Where my birth control journey has led me

Navigating healthcare in a world that doesn’t take women’s pain seriously

Maia believes the way women’s pain is normalized is unacceptable.
Credit: 
Supplied by Maia McCann

My experience with birth control started when I was around 16 and I went on the pill to help with my period pain.

I’d had friends who became depressed on the pill, but luckily that wasn’t a side effect I suffered. For the most part, I didn’t have much to complain about.

In my second year at Queens, after transferring my prescription to Kingston, I ended up with a different brand of pill. With this brand, I noticed more side effects and eventually decided to go off birth control for a while.

Fast forward to this summer: rather than go back on the pill, I chose to get an Intra-Uterine Device (IUD), which is a long-term form of birth control. My mother and some of my friends encouraged me, since IUDs had worked well for them and are highly effective at preventing pregnancy.

So, I booked an appointment and took the afternoon off from my summer job.

Despite the care and compassion of not one, but three healthcare professionals it took to insert my IUD, the experience was mildly traumatic.

According to my doctor, most IUD insertions take about five to 10 minutes. Mine took at least 20, multiple healthcare professionals, and multiple attempts at measuring my uterus—which felt like being impaled, and was by far the worst part.

I went home and felt okay despite my appointment not going the way I’d hoped. I thought five years of reliable contraception was more than worth the pain and mild humiliation.

A month went by, and my initial pain had gone away, but I started to get the odd stabbing pain in my lower abdomen. At my checkup appointment, I asked the doctor to check on my IUD to make sure it wasn’t out of place. I was surprised when he said everything was fine and sent me on my way.

My pain wasn’t improving as my IUD ‘settled,’ and was instead becoming sharper and more intense—different from anything I’d experienced before. I did what every healthcare professional advises against and started researching my symptoms.

‘IUD cramps getting worse,’ ‘sharp pelvic pain,’ when cramps aren’t normal,’ my search history read.

Most medical websites said the same things: if the pain is severe, see your doctor. The problem was, I didn’t know what ‘severe’ meant. What I was experiencing didn’t feel mild, but I wasn’t rushing to the ER, either.

I had been told by the doctor who prescribed my IUD that they can increase the risk of developing ovarian cysts, but that most women don’t even notice when they have them. Before I started researching, I knew almost nothing.

While Reddit isn’t a good source for reliable medical information, it’s a great place to find personal anecdotes. r/birthcontrol was full of women with stories of cysts developing soon after IUD insertion. When I read what other people said about ovarian cysts and IUDs, I was finally able to acknowledge my pain.

My friends and family said it probably wasn’t cysts as I thought; they were trying to reassure me. I didn’t want to tell them it was internet research that made me suspect cysts.

In the two months following my checkup, I started noticing a pattern. I’d have sharp pains that would come and go for the two weeks before my period. Without pain medication, I struggled to get through the day. Then suddenly after my period, the pain would be gone.

Ibuprofen became my best friend. I was depending on painkillers to function for two weeks out of each month, but I hesitated to go back to the doctor. I didn’t want to accept that the ordeal I went through for long-term birth control may have been a waste.

I felt angry this was my experience, and jealous of the women I knew who have had great success with their IUDs.

I’m not trying to discourage anyone from getting an IUD—I think it can be a great thing if it works—but I was misled about how common IUD complications are and what they look like.

Everyone around me—especially healthcare workers—downplayed the possibility of a negative IUD experience. I should’ve asked more questions, but short of knowing how much pain I’d be in, there probably isn’t much that would’ve changed my mind.

The process has felt violating. More strangers have been ‘down there’ than I’d like, and while I’m not embarrassed, it’s not something I think I’ll ever get used to.

As good as most healthcare workers’ intentions are, the way women’s reproductive healthcare is handled in most of the world is an example of sex-based oppression. The limited understanding of women’s bodies is so normalized most people don’t see it as a problem.

Let’s address something: the way women’s pain is normalized in healthcare is unacceptable. There has to be a way to access long term contraception as a woman without sacrificing comfort.

As someone with white and class privilege, I’m one of the lucky ones. And even still, after my experience, I can’t imagine what women of colour and lower-class women go through.

After three months of severe pain, I finally made an appointment at Student Wellness Services. I was apprehensive because I’d only heard of people having negative experiences there and didn’t want to be vulnerable if I’d just be invalidated.

Luckily, my experience was generally good. The nurse practitioner referred me for an ultrasound.

When I got the call with my ultrasound results, the woman on the phone confirmed what I was almost sure of based on my limited research: I had ovarian cysts. She made it sound like no big deal, saying, “they’re completely benign.”

I wasn’t given any information or next steps of what that diagnosis meant. I don’t have a clear idea of what ovarian cysts are or what action I need to take to get rid of my pain. I don’t know if they’ll go away on their own or even when I get my IUD removed.

I do know that a ruptured cyst can result in losing an ovary and cysts sometimes require surgery to be removed. Both untreated cysts and surgery—the treatment—can affect fertility.

When I told them, my mother and my boyfriend apologized for dismissing the idea that I could have cysts, but the apologies were unnecessary. I know we’ve all been conditioned not to take women’s pain seriously; even though I was the one in pain, I was guilty of it too. 

Women deserve healthcare that doesn’t invalidate us and helps us understand our bodies, so we don’t have to suffer silently. Women deserve to feel comfortable and confident to speak up when we’re in pain. Women deserve better.

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