just be glad you took health class

Do you suppose many women opt for the generic brand of pregnancy test when weighing their options in the grocery store aisle? Logically, I’m sure that the generic brands must be just as effective, tested, and reliable as the well-known ones, but when I see that easily identifiable generic packaging (you know the kind I mean, where the name and color scheme are almost like a name brand competitor, but not quite close enough to be grounds for a lawsuit), I don’t think, “oh, a bargain!” Instead, I figure this is not the time to be frugal.

Although, I suppose that thinking’s kind of crazy, since I have no problem accepting generic prescription drugs, which actually go into my body and could cause me to grow extra limbs and start spinning and mumbling about aliens if mixed incorrectly.

Anyway, how do you compare pregnancy test choices? A growing number seem to offer an extra test free, but I worry that this means the first one might not be too reliable and they are suggesting you test twice. All the packaging reads about the same, except for one test that claimed it could potentially tell if you were pregnant up to three days before your period was scheduled to start. 60% of the time it could tell that. What good is 60% of the time? 40% of the time it’s wrong? Are they just looking for repeat customers who then have to spend another $15 during a more accurate time in their cycle?

I don’t really understand how pregnancy tests work. Or really how conception works, if I’m being honest. I mean, I get the sex part, but ovulation and fertilization and how plan B can work for a certain number of days and you can only get pregnant when you ovulate except when you can get pregnant at other times? It’s all a big blur. I blame it on my high school for letting me skip health class to take a writing workshop.

(I also never took driver’s ed, but that’s probably not strictly relevant to the technical details of pregnancy except that my stepdad said that girls shouldn’t have their own cars, but boys could, because girls could get pregnant. Obviously.)

The lesson is this: look at your pill pack when the pharmacist hands it to you.

I know, I know. You’ve been on the pill for 14 years. You get the concept. You have mastered the art of popping that pill out the back of the plastic. You don’t need to look. Believe me, you should look. Otherwise, day 7 will come and you will just so happen to look at your pack as you pop out the pill and you will notice that the pack was in the cute little holder UPSIDE DOWN. And it will hit you like a crawling baby headed for your breast: YOU HAVE BEEN TAKING THE “INERT” PILLS FOR SIX DAYS. And during that time, you have had sex at least twice.

What you should probably not do at this moment? Take all seven pills at once. It will seem like a good idea at the time, but later, when you read the instructions that you normally throw away, because honestly, who needs all that stuff after 14 years of the same old disclaimers about blood clots and smoking and cancer, you will learn that once you skip three days, you’re screwed. Or, actually, you shouldn’t get screwed, if I’m being technically accurate. And also? Taking seven days of the pill all at once makes you a little queasy. A lot queasy actually. And queasiness is not a feeling you need when you’re thinking back to engaging in that activity you thought you were so carefully avoiding — unprotected sex — since queasiness is also a symptom of the result of said activity.

I called my friend E., who has a health class background.

“I feel really icky. I think this means I must be pregnant.”

“I think this means you took seven days of pills at once. I don’t think you get morning sickness if you’re like three days pregnant. Besides, you don’t ovulate at the beginning of your cycle.”

“Are you sure?”

“Pretty sure. I’ll check around at work.”

All of E.’s coworkers now think she’s the one who’s pregnant, but it was for the greater good of getting me anecdotal evidence about when I might be ovulating. Which obviously is more important. Her coworkers (with backgrounds in actually having children, so even better than having attended health class) said that you ovulate starting with the 21st day of your cycle. So, then we tried to figure out what the first day of your cycle is. The first day of your period? The first day of your new pill pack? And then I read on the Internet that you can start ovulating as early as day 8. So, that was confusing. And E. said that when you go off the pill you can’t get pregnant right away, but I think that’s a myth right up there with “pulling out in time.”

We both started to feel inadequate as women. Surely we should know about our own ovulation cycles. E. said that she gets cramps when she ovulates, and then I got confused about whether you ovulated at all when you were on the pill. What is ovulation then? What does the pill really do to prevent you from getting pregnant anyway?

She suggested that I stop worrying and take a pregnancy test already. So, I went down to Safeway to check out my options, which is when I discovered that you can’t take the test until you’ve missed your period, unless you want to take the 60% accurate one, and even then you have to wait until three days before. And then I was even more confused because if conception happens the day before your period, the test will work when you’re two days pregnant? But if conception happens three weeks before your period, the test won’t work when you’re two weeks pregnant? Doesn’t the test measure some hormone in the blood? Does that hormone not pop up until your (theoretical) period?

All I knew for sure is that I could not take a test to confirm that my icky feelings were due to a birth control overdose. I called E.

“What? We don’t have technology for that yet? We can go into space but we can’t tell if someone’s pregnant?”

Apparently not.

According to the instructions that came with the pill pack, if you miss more than three days, you should take one pill a day until you get to Sunday and then you should start a new pill pack, and after you’ve taken pills for seven consecutive days, it’s all sex all the time! Although now that I think about it, there must be more to it than that, right? Maybe I didn’t read far enough or missed some crucial part. But I panicked, OK? I was like, fuck, the pill pack was fucking upside down! I didn’t exactly think clearly.

The instructions warned that I probably would not have a period at the regular time, what with the back-to-back pill packs. I took the old pill pack until the next Sunday (a week), then started a new pack. This time, I checked to make sure the pills were right side up. Ahem.

About a week later, I was talking to a coworker about my pill fiasco. It’s not that I normally chat up my coworkers about sex but we’d both had a couple of glasses of wine. So now you all know the truth: I’m the slut of the office and I drink on the job. Right. So, we’re drinking wine and I’m telling her about the whole upside down thing and she was horrified because apparently she too takes her pill in the dark. So then she mentions that she recently had some pharmacy issues and couldn’t get her pills until three days after she was supposed to start them and so the pharmacist said she had to start over and wait the entire month until she’d taken the entire pack before she’d be safe. Well, the pharmacists said two to four weeks, but what the hell does that mean? You could be good to go in two weeks but maybe not until four? But go ahead and try two weeks, what the hell?

Anyway, I wasn’t really thinking much about her problem. Instead, I thought, fuck, I started my pack a whole week late. If she’s supposed to wait until the next pill pack, what about my instructions and the whole, once you take the pill for a week you can have all the sex you want?

Clearly, I should never have sex if I can’t figure out something as simple as birth control pills and my own cycle that I’ve had since I was 12.

So, then I started trying to calculate ovulation and do math again and that didn’t work any better than it did the first time. And I couldn’t help thinking about my niece who is wonderful and the best thing ever, but was a result of my sister taking her pill faithfully every day but naively adding St. John’s Wort to her daily regimen. The confidence of the pill is tenuous at best!

(Speaking of confidence in the pill, I was at the orthopedic surgeon’s office the other day and I asked him about the side effects of some drug he was prescribing and he said that it wasn’t “all that dangerous”, although probably “more dangerous than Vioxx”, which was taken off the market (he seemed bitter about this particularly). But I shouldn’t use that as a gauge because the most dangerous drug prescribed is birth control pills and they’re still on the market! They probably kill 50 women a year with blood clots! And Vioxx only killed nine! So I shouldn’t take the pill because I’m not smart enough to and because it will kill me.)

I missed my period like the instructions said I would. No real surprise since I was in week two of the new pack. But still…

I ended up back at the Safeway aisle. It’s difficult to compare pregnancy test packaging when a man is leaning against the shelf in question, pondering pain relievers. Dude, just pick one and go. They all are equally ineffective. I looped around and picked up a roasted chicken. Still the headachy guy blocked the tests. I grabbed a loaf of french bread, some cheese. Finally, the aisle was clear. What is the etiquette on blocking the pregnancy tests anyway? Shouldn’t you be able to consider the benefits of each one with some presumption of privacy? I realize this is irrational since he was in a public grocery store, but do I seem in any way rational in handling any part of this situation?

I was back to the question of which one to get. I had ruled out the 60% accurate one anyway. And the packs of two. I went with the most expensive single test. No skimping for me! I got it home and unwrapped the package. It had a computer chip in it. There was a part that collects the er, testing material and then I had to slide that into another part and there was an eject button and everything. And an LCD display. Technology has advanced far beyond the one line or two to which I am accustomed. Not that I’m complaining. The one line or two thing was an exercise in neurosis. Where’s the line? How long do I have to wait for a line? Wait, there it is. It’s one line! But, is that a blur of the first line or a second line? Did I jostle the test and screw it up? Why do the makers of this test hate me?!

This one had a little flashing icon to let me know it was still testing. And then, there it was, “Not Pregnant”. I checked again a few minutes later to make sure the display hadn’t changed to say “ha ha, just kidding!” And since I work in the software industry, I couldn’t help but think about the glitches possible with a computer chip doing your pregnancy test. What if the program gets screwed up and sends a 0 when it should be sending a 1 and the opposite result displays? What if something’s wrong with the display itself and the “not” shows up when it shouldn’t?

I told myself that surely the QA testing for this industry is particularly rigorous and and decided I wasn’t pregnant and the threw the test away. I was tempted to dig it out of the trash later and make sure the display hadn’t changed, but since I had used such good judgment throughout this situation, I didn’t want to ruin my good track record by being silly.

Clearly I can’t be trusted with birth control. P. is going to talk to the doctor about a vasectomy tomorrow. It was either that or crash a high school health class.

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