Ambien is among the things — including Fassbinder, Sour Skittles and Jaromír Jágr — my friend Mark dedicated a recent book to. It was a tribute, he wrote, to “all the little things that made production of this book possible and daily life more enjoyable.”
For an insomniac, Ambien is no doubt a little thing that can make many big things possible. And like pretty much everything else in the world that feels miraculous for a minute — love, sex, tequila — it can also fuck you up.
I know this now.
A few years ago, I started having trouble sleeping. I’d lie in bed at night, every night, trying to calculate the lesser of two really shitty evils: sleep deprivation brain fuzz or Tylenol PM hangover? Stupor A or Stupor B? It was like trying to decide which "Walking Dead" zombie I’d rather be: the one in the ratty bunny slippers with a chunk of her cheek missing or the bloated, paper-skinned zombie trapped in a well?
Eventually, I was having beers with a doctor friend and brought up my problem. He told me sleep is like a train; when it rolls by, you’ve got to hop on because if you miss the midnight train, it might be 4 a.m. before the next one comes chugging along. The image haunted me. After that conversation, I’d lie awake in bed passing the hours in the way that had become habit: obsessing over an endless stream of things that sucked — from a dumb thing I said to my boss, to the ridiculously hot woman my boyfriend was laughing with at a party, to the Prada sunglasses I left in a cab, to the fear that an hour ago when I got up to go to the bathroom was when the goddamn sleep train went by.
But it was something else my doctor friend said that night that really changed my life. He asked if I wanted a prescription for Ambien.
He wasn’t the first person who mentioned it. Friends, co-workers — everyone it seemed — had simultaneously discovered the new wonder drug. They glowed when they talked about it. They were sleeping the nights before big presentations at work, sleeping when major book deadlines loomed, sleeping on planes — in coach! Any time, any place they wanted, they could sleep.
Instead of “goodnight,” Mark would text me, “I’m going to knock myself out” — meaning he was about to pop an Ambien. I couldn’t resist. I started knocking myself out, too, and before long, we were both happily knocking ourselves out every night.
I got hooked on Ambien because nothing bad happened when I got hooked on Ambien. I’d tuck myself in, close my eyes and summon the sleep train. It always came. I woke up rested, refreshed, nothing zombie-like about me. It was bliss.
Then, seemingly as suddenly as I’d started hearing about the wonders of Ambien, I started to hear about the wacky side effects. Mark confessed he’s become a voracious sleep-eater. He’d devour potato salad, pretzel sticks and Cap’n Crunch — all glopped together in the same bowl.
I read a piece by a writer who wandered out of her apartment in Brooklyn in a towel, with no shoes, keys, phone or money. “Nearly naked, I walked down the main thoroughfare in my not-so-nice neighborhood,” she wrote. “A shopkeeper I knew found me, dressed me in some clothes from the store's lost-and-found, and brought me home. I woke up a few hours later with a groggy head and no recollection of where I had picked up a Buckeyes sweatshirt and a peasant skirt.“
The drug also started popping up in the news. Tom Brokaw went slurry and nonsensical on the "Morning Joe" show and later tweeted “Early a.m. I mistakenly took a half dose of Ambien and made less sense than usual. Made a better comeback than Giants ...” Kerry Kennedy, the ex of N.Y. Governor Andrew Cuomo, reportedly had it in her system when she got into a car accident. It was found in the blood of star NFL linebacker Junior Seau after he died in an apparent suicide.
One night, Mark and I were having burgers at a bar and we ended up talking about how much we’d started looking forward to taking Ambien. The anticipation would kick in during the day, gradually earlier and earlier each day, and it was beginning to freak us out. Not long after that, we both went cold turkey.
Luckily, nothing scary ever happened to me during the year I was hooked on Ambien. There was just one funny moment: when I popped one on a plane, ate my six allocated peanuts and then accused my boyfriend of stealing them, none of which I remembered when I woke up later, back on the ground.
Now I have a pre-bedtime ritual to help me get drowsy — and it works pretty well as long as it’s not a night when I’ve just watched "Breaking Bad." And if I have to go to the bathroom before the sleep train shows up, I just hold it.