These days I feel controlled, powerful, self-possessed, and responsible. The catalyst for my empowerment has been the process of stopping hormonal birth control. Since the time I was eighteen, I had been using the Nuvaring as birth control – it acts essentially in the same way as the pill, except that it is administered directly into the vagina once a month and therefore utilizes lower levels of hormones. My reasons for beginning birth control are fairly common among teenage girls: I didn’t want to risk pregnancy as I started to become sexual and I wanted to manage my irregular periods. The doctor was helpful in describing the different methods of birth control and helping me choose the best for me – however, she never mentioned the array of fertility awareness methods. The highly risky “rhythm method” tends to stigmatize other natural methods that have just as low risk as the pill; many doctors do not even distinguish between the different methods, meaning that they do not offer these methods to their patients as options.
Perhaps because I was young and shy about my body, or because the teachers emphasized the dangers of sex, or even because my sexual body was not relevant to my twelve year old self – I learned virtually nothing about female reproductive health in school. The Ontario curriculum focuses on preventing pregnancy and the transmittance of STIs, which are of course important to emphasize to a teenage population; however, this agenda should not displace the priority of factual and anatomical information about our reproductive functioning. The menstrual cycle is pivotal in our self-perception as females, either as a site of shame and fear or of love and acceptance. When we understand how female fertility works, we are armed with the knowledge to make important decisions for ourselves. This feeling of self-reliance can boost confidence and self-love immensely.
For instance, before I started exploring FAM I had never thought about my fertility. I harboured an unacknowledged and unchallenged assumption that, like males, I was fertile all the time. For this reason, I thought that hormonal birth control methods made the most sense because the only other non-invasive option would be to use barrier protection during every single sex act. Why not cover all your bases by taking the pill? Well, now I know that I am actually only fertile for the 12-48 hours it takes my egg to exit my body every cycle, and that I can accurately predict when this will occur. So in reality, I only need to use protection on the days my body displays specific signs that I may be ovulating! Why would I continue to suffer the side effects of hormonal birth control when I can predict which sex acts may result in pregnancy and which may not?
For me, the side effects of the Nuvaring were slow to accumulate, and in that way insidious. I didn’t suspect the Nuvaring as the cause of my problems because they had become problems so gradually. I was worried that I was ill in some other way, or – even worse – that this was just the “adult” me. I used the Nuvaring for a little over three years, from before I had even had my first sexual experience, and therefore had no benchmark to evaluate my slowly declining sexual appetite against. Around the second year using it, I was noticing sexual apathy in myself – I didn’t get turned on very easily, I didn’t get very wet even when I was turned on. At the time I thought maybe it was because I had been in a long-term relationship and this was just the natural course of things. But it didn’t seem right – only twenty and already losing interest in sex?! The psychological impact of not getting wet was damaging for myself and also my partner: he felt he wasn’t able to turn me on, and I felt a combination of pressure to be turned on and fear and shame that I wasn’t. These negative feelings were amplified by my intense monthly mood swings. But after discontinuing the Nuvaring for just one month, I immediately felt the difference, both in lubrication and mood. I was becoming wet again when aroused; more importantly, I was free of the depressed and vengeful demon that used to possess me monthly. Even more empowering was the knowledge about my fertility I acquired from learning how to monitor it. I learned that not only do all women differ in the amount of lubricant they produce and sexual arousal they feel, but that cervical fluid during fertile periods can make us feel extremely wet on certain days, and in comparison dry on others. And that this is all part of a natural cycle that varies for each woman, nothing to be ashamed or scared of. We all differ in so many ways – cycle length, wetness, erogenous zones, sex drive – and it is important to chart your cycles to get an intimate understanding of your own “normal,” because it will be different from another woman’s “normal.”
Through charting, I came to learn that my vagina changes dynamically to reflect my arousal levels and position in my cycle. It may sound odd, but it felt as if my vagina were alive and breathing again! Now I know why some positions are uncomfortable at certain times of month but totally awesome at others; now I know why my capacity for arousal changes depending on the point in my cycle; now I can monitor my fertility and be able to detect changes that might indicate health issues.
The transition was very difficult for me, but I knew I was going to stick with it from that first month off the pill when I felt alive and myself again. It took almost eight months for my cycle to become somewhat regular. For eight months, though, it fluctuated drastically, making it very difficult for me and my partner to plan sex and resulting in more than a few very unwise and irresponsible situations. My skin started breaking out again like when I was a teenager, and it still does. But this is a side effect I will gladly take in exchange for a more emotionally stable existence and the empowerment I feel from being in harmony with my fertility.