The Pill Helped Me Sustain My Anorexia
On November 2012, the morning of Election Day, I shake hands in a bright but faded Midtown Manhattan gynecologist's office. The doctor tells me it's been a while.
He's my gynecologist, and my mother's before me. He was the first person who touched me after I was cut out of her abdomen because I was too big to push my way out about 17 years earlier. I sit down and express my experiences with the pill. The ones from Planned Parenthood I've tried produce bizarre mood swings: sweaty high school summers melting into boiling pots of reasons for me to yell at anyone.
"I hate fulfilling the sexist prophecy of 'hysteria,'" I say, hoping for a chuckle.
He doesn't. He's straightforward, listens and prescribes me a different pill—another mathematical variation of the hormones I was taking before. And for seven years, his astute observation-prescription works: No mood swings like before, and my period always comes on the same predictable date, like magic. No need to go back to feeding my body adequately to keep the clockwork of menstruation running—the pill does it all for me.
What the pill is doing for me...and to me
The pill can be a great tool—I'm not here to slander it. On top of making life easier, we have to remember all the work that went toward its creation and accessibility, and safety. Since its U.S. approval in 1960, women could enjoy spontaneous sex, or even potentially survive sexual assault, without fear of pregnancy. The pill can also help to regulate irregular periods and reduce cramps. Or, as in my case, it can seemingly reverse anorexia-induced amenorrhea, or loss of menstruation.
However, what happens when you use your medicine for another purpose? Like Benadryl, which helps to dampen that cough but also helps you sleep at night. What happens if the pill I take to avoid having a baby also helps me starve myself? Thank god, I thought, for this pill. Without it, I wouldn't have a period at all; for my cycle to return, I'd have to eat and put on weight. Without the pill, I'd be a sex-having anorexic relying on store-bought pregnancy tests rather than the natural signal of my body to know if I'd gotten pregnant.
Beginning to look for an end
Since that late autumn morning of 2012, I have tried ditching the pill at various times to see if my period would come back without synthetic assistance. I especially experimented with this during my boyfriend-less summers away from university.
Sometimes I waited a month, sometimes two. But during one summer without birth control, a friend of a friend raped me on a beach, and I learned it wasn't only up to me to decide when to be sexless. The waiting game wasn't worth it. Seeing if my body could work without it wasn't worth the periods of unprotection.
And during the months I waited, I grieved my period's absence. It's never been because of a pregnancy, luckily, but even so, the lack of menstruation was a reminder my body wasn't doing what it was supposed to naturally do. When I wasn't on the pill, I longed for those cramps, rumbling at dawn every third Thursday of the month.
Committing, and trying to commit
Fast-forward to 2018-2019, more than six years since I began pausing to pill-pop every 5 p.m. every day. I've been gaining back some weight for a few years now, but I can't tell if it's due to age or a slowing metabolism, since I still harbor some disordered eating patterns. I can't not eat as much as I used to, as my body won't tolerate starvation anymore, and I reluctantly accept this. At this point, too, I'm in a more stable relationship and we talk about me going off the pill and using condoms. Maybe even an IUD.
I go off the pill. A month or two later, I ask my gynecologist to carry out blood tests, plus ask questions such as: How are my hormones? Since I've gained weight (painfully, obviously), could my period come back on its own? Blood tests come back "fine." He tells me my period could probably come back, but I'd need to wait a little longer. At the same time, he says, if one method of contraception works for you, just keep using it. And I do. I do and I do because I don't want to miss my period. I wade in uncertainty. The only way to be sure would be to deal with not having one until it came back naturally, but for how long? How long can my partner and I just avoid having sex? What would it mean for our relationship? What if we kept having sex while we're waiting for my period, but always with condoms? Then again, there's always the chance they break or have air bubbles or have gone bad. Even if I took pregnancy tests every month, there's always the chance of a false negative.
The only thing that brought a change
In 2020, I deal with the pandemic, quarantine. Not leaving the house, fatiguing with Zoom all day, making friends with the dangers of excessive sitting. We acknowledge the importance of all our bygone micro-movements throughout a typical, pre-pandemic day.
I don't weigh myself, but my pants do feel tighter. I can't buy the size I used to. My thighs pressed together no longer reveal a gap.
Trying to find some benefit in all this, in letting go of my erstwhile skinny body, I figure I'll just go off the pill and see what happens. Who knows, my ever-increasing body fat could bring my period back. I'm still with my partner: We talk about it like the grownups we're realizing we could be. We count on condoms and wait and see.
One month, nothing. No rumbling Thursday dawns.
Two months, nothing. I Google how long it takes to get your period back after going off the pill. They tell me three to four months.
Three months, nothing. The doctor calls me for a check-up, and it's over the phone instead of in person. I tell him it still hasn't come back, and he tells me we'll do hormone tests when we can. "We should get that checked out," he says.
Four months, nothing.
Four and a half months, and I stain my panties, all dazed and overwhelmed like on the first day of high school. This time, though, with a knowing smile.
Back for good?
In 2021, my body works again, and for as much as I don't enjoy helping it to, I know I must. The blood reminds me fat is OK, good even.
Safe sex, no pill, body fat and blood. So far, I've had three months of it coming back, somewhat regularly. Not like clockwork, but I figure it's still trying to figure out if the conditions are good enough to be able to flow again on its own, after nine years.