In May, I started taking a new birth control pill – the generic of Yaz. I talked about why I started taking birth control again after a three-year hiatus here.
Hindsight is everything. But at the time, I hadn’t linked two really crucial happenings in my life –
1) Starting to take Yaz birth control pills.
2) The start of the worst anxiety spiral I’ve ever experienced, eventually leading to multiple daily panic attacks and suicidal thoughts.
My Experience with Yaz
I had been a bit worn out and experiencing some chronic pain flares in May but was also coming off birthday month – for the entire month of April I celebrated the big 3-0 – so I hadn’t thought much of it. I was tired, but I still felt like myself and was able to process my emotions in a way that was normal for me – calm, balanced, able to maintain perspective, and able to remove myself from situations if I felt like I needed to take a break.
By late June/early July, I started to feel off. However, because it was a continuation of the fatigue I felt in May, it didn’t feel different ENOUGH to raise my alarms. I thought it was a continuation of *me* rather than anything different being introduced.
By August I was full on suicidal, which I talked about (but didn’t fully understand yet what was going on) here. I was trying to figure out why I felt so badly, so I was pulling at straws. I tend to do better with issues if I can find a root source, and so that is what I was desperately trying to do.
I blamed my downward spiral on myself and my lack of ability to handle stress or deal with what was going on in my life. I blamed myself for moving away from my support system. I blamed myself for the anxiety and the depression. I thought I wasn’t strong enough to keep up and I didn’t want to be here anymore. I wanted to stop having to deal with my body. I wanted to get away from the thoughts that were making me feel so worthless.
I started having an average of two daily panic attacks, one around 3 o’clock every morning (which became my new wake-up time) and one around 2 o’clock every afternoon.
I was getting an average of 4 to 5 hours of sleep every night. I often found it hard to leave for work in the morning and at one point had to call my mom to talk me down from a panic attack and help me get in an uber to work, because I couldn’t possibly handle getting on the train.
I pushed away almost everyone in my life. I stopped going to any kind of social event; if I did manage to go, I wanted to leave almost immediately after I arrived. Everything was exhausting – every interaction, every trip.
I became highly paranoid, clingy, and needy. My self-esteem was non-existent. I hated being in my own company. I felt awful about anything I did for work or for my own book. I hated looking at anything I had written or tried to create. Meanwhile, I was trying to market my book.
The suicidal thoughts happened a total of four times over the next few months.
By November, I had to run away to my mom’s house in South Carolina for three weeks. I worked from her house, but put everything else on hold. I knew that my life was on a perilous edge, but I chalked it up to exhaustion, being spread too thin, and my chronic illnesses taking a toll on my mental health, not to the hormonal effects Yaz was having on my brain.
Women’s Experience with Yaz/Yasmin
For many women, birth control pills can help with PMS, PMDD, general mood swings, acne, bloating, etc. However, Yaz and Yasmin birth control pills in particular have been linked, for many women, to a variety of negative symptoms including anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, insomnia, etc.
This brand of pills has also been linked to severe and sometimes fatal blood clots in otherwise healthy women, which is the only possible side effect my OBGYN mentioned to keep an eye out for, despite my mentioning to her my history of dysthymia (chronic low mood/depression).
On Drugs.com, users rate Yaz at a 5.9/10. For about half of users, the pill worked as intended with mild side effects including nausea and bloating, but prevented pregnancy and in many cases cleared up acne. The other half of users had dire warnings including:
“…I have been on Yaz for five months and I have suffered really bad with chest pain, mood swings, anxiety, really dark thoughts, feeling of ugliness, no concentration, bad sleep… I thought I was losing my mind. This has had a significant affect on my life, partner and my children…”
“…It completely altered my mood which ended up ruining my 3yr relationship and threw me into a deep depression. I would sit on the couch under a blanket crying for hours and not leave the house (which is totally not like me). I was on it for about 6 months before getting off. It was like the fog had cleared and I looked back and was like what happened…”
“I was on Yaz for less than 1 year. I developed blood clots in both of my lungs and was in the hospital for 7 days… Why is it still on the shelves????!!!!!”
“I was on this medication for one month and have never felt worse in my entire life. Before taking this pill I was an energetic and positive person. Now I am exhausted all the time and hit a wall at 4:00 every day. My confidence has plummeted and I am experiencing extreme mood swings/anxiety/depressive symptoms. I have never experienced anxiety prior to taking this birth control and I have had multiple intense panic attacks within the past month. Other side effects have been increased heart rate, tight chest/trouble breathing, & chronic headaches…”
In July 2013, Holly Grigg-Sprall wrote an article on MenstruationResearch.org about the psychological dangers of pills like Yaz and Yasmin and why these side effects aren’t discussed as openly and as often as they should be. In an interview with Dr Jayashri Kulkarni at Australia’s Monash University, Holly found,
“The psychological impact is not what [Dr. Kulkarni] calls “major depression” but instead a “sub-clinical depression” wherein women experience a mood change that impacts their relationships, work, and overall happiness.
“This depressive syndrome has a spectrum of symptoms. We tend to think depression just means sadness, but it can present as fuzzy headedness, inability to multitask, guilt, irritability, anxiety, and in behavioral changes like the development of obsessive compulsive disorders. Women experience a change in perspective that makes them magnify issues that occur in their lives, be that a slight weight gain or an argument with a partner, into feelings of worthlessness. It can also cause impulsivity, making the woman suicidal.”
At her clinic Dr Kulkarni describes treating a mother who found it difficult to let her children go to school for fear something would happen to them and another who became transfixed with the idea that her partner was cheating, and so called his phone repetitively to check on him. She believes that the provoked anxiety can display itself clearly as panic attacks, but it can also appear as paranoia and agoraphobia. When taken off Yasmin and Yaz these women returned to their previous state with a healthy perspective.”
Of course, there’s just not a lot of research about the negative affects of birth control on women. It’s generally something that’s seen as overly exaggerated or not an issue. As Dr. Kulkarni said,
“I have a horrible, uncomfortable feeling that it is because women’s issues are just not seen as important or given priority,” Dr Kulkarni admits, “I think underpinning the disinterest is the idea that this is a woman’s choice. Women don’t have to use these drugs, so we don’t have to research side effects. We have conservative groups who are anti-contraception and they don’t think women should be using these drugs anyway. Then we have the feminists who feel the pill was the best thing to ever happen to women and that it freed them to achieve all of their goals. They think by doing this research we’re attacking the pill. In between these two forces the area of safety and side effects does not receive the attention it should. We need to educate women that these side effects are possible, and we need to education their medical practitioners so that they listen to women when they say the problem is the pill.”
(Holly also cited another article by Elizabeth Kissling in Ms. Magazine about deaths tied to Yaz, Yazmin and other birth control methods that is worth reading.)
What’s Next for Me
When I was first looking for a new birth control method, I knew I wanted to go a non-hormonal route because of how I had responded to birth control in the past (weight gain, emotional numbness, moodiness, etc.). However, I didn’t listen to myself because I didn’t fully value just how important my experiences had been.
While on Yaz, not only was I suicidal, but I experienced intense social anxiety, fear of going outside or leaving my apartment, paranoia, feelings of worthlessness, anger, and more. None of these were like me; none of them are my norm. While I often deal with depression, this was different. I didn’t recognize these feelings and I couldn’t identify their source or pull myself out of them, so I couldn’t ever gain perspective on them.
I am lucky none of the feelings got so intense that I did something I wouldn’t have been able to come back from, but I was close.
I am not yet back to myself and I know that it will take a while for the hormones to be completely out of my system (and I need to find another birth control method that works for me), but knowing the root cause of my symptoms has at least given me some perspective when I start to spiral.
For now, I am equal parts angry this happened, frustrated with myself that I didn’t catch it sooner – particularly because I tend to be highly aware of my body – and in mourning over the months of my life I spent in a suicidal, paranoid, anxious fog.
That’s time I won’t get back, relationships I have damaged, and brain patterns I will need to spend a considerable amount of time breaking the habit of. If nothing else, I hope this can be a lesson for others and a means to avoid my same story or worse.
Please be careful and share this with the women in your life.