14 January 2017

My nightmare on the pill

Millions of women rely on the contraceptive pill and many are happy with it – but some find it has a devastating effect on their mental health. Here Vicky Spratt, deputy editor of The Debrief, describes years of depression, anxiety and panic as she tried one version of the pill after another.

I sat in the GP’s office with my mum and told her that I’d been having my period for three weeks. She told me that the contraceptive pill might help. She warned that it wouldn’t protect me from sexually transmitted infections and told me that if I had unprotected sex I could get cervical cancer, so I’d best use it wisely. She had to say that, though I was 14 and sex was very much not on the agenda.

My prescription was printed in reception. And then, a three-month supply of the combined pill was mine. Picking up the green foil-covered packets full of tiny yellow pills felt like a rite of passage – I was a woman now. In the plastic pockets was the sugar-coated distillation of feminism, of women’s liberation, of medical innovation.

Vicky Spratt at universityImage copyrightVICKY SPRATT

This is where it all began, 14 years ago. I then played what I call pill roulette for more than a decade, trying different brands with varying degrees of success and disaster. It was around this time that I also developed anxiety, depression and serious mood swings which, on and off, have affected me throughout my adult life.

Relationships have ended and I had to take a year out from university – I thought that was just “who I was”, a person ill-equipped for life, lacking self-confidence and unhappy. It wouldn’t be until my early 20s, after graduating from university – when my mental health problems and behaviour could no longer be dismissed as those of a “moody teenager” – that I would seriously question whether it was linked to my use of the pill.

packets of contraceptive pillsImage copyrightTHINKSTOCK

Pill varieties

  • There are two main kinds of pill: the combined pill – which combines oestrogen and progestogen (a synthetic form of progesterone) – and the progestogen-only pill (POP) or mini-pill
  • There are many brands of the combined pill – the dose may differ, and the relative amounts of oestrogen and progestogen
  • There are also different types of the progestogen-only pill, making use of different progestogens, such as norethistorone or desogestrel
  • Women who have problems with one pill may find another has no side effects

One day in the early hours, sitting at my laptop, unable to sleep because of a panic attack which had lasted overnight, I began to Google. I had started taking a new pill, a progestogen-only pill (POP) which had been prescribed because I was suffering from migraines, and the combined pill is not safe for people who suffer from migraines with aura.

I tapped the name of the pill + depression/anxiety into the search engine and the internet did the rest. There it was: forum threads and blog posts from people who were experiencing the same symptoms as me.

At this point I had already seen my GP several times, following the sudden onset of debilitating panic attacks, which I had never experienced before. At no point had my contraceptive pill come up in conversation, despite the fact that the attacks had started when I switched to the new contraceptive. Instead, I was prescribed a high dose of beta blockers, used to treat anxiety, and it was recommended that I should undergo cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

I lived like this for somewhere between six and eight months – I can’t tell you exactly because that year of my life is a blur, recorded by my mind in fast-forward because of the constant sense of urgency and impending doom that coursed through my veins.

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