‘It hurts like hell’: What having an IUD is really like

Julianna Lowe

One year. An awfully abnormal amount of time for an 18-year-old girl to go without having a period. And I knew this.

After my 19th birthday, I finally worked up the nerve to visit my gynecologist for the first time. I had no idea what the outcome would be, but leaving her office with a pamphlet for Kyleena, a hormonal intrauterine device (IUD), was the last thing I expected.

Within ten minutes, I had spewed off enough information about my irregular periods, history with cystic acne and abnormal facial hair that she was able to diagnose me with polycystic ovary syndrome — PCOS.

Because the biggest cause of PCOS is an imbalance in my androgen (male hormone) levels and my estrogen (female hormone) levels, she explained that I needed to be on birth control right away to ensure my health. She said birth control would regulate my hormones so that the unusual abundance of androgen wouldn’t cause the effects of PCOS to show themselves.

I just had one problem. I had tried birth control before, and I did not want to try it again.

Once I explained my bout with mood swings, depression and weight gain on the pill, she pointed to the poster on the wall that offered more birth control options that I had never even heard of before.

“It’s interesting when female students talk about what birth control they’ve tried or not tried,” gender and women’s studies instructor Brandi Button said. “It may be a conversation that they haven’t had before, so opening up about it leads to discussion of risks and reasons involved.”

My gynecologist and I talked about the effects of the birth control shot, the birth control implant and the birth con- trol patch before she finally introduced me to the intrauterine device (IUD).

An IUD is a small, t-shaped piece of plastic that gets inserted into your uterus in order to prevent pregnancy. It is more than 99% effective, each one lasting 3-12 years in your uterus.

IUDs do two things to prevent pregnancy:

1. An IUD releases hormones that thicken the cervix so that sperm cannot get to the egg and fertilize it.

2. An IUD releases hormones that stop eggs from leaving the ovaries, meaning that sperm would not even have an egg to fertilize.

So, if an IUD is used to prevent pregnancy, why did I need one to treat my PCOS?

The side effects of PCOS are horrifying. With PCOS, I am now at an in- creased risk of hair loss, acne, weight gain, heart disease, diabetes, depres- sion, infertility and more.

Even though I’ve never wanted to be a mother nor have I felt a maternal instinct, hearing my doctor say that I will never be able to have children still made my stomach drop.

“As long as we have gender roles in society, the issue of infertility will be a big deal,” Button said. “Even if you don’t want kids, you still feel a sense of shame for not being able to fulfill your expected role in society.”

All of the side effects of PCOS are caused by an imbalance of hormones — which explains the long black hairs that grow from my chin and the cystic acne that I had throughout high school. However, the IUD releases hormones that healthily balance my androgen and estrogen levels, putting me at a decreased risk of side effects.

I chose the IUD.

While the cost of the IUD can be up to $1,300, I am lucky enough to have insurance that covers birth control, so I was prescribed the IUD with no out-of- pocket cost.

“It is definitely a privilege to not have to worry about birth control costs,” Button said. “Especially in a political climate that does not support the access of free contraceptives under Medicaid and Planned Parenthood.”

I returned to my gynecologist a month later — still without having a period — to have my IUD inserted. She had somewhat briefed me of the process at my first visit, but nothing she said prepared me for what was to come.

I lay vulnerable on the table as she walked me through the process. She told me that I would feel a big cramp, and I did. I felt a cramp that shot from my uterus to my toes to my head.

After asking me if I was okay, she told me I would feel another big cramp—this time she was putting the IUD in. I felt it, and it was worse than the first one. I lost feeling in my legs, my head started spinning and my stomach felt nauseous.

But that was it. All it took for my five years of birth control and hormonal balance were two unbearable, full-body cramps. At least, I thought that was all it took.

For the next month, I bled. And had debilitating cramps. And plagued the people around me with mood swings. After bypassing periods for a year, my uterus was getting back to normal.

When I visited my gynecologist six weeks later for a check-up, I learned that I hadn’t had a month-long period. My IUD was shedding my uterine lining, and it could continue for up to six months.

However, it wasn’t all bad. My skin immediately cleared up, and I stopped growing thick hairs on my chin. The mood swings and cramps didn’t last more than a couple weeks.

Most importantly, I know that the IUD protects me from side effects of PCOS, which has opened me up to a new understanding of birth control.

Although I know that I’m lucky to not experience menstruation, PCOS has made me feel like part of my femininity was missing.

Because of PCOS, I spent my entire high school career wondering why my acne was so much worse than all the other girls’ at school.

I watched my best friends eat whatever they wanted while I tried to keep up with a strict diet and still gained weight.

I learned how to wax my facial hair sophomore year because the other girls didn’t grow hair on their chins.

With PCOS, it’s hard to feel like my femininity is valid. Having an IUD helps take away that feeling of insignificance.

Now that I have an IUD, I can feel confident in my femininity and my health.

Although birth control is not a common conversation in society, it should be. Birth control is not always just for contraception.

“Birth control helps endometriosis, PCOS, hormonal imbalances, heavy periods,” said Button. “It’s more than a means to prevent pregnancy, and it shouldn’t be taboo.”

For me, birth control saved me from the side effects of PCOS, as well as from developing cysts on my ovaries that could eventually lead to cancer. If I had not been comfortable talking about birth control with my doctor, I would still be at serious risk — and I wouldn’t even know it.

It hurts like hell to be told that you are infertile, to get the IUD inserted and to feel cramps throughout your whole body for weeks.

But that pain is nothing now that I know that my PCOS is under control.

Features reporter Julianna Lowe can be reached at [email protected]