I was not able to participate in a healthcare rally today, but instead I wrote about something that literally made it possible for me to have the career I do today. Something that won’t be there for other women if, by law or by economics, they are denied access to hormonal contraceptives.
When I was a teenager, every menstrual cycle brought nausea. I never knew how many hours I’d be too ill to do anything but lie down, or when it would happen. This was, apparently, “a thing that happens sometimes.” Supposedly I would grow out of it. My parents, who could barely discuss the rudiments of sex and female anatomy with me, seemingly weren’t interested in visits with any doctor other than my pediatrician.
When I started community college, I acquired both the legal freedom of being an adult and modest financial freedom from a part-time job. A romantic interest encouraged me to visit the local Planned Parenthood for birth control pills, “just to be prepared.” The boyfriend didn’t last, but the knowledge that hormonal birth control could control my cycle and reduce the nausea was amazing.
I tried to stay on the pill, but between sneaking out to go to the clinic and spending a good chunk of my tiny paycheck, it didn’t last. Back to trying to hide behind “No, really, I’m fine.” I didn’t grow out of it.
A few years later, it’s time to actually go to a real university and move out of my parents’ house. This means campus health services, covered by a mandatory student fee. It wasn’t insurance, exactly, but I could go to the clinic and see a doctor. I didn’t really think about it much, being more concerned with suddenly managing my own schedule, living with dorm roommates, and all the other normal things young people do going from family home to university campus. I had a Differential Equations class to pass.
The evening before my Diff Eq final, I had a particularly awful menstrual episode. I managed to drive back to the dorm from study group, but fell over vomiting outside the building. I wasn’t even surprised when people walked by saying only that I needed to sober up. (I don’t drink.) I crawled to my room and called a friend, who came right over.
And immediately called campus emergency.
I narrowly avoided being transported by the nice EMTs because I was able to muddle through the name, address, and number of fingers quizzes. They made me swear I would go to the clinic as soon as I could. The next afternoon, when I could walk without nausea again, I first told my Diff Eq prof I wasn’t going to contest the F for missing that morning’s final (I already wasn’t doing that great) and then went over to campus health.
When I signed in for a drop-in appointment, I said I had been ill but also wanted to speak to someone about birth control. That didn’t seem to have made it back to the doctor however. After going through my history and what happened, she asked if I had ever considered birth control pills. “That’s what I’m here for.” I needed to make an appointment with the Nurse Practitioner, who did the pelvic exams and dispensed pills, but they would get me set up right away.
The next semester was so much different. For the first time, I knew when I was going to get my period. Better yet, no vomiting! Ever! I could plan trips without concern I might get ill. I didn’t have to sit in class wondering if everyone (90% men) could tell that I wanted to puke. A whole part of my brain stopped having to worry about that anymore. That was 27 years ago. I have been on hormonal birth control continuously ever since.
In school, and later at work, my schedule was no longer unexpectedly interrupted by “Female Things.” If you think this is somehow all needless drama over trivial matters, try staying on good terms with your job when you can’t show up to work all the time, every time. There is a quiet horror in knowing that you’ll always have to tell your boss (male) and your co-workers (male) that you can’t come in today because of “Female Things.” It’s already difficult enough explaining that you, too, have an engineering degree and, no, you weren’t planning to go get coffee. Using all your combined vacation and sick leave for being ill is not a great way to look like a reliable, hard-working member of the team, worthy of desirable projects and promotions.
In the years since, I’ve had to go through all kinds of machinations to keep access to this medication. Doctors would write “nonspecific vaginitis” so the exam would be covered by my insurance. Occasionally one would ask why I wanted birth control if I wasn’t married. (I didn’t stay long with those doctors.) I’d move from job to job, from state to state, and from insurance company to insurance company, never entirely sure if I could get it covered until I came to California (where it was already required by state law.) Even now, it’s not a cheap medication to buy without insurance coverage. Back then there wasn’t even a generic version of the one I use.
The Affordable Care Act changed that. All of that. Contraception is a normal service, as are routine medical visits for preventive care. I don’t have to explain why and I don’t have to wonder if. It’s there. It’s a non-issue. I can apply my full attention to the important things in my life. Not where I’m going to come up with hundreds of dollars a year for something that allows me to work in my field, where a 40 hour week is laughably unrealistic.
There are so many other reasons the Affordable Care Act changed people’s lives for the better. This is just one part of my own story. Good health isn’t something nice to have if you can afford it, it’s the foundation on which we build a sustainable society where everyone gets a chance to find their own success. Don’t let it vanish.