I woke up in the middle of the night in excruciating pain. It felt as though my intestines were trying to tear their way out. But then I saw blood, and I came to the crushing realization that I had started my very first period.
As an 11-year-old, my life was transformed that night in the worst way possible. The periods that followed were just as excruciating as that very first one, and I spent the next four years consistently missing school, vomiting from the pain, going through super-plus-absorbency tampons like it was my job, and absolutely hating my “adult” body.
But when I was 15, I was introduced to something that would change my life: the birth control pill. This magic little pill, so I was told, would not only annihilate my period pain, but it would cut my periods to just four a year. After years of suffering, the Pill felt like a godsend.
It wasn’t until college that things started spiraling out of control. I remember so vividly the first time it happened: I was standing in a friend’s kitchen one afternoon and suddenly felt as though I couldn’t get enough air. My heart was racing, and I struggled to take a deep breath. It lasted a few minutes, and then, just as suddenly as it had begun, it was over.
It happened again the very next day. And the next. And then it was accompanied by dizziness, lightheadedness, and heart palpitations. I tried to shrug it off as stress-related, but I knew deep down that something else was going on.
I scheduled an appointment with my general practitioner, who referred me to a cardiologist, who referred me to a pulmonologist. Each one drew blood, ordered labs, and performed various tests. In a span of about six months, I had an echocardiogram, a heart ultrasound, wore a holster monitor, took chest X-rays, was prescribed an inhaler and anti-anxiety pills, and blew into a tube on a fancy machine to check my lung function.
Every test came back normal, and each doctor was insistent that my problems were the result of stress. I was beyond frustrated. I had been hooked up to enough machines to make any cyborg jealous, had enough blood drawn to feed a family of vampires, and I still had no answers.
I decided to take matters into my own hands. So I spent the next year experimenting with my diet and lifestyle. I cut out common food allergens, ate organic, overloaded with healthy veggies, trashed chemical-laden personal hygiene and cleaning products, and tweaked my exercise routine. On the outside, I was an extremely healthy 22-year-old. But I still went to bed each night feeling dizzy and short of breath.
Then, about a year and a half after that very first episode, it suddenly dawned on me that my birth control pill was the only constant.
I immediately stopped taking it. Within six weeks, my symptoms vanished. I excitedly called my gynecologist, even though my annual appointment was a few weeks later. I was crushed when she didn’t believe me.
Instead, she switched me to another pill. But my symptoms came racing back. So I quit ... this time for good.
I went to my annual appointment insisting on a non-hormonal alternative (the copper IUD was off the table thanks to my dysmenorrhea, or painful cramps), and I was wholly disappointed by my doctor’s immediate suggestion of a hormonal IUD.
I stood firm, and asked about the only other non-hormonal option I could think of: the diaphragm. My doctor laughed and, begrudgingly, fitted me for one. With a diaphragm prescription in my hand, I left feeling insulted and alone. But I refused to believe that a diaphragm was my best option.
Why I Love Using The Sympto-Thermal Method
I spent the next several months researching methods. And when I finally came across the sympto-thermal method of fertility awareness, I couldn’t help but feel betrayed. I was a 24-year-old woman, and yet I had never heard of this natural method that rivals the Pill in perfect-use effectiveness and is grounded in reproductive science.
And, unlike the commonly confused rhythm method, I would know every single day whether I was at risk of getting pregnant that day. All I had to do was take my basal body temperature each morning, check my cervical fluid throughout the day, and follow a simple set of rules.
I’ve been practicing the sympto-thermal method for three years now, and it has truly transformed my life. It sparked a passion for reproductive health that inspired me to start a technology company, build a period and fertility tracking app, write a book, dedicate myself to educating women about their bodies, and use my menstrual cycle data to heal my dysmenorrhea.
Managing dysmenorrhea without the Pill hasn’t been easy, but the data I gather by practicing the sympto-thermal method has been helpful. Trying to reverse years of hormone imbalance takes time, and I still have my down months. But I now have the information I need to adjust my diet and lifestyle to support healing. I’m happy to say that every period is less painful than the last, and I no longer need pain meds to manage it.
Although the sympto-thermal method will never be the right birth control for everyone (it definitely takes diligence), I firmly believe that everyone can benefit from learning about it. Yes, learning takes time, but the benefits are lasting.
My daily routine is no more time-consuming than it was when I took the Pill, my sex life is no less spontaneous or satisfying, I’ve said goodbye to pregnancy scares, and my relationship with my partner has improved.
Making a truly informed choice about my birth control has been the ultimate freedom for me, and if I can help facilitate that for even a few other people, then my struggle was worthwhile.
I never did fill my diaphragm prescription — but I kept it as a small reminder to always be my own best advocate.
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