• ZJ

WORLD MENTAL HEALTH DAY: Can we talk about contraception?

I removed my implant myself at home after experiencing anxiety attacks

Please be advised of the graphic picture below.

Three years ago I decided to get the contraceptive implant. I had used it before but since removing it I hadn't been using any form of birth control. I had it fitted at a clinic in Edinburgh following advice from my GP. At the initial consultation there were a series of questions about my relationship status, regularity of periods and current prescription. The discussion about options covered pills, coils and injections. At the time I was 30-years-old. I had been using contraception since I was about 16 - my periods were irregular and PMT was extreme for me back then. The pill has been proven to reduce period pain, heavy bleeding and premenstrual symptoms, and to regulate my monthly cycle. I put on a lot of weight as a result of being on microgynon. Although there is no evidence to suggest this was a direct result of the pill, studies have shown that apatite does increase, so you can work that one out for yourself.

Over the years I tried various pills - Yasmine and Celest but they resulted in mood swings and anxiety. I turned to some herbal cures for PMT such Agnus Castus, which helped to some extent but the hormonal shift always seemed to trade-off one solution for another problem. The combined contraceptive pill contains the hormones oestrogen and progesterone. The balance of these hormones is unique to each person and in my experience, caused me to go a little loopy.

Having had the implant before, I went with this option. The contraceptive implant (Nexplanon) is a small flexible plastic rod that's placed under the skin in your upper arm by a doctor or nurse. Like the pill it releases the hormone progestogen into your bloodstream to prevent pregnancy but in contrast to the pill, you don't have a daily ritual. Once fitted it lasts for 3 years.

The nurse numbs your arm before inserting the rod. For the next couple of days you feel tender and bruised, like when you get your BCG. After one week you should be feeling fine. I wasn't.

I was losing control of my emotions and was beginning to experience full-blown panic attacks. A long-term relationship had recently ended and I had just started my first presenting job on TV. There were a few life changes and I attempted to reel them off when panic set in, crediting the life events with how I felt.

Over the next two weeks my mental health rapidly deteriorated. So badly I went to stay with my parents in Glasgow for a few days. A horrible rush of heat engulfed my head and fogged my thoughts. I couldn't eat and had begun to experience insomnia. At night my leg would shake and I would lie awake biting at my nails. I knew something was horribly wrong.

To the outside world everything was great. My Instagram feed was filled with images from my TV work - wildlife reporting, bungee jumping and selfies with celebrities. Inside I was shattering into tiny pieces.

I started to research anxiety and potential causes and when a friend suggested she had experienced something similar when she had the implant fitted I took a closer look at studies online. Why had the doctor not warned me about this or asked me to look out for these symptoms? Not to torture myself with introspection.

I called the GP and asked for an appointment to have it removed. I was told I would have to wait three weeks for an appointment. I remember marking the date in my diary and feeling like it was forever away.

The following Sunday I woke up with my heart racing and chest pains. I couldn't stand it any longer so I made my way to A&E. I sat for seven hours, surrounded by people who had broken legs, bumped heads, swollen wrists. Ailments that were obvious to the eye. When I finally seen I was told that this wasn't an emergency and there was nothing that could be done. They were not prepared to remove it for me.

Heartbroken and desperate, I stopped at the supermarket on my way home, buying antiseptic wipes, tweezers and a knife. I can't honestly say I remember thinking clearly but I do know that I just had to have it out. Nobody else could help me and I couldn't wait three weeks.

When I arrived home I setup to remove it. Cutting through layers of my own skin set my heartbeat racing. Blood was dripping down my arm from a wound that had only recently healed from having the device fitted. I was able to push it out and use tweezers to remove it completely. If you are reading this and you are in a similar situation, please don't do what I did. Stay strong and wait for your appointment to have it removed. I was lucky not to have disfigured myself, or been seriously injured. The wound has healed and there are no scars. But this was incredibly dangerous. I think I was aware of that at the time but felt I had no option.

Almost instantly I felt better.

When I told friends what I had done they were shocked. One even suggested I had self-mutilated. I think it says a lot about my state of mind at the time. In the following days I returned to my 'normal' self. No more dark thoughts, no more pangs of insecurity and no more panic attacks.

Looking back at the three years I had been using the implant previously, I had been affected then too but I had failed to recognise the cause. I was studying at the time and put the feelings down to stress. Hindsight really is wonderful.

In 1961, the contraceptive pill was launched in the UK, nearly 60 years later and there are so many options. According to Official Figures In 2018, use of the implant has now overtaken the male condom and is fast catching up to the pill.

Drug companies list common side effects and risks on their website, and you can find these on the information brochure contained within the medication. But how many of us can honestly say they read these back-to-back? Even if you did, you'd find a massive list of alarming possibilities. Implants have been known to break, split or 'travel' around the body. Some been found in the pulmonary artery (a blood vessel in the lung). Using this method may leave you with a higher risk of ectopic pregnancy and developing ovarian cysts. There is even a warning not to take this medication if your family has a history of breast cancer. The manufacturers also inform us that we may risk developing serious blood clots.

This could include blood clots in the:

  • Legs (deep vein thrombosis)

  • Lungs (pulmonary embolism)

  • Brain (stroke)

  • Heart (heart attack)

  • Eyes (total or partial blindness)

On the Nexplanon website it says: "A few women who use birth control that contains hormones may get:

  • High blood pressure

  • Gallbladder problems

  • Rare cancerous or noncancerous liver tumors"

It's no surprise that after reading all of that, seeing 'mood swings, nervousness or depressed mood' hardly sets alarm bells ringing. But here is a list of just some of the other side effects to this drug:

  • Weight gain

  • Headache

  • Acne

  • Headache

  • Vaginitis (inflammation of the vagina)

  • Breast pain

  • Viral infections such as sore throats or flu-like symptoms

  • Stomach pain

  • Painful periods

  • Mood swings, nervousness, or depressed mood

  • Back pain

  • Nausea

  • Dizziness

  • Pain

  • Pain at the site of insertion

  • Pain, irritation, swelling, or bruising at the insertion site

  • Infection

- Information from Nexplanon website

The implant I removed at home

As it is World Mental Health Day on October 10, I wanted to share this story to help inform even one person about the risks and side effects associated with contraception. Ask your GP for more information, read the brochure provided and look online for advice and help.

I do however think this is just not good enough. We may have more options than we did in the 60s but none of these come without serious risks and dangers. We are becoming more aware of the links to mental health but where is the research and investment in this? If anyone knows of any please send it my way. If you think this is just something that affects women you are wrong. The mental health and wellbeing of half the population is something that impacts society. Too often we are made to feel like 'women's problems' should be swept under the rug. It's time to be open and honest about our experiences. It's time to shout about it.

If you have been affected by any of these issues or if you have your own story about mental health linked to contraception, please get in touch.

If you are experiencing mental health issues please seek help from a Metal Health Helpline

such as Anxiety UK CALM or Mind.