As I complained to friends, family and co-workers about my ongoing pain and period, it became clear that I wasn’t alone in struggling to get a contraception that suited my body. People listed endless side effects from their various contraceptions – anaemia, depression, loss of sex drive, acne, mood swings, weight gain, even a suicidal phone call to the ambulance service.
Desperate searches of my symptoms online found endless forums dedicated to the issues. With all of the various contraceptives available on the NHS, I began to wonder, how was it all going so wrong?
Months earlier when I’d popped to my doctors, having just started a new relationship, I’d just not wanted to use bloody condoms anymore. So, after a short stint on a mini-pill, I followed my doctor’s advice and got the implant. The penis-shaped bruise on the inside of my left arm was just the start of an 18-month battle to find the right contraception, one that felt like screaming into a black hole.
Things got off to a terrible start – pretty much instantly I bled so often that I began to worry that there was something seriously wrong, like HPV, with which irregular bleeding is a symptom. So instead of losing the implant, I was sent for tests. After a GP appointment and a visit to my local sexual health clinic, and weeks of phone calls (the impossibility of getting a doctor’s appointment when I needed one, at a time I could actually make, was my constant bugbear), I was finally referred to a specialist, who would check if the bleeding and cramps meant there was more to worry about than shitty contraception.
Time and time again I was told by medical professionals to “give it another month”
Time and time again I was told by medical professionals to “give it another month” without, I felt, anyone considering what that meant day-to-day. And I'm not alone in that feeling. A survey conducted last year by Telegraph Wonder Women and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service found that 35% of women felt they were just expected to "put up" with the side effects of hormonal contraception.
This was something Kelly*, 32, experienced. She bled nearly constantly for three months when she switched to Cerelle after another pill left her so depressed she felt she couldn’t get out of bed. “The doctor just told me to complete the course when I complained about the bleeding,” she said.
“When I went to a GUM clinic instead, they were shocked I’d stuck it out for so long. I’ve finally found a pill that works for me (Gedarel) and my doctor wants me to come off it because I had a migraine on it. It’s been two years and it feels like I’m hitting a brick wall. It’s just seems like no-one knows best and it’s just trial and error – and we’re left filling our bodies with all sorts of hormones, regardless of the horrible side-effects.”
For me, my bleeds and cramps left me pale and woozy
The aforementioned Telegraph survey also interviewed 308 GPs. Shockingly, 50% admitted to having "poor" or "very poor" knowledge of contraceptive implants, while a third admitted they knew little about hormonal coils. Taylor*, 29, spent nine months in needless pain when her doctor ignored her complaints about her second Mirena coil.
She says: “For the first few months I was told it was ‘settling in’, so the pain I was feeling was normal. Three months later, I moved GP surgeries and was finally referred for an ultrasound. It was here they found the pain was actually because the Mirena coil had been in the wrong place the whole time – I knew something was wrong. She said it was ‘a bit like having a stone in your shoe’, which I felt was understating it a bit. My GP still said they couldn’t remove it for another week, so I went to a sexual health clinic who removed it the next day.”
I also eventually booked myself into a sexual health clinic and had my hair-pin sized foe removed after six months. But it didn’t end there. The nurse claimed I was “too big” to go back on the pill I’d used for a decade, so I spent a year trying another two mini-pills which were equally useless because, as my confused chemist pointed out, they were just the same hormone again. There were more scans and blood tests (more time off work) while the pain and bleeding continued. I just felt like I was in one of those dreams where you’re screaming into a vacuum, “Guys! Hey guys! Are you sure there’s not just a different hormone I can take?”
NHS cuts and closures of specialist sexual health services are driving women to their GP, who may not have the specialist knowledge needed
She agreed that women can be left feeling like doctors aren’t sympathetic to side effects of their contraception. “One of the weirdest things I saw was a male doctor talking about how it was fine if a woman gets an implant and bleeds sporadically, because we’ll just put her on the pill to manage the bleeding. She’s got an implant because she doesn’t want to be on the pill! There’s a lack of understanding about what matters to women when it comes to contraception and it’s not only how effective it is. Other things matter too, because they’re people and they have lives.”
A study of 1,000 young women by healthcare experts Balance Activ in 2014 found only 28% of young women trusted a GP’s advice, a third of 18 to 24-year-olds felt uncomfortable talking to their doctor about intimate health issues and 92% would self-diagnose online, reports the Mail Online.
There’s not a ‘one size fits all policy’ – as women come in different shapes and sizes, so does contraception
She added: “There’s not a ‘one size fits all policy’ – as women come in different shapes and sizes, so does contraception. It may be a case of trial and error, but in most instances, we do eventually find one that works. Most side effects are temporary and do settle down within a few months. However, if women are struggling and are not keen on continuing, I would suggest a suitable alternative, provided the cause of her symptoms has been investigated.”
For me, 18 months of “It’ll settle” was enough trial and error. A young, female locum I chanced upon (the 12th medical profession I met… I think) listened to my story open-mouthed and advised me to ‘go clean’. As of December I’m contraception-free, losing weight, sounder of mind and only bleeding once a month. I feel failed and phobic of trying to engage with my doctor’s surgery over contraceptives again. Instead, at 31, I’ve turned back to condoms – boring, passion-breaking, terrifyingly thin, expensive condoms. But at least I'm pain-free – that's something, right?
* Names changed