Green Birth Control: Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don’t

Contemplating the idea of birth control and doing better for planet but, at what cost?

Last year I decide to “green” my birth control.

My decision stemmed from a combination of concerns—OK, guilt—related to how I was keeping myself baby-free. Some environmental drawbacks of birth control are obvious: I cringed every time I tossed an empty blister pack and its handy plastic case in the trash (my pharmacy isn’t into the idea of giving me just the blister pack so I can reuse the case-I’ve asked).

But that wasn’t my main concern. I had read in Scientific American that every time I peed, I was flushing synthetic estrogen down the pipes, to a water treatment plant that does not treat for hormones, and out into the waterways where it was doing disturbing things to the reproductive parts of fish.

It turns out that the main culprit in the cancer-causing levels of estrogen in our water is our agricultural system, but at the time, I wanted to do right by my aquatic friends and other people who would eventually be drinking water with the estrogen that passed through my body. (Nice image, right?)

And there were other, more selfish reasons I wanted to discontinue my use of hormones. At the time I was in a relationship with a great guy, the kind of relationship where after my first night over at his apartment I spent the next three days until I could see him again obsessively replaying everything in my head over and over and over again. But after I went on the pill my sex drive plummeted. Studies have been mixed, but a German study confirmed my suspicion that my hormonal birth control was to blame.

One day I was sitting on my boyfriend’s couch reading a fascinating Psychology Today article on how women’s personalities go through subtle shifts throughout their natural hormonal cycle, from bold and confident to more shy and introverted. Suddenly, I felt like by using birth control I was missing out on a whole facet of my personality and the experience of being a woman. I was already trying to eat more naturally and use natural beauty products. Flushing hormones out of my body seemed like the next step. So I did some Google searching, and came across ParaGard, the brand name of the copper IUD, which works by creating mild inflammation and a “hostile environment” in the uterus for both eggs and sperm.

I thought it was an inspired idea. For a manageable up front cost – about $300 – I would stop having to remember to take a pill every morning, stop peeing hormones into the environment and regain my “natural” self, the self that doesn’t think it’s pregnant year-round. (And hopefully improve my suffering sex-life.) IUDs are also even more effective than the pill if you take into account always forgetting to actually take it (which I often did). I ignored the side effects noted in the literature: mild cramping and a heavier period. Everything has side effects, right? And usually side affects just don’t apply to me.

It’s actually rare that a gynecologist would agree to prescribe an IUD to a twenty-something, unmarried girl like me. Despite IUDs being more effective than the alternatives, only 2% of the U.S. market uses them. Many doctors hold the outdated notion that IUDs are dangerous, may cause infertility and should be given only to married women who have children. My friend tried and couldn’t find a doctor in Virginia that would agree to discuss it with her while she was in college. In reality, you should be more careful about when you have an IUD, because getting chlamydia or gonorrhea when you have an IUD can lead to pelvic inflammatory diseases. Not a pretty picture.

But if you’re in a monogamous relationship and/or are careful about using condoms, it’s not a big concern. So my forward thinking, NYC gyno was down to make it happen for me.

Two weeks later I was back at her office for the procedure. I’m pretty tough, so I managed to keep my complaints to “Ow, ow, ow, ow HOLY SHIT OW THAT REALLY HURTS.” I will say this: That sort of pain reinforced my decision to never have children. Because of that is what it feels like to have something so tiny put in there, I don’t want to feel what it’s like to have a seven-pound being come out.

And the pain didn’t stop. I managed to make it back to my apartment a few blocks away, where I curled up in a ball and didn’t do anything except meditate on the extreme pain for the next five hours. It finally subsided somewhat, but over the next week waves of pain continued to periodically blossom in my uterus.

And then my first period came.

I have never gotten cramps with my period, but now the hot pain made we want to crawl under a piece of furniture and hide there. I called my doctor’s office to ask if this was normal, but the nurse assured me it would get better. It never really did. Every period came with a fresh reminder of the fact that I now had a “hostile environment” and “mild inflammation” inside my body. My periods were now so heavy that I had to set an alert on my phone so I would remember to visit the bathroom every 2.5 hours and change out my Diva cup. As if to kick me one more time, the pain would make one final appearance the day after my period was over.

Then, three months after I got off of the pill, the lower half of my face broke out in a big way. My dermatologist took one look and said, “This is just normal adult hormonal acne. You could clear it up with birth control.” So this is what natural, hormone-free living looks like: 15 to 20 zits hanging out all over your chin and jawline.

Almost exactly one year later after I got my IUD, as I literally hid under my desk at work (darkness and being on the ground was somehow comforting), and imagined going through this routine every 28 days for the next ten years, is when I realized that I was not up for it. I grabbed my cell phone and made an appointment with my gynecologist. “I want this out of my body,” I told her.

She was surprised by my decision. After all, many women have an IUD and love it. She tentatively suggested that perhaps it would be better for women who have had children. They have, ahem, a little more room to accommodate it. Whatever. All I know is that for me, it was a nightmare.

Now I’m back on the pill, and while it’s not ideal (of course, what form of birth control is?) I’m happy to be back in artificial hormone land. My sex drive is just fine, I’m only four pounds above my starting weight (a small price to pay), and I even got the type of birth control that banishes three out of four periods from your cycle.

Alden is a 25-year-old writer living in New York City. You can find her musings about seeking sustainably in the city at her blog, CleanHippie, or follow her at @CleanHippieNY

Image: thart2009