A while ago, Leila from Catholic Bubble had a very animated conversation going on over at her blog (which isn't unusual by any means!), but this time a college student chimed in about her experience with the "hook-up" culture on college campuses, and premarital sex. When I read her comments and responses to questions posed her, it really resonated with me, and ever since that time, it has been weighing on my heart that I should share my story here. Because I KNOW my story is not a unique one, and because it is not unique, it may be able to help just one person to not make the same mistakes I did.
Of course, it has taken me a long time to get to the point where I felt comfortable writing it for anyone in the world to see. But this is Lent. A time to reach down deep, confront old demons, and release them. I need to do this. And any lingering feelings of embarrassment and humiliation I may have when I click "publish post" I will be offering for the intentions of my Prayer Buddy. (Trust me, Prayer Buddy, you are going to BENEFIT BIG-TIME from this one.)
So, here goes. My birth control story.
When I was 19 years old, I came home from my first semester of college and begged my mother to take me to the gynecologist. I had been having irregular periods for about a year, but the bothersome part was the unusual bleeding. I would have a normal flow, followed by days and days and days of spotting. When one period lasted 21 days, I drew the line and knew I had to go to the Dr.
So off we went, to the gynecologist appointment together- me, a 19-year old college student and virgin, and my mother, a devout Catholic very much opposed to the birth control pill.
You can surely see where this is going.
The appointment that followed may still be counted among the most horrific, humiliating experiences of my life. What I know now that I did not know then is that, while a virgin, I did not have a hymen. I had had an accident on the playground jungle gym in the 3rd grade that caused me to bleed a lot; my mother at the time thought it was my period starting early (in actuality it didn't come until I was 14 1/2). It was, as it turns out, my hymen.
So, there in the stirrups at my very first Dr's appointment excepting my pediatrician and orthodontist, the Dr was examining me while asking me health history questions. "Are you sexually active?" he inevitably asked, without looking up. "No," I answered truthfully.
Next thing I know, he's explaining that I am going to feel something cold, and before I have time to react, I am in the midst of my first (UNNECESSARY) Pap Smear. It. was. excruciating. I remember limping in pain out of the office 30 minutes later. (Clearly, the Dr saw that I had no hymen and assumed I was lying? Or maybe he's just a sick, sick sadist?)
He tells me to get dressed and meet him in his office. There in his office, he begins his sales speech for the pill. He tells me that it will fix the abnormal bleeding that I've been seeing, and help to regulate my periods. He goes on to say that it has the added benefit of treating acne, and that my skin will clear up while I'm taking it. And finally, he closes with, "And when you meet that special someone, it is a very effective form of contraception!"
My head was spinning. I remember asking how long I had to take it, and he said 6 months should be enough to get my periods back on track. OK, I thought. I can handle 6 months. It sounded like a pretty quick fix, to me. 6 months of medication, during which time my periods would be normal, and then when I came OFF the medication, they'd be normal once again from that point on.
Oh how silly and uninformed I was.
As I limped out of his office and into the waiting room, with a slip of paper the Dr had given me, I was greeted by my mother who had a look of worry on her face. I think Abby Johnson said it best when she wrote that if only we based more of our decisions on what would make our mothers happy and proud of us, we would be so much better off. My mother knew all along, without REALLY knowing, that this was the beginning of my demise.
Still in a daze, I handed the sheet of paper to the woman at the front desk. Up until then, I had only been given "paper" by one Dr, my orthodontist, which was a follow-up sheet that I was to give to the front desk to schedule my next appointment. I had assumed this paper was the same thing. Then I was startled out of my daze and back into humiliation when the lady shoved the paper back at me and quite loudly quipped, "This is your prescription for birth control pills. I don't need this!" Talk about mortification.
In case you haven't already guessed, 6 months later when I came off the pill, my periods were anything BUT regular. However, in that interim, I had started to get used to the idea of being a sophomore in college with periods I could rely on, and more importantly, with beautiful, clear skin... especially since I was looking and waiting for a boyfriend. Now that I had stopped taking my pills, what I saw looming ahead of me was a return of crazy bleeding and acne flare-ups. NOT appealing. I told my mom I had to go back on them, but she wasn't convinced. So off we went to gynecologist #2.
Gynecologist #2 was a very educated man, and after a brief physical exam (NO PAP), he took me to his office, and drew me pictures of ovaries with lots of tiny cysts on them. I had no idea what he was talking about, and frankly, I didn't care. I just sat there politely pretending to listen, waiting for him to hand over the prescription for my happy pills. Which of course, he did. This time with instructions to stay on for one year.
By the end of my sophomore year, I had fallen deeply in love with a guy I had met on my first day and told my friends back home he was the one I would marry. And to my surprise, by the end of my sophomore year, he had fallen in love with me, too. We had dated briefly right before he went to study abroad (he was a year older), and now he had just come back and we were back together and very serious.
You can surely see where this is going.
About two months into a "very serious" relationship with the man I was convinced I would marry, I somehow went from virgin to... well, not. I say somehow because it wasn't at all planned or necessarily talked about and decided. We had been physical already; such is the nature of college life, and I was no stranger to "hooking up," but at the same time was very proud that I had not given away my virginity to just anybody. I knew that I believed in the teachings of my Church. I knew that what I was doing was wrong. But in my mind, I rationalized that sex was reserved for marriage because you are only meant to do that with the man you are married to. I really didn't understand the complete beauty of sex at that point, but I was about to begin my education.
I remember that night vividly. Or maybe I should say that memories from that night continue to haunt me. I distinctly remember that we were very close to going that far, but still not quite there, when he suddenly jumped up and ran to his desk. I asked him what he was doing, and he said "Getting a condom... just... in case..." For some stupid reason, I assumed he meant "in case" HE went too far and we were at risk for pregnancy. (I may have been stupid about the pill, but I did know about contact pregnancy.) I told him "It's ok, I'm on the pill." To which he responded, "Oh... well... are you sure?" (This guy was not really known for his ability to articulate and convey an actual message.) And I responded, "Yeah, I'm sure. It's to regulate my periods, but it still 'works.'"
(I realize now he was basically asking me if I was "sure" that I wanted to have sex with him. So, basically, one of the biggest decisions of my life came down to not a well thought-out weighing of consequences, but rather an ambiguous exchange of "Are you sure?" "Yeah, I'm sure.")
This may seem odd to many of you, but I very clearly remember two things about that experience. The first is that my very first thought was: "Oh no... Mary never did this... I'm no longer like Mary." (Crazy the things that run through my head, but it's true.) The second is that the entire time, I washed away feelings of guilt with the overwhelming feeling that kept sweeping over me - a feeling of "THIS is so RIGHT! THIS is how it's SUPPOSED to be!" That feeling of coming together in union with another human being completely and totally, with no barriers (at least not in my mind) was absolutely intoxicating to me... the way it IS supposed to be, just not at all how I had warped it.
And so, ignoring the underlying guilt I continued to feel every once and a while, we continued being intimate. Over Fall Break, my prescription for the pill was up, and this time I was adament about staying on it. I threw a fit when my mother suggested I stop taking it for a while and see if my cycles normalized... because now, I actually needed that pill for contraception. But at the same time, both of us were not satisfied with the fact that no one had any answers for me about my health. WHY was I bleeding like this? WHY were my periods so irregular to begin with?? So we agreed to go together to Gyn/Midwife #3, recommended to us by my older sister. I was absolutely convinced that whether she gave us answers or not, I would be able to get more happy pills from her.
Gyn/Midwife #3 took me in her office first, alone. There she asked if I was sexually active, and I reponded truthfully that I was. She explained that she wanted to run a couple of tests on me, some bloodwork and an ultrasound, to find the issues that were causing my weird cycles. So we made a follow-up appointment for the following day for the ultrasound. On our way out of the office, I remember the ultrasound tech asking me, at the front desk where me and my mother were checking out, if I was a virgin. Of course being in front of my mother I said, "Yes," and she got a look of concern on her face and said, "Oh, wait a second, we can't do this type of ultrasound that was ordered... hold on, let me go tell the Dr." My face must have turned beet red. The tech came back, made minimal eye contact while she quickly said, "OK, it'll be fine, just come tomorrow as scheduled."
After the ultrasound and bloodwork, the Midwife took me back into her office and explained Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome - my diagnosis. I finally had an answer for all these years of crazy cycles! She was pretty detailed in her description, and finally, told me the solution was: (I know you've guessed it) The Pill. I was to stay on the pill up until the time I decided I was ready to have children. (I was 20 years old at the time.) Now this next part I rememer verbatum. I asked her: "Will being on the pill that long have any adverse effects on my ability to become pregnant when I want to?" (See, I was worried about my fertility even back then.) Her answer: "Oh, no, on the contrary- being on the pill tricks your body into thinking it's pregnant every month, so when you want to become pregnant and come off the pill, it should be very easy!"
I was sold. This stuff was the best thing on planet earth.
Back to school I went, and me and my boyfriend continued our physical relationhip up until I was about to study abroad for a semester. Soon before I left, we discussed our plans for the future, and he said he wanted to take a break. A break?? I. FREAKED. OUT. What did he mean a BREAK?? We were going to get married, what in the world did he need a BREAK for?!?! Didn't he realize what I had given to him??!! Inevitably, because I was not very agreeable when it came to the "break," we ended up breaking it off for good, instead. I was completely devastated. It was one of the lowest points of my life. It was as if I had just lost my husband, because, in a way, I had. I say that because I had given myself to him physically, in a way that I had always intended (and God had always intended) for me to give myself ONLY to my husband. I thought that if not in word, we were at least "physically married." But now what were we? What would we ever be? And what would be always be?? Everything was, in an instant, completely upside-down and backwards. What I didn't realize is that it had already started out backwards.
So then I left for Italy, and while on the plane from NYC to Venice, I sat right next to a very attractive guy with whom I would wind up spending the rest of my life. We hit it off immediately, exchanged phone numbers, and began talking on the phone frequently, in Italy. Eventually, he invited me to his roommate's birthday party, and we officially began dating.
Now, in my mind, when I began dating my DH, it was to be an Italian "fling" to help me get my ex out of my system. I still had a very unhealthy attachment to my ex that I just couldn't shake... and now looking back it makes perfect sense why I felt that way. Because sex, as beautiful and life-giving as it is, is only MEANT to be shared with one person, one spouse, one partner for life... and suddenly it no longer was that in my life.
I was determined to do something to release the hold my ex still had on me, across an ocean, over thousands of miles. (And the fact that he continued to email me things like "I miss you" and "Someone on the other side of the ocean is thinking about you" didn't quite help.)
Surely you see where this is going...
Way too soon, and way too impetuously, I slept with my new boyfriend (and present husband). And it worked... almost. I felt a physical detachment from my ex right after that, but I was still very much in love with him. And this poor new guy I was dating, well, he was just the catalyst to help me heal what couldn't really be healed.
I started to notice that my new boyfriend was quickly falling in love with me, but I did not, could not reciprocate the feelings. I didn't know what was wrong with me - hadn't I always told myself I would only sleep with ONE man, and now here I was sleeping with someone I didn't even love?? What a fast and furious downward spiral my life had taken, and I hadn't even had time to sit back and reflect on it.
Flashforward a couple years or so, when both of us were back in the States, still dating (long-distance), still sleeping together. At a certain point my birth control pill prescription expired, so off I went to another Dr. I was never worried that I wouldn't be able to get it re-filled, in fact, the thought never crossed my mind. I pretty much just had to ask for it and it was mine. No exam, no bloodwork, no other tests. So when one day the pharmacy charged me full price for them when my insurance didn't cover it, I was up in arms. "What??? What do you mean, I've ALWAYS had it covered!!" The pharmacist didn't know what to tell me, but finally asked, "Do you work for a Catholic organization?" "Yeah." (I had just started working as a Kindergarten teacher in a Catholic school.) "Oh, that explains it. They don't cover birth control." I was livid. "But this is for a medical purpose, I'm not on it for birth control," I practically yelled at the poor girl. Her hands were tied.
I refused to pay the full price for months on end, so I got one more month's worth and prayed for the best. Over the past 3 years, there had been several months in between prescription re-fills when I didn't take the pill, and R (now-DH) and I just used condoms. But I HATED condoms. Absolutely loathed them. I felt like there was a foreign "thing" in my body that did not belong there and was not supposed to be there, and it made me physically sick. I think about my reactions back then and see that I had the truth all along - I knew in my heart what human sexuality was all about, what sex was intended to be... but my being on the pill blurred that crystal clear vision to the point where I could now only see 3 feet in front of my face and not the whole picture. There was a time when I never would have thought of using a barrier method. Now it was just a necessary Plan B.
A month later, R and I were engaged. My plan had been to become celibate once we were engaged and wait until marriage to resume our sex life. (See what I mean? Warped indeed.) So, we did. R was at that point a very different man than the one I first started dating in Italy - he was matured, he had grown in his Catholic faith, and he welcomed my wishes to wait with open arms. And most importantly, he was a man I now loved.
When we got married and became intimate again, nothing was new, nothing was exciting. In fact, I remember for the first 6 months or longer feeling guilt every time we had sex. It was a feeling I just couldn't shake - why NOW did I have this overwhelming guilt? Why THEN did I feel the feeling of "This is how it's supposed to be!" and not now? Our marriage, while legitimate in the eyes of God, began on a rocky slope, and it felt like we had to constantly struggle to stay on our feet, specifically in regards to our sexuality. I felt like the bonding element of sex was not bonding us at all, and instead almost became a hurdle to our union.
And then came infertility. The biggest hurdle to our sex-life.
I don't think any woman (or man for that matter) could say that infertility didn't have some negative effects on their sex life. But in our case, it added a curveball to an already disrupted foundation. Over the past 5 years, we have worked through most of these issues, but I always wonder how much easier it would have been, and could have been, if I had made different decisions.
Being on the pill wreaked havoc for 6 years on my reproductive system. Syndromes and diseases like PCOS and endometriosis were exacerbated over those 6 years, and the pill masked them over to give me the illusion of normalcy and perfect health. But the worst thing the pill did to me was wreak havoc on my sexuality. From the moment I got my first prescription, I knew I was safe "just in case," and almost overnight my plans and goals shifted from long-term whole person wellbeing to short-term physical and emotional satisfaction.
I can't change my past, though often I wish I could. All I can hope is that God continues to heal my soul and my marriage. And praise Him, every day I see it happening more and more.
And that's my story.