Viewpoint

Switching From The Pill To A Non-Hormonal IUD Unequivocally Changed My Life

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Jody Todd

Lying on a blue pleather table, my legs apart, I stare at the ceiling tiles above my head and wait. There is a pinch, rather like my skin being caught by the corner of some tweezers, somewhere deep within me. The real pain must be still to come, I think. All those years of whispered warnings, dire stories. I know the real deal is coming.

“You can get up now, darling,” the middle-aged nurse in a Peacocks blouse tells me. I know it’s Peacocks because she’s so small that when I climbed onto the table, I could read the label down her neck.

“Sorry?” I ask, confused.

“You can get up. That was it.”

The decision to swap to a non-hormonal IUD – ie, a copper coil – came to me one day like rain on hot soil. For three months I had been in what I laughingly called The Great Cry. Ho ho. I would come home from work, sit on my bed, overlooked by a balcony of Brazilian men in the flat opposite, and just cry. Sobbing, weeping, sighing, the tears would pour out of me, sometimes for hours. And here is the frightening thing: I had absolutely no idea why I was crying. Can you imagine how close that feels to insanity? To have your body shake and shudder with a crying you do not understand? That you cannot trace?

My body, swollen with hormones, wiped clean of all libido, would heave out these tears so regularly that I started to wonder if this was just who I was now. And then a friend, who already had the coil, asked me how long I’d been on the pill. She wasn’t pushing me, you understand. Simply interested. After that conversation I started to feel each time I popped another little rounded ball of hormones into my mouth like I was poisoning myself. Not lethally, of course. But somehow the idea of putting these chemicals into my body – all so my boyfriend didn’t have to think about having babies – seemed wrong.

I had been on the pill, on and off, since I was 17, and if I’m honest, it never really agreed with me. I can still remember sitting in a beer garden, beside the River Aire, in a vintage dress that had a row of buttons down the side, Japanese-style. As I leaned back, my drink in my hand, my friend Walley looked at the ground, embarrassment flickering across his face and said, “Erm, your top. It’s, ah – well, you’ve sort of popped out.”

I looked down to see two-thirds of my entire breast on show. Since going back on the pill, I had put on so much weight that none of my bras fitted, and so I had just given up wearing them. I had also lost so much sensitivity in my erogenous zones that I hadn’t even felt my tit break through the line of buttons. That mix of sexless, swollen, bovine disconnection with my body is how I still think of my time on hormonal contraception. Add to it the juddering months of weeping, and all I can say is that the pill is an extremely effective contraceptive if your aim is to simply never want to have sex ever again.

And so I got the coil. I booked a nurse’s appointment at my GP surgery, explained that I didn’t want to be on any hormones any more, and was asked if I wanted the five-year or 10-year option. Ten years of never having to panic that I had forgotten to pack my pills, of worrying that I might run out on holiday, of feeling chemically changed by something I was choosing to put into my body. I was 24. My boyfriend didn’t want a baby. I chose the 10-year option.

“And, well, if you decide to have a baby, you can just come in and we’ll take it out and can give you some folic acid,” the nurse said. Straight away I would be, perhaps, fertile. No waiting time for those synthetic pregnancy hormones to leave my body. I would be at square one. Whatever that was.

I should say here, I am very lucky with my cervix. If I told you that getting my coil fitted was no worse than having a smear test, it is in full knowledge that for some women and people with wombs, smear tests are agony. I also know that for a lot of people there is a sensitivity about their vaginas, cervixes and genitals that I am extremely lucky not to carry. Here, by way of illustration, is a list of things that have been put in my vagina over the years: a courgette, fingers, several penises, speculums, a vibrator bought for me after I broke up with my first boyfriend, tampons, mooncups and, just once, a roll-on deodorant after reading about someone doing it in a novel. It is perhaps because of this happy combination of physiology and psychology that I found getting a coil fitted absolutely fine. Not pleasant, not something I’d order at a restaurant, not my favourite way to spend a few minutes lying down, but definitely nothing like the agony I had been warned about by so many horror stories. It did not make my periods heavier, it did not have any long-term side effects. That is absolutely not to dismiss or diminish the experiences of people who found it otherwise. I am simply offering up my story as valid, real and perhaps different to some you may have heard.

Talking of cervixes, I have also pushed a baby out through mine. Now, postnatal contraception is no small matter. You are so ripe with hormones after having a baby that you are also, in many cases, very fertile. And so, when my son was just four-weeks-old, I went back to my walk-in GUM clinic to get a new non-hormonal coil fitted. My friend Eleanor and her then girlfriend – champions both – came with me and sat in the waiting room, holding my son, surrounded by furtive teenagers and young professionals, all studiously avoiding eye contact beneath the leaflets on HPV. It was, at that stage of his life, the longest my son had been out of my sight. A strange and rather medical slice of “me-time”. Ha.

The doctor – female – was polite, serious, attentive and incredibly kind. That, again, was lucky. Although it shouldn’t be a question of luck. We talked about the different options, she checked my blood pressure and other indicators of general health. Then I was invited to drop my knickers, climb up onto another wipe-clean pleather banquette and spread my legs. I cannot remember, but she may have draped a little square of blue paper over my crotch, as is tradition at the GUM clinic – I’m never too sure why.

“Now, normally I would say that this may be a little uncomfortable,” the doctor said, sitting between my legs with the small twist of metal like a hammerhead shark between her tweezers. “But considering what you did just a month ago, I think you’ll probably be alright.”

And I was. A speculum was inserted, which she had very thoughtfully warmed up first under a hot tap. There was that little twinge again, somewhere unreachable, and that was it. I walked out of that room feeling protected and in control. My non-hormonal coil would not get punctured by a set of keys in someone’s pocket, wouldn’t get lost on a train seat after I knocked over my handbag, wouldn’t turn my body into a swollen, alien carapace, wouldn’t need me to return to the doctor every few months for a top-up, wouldn’t make me depressed. I could travel across the world, climb a mountain or just feed my baby sitting on the sofa and know that, thanks to this tiny piece of wire sitting at the opening of my cervix, I probably wouldn’t get pregnant.

Pain is pain, and it should be taken seriously. Those who want pain relief before having a coil fitted should be given it. There are risks and side effects with all forms of contraception. But we also all live in entirely unique bodies. The way we react to hormones, the way our insides are configured, and how we experience physical experiences are different. What worked for me may not work for you. I’m just saying that, in my case, it worked.