I first went to see a gynecologist when I was 17. I had just finished my first year of college and my fourth year of long, unpredictable cycles and painful, heavy periods. Enough was enough. After a pelvic exam, she prescribed the birth control pill. I took it happily; I was ready to leave those cycles behind, and everyone knows the pill treats “bad periods,” right?
I was on the pill for about 10 years. I didn’t experience any of the negative side effects you read about, and I was happy with my like-clockwork, light, relatively pain-free periods. At first glance, it seems that there was no reason for me to go off the pill. I had only just started dating my boyfriend (now my husband), so there were no plans for a baby in the near future, and I felt OK.
However, my boyfriend and I were both Catholic. I had recently returned to a full practice of the faith and was beginning to accept all of the Church’s teachings, even the difficult ones, like the prohibition of contraception. Without going into details on this mini-”reversion,” suffice it to say that I was starting to think about alternatives to birth control. The Church does teach that it is permissible to use birth control if the reason is medical rather than contraceptive. However, I’d heard that modern natural family planning (NFP) went beyond the “rhythm method” and could work for women with cycles like mine. I was skeptical but willing to look into it if the problems I’d experienced in adolescence continued.
Jumping in Head-first
I actually stopped taking the pill twice. The mood swings I experienced were difficult to manage, and it took a second try, plus a few sessions with my therapist, for me to get through the post-pill aftershocks. The second time I stopped taking it, I was prepared and committed.
I optimistically entered the expected start date of my next period on my calendar: 28 days after my last one. My cycles had never lasted 28 days before, but I figured I was older now—maybe my cycles were more stable. I was wrong; when my symptoms began coming back, I earnestly looked into NFP methods. I read that the Creighton method was connected with a medical model of diagnosis and treatment (Natural Procreative Technology or “NaPro”), so I figured it was my best bet.
Within a few cycles using the Creighton Method, my instructor pointed out my long cycles and “double peak days” and referred me to a NaPro OB/GYN. She was an hour and a half away and was one of only two NaPro doctors in the area. The other one, I was told, was booked solid. I considered driving to another city for a NaPro OB/GYN well worth my time, especially since I was not yet planning a wedding or a family.
This doctor ordered some bloodwork (which I could do locally) on specific days of my cycle, looking for specific hormonal irregularities that she could see at those points of the cycle. Based on that bloodwork and my symptoms (including hypoglycemia, which I’d never connected to my hormonal problems), she diagnosed me with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). PCOS is a hormonal imbalance causing a variety of symptoms including ovarian cysts, long cycles, acne, chronic fatigue, anxiety, depression, insulin resistance or type 2 diabetes, hair loss on your head, and excessive hair growth elsewhere.
Finally, an Answer
It seemed so simple, but I learned that most OB/GYNs are simply not trained in this science; in medical school and gynecological residencies, they are taught to prescribe the pill and, often, not to look into the root causes of often confusing symptoms.
As a NaPro OB/GYN, my doctor did not prescribe the pill; rather, she recommended an anti-inflammatory diet (no gluten, no dairy, and no processed sugar) and myo-inositol (a natural sugar that can help with insulin resistance, hormone imbalances, egg quality, acne, and excessive hair growth).
She also prescribed bioidentical progesterone to treat my luteal phase deficit (I had low levels of progesterone, which is supposed to be the dominant hormone during this last phase of the cycle). What my NaPro OB-GYN prescribed me was a pill, but unlike the oral contraceptive pill, it was not a steroid with a lot of potential side effects. Also in contrast to the pill, I was not required to take this bioidentical hormone daily but only when I needed it.
I still remember that first normal-length cycle. I was so excited I texted my boyfriend. Eventually, my doctor also diagnosed endometriosis and removed it through laparoscopic excision surgery.
I’d thought I felt healthy on the pill. I didn’t experience any side effects, and my heavy periods, painful cramping, and long cycles were gone. It wasn’t until after my diagnosis and treatment for PCOS and endometriosis that I realized how much healthier I could feel. It was like night and day. I was still able to alleviate the PCOS symptoms, like I had on the pill, but I also experienced relief from the chronic fatigue and chronic pain I’d lived with since I was 13. I also felt confident that, now that my hormones were working normally, I was healthier overall.
Best of all, I was able to get pregnant the first cycle my husband and I tried. I’ll never know if we would have struggled to conceive if I’d never been diagnosed with and truly treated for PCOS and endometriosis. But it does seem likely; PCOS is the most common cause of infertility in women, and 30% to 50% of women with endometriosis are unable to conceive. Charting and restorative reproductive medicine (whether through NaPro Technology, FEMM medical management, or another approach) won’t solve every woman’s infertility, but it can help many. The pill blocks fertility while a woman is taking it and does nothing to treat the causes of infertility, leaving her with no answers when she stops taking it and tries unsuccessfully to have a baby.
My health and my life were so changed by learning to chart that I became a certified FEMM (Fertility Education & Medical Management) instructor this year. I’m eager to help other women better understand the way their body works (as so many new charters say, “Why didn’t I learn this before?!”) and find real answers to their hormonal problems—not a band-aid that will let these problems fester below the surface.
As a new mom and still relatively new wife, I’ve done a lot of reflecting on NFP recently. It’s a challenging way to approach marriage. But even if we weren’t Catholic and didn’t want to follow all of the Church’s teachings, I believe my husband and I would use a fertility awareness method anyway. Once you see the benefits to your health—and understand the damage the alternatives can do—there’s just no going back.
Want to share your own “Coming off the Pill” story? Email Grace at [email protected]