A contraceptive journey: My experience with the implant

By an anonymous contributor

I began my contraceptive journey last year when I got together with my boyfriend. Hooray! I was in love. Boo! I had to think about things like protection and the pill.

I was never going to take a chance. I am a student in my early twenties, and I’m not sure if I want to ever have kids, let alone have them now. I needed to make a decision on how I was going to keep myself baby-free for the next few years – and beyond.

I was suddenly plunged into a world that I never had to think about before. Sex ed was a very long time ago, and even then you were just told to always use a condom. You were never taught about options for long-term contraception.

After some research, and a chat with my boyfriend, we decided that – for now anyway – the pill was probably the best option. It’s got a pretty high success rate (99% if taken correctly) and if you experience any of the scary side effects, such as mood swings, weight gain, or loss of libido, then it was as easy as to just stop taking them.

I made a sexual health appointment, and nervously went along to the campus medical centre. After asking me a few embarrassing questions about my sex life, the doctor gave me some brightly-coloured leaflets describing each of the different types of contraception available. We discussed why I wanted to go on the pill, and then she wrote me a prescription and that was that. I took it every morning for three months and never had a problem. Until disaster struck.

Winter came, and myself and my boyfriend both came down with a nasty vomiting bug. I knew there would be no point taking the pill if I was just going to throw it up again. After reading the pill’s instructions (the leaflet was the size of an Ordnance Survey map), I took the missing pill the next day as instructed and forgot about it. But then my period was late.

That was my first time experiencing The Fear. The Fear that all women get from time to time; the fear that our contraception just isn’t enough. Men don’t get this fear, but for us it’s always present in the back of our minds, waiting to pounce. It’s not a pleasant experience.

Neither is taking a pregnancy test for the first time. My hands shook as I took the plastic stick out of the box, peed on it, and waited for the lines to appear. There was just the one – it was negative. I have never felt so relieved in my life.

My period came a few days later, but The Fear remained. The pill had worked fine up until now, but I realised that I needed a form of contraception that wouldn’t be affected if I got ill, or if I didn’t take it at the same time each day.

So out came the brightly-coloured leaflets again. There’s a lot of choice – if you’re a woman that is. At the moment there are twelve options for women, and just two for men: condoms, which aren’t a permanent solution, and male sterilisation, which is a little too permanent. There’s been recent reports of a male pill becoming available, but this could be several years away. I needed an option now.

I narrowed down the twelve options to just two – the implant, and the IUD (intrauterine device). Both of these methods don’t have user failure, which means that they do not depend on you remembering to take or use them. This is exactly what I wanted after the pill fiasco.

The IUD is a device which is inserted into the uterus, and it works by stopping sperm from reaching an egg, and by stopping a fertilised egg from implanting in the uterus. This was my preferred option – until I did a little research. It turns out there is a small chance that the device can perforate the uterus during insertion. That small chance was too big for me. So my mind turned to my other option – the implant.

This is a matchstick-sized rod that is inserted under the skin of your upper arm. It stops pregnancy by stopping ovulation, thickening cervical mucus to prevent sperm reaching an egg, and thinning the lining of the uterus to stop an egg implanting. The current brand used, Nexplanon, lasts for three years, and after that time is up, you have a small surgical procedure to remove the tube. Then you can either get another implant fitted, move onto another type of contraception, or try for a baby if you so wish.

This seemed perfect for me. I could get one and then forget about it for three years whilst remaining protected from pregnancy. And if it didn’t work out for me (the side effects are similar to those of the pill) I could go back to the doctor and get it removed with no fuss. It was a no-brainer.

This meant another sexual health appointment. My boyfriend came along to support me – and for good reason. The implant is inserted through an ‘injection’ into your arm. I’m not exactly scared of needles, but I’m not too fond of them either.

However, I wasn’t getting my little implant just yet. I explained to the doctor why I wanted to change contraception, and she took me through the procedure and what I could expect. This also gave me the chance to ask any questions I had, which put my mind at ease a little. I even got to feel a squishy ‘fake arm’ to demonstrate how the implant would feel under my own skin. It was bigger and longer than I expected, but wouldn’t be visible to the eye – only noticeable by touch.

The doctor announced that they would be able to fit me in for the procedure in two days’ time. I was surprised it would be done so quickly, but also relieved: I wanted it out of the way so I wouldn’t have to worry about it any more. I had worried enough already.

Soon I was back for my appointment to get the implant fitted. To be honest, I was scared, but my boyfriend was fascinated more than anything. The nurse instantly put my mind at ease, chatting about the weather and this and that. My boyfriend was allowed in, but first the nurse made him promise that he wouldn’t faint – she had had people faint before, and it wasn’t always those actually getting the procedure!

I answered some questions and filled out a form, but my hands were shaky. I felt sick. Was I ready for this? But I knew that once I had the implant I would be free from uncertainty for three years. I knew it was worth it.

Next thing I knew I was lying down on the bed with my boyfriend holding my hand and the nurse hovering over my other arm. I’m right-handed, so it made sense to get the implant in my left arm. It would be tender for a few days, so I wouldn’t be putting too much extra strain on it.

First an anaesthetic was injected into my arm. This was the most painful part. I spent the whole time looking the other way as a needle was poked under my skin. I felt something dribble down my arm. “Is that… blood?” I asked. The nurse laughed. It was just the antiseptic liquid used to wipe my arm clean before the procedure.

We waited a few minutes for the anaesthetic to kick in, and then the nurse ‘injected’ the implant under my skin. By this point I couldn’t feel a thing. I still couldn’t bear to look though. It was over in about five seconds.

The nurse told me she was done, and that I had to feel my implant before she could bandage me up. I finally plucked up the courage to turn around and have a look. My arm was stained yellow by the antiseptic, and there was a tiny pinprick hole where the implant had gone in, but apart from that it didn’t look nearly as bad as I had feared. I gingerly touched my arm. It was weird feeling a foreign object there, but I knew I could get used to it.

The nurse put a large plaster over my arm, and then wrapped a bandage around it. I signed another form, and I was given a little card with the date on it telling me to remove my implant in three years’ time.  The nurse told me that the implant actually had the same success rate as female sterilisation. Imagine that – the same level of protection against pregnancy as sterilisation, but with the added bonus of actually being able to have kids later if you choose.

We couldn’t have been in the doctor’s surgery for more than fifteen minutes. But it did take a while for my arm to recover. First it was the soreness, and the struggle of showering while trying to keep my bandage dry. I was allowed to remove it after twenty-four hours, and I was horrified by the bruising creeping up from the edges of the plaster (and the fact that my upper arm was still yellow). Two days later I peeled off the plaster with great difficulty. My skin must have reacted badly to its adhesive, as the redness took a lot longer to fade than the bruising.

I was self-conscious for a while, wearing long sleeves to hide my arm from the world. Even after the reaction faded I was worried that people would notice the thin raised line. But not one person has mentioned it. The only people who know that I have the implant are the people I have told myself. Now the only thing that’s visible is the tiny red pinprick.

I’m now seven weeks down the line, and, to be honest, I’ve sort of forgotten about my implant – which is exactly the point. I haven’t suffered any mood swings (according to my boyfriend, anyway) and the horrendous periods that I had read about online never came. I am convinced it was the right decision for me.

When it comes to contraception, different methods work for different people. Trial and error may be the best way of finding out what’s right for you. It’s taken me a while to get here, but I’m finally at a point where I’m happy with my contraception. On the pill I was always concerned that I might forget to take it, and then that’s it – boom! Baby on the way. But now I can relax.

I don’t mind being on the implant – it’s the choice myself and my boyfriend made that is best for our relationship. However, it would seem fair for both partners to share an equal burden in using contraception, instead of a woman shouldering all the responsibility. I have discussed the possibility of the male pill with my boyfriend, and he would be keen, even if just to give my body a rest from the hormones for a while. For the time being the implant is the most suitable option for us. But I have not reached the end of my contraceptive journey yet.

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