Anna Butterworth wanted a contraceptive that didn’t have a negative impact on her mental or physical health, or the environment. She switched to a contraceptive app, and ended up having an experience she didn't bargain for as a result. Here’s her story
I wasn’t trying to get pregnant but you could say I was asking for it. I was using a contraceptive app- a thermometer and smartphone system that tracks your ovulation through measuring your basal temperature. I’d decided to switch to it because it offered a natural and hormone-free alternative to the methods traditionally offered by the GP and it was, crucially, clinically proven as contraception. This is my story of how, in my quest to find contraception that doesn’t disrupt my mental and physical health, I ended up having the most physically and mentally traumatic experience of my life.
I was 30 and in a relationship of ten solid, happy years. We still hadn’t decided if we ever really wanted children but I wanted to be in control of when, how and if it happened at all. Until this point I’d spent around 14 years trying, and failing, to find a form of contraception that worked for me. Hormonal options, including the pill and the implant had had such a negative impact on my mental health that they had nearly jeopardised my job and relationships. I find condoms painful and inconvenient, plus they’re bad for the environment. The promise of a new and scientifically supported method was a welcome relief and I was excited to introduce it to my life.
The natural contraceptive catch
Contraceptive apps like the one I was using work by tracking your basal temperature, so each morning you use the thermometer and input your data, which it uses to predict when you’re ovulating. So far so good, except that it can't assess this if you have been drinking, if you sleep a few hours more or less than ‘normal’ or if you’re ill, as these circumstances cause your temperature to fluctuate . Basically, if you’re a modern woman who likes to have a social life or sleep in on the weekends then the app will not be able to give you an accurate prediction and you’d be at risk of pregnancy.
Four months into using the app, it is supposed to be pretty in tune with your cycle and able to accurately predict which are ‘risky’ days- days when you’re likely to get pregnant, and which are 'safe' days, when you should be able to have sex without the risk of conception. The app errs on the side of caution, so if you’ve been unable to input accurate data, because of drinking, lie-ins or illness, then it prompts the days as risky. If nearly all days are ‘risky’, you’re left with two options: additional contraception or abstinence, neither of which were of interest to me- that’s why I was using the app in the first place.
I had sex and I got pregnant
After I saw those two lines on the pregnancy test, there was an initial period of utter despair and terror, after which my boyfriend and I gingerly jumped on the baby train and went at it with all the love and energy we could muster. Pregnancy didn’t agree with me so I mostly offered the love (energy was lacking).
Even though I was only in the first weeks, I started to tell people. It didn’t make sense to me to hide the biggest thing going on in my life from the people around me, so I talked openly about my experiences and how I was feeling with those close to me. I didn’t ‘announce’ it, but if I saw a good friend and the time was right then I’d tell them, but otherwise I didn’t bring it up or share my news.
Hope and happiness
The first trimester offered up endless migraines and nausea, and while it was a physically exhausting period, it was emotionally wonderful. Despite our initial trepidation, my partner and I had become really excited, and being the first grandchild on both sides the whole family were full of anticipation as well. I debated names with my boyfriend, we planned the future and at one point the talk of schools even came up. We were totally committed to our new path and couldn’t wait to see where it would take us.
On the morning of the three-month scan we were utterly jubilant- honestly it was an otherworldly high. We even started a video diary to show the baby on our way to hospital. I’d been tracking the pregnancy on about 20 different apps and hit all the milestones at the right times. I was showing, so we felt as though we’d done it. We were past the first term and this was just a formality before our new life was really about to start.
We arrived at the hospital bang on time and were whisked straight through to the appointment room, where I was ushered onto the bed and told to pull my trousers down. Gel was applied to my stomach and the doctor began observations on the monitor. This went on for a while- she looked intently at the screen, pressing the probe harder into my belly. I knew that at this point we really should be able to see a 12-week foetus on the scan, but nothing was showing up. Suddenly it felt like a vacuum had sucked all the air out of the room for a moment, as though we all stopped breathing.
I exchanged looks with my partner, my gut churning and my mouth drying out. I began to question myself- had I made all of this up? Had I caused our families and friends to become excited about a phantom? Was this entire pregnancy just all in my head?
On the screen the picture wasn’t like the sonograms you’ve seen before. It is not the grey swirls you see on Facebook with a top-heavy baby in the middle. There was just a large black hole, surrounded by grey matter. This is a silent miscarriage. That familiar image punctured with nothing. It was terrifying and heartbreaking and I had no idea what it meant. At this point I still wasn’t sure that I had even been pregnant at all in the first place.
The doctor suggested that it must be a younger foetus so attempted the scan vaginally. When I took the positive test nine weeks prior it showed that I was two to three weeks gone so for all intents and purposes I could only have been one or two weeks shy of three months pregnant at this point. She left the room to get a colleague, seeking a second opinion. The doctors began mumbling in clinical terms, but we knew exactly what they were saying. Doctors don’t tend to talk that way unless it’s bad news. My heart was sinking and my stomach was in knots. I really felt that I had invented everything, and I was becoming hot with the shame and dread of having to tell people it was all a lie.
Despite this, I was told that yes, I had been pregnant. At least, at one point I had a fertilised egg in my uterus but along the way it had stopped growing. For whatever reason, the pregnancy was not viable and it stopped, my body just hadn’t registered. So, although the embryo ceased developing, my womb went on blindly growing, nourishing and protecting nothing. At least I wasn’t crazy.
We left the hospital and it was the strangest feeling. The sky got greyer. My partner was already on the phone to his mum telling her the news and indicating that I should be doing the same. I told him politely to fuck off and that I would do it my own way. I told him that he should go back to work. It was done, and there was nothing that he could do, so he might as well keep his business going. But he didn’t go back. Instead we popped a bottle of champagne open in the garden and I had my first drink for months. Then I had my second and my 20th and my 50th drink for months. The night ended at around 7am after a few stops around Soho.
I was scheduled to have an abortion a few days later to remove all of the other elements of the pregnancy and the tissue- everything that had made me ‘show’ for the past few months. Of course they don’t call it an abortion: it’s the “surgical management of miscarriage”, but it’s the same process.
Over the next few weeks I chose to celebrate my freedom rather than mourn the loss of my family. It was painful- physically it hurt like hell and sometimes I felt like my uterus was melting, but this is normal apparently. No one bothered to tell me that my next period would feel as if I was miscarrying all over again, so a poorly timed sneeze left me in a public bathroom in what looked like a scene from Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
I spent most of this time self-medicating with drugs (prescription and otherwise) and copious amounts of alcohol. I didn’t dare talk about contraception for months. Just the thought of having to go through the trauma of finding something that works for me was exhausting and terrifying. All of the other options seemed either physically intrusive, risky to future fertility or were likely to impact on my mental and emotional health, all of which felt too fragile to tamper with.
I’ve been left wanting
I’ve been left with a huge hole in my life that wasn’t there before. I never felt a strong need for children but this experience has left me wanting. Suddenly photos of friends’ newborns on my Instagram feed now render me inconsolable, whereas before I would have scrolled past them mindlessly, and the year passes not in seasons but in “would have beens”. I chose a natural contraception to protect my mental and physical health but I got a hormonal rollercoaster of a year instead.
I am sure that the clinical trials for contraceptive apps are authentic and, in the clinical conditions, that they offer a viable form of contraception. But we don’t live in a lab. If a contraceptive isn't reliable after a couple of drinks it is not legitimately practical, not for most of us at least. It’s brilliant that we are developing new ways for women to take control of their fertility, but we need more investment to offer us more choices, because we are fallible and we are human. Sometimes we stay up late drinking out of mugs in friends’ kitchens, sometimes we wake up early and go to the gym and sometimes our heating comes on in the morning and warms us before we wake up.
We deserve to have choices that allow us to live our lives, but until then, if you choose to use an app like this, please proceed with caution.
Anna is a marketer and communicator- visit her website.
If you’ve been affected by a miscarriage, you can find information and seek support at The Miscarriage Association
If you’re coping with an unplanned pregnancy, find out more about your choices and seek support via the bpas website