was experiencing symptoms typically reserved for “sick” people.

I spent the next year being poked and prodded by doctors trying to figure out what was going on. I saw a general practitioner, a cardiologist, a pulmonologist, and my gynecologist. I can’t even count the number of times I had my blood drawn so they could run extensive blood work. I got an EKG, an echocardiogram, and wore a holster monitor, all to monitor my heart; and I took a breathing test and received X-rays to check the health of my lungs. When all these tests came back within normal ranges, most of these specialists suggested my issues were probably stress-related; my pulmonologist even prescribed me an inhaler “just in case”.

After countless questions and detailed conversations about my lifestyle, diet, and exercise habits, not one of them ever suggested that my issues might be connected to my use of the birth control pill. And, at the time, I didn’t think twice.

Taking Matters Into My Own Hands

After all this medical intervention, I was still no better off. I was quickly losing faith in my doctors, so I decided it was time to take matters into my own hands. I made a mental list of all the things in my life that could possibly be causing or contributing to my symptoms. Did I suddenly develop some sort of food allergy? Perhaps it was a lack of exercise? Too much stress? Being a trained engineer, it was only natural for me to conduct an experiment on myself. One at a time, I altered some part of my lifestyle and waited for the results.

First I changed my diet. I cut out dairy. When that made no difference, I cut out gluten. Nothing. Then I completely cut out the few processed foods I still ate. Finally, I cut out meats. Nothing seemed to do the trick. I already exercised a fair amount, but still decided to up my activity level. While this did a great job at relieving any amount of stress I experienced, it seemed to do nothing to improve my symptoms.

I can’t even tell you how much time I spent racking my brain trying to find anything that would lead me in the right direction. The symptoms just wouldn’t let up. I was constantly dizzy. I was terrified of driving. I was terrified of being alone in my apartment. At this point I was desperate and willing to try just about anything. I was doubtful it would work, but I decided to try the only experiment left that I could think of: I would stop taking my birth control pill.

The Final Test

I definitely wasn’t crazy about the idea of stopping the pill. To be honest, I didn’t even think it would help. After all, at this point I had been on hormones for close to 8 years…it couldn’t possibly start causing problems so suddenly. And if it was possible that the pill was at the root of my problems, surely my doctors would have said something. But I knew I had to test all the variables; so I quit. Cold turkey.

A couple weeks went by and I noticed my symptoms were starting to subside. But I was skeptical, so I waited. A month after I kicked the habit, my problems were gone. You read that right, my friend. Gone! I immediately called my gynecologist to discuss my findings.

My annual visit with her was still 2 months away, but I didn’t want to wait. I explained to her that all of my problems seemed to magically vanish when I stopped the pill, but she insisted that the birth control pill was most certainly not the culprit. She told me she would change my prescription just in case and that we would reevaluate at my annual visit. So I went against my gut and agreed to start a new pill. This one was low-dose, and at the time, was all the rage.

After a week of my first new pill, I started to feel dizzy again. After a few more weeks, my heart palpitations and chest tightness were back in full-force. Is this really worth it? I’ll admit I struggled a lot when trying to decide what I should do. With one final push—and the full support—of one of my best friends, I decided it was time to break up with the pill. For good.

gyNO

I felt good about my decision to quit, but I was at a loss in terms of my birth control options. I wanted something non-hormonal; something natural. After a little research, I decided I’d like to try out a diaphragm, but I still wanted my doctor’s guidance.

So at my annual visit, I asked her about natural options. Her initial response: “You mean like Mirena?” When I told her that I wanted something non-hormonal, she advised against a copper IUD, since that tends to increase bleeding and cramping; I wasn’t exactly a good fit given my history with dysmenorrhea.

I was pretty disappointed that a hormonal IUD was the first thing she mentioned. When I asked to be fitted for a diaphragm, she chuckled and said, “Are you sure?” She tried to talk me out of the fitting, but eventually agreed. At the end of our visit, she sarcastically told me that she’d see me in a year “unless something else comes up,” which felt more like a “see you when you’re pregnant!” I left her office feeling angry, demeaned, embarrassed, and, worst of all, alone.

I can’t blame my doctor for her reaction. After all, very few people—including doctors— are adequately educated about natural options.

On a Mission

After the initial disappointment passed, there was something I just couldn’t get off my mind. How in the world is a DIAPHRAGM still my best natural option?! I knew there had to be something better, and my mission was to find out what that was.

After a good bit of research, I came across something called the sympto-thermal method—often referred to as fertility awareness (FA), which is a term that encompasses many other natural methods besides the sympto-thermal method. No devices, no hormones, and no barriers necessary; and yet sources claimed it was as effective as the pill when practiced properly. If ever there was a skeptic, it was this lady right here! I thought it couldn’t possibly be true. But at the same time I was intrigued, so I decided to do a little research.

That little bit of research quickly turned into a lot of research. Seriously…A LOT. After I was thoroughly convinced, I decided to give it a try. At first I just tracked my cycle; I had recently come off the pill so I wasn’t yet confident in my body’s fertility signs. As I tracked, I could literally see the artificial hormones leaving my body! After a few months, my basal body temperature (bbt) normalized, my cervical fluid pattern emerged, and I was amazed!

I wondered why so few women knew about this awesome method. I’ve finally come to the conclusion that a big part of the problem is a lack of education. And I’m determined to change that.

Never Look Back

Ever since I’ve made the swtich to the sympto-thermal method, I’ve been working to manage my dysmenorrhea through diet and lifestyle changes. While this may not be the best way for everyone out there, the results I’ve seen so far are incredible. My 16-year-old self would have never dreamed that changing the way I eat and eliminating endocrine disrupters (and other chemicals) from my life would have such a profound effect on my pain. After all, not even painkillers could do that!

Natural methods are certainly not for everyone, but women deserve options. We deserve to make those personal decisions knowing we have all necessary information. Groove is paving the way for natural methods and changing the way people view the menstrual cycle. My journey has not been an easy one, and my hope is for Groove to prevent others from experiencing the same struggles.

Our cycles have much to offer us if we simply take a closer look.

Jennifer Aldoretta is the cofounder and CEO of Groove. She is an entrepreneur, engineer, and biohacker who is obsessed with periods, nutrition, hormones, and the microbiome.