‘I felt overwrought, all the time’: How the pill affected my mental health

Women tell their stories

pill and mental health

The pill enabled women’s liberation. It’s a symbol of sexual freedom, and is rightly part of the narrative of 20th century feminism. For many, it is not only preventative against pregnancy, but also works as a cure for acne, or incapacitating period pains. Common reported side effects can include weight gain and mood swings but for many women the pill offers lesser evils compared to spots and cramps.

Except recently, there has been a rising outcry from women about other side effects of the pill. Last month, a hashtag, #MyPillStory, went viral on Twitter: women shared stories of depression, migraines, unexplained nausea. In Durham, The Tab published a story about a girl who suffered an almost fatal blood clot that was later attributed to the pill. Last week, the New Statesman published a piece titled The Pill pushback, arguing that many women are finding that the pill is causing them more problems than it solves, especially in a contraceptive market that now offers alternatives, like the coil, or the implant.

These are subjective experiences: many women continue to use the pill without any – or any serious – side-effects. But others have stories to tell: many of them about the impact of the pill on their mental health. These are some of their stories.

Kirsty, 24, accountant, London

I visited my GP due to unusual headaches and was told it was probably a migraine. They prescribed me aspirin, and oramorphe (oral morphine).

But, seeing no improvement, I returned to the doctor, who sent me to the Acute GP at A&E for scan. After waiting hours to be seen, a neurologist came to see me and said he was happy that it was a migraine and wouldn’t be scanning me.

The pain continued for two weeks, occasionally easing, but it worsened one night in bed. I rolled over and felt like I’d been knocked down. I range NHS Direct who were unhappy with the migraine diagnosis due to length of headaches and they sent an ambulance to me.

I had various bloods taken and a CT scan done a couple of hours later. Blood tests were repeated, in order to examine clotting levels. I was sent for an MRI “with contrast”, however, couldn’t they couldn’t find a line. Results clearly showed a clot in the vein on the right hand side of the brain; a contrast wasn’t needed due to the size of clot. A previous MRI in Oct showed no signs of anything.

I saw a different neurologist than before who asked if I took the combined pill, and I explained that I had been on it for eight years. They said it was the only logical cause and advised I couldn’t ever take it again, and that I would need to be on warfarin, an anti-coagulant, for at least 6 – 12months, with a scan to review in three months.

I’m now nearly seven weeks post-diagnosis. It’s taken me two and a half weeks off work, and six whole weeks to finally get my INR to be within range, with the warfarin. For five weeks, I had to inject myself in the stomach every day to help thin my blood whilst the warfarin gets up to a steady level.

At no point in the past eight years did anyone ever advise me that the pill could have these side effects. Yes, there is a leaflet in every packet, but if I’d been told how life-changing the side effects could be even this long into usage, I don’t think I’d have ever opted for it. I’m now using the implant. There needs to be more clarity on what the pill can do, and the potentially fatal “side effects”. I was first put onto the combined pill when I went to my GP one morning without make up, and she commented on my spots, and said that the pill would help to reduce them. There wasn’t any other mention of what else it could be up to.

Anonymous college student, Atlanta

I have clinical depression and anxiety and they said that the pill may worsen my symptoms. And it sure did. I had mood swings, almost daily crying fits, and I ate like crazy. I was on a combination pill and I cried at the drop of a hat for months. I also yelled at my boyfriend because it was raining (a phenomenon I’m pretty sure he has no control over). I was a mess those first few months. I since switched to an IUD and it’s so much better. It was painful to get placed but it hasn’t affected my mood much at all.

It was crazy. I could not keep it together. I once started crying during class because of a professors tone. It was ridiculous.

Phoebe, 25, journalist, London

I visited my GP to go back on the pill after some time off it, and she recommended me a slightly “harder” version of the combined pill I’d been on in my teens. I hadn’t really noticed any side effects the first time around, and there are so many pills available that my personal precedent seemed as good a reason as any to start taking this one.

But this time, I definitely noticed a difference: specifically that I felt absolutely overwrought, all the time. For some time, I was on the verge of tears almost constantly. One evening, my housemate came home and found me sitting in the kitchen crying quietly; I hadn’t even noticed I was doing so. Realising this made me feel a little like I was going insane.

However, I’d been warned by my GP that it would take a little while for my hormones to re-settle and therefore I should expect to feel a little “emotional”. So while the near-constant weeping was inconvenient (and on occasion, quite embarrassing), I wasn’t spooked. Just slightly dehydrated. Sometimes, in the right mood it was actually almost quite funny. One of my other housemates had also just gone on the pill and also reported feeling a bit “weepy” – we had this amusing ongoing text exchange about it.

But after these first few weeks, the tenor of my emotions changed, very gradually. I stopped crying: my overblown wretchedness was replaced by a resounding emptiness, which was far, far more scary. I couldn’t really see the point in doing anything. Everything felt a little like it was happening behind a glass screen. I couldn’t raise my spirits – I barely had any at all. I felt dull, disengaged and uninterested. I struggled to eat much, or summon enthusiasm for things, or care about anything at all. However, because it was gradual, it took me longer to notice anything was up: it was only retrospectively that I noted that I’d stopped crying and had slipped into something else.

Finally, after months of failing to feel anything, I Googled my symptoms, worried that they chimed with the diagnosis of clinical depression (I am a hypochondriac but it was uncanny), and wondered if the pill had anything to do with it. It was the only “lifestyle change” to which I might be able to attribute how I was feeling. I stopped taking it, switched to another method of contraception, and the darkness very slowly lifted, though it took an astonishingly long time to feel totally normal again.

Lucy, editor, New York

I first went on the combined pill when I was 15. Initially, I couldn’t see any downsides: clearer skin, bigger boobs, controls your period, and no babies.  It was a no-brainer, so I barely listened to the potential problems.

I noticed the first “side effect” within three days. The one you always hear about is that it makes you fat – and that’s absolutely true.  Within three days of taking the pill my stomach was a bottomless pit and I was constantly ravenous. Cue teenage weight gain, thought to be fair that did settle after a few months.

When I was at university I went to pick up a prescription for my next 6 months worth to find out the pill I’d been initially prescribed was no longer being doled out because of the increased incidence of blood clots. That scared me enough to take a few months’ break, but everyone had suggestions about different ones I to try, so I gave it a whirl again.

Whether it was because I’d taken a break or because I was swapping onto various new ones, the change to my mind and body was ridiculous. The weight gain came again, but so did mood swings and sickness.  Another combined pill made me tetchy and angry, everyone pissed me off and I’m sure vice versa.  Yet another gave me acute nausea that came in waves – at times I’d end up doubled up in bed just waiting for it to pass.  The last one I tried gave me zero sex drive, complete flat line where I had no interest in even being affectionate, let alone anything else.

I’ve bailed now and got a coil, it wasn’t worth the stress and I hate the idea that I may have messed up my natural hormone output by relying on the pill from such a young age.

Anonymous college student, Virginia

I first went on the pill when I was 15-going-on-16. My parents had found out I was having sex and freaked out, immediately made me a doctors appointment, and insisted I go on birth control. The first pill I was prescribed was an oestrogen/progestin combination. The first two or three days went okay: I didn’t notice much of a difference. But then I was throwing up constantly. I was in a musical at the time and had to leave rehearsals every 30 or 40 minutes like clockwork to get sick. This lasted for a week before it was coupled with mood swings. I was crying at everything. My mom asked me if I wanted burritos for dinner and I cried. She asked what was wrong and I said, “that’s just so sweet. You’re making me dinner”. She always did, so freaking out at the sweetness was a little strange.

When I wasn’t balling at the drop of a hat I was raging mad at people. My sister would say something completely innocent to me and I’d scream at her to stop being a bitch. We decided I should try a different birth control.

The second they put me on was another oestrogen/progestin combo and the nausea started right away. There wasn’t a day that I threw up less than four times, for a whole week. I couldn’t eat anything. My migraines came back really badly and I was bleeding far more than usual. We went back to the doctor and I was diagnosed with anaemia and put on a progestin-only instead.

I then proceeded to have a period every two weeks. They would last about four or five days, then I’d have a week of relief, and they’d start right back the next. My doctor had told me these pills caused irregularity with your cycle and that it would even out eventually.

Then I found myself having this empty feeling. I was diagnosed with clinical depression my freshman year of high school, so it wasn’t a totally unfamiliar feeling for me, but it felt different than before. I don’t really know how to describe it. I felt like I should care, but didn’t – which wasn’t the case with my normal depression. With my normal depression I just didn’t care, had no motivation, had awful thoughts, but this just felt extra wrong. I could see that I used to enjoy these things and felt like I should enjoy them, but didn’t.

The nausea finally settled down a bit after the first month, but I was never hungry. I had to set a few alarms on my phone a day to remind me to eat because otherwise I just wouldn’t think to do it. I never felt hungry at all. Then my migraines came back so bad that I couldn’t leave my room. They took me off the progestin and told me that they just don’t think birth control would work for me. I haven’t been on one since.

Emily, student at Leeds

I first started taking the combined pill when I was 16, less as a contraceptive method but more to help regulate my periods. Which for a while, it was great for. I continued to take it for five years and put the fact that I was getting repeated headaches down to stress and lack of sleep. At university, these headaches turned into full on migraines, though ,meaning for days on end I was sat in a dark room praying for the pain to stop. This of course effected my studies, and led to countless appeals for extensions just to get any work done.

Despite constantly going to the doctors complaining at the ridiculous regularity of the migraines, still nothing was done. Doctors seemed to blame everything but the pill for the cause, meaning for a year I was going back and forth trying different solutions to minimising the pain. It wasn’t until my doctor suggested changing my pill that we finally found something that worked. I now take a progestogen-only pill, which has helped reduce the migraines significantly. I now still suffer. I probably always will but instead of on a twice weekly basis I now probably get them once a month max.

Sara, student at King’s College London

I’ve been on the pill since 2013. At first, I was on a combined pill, which seemed fine, but then when I moved to London I was switched to a different, cheaper version. All was well until late last year, when I was sitting at home watching TV, and suddenly noticed I was half-blind in one eye. I was freaked out, but I wasn’t in any pain so, probably quite irresponsibly of me, I decided to just ride it out. As the evening went on, I began experiencing weakness and numbness all down the left side of my body, to the point where I couldn’t walk or even stand. My housemates immediately took me to A&E, where they found my blood pressure was sky high. I was pale, cold and clammy – and my pupils were so dilated the nurse asked if I was on drugs.

Turns out, the only drug causing all this was the pill – and what I’d experienced was actually a migraine. I was switched onto to a progesterone-only pill which makes me feel constantly run down, and grouchy – and when I first started on it I ended up bleeding for three weeks straight. I would love to change to a non-hormonal option, but I find the idea of the coil way too invasive, and the potential side-effects put me off too. So, for now at least, I think it’s better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.

Katie, New York

Like many other teenagers, I went on the pill in my late teens so I could have sex with my high school boyfriend, but obviously lied to my mother about the reason I wanted to go on (“bad cramps”). I went to my gyno, where they probed me with this long intra-ultrasound, and prescribed me a three-month trial of some generic pill.

What followed was not a ton of hot steamy sex, like I had predicted. Instead, I completely lost my libido, and would cry whenever my boyfriend tried to gently coax me into anything intimate. I was exhausted to my bones, both from crying all the time and the weight that piled on my shoulders and in my mind, leaving me perpetually foggy.

After a while, my emotions sharpened, and it was like I had road rage all the time. I stopped driving to and from school, or really anywhere, because I would get actual road rage. Once, food shopping with my brother, I became so engaged over slow-moving shopping carts that I abandoned my own, and went to sit in the car by myself. While I could rationally understand I was overreacting, I still couldn’t stop the white-hot, absolute fury over even the most benign interactions.

Daisy, 23, fashion journalist, London

I’ve been on the pill since I was about 15 or 16, and have changed between a few different combined pills. But I was finding I was bleeding a lot, so I went to the doctor to find out why. The doctor informed that I had something called a cervical ectopy, that had most likely been caused from being on the pill for too long. He told me it was actually quite common, but that I’d need surgery to remove it. I was told to think of the cervix as like a doughnut: the inside of it had eroded away and would therefore bleed whenever it came into contact with anything. It wasn’t life-threatening, just quite painful and really, really uncomfortable. I was horrified that the pill had done that, and came off it immediately. I haven’t been on it for nearly a year now, and feel so much better. I’d suffered from depression and anxiety, and I definitely felt a lot better once I was off it. Less hormonal, less shaky.

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