Knowing the Baseline
I started with a combined oral contraceptive pill, a.k.a. “the pill,” then switched shortly to the patch because it was harder to forget a dose.
Eventually I developed rashes wherever I placed the patch so I switched methods again. And again. And again.
Some pills gave me horrible mood swings, making me a completely different person on some days. One made my breasts swell two cup sizes and become painfully sensitive. One made my period last four months. Another made my sex drive disappear and eliminated the need for birth control altogether.
By the time I was 24, I’d tried a different option almost every year but found myself no closer to getting it right. Despite being equipped with all the information I would need to find the right method, I couldn’t seem to make it work.
I had been looking to treat the severity of my menstrual cramps, but that’s when it hit me—after being on one or another method of birth control for so long, I no longer had any idea how severe my menstrual cramps were, and was relying on a memory of what they were like a decade ago.
So I decided to take a break from hormonal birth control. Most people will tell you it’s “out of your system” by three months, but I decided on a year-long break because I wanted to see what my cycle was like if it had enough time to fully regulate itself.
What followed was an experience that has changed the way I relate to my body, my cycle and even my identity as a woman. I know it sounds extreme, but it’s true.
I became highly aware of the way my body functions and it fascinated me to no end. I downloaded a cycle tracking app and obsessively entered every symptom I had. By six months I was able to identify patterns and know where I was in my cycle based solely on the symptoms I was experiencing.
Huge pimple on my forehead? I’ll be ovulating in the next few days. Feeling absolutely gorgeous and full of energy? I’m ovulating. Hate how I look in everything I own? I’m getting my period tomorrow.
My period also began to show its true self—it was much lighter and shorter than I had previously experienced. It never lasted more than four days, and most days all I needed was a pantyliner.
I still had cramps, but they rarely lasted more than an hour, and I learned to identify when they were coming on so I could take a preemptive painkiller and avoid them (I recommend Aleve). I also noticed a pattern in which my cramps were less severe if I’d been exercising and eating less greasy foods recently, and this motivated me to take better care of myself.
As awesome as some parts were, I’ll admit some discoveries weren’t so pleasant. My skin would break out at the same time every month, which was often painful and annoying. More and thicker hair began to appear in places I didn’t want it, like my arms and face (I’m not a werewolf, I promise).
Both of these changes coincide with the drop in estrogen associated with going off birth control. Estrogen tends to reduce skin complexion issues and inhibit hair growth so going off can result in a sudden change that takes some time to even out.
I also still experienced mood swings before ovulating. Still, they were easier to handle as I could associate them to a specific time in my cycle thanks to my tracking.
After two years and much thought, I decided to return to hormonal birth control. It’s only been two months so far, so I still don’t know how it’ll turn out. However, I do finally have a strong sense of my baseline, which puts me one step closer to finding what works for me.
We all have variabilities in our cycles and hormonal levels. Some women have a 25-day cycle, while others have a 30-day cycle. Likewise, some women naturally have lower or higher levels of estrogen and other hormones.
While hormonal birth control methods can be awesome for certain reasons and people, they force everyone into a 28-day cycle and the doses of hormones are not tailored to your individual hormonal composition.
Some women find themselves to be incompatible with this “one size fits all” approach to regulating their cycle, which can result in negative side effects like excessive mood swings and weight fluctuations.
In evaluating what method is right for us, we take several things into account—the ability to take a pill daily, its effectiveness, the minimization of menstrual discomfort, etc.—but we rarely take into account the loss of our body’s natural cycle and how gaining an intimate knowledge of it before trying to alter it can help us better understand if a method is working for us or not.
Check out next week’s Sex & Pancakes for a how-to on figuring out your baseline!
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