I was always pretty much one of the only women and girls I knew who loved having a period. Well not having it per se, which could be far from ideal, but maybe the fact that it happened; my body had its own cycle, its own silent process of birth and regeneration, like the moon, or a tree. It made me feel like my physical substance was in some fundamental way connected to the world around me. The unfortunate attending possibility was of course, obviously, childbirth. And clearly, when one gets to a certain age, and is lucky enough to have sex sometimes, this becomes a mind-blowing and terrifying possibility. Like many people, the thought of having a baby at 21 fills me first overwhelmingly with bafflement and then, very quickly, with worry. I still sometimes cry when I’m hungry, and if there were two of us crying, what would I do?!
In short, at a certain point when these worries (temporarily) came scarily and rudely to a head I decided I needed to take on the responsibility of preventing pregnancy from happening. Or not even that; it was as much about relieving myself of the anxiety of potential pregnancy as the possibility itself.
So I got the contraceptive implant. This is a matchstick shaped device that sits in your arm and releases progestogen into your bloodstream, preventing you from having a child. (Don’t ask me how, I’m a Classicist.) I was told that I might bleed erratically for a while, but that this would settle down; I was told that I might experience minor mood swings, but that they too would settle down, within a few months. That night I had a dream that I was alone at my home in London when four or five female sixteen year old thieves broke in through the front door and seized everything in sight, in spite of my attempts to empathetically reason with them. With some tentativeness, (again, I’m a Classicist not a psychologist) I was initially and remain tempted to view the symbolism at work here as pointing up anxiety about an intrusion into my place of safety (the home often symbolises the body or the self in dreams) by an alien external force, which I would try and fail to reason with. At the time I dismissed the anxieties the dream was trying to communicate, and my subsequent experience seemed to confirm the impulse to reject it; for quite a long time after the implant was inserted I did feel completely myself, noticing no changes to my mood at all.
However I thought something was a bit weird when, five weeks later, I was sitting in my room waiting for my parents to arrive so they could take me out to lunch for my 21st birthday, listening to music and writing my diary (as one does) and little by little I was seized with emotion. My mum and dad loved me so much that they were coming to see me on my birthday! Even though I’m bad at tidying my room and I always always leave the lights on and occassionally I am rude! I felt the force of their love and the gratitude took physical root in my body; I dissolved into tears, and wrote them a letter thanking them for bringing me into the world. I was crying but it was a wonderful feeling. The more I wrote, the more I broke down into tears. When they arrived, they were touched but bemused. On some level, I do tentatively sense that I am more emotional than your average Joe, but it’s not like I cry every time they come round. I do often feel this way for a couple of days before my period starts though – aha! I thought. My period is coming despite the implant.
Only the feeling did not stop. But it did stop being cathartic, no longer representing a much-needed release, but over the next few days identifying itself as sadness, as worry, as anxiety, as fear, not as gratitude. The familiar PMS-feeling – endurable for its transience, even welcome sometimes as it was part of my body’s reassuring cycle – just would not go away. It lasted for about three weeks. In those three weeks I would cry pretty much every day, at no provocation or at the slightest provocation (the bare fact that I don’t currently hold a gym membership being the most laughable of my perceived crosses to bear.) For the first week I was okay; I clung on to the knowledge that underneath all the noise, I was happy; but it became harder and harder to persuade myself that I was crying every day for no reason at all. I couldn’t prevent myself from focusing on all the faults and worries in my life and it took all my energy to separate the emotion I felt from the reality I knew was safe and happy. I worried that there were only so many times the people closest to me would be able to hold me while I cried without being able to do anything because the emotion came from a small plastic rod and not from any problems they could support me while I solved. Emotions are contagious. The most insecure part of me worriedly whispered that there would come a time when they would run out of the love or energy to be close to me. They had their own shit to deal with. I resented myself for even feeling like I needed looking after at all.
After a particularly bad episode involving one ‘seen’ Facebook messenger notification, two hours of physically uncontrollable sobbing, and an essay I could not write because crying was taking up all of my time, I decided to have the implant taken out. I called my GP, tentatively telling her I felt like what I was experiencing was ‘a bit of a mental health emergency’, and expecting her to give me an appointment in the next couple of days. I was told that as I had had sex in the last two weeks there was a risk of pregnancy if it was taken out, so I would have to wait another two weeks for any existing sperm to bugger off. Hearing this, my eyes filled (yes, you guessed it!) with tears. It seemed like the end of the world. As it turned out, due to the risk of pregnancy the only way my doctor would allow me to have it taken out quickly was if I allowed them to first fit my womb with the (blissfully hormone free) copper coil, which is immediately effective as contraception, and then have the implant taken out. I accepted this advice, and although the memory of having the coil placed inside my womb and the ensuing last day of being bed ridden with tears pouring down my face has been promptly filed away by my subconscious into the file titled ‘REPRESSED THINGS’, it is a choice I am proud I made. Three days after having the implant removed the clouds have cleared and I am happy again, with all the other great benefits that come with being happy: I am more self- confident, more creative, take a great deal of pleasure in my alone time, studying is a joy rather than a struggle, I am more lucid, more compassionate, the list goes on. I am so grateful for all these things. I am so grateful that it is gone.
The worst thing about the effect the implant had on me (which for the uninitiated contains the same hormones as the ‘mini’ or progestogen-only contraceptive pill) was that I risked becoming my own worst enemy. Increasingly I felt that I was no longer able to trust my own thoughts and feelings. Were my emotional reaction to things and corresponding behavioural responses rational? Every time an event made me cripplingly, cripplingly sad the sadness was accompanied by a quiet suspicion that I was blowing everything out of proportion. I was left with the alternatives of swallowing my feelings, which had served me badly in the past, or communicating them to the people I loved and risking scaring or overwhelming them. In my opinion, things get dangerous when you become alienated from the sad, scared, angry parts of yourself, because exasperated and exhausted you reject them, unable to give them your love, attention, and acceptance. I am incredibly lucky to know myself well enough to always have been able to hold on to the fact that the feelings weren’t mine, to have had this happen to me during a period of my life that I am positive I am happy, because during a tougher patch it would have been much harder to distinguish the ‘real’ sadness from the ‘synthetic’ sadness.
Because so many women use hormonal contraception and a large proportion of those women don’t suffer such debilitating side effects it is easy to feel like you are making a massive fuss about nothing, to assume that other women feel the same way as you do in their heads but you are too weak to deal with it, especially when the tone of every healthcare professional you speak to on the phone is coloured with skepticism even when the words themselves aren’t. If this sounds like you, have faith in your conviction that you aren’t making a big fuss about nothing, and if hormonal contraception is making you sad, don’t feel embarrassed or weak in making the decision to come off it. My doctor (who, for the record, is lovely and whom I don’t really blame) told me to wait six months for the side effects to subside. Six months – especially when those six months coincide with an already impossibly volatile Cambridge term – is a very, very long time. The burden of responsibility for contraception is, for now, entirely placed on women. I could wax lyrical about how fucking unfair this is, but instead I will say: it will be okay, you have every right to stop and put your mental health first, and the amount of time you choose to wait before implementing any decision to do so is entirely for you to determine, and not for anyone else.