In anticipation of the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, Sick Pilgrim is featuring a series of essays on Natural Family Planning, the only acceptable method of achieving or avoiding pregnancy according to the teaching of the Catholic Church. These essays will not present ideological stances or theological arguments, but will simply offer unvarnished testimony from individuals who have used NFP. The struggles and sufferings that NFP carries with it frequently go undiscussed, and we wanted to offer a space for honest conversation. The essays are being posted anonymously to protect the privacy of the writers, who otherwise might not feel comfortable telling their stories. When it comes to NFP, “all things conspire to keep silent…half out of shame perhaps, half as unutterable hope” (Rainer Maria Rilke). We want NFP to work, and when it doesn’t, we keep silent and believe our struggles are unique. It is the hope of the editors of Sick Pilgrim that these essays will be a source of hope to those who struggle with NFP, and will convey the message: You are not alone.
I do not have a body. I know this seems impossible, given that I type this essay with what seem to be fingers, attached to hands, attached to arms. However, I have been assured of this fact too many times to doubt it.
Natural Family Planning enthusiasts are to be found many places. There are apologists, NFP instructors, NFP only doctors, and priests. What they have all told me, is that NFP works. It co-operates with the cycles of a woman’s body. If a woman’s cycles are irregular, then it helps her identify the cause, and treat it properly.
Failure is not listed as one of the options.
The first NFP method I learned was the Creighton Method. This did not work. It is a CM (cervical mucus) only method. I always had mucus. The use of “yellow stamps,” intended to help distinguish between fertile and non-fertile mucus, only resulted in pregnancies.
Second, I learned the Sympto-Thermal method taught by the Couple to Couple League. This method uses basal body temperature in addition to mucus and other signs to keep track of cycles. Through Sympto-Thermal, I discovered that I have a very low basal body temperature (BBT). My BBT is so low, in fact, that I cannot use Sympto-Thermal.
Third, I looked into the Marquette Method. The Marquette Method observes cervical mucus as well, but it also uses the ClearBlue Fertility Monitor to check hormone levels. As I read about the Marquette Method, I was dismayed to learn that the fertility monitor was not compatible with long cycles. I consistently had cycles lasting 45-60 days. For me, the Marquette Method would be a mucus-only method. This had already proven to be unsuccessful.
Through my reading about irregular cycles, I discovered that it was possible that I was hypothyroid. This is apparently consistent with symptoms like low BBT. I found a doctor who would prescribe me thyroid hormone, even though my blood work was all normal. After three months of thyroid supplementation, I was extremely hyperthyroid.
Next, I saw I naturopathic doctor. She recommended an extremely large quantity of vitamins. She also instructed me to stop eating a number of different foods. None of this had any effect.
I then found a Creighton doctor several hours away. I hoped that perhaps this doctor would be able to find out why my cycles were so irregular, and could tell me what to do to regularize them. She diagnosed me with very low level PCOS. My bloodwork did not qualify me for Metformin, so she suggested a low dose progesterone supplement to be taken after ovulation. She assured me that it would regulate my cycles. For three months, it did. Then, I again had a 60 day cycle and reverted back to my usual “schedule,” in which abnormal was normal. In the meantime, the excess progesterone had resulted in excess oil on my skin. I ended my progesterone treatment with a fairly serious eye infection caused by a stye.
Over the course of my marriage, I have worked with five NFP instructors, three NFP only doctors, a naturopath, and an endocrinologist. I have taken vitamins and hormones. I’ve stopped eating various foods. I have literally made myself ill trying to regulate my cycles.
It would be reasonable to assume that all this has made me doubt my faith, but it hasn’t. It might have been better for me if it had.
It would also be reasonable to assume that all this has ruined my marriage. It hasn’t, though these circumstances are not for the faint of heart.
What has been damaged the most by all this has been my sense of self. I have not treated my body well. In an attempt to “fix” it, I have punished it and harmed it. Throughout all the different attempts at treatment, I could tell that my body was being forced to do something it couldn’t do. I have judged my body and regarded it as an enemy, standing between me and religious practice.
I have seen again and again how others judged my body. “That’s not how cycles work.” “That’s not how ovulation works.” I’ve had to listen to repeated denials that circumstances like mine exist, even though I seem to be living proof of the opposite. I’ve experienced an erasure of my body from existence, for the sake of a method that has failed me.
The essays in Sick Pilgrim’s You Are Not Alone series are written anonymously by Catholic women and curated by editor Maren Grossman.