7 Apr 2010

No Period, No Problem?

...was the tagline of an article in Ms. magazine a few issues back, and since it sums up what I'm about to muse upon, I've nicked it. The article was about the new generation of period-suppressing pills, which are basically the standard contraceptive pill tweaked about a bit. Lybrell, one brand of this type of pill, is already out in America, but however many times I ask my doctor and am promised 'it's coming next year', it has failed to arrive in the UK yet. The moment it hits the shelves, I'll be first in line at the pharmacy to pick myself up a pack. Presently though, I follow the advice of several different doctors and nurses, and simply take the regular contraceptive pill every day without the pill-free week break, and the results are identical. I haven't had a period for, oooh, at least the last nine months, and Christ is it a nice life without them.

Talk of period-suppressing tends to attract scepticism, fear and criticism, and mostly from women themselves (presumably men have got too wise to attempt to even enter the period debate, for fear of broken noses/kicked crotches). Objections are usually upon the lines of 'you're messing with nature', 'aren't you afraid of the side effects?' and 'it can't be good not to have periods'. OK, well, let's consider the first. Taking the contraceptive pill in itself is an act of 'messing with nature', as are all medications and medical procedures in the universe, and pretty much everything we do on a daily basis, from wearing spectacles, to dyeing our hair, to flying on aeroplanes. Granted, the risks vary, but my point is that if you object to any intervention with nature, you're not going to be taking any kind of pill, so my argument should be irrelevant to you. Personally, I'm happy to 'mess with nature' frequently and as much as required, as long as I'm informed about the risks and am making the decision free from influence. Believe me when I say that nature has messed with me enough to convince me that my life is only ever going to be happy and aggro-free when I'm the one in the position of power.

As for side effects, what people don't seem to realise is that any dangers associated with Lybrell are identical to the ones associated with any contraceptive pill. Yes, there are slightly increased risks of breast cancer and blood clots, but then there's the flipside of a reduced risk of cervical and uterine cancer. Yes, if you're dumb enough to smoke when taking the pill, your risk of heart attack, stroke and blood clots will be increased. The ony really difference however, is that you'll be exposed to 12 more weeks of hormones per year than you would be taking the contraceptive pill in the traditional way. For some women, constant exposure to what are often mistakenly called 'chemicals' (they're synthetic versions of the hormones that are already in our bodies, which I think is a slightly different kettle of fish) is too scary. However, to me, those 12 extra weeks are 12 weeks of my life that I'm going to get back from the tyranny of menstruation, of crushing depression, suicidal feelings, ruined underwear, jaw-droppingly agonising cramps, expense, mess and misery. To me, it's a no-brainer. Bring on the hormones.

The argument that 'it's not good not to have periods' could be associated with the above dilemma - surely constant exposure to anything, without a break, is a hazard? Perhaps - but then that is the same risk a person runs taking any medication long-term - be it blood pressure pills, thyroid medication, or anti-depressants. It's a risk people take in order to be able to live their lives. But, saying that women NEED to have periods for health reasons is simply guff. For one, the 'period' experienced during the pill-free week of the contraceptive pill cycle is completely artifically caused. It's the body's reaction to the stoppage of the hormone release which up til this point has convinced it that it's pregnant, and thus needs to retain the lining of the womb. Hormones stop, the womb sheds its lining. If you think about it, it's no less of a shock to the system than making your body think it's gone through a miscarriage. When someone phrased it like that to me, I understood much better why my body always experienced the pill-free week as a terrible, personality-altering trauma - my mind and body were both trying to deal with violent hormone fluctuations and the loss of a non-existent baby. It's no wonder I began to question the whole system that says I should happily endure this every month.

So, there's nothing 'natural' about the pill-free week, nor was it introduced for women's health - it was a condition of the first contraceptive pill's unhindered introduction into society imposed by the Church (who in 1961 still held a great deal of influence over legislation and public opinion). In short, the Church didn't want women thinking they had any right or ability to shake off the oppressive cycles of their bodies and therefore start running around shagging for all four weeks of the month. The makers of the pill also claimed that women they spoke to in their research liked the 'reassurance' of their monthly visitor, as it reminded them they were healthy. This, as we've seen above, is a false reassurance, as the bleed in the pill-free week has nothing to do with health and everything to do with the artificial hormonal regulation of the body's cycle. Personally, I think if women sought any 'reassurance' from their periods, it was the guarantee that they weren't pregnant, since seeking and using contraception was such a fraught and obstacle filled business that most women were used to just crossing their fingers and hoping that Flo would come to town soon. What we learn from this is that the pill-free week was only ever part of the original pill due to a mixture of conservative religious pressure and women's reliance on their periods as the only reliable indicator that they were not pregnant. No medical reason for it has ever been cited.

There's other aspects of history to consider too, when we question this idea that menstruation is natural, healthy and necessary. Today's average woman will experience something up to 400 more periods than her average ancestors, who lived shorter lives and spent more of that time pregnant or breastfeeding. So who's to say that the abundance of periods we experience today are in any way 'natural' or a good thing? Compared to our historical sisters, we seem freakishly over-active in the menstrual department. Considering how much iron and other vital minerals are lost from the body during menstruation, and its links to anaemia and brittle bone disease, there could actually be an argument for menstruation being detrimental to women's health. Oh, how I'd love to see that one on the evening news. And that's before we even get into the countless (wo)man hours lost on cramps, migraines, vomiting, depression, running around looking for a tampon. Oh, and the gazillion times in her life a woman will be not taken seriously, mocked or discriminated against for daring to have periods.
Perhaps if menstruation hadn't been such a disruptive experience in my life, and I was one of those women fortunate enough to experience non-painful periods completely free of mood-swings, I'd never have gone on the pill in the first place to control them (as advised by my doctor at the age of 16, now ten years ago), and wouldn't care that much about all of this. As it is, the destructive depression, sickening pain, mess, expense and inconvenience of periods have wreaked so much havoc on my life up until recently that I am proud to have used the medical establishment for all it's worth in order to wrestle back control of my body. If I never menstruated again I seriously doubt I would care; and if any woman thinks that's a drastic or unnatural statement to make, just take a second and think about what your life would be like if you never had to deal with your 'monthly visitor' ever again. I'm with Germaine on this - no woman would ever menstruate if she didn't have to.


Jules said...

Just wondered if you'd considered the implant or the injection while you're waiting for Lybrell to come out in the UK? They're also supposed to suppress your periods (didn't work 100% for me, but they do for most people)

Chas said...

I have tried the implant, as I was suitably seduced by its promise of period reduction/suppression. Unfortunately, it had the opposite effect - see this post http://allthatchas.blogspot.com/2009_08_01_archive.html for further details. The doctor concluded that the injection would probably have a similar effect so it wasn't wise to explore that avenue as an injection can't be removed (whereas the implant, fortunately, was).
Thanks anyway for the suggestion - you can probably see now why I'm keen for Lybrell to show up in the UK.

bookblob said...

That's funny because I was trying to get information out of the nurse about this the other day and what she ended up describing (as opposed to prescribing) for me was a pill where periods might go away but might be heavier than normal and come, like, sporadically.

This is not particularly worth the risk in my view as I usually run my pill packets in together to avoid periods anyway; I am all about messing with nature. My mother has horrors at this and it probably does mess up my cycle something rotten but the damage is done. Periods on the pill aren't "real" anyway, or so the literature says. Fascinating that the week off is a religious intervention.

When this Lybrell arrives, I will be first in line.

x Satu

Chas said...

I think what your nurse was referring to is the progesterone-only pill, which is less commonly prescribed than the combined pill. It can make periods go away or 'become irregular', but guess what effect it had on me? Non-stop bleeding. It seems I'm always in that small percentage who 'experience the opposite effect' - it was the same with the implant.

bookblob said...

Ouch! Okay, definitely not going for that then.