My mother and I are sitting in an exam room in a women’s health practice in a high-rise, on a floor so far up it makes me queasy to look out the window at my hometown’s skyline.
For the past few weeks, I’ve felt a pain in my lower abdomen, which alternates from a dull nudging, almost like a reminder, to a sharp, painful stab. Aside from that, I’m also the only woman in my family who hasn’t gotten her period by age 12.
The gynecologist comes in, and her eyes are kind. I latch onto her like you would a life preserver in deep water. She examines my stomach and my breasts, asks me about my period (or lack thereof), and does a pelvic exam. Then she tells me I have polycystic ovarian syndrome, writes me a prescription for the birth control pill, and sends me on my way, the start of an agonizing journey that will make me question everything about myself.
A Five-Year Long Nightmare
After that day, and for the next five years, I take the pill every single night at the exact same time, like clockwork. My gynecologist (and the countless doctors I see after her) has made it clear: There’s no cure for PCOS, but birth control is most commonly prescribed to “treat” its most damaging effects. They’re also forthright about the consequences of PCOS I’m potentially facing, including but not limited to diabetes and infertility.
My parents aren’t thrilled at the idea of me being on the pill, but I’m not sure why. At that point, as a junior in high school, tons of my girlfriends are taking it to help their acne or regulate their periods.
There’s no cure for PCOS, but birth control is most commonly prescribed to “treat” its effects.
And for a while, it does that for me too. I take it as ordered, and though I can’t take a daily look at my swollen ovaries and the dime-sized, fluid-filled cysts that sit on them, I believe the pill’s doing its job, how everyone around me has told me it’s going to. That’s what medicine’s supposed to do, right?
But when I enter college, things change. My once-thick hair falls out. My weight fluctuates from chunky to skinny, and rarely stays the same. My energy disappears completely. My hormones process things like sugar and alcohol and sexual desire differently from my friends. For a semester, I’m so depressed that when I’m not working or going to class, I’m sleeping, unable to move from my bed. I have no desire to take my own life, but at many points, I wish I could die.
What I’ve Learned
1 in 10 women have PCOS. It affects those of us who are of childbearing age, and since my own diagnosis, I’m surprised at how many friends and acquaintances I’ve discovered also have it.
Medical professionals and researchers still disagree on the exact nature of the condition — is it a hormonal imbalance or a metabolic disorder? (It’s both.)
PCOS most acutely affects menstrual cycles, and contributes to the production of additional androgens to the body, resulting in increased hair in certain areas and acne.
As I’ve been told many, many times: there’s no cure. But the general consensus from gynecologists worldwide is to immediately prescribe the birth control pill to “regulate” the harsher symptoms of such a diagnosis. Not only does this feel like an inauthentic, haphazard way to practice medicine, it’s also dishonest.
No medical professional ever bothered to offer me alternative solutions to combat my physical symptoms.
In the five years I was on the pill, not once was I ever told by a medical professional that I didn’t have to be on it, or about the fertility awareness method (which I now practice). No medical professional ever bothered to offer me alternative solutions to combat the physical symptoms I was feeling — symptoms that were soon overshadowed by the battle raging within my emotions, fighting for dominance over my mental health.
I’m not a board-certified/licensed medical professional, scientific researcher, scholar, or anything of the sort. But here’s a newsflash, and the ultimate realization of my own terrifying but empowering journey with my body: If you’re a woman with PCOS, you don’t have to be on the pill.
Taking My Body Back
Last summer, I stopped taking the pill. It was either my mental health or a few problematic physical symptoms at stake. I knew that no matter how annoying acne or unpredictable periods were, the stability of my mental health was what mattered, and what I was sacrificing.
I did get pushback from my doctors — raised eyebrows, caveats, polite and not-so-polite advisements. And after throwing out my birth control, the next step in the reclamation process was finding medical professionals who worked with me, and not against me.
No matter how annoying acne or unpredictable periods were, my mental health was what mattered.
I was so very lucky. I found board-certified, practicing naturopathic doctors well versed in holistic and alternative options, who congratulated me for my choice instead of holding it against me.
And as much as I was concerned with my mental health, I took my physical health back as well. I found sports and physical activities I loved. I committed to eating right, and I started to treat my body like a temple instead of a ramshackle house with chipped paint.
My energy and enthusiasm for life came back. My depression, while not vanished completely, no longer plagues me daily. Though I never got my thick hair or perfect skin back, my moods are no longer unpredictable. It’s a trade-off I’ll take for a pimple here and there.
An uncertain decision I made has ultimately yielded the most empowering choice I will most likely ever make in my life. The support and encouragement I’ve received from women in the PCOS, fertility awareness, and naturopathic communities has been immeasurable and gratifying.
The research and sources I’ve consumed have been motivations to not only treat my body better, but to appreciate it for what it continues to do for me, however imperfectly, and to believe in the possibilities of the future.
Doctors are human too, and this is not to say that the countless ones I saw over the years were actively working against my health. Not at all.
But if a narrative strongarmed by birth control continues to dictate women’s health, we’re doing women (both with PCOS and without) a serious disservice to the potential successes achievable with alternative health.