I was 28 when I got my first Ambien prescription. I'd just moved in with my boyfriend—the man that would eventually become my husband—and I sat in our bed one night holding half of the skinny peach-colored pill (I was too nervous to take the full one) in my palm. Both of us wondered what it would do. How long would it take to kick in? Would I remember falling asleep? Where would I go?
I can't even remember why I got it. We were both in grad school then, we had a new puppy, we'd just moved in together that year and it was the first time I'd ever lived with a boyfriend—shit, it was the first time I even had a real boyfriend since high school—but who knows what prompted me to ask for it, or for the doctor to recommend it. Getting a prescription for anything was as difficult as a ten minute conversation and a few dollars, it seemed.
It knocked me out quickly and completely—into a black, dreamless unconsciousness. The next morning I told him how freaky it was, like I hadn’t so much slept as disappeared for a while.
I didn’t take it much after that, which I find fascinating now, like thinking of the days when I used to cork up a half bottle of wine after two glasses; when half drunk bottles of white would be forgotten and go bad in the door of the fridge and bottles of red would turn to vinegar on the kitchen counter. In the days of early sobriety, I’d sift through these basic ideas in wonder: I hadn’t always finished everything; I hadn’t always desired a buzzed state over a clear one; there was a time when I simply had…other priorities. I used to try and pinpoint when it all changed, but it’s not like that. It was a becoming, slow and obscure.
I got pregnant with my daughter when I was thirty, an unplanned pregnancy we discovered eight weeks along, when the morning sickness (that lasted all day) kicked into high gear and I suddenly began recoiling at the smell of coffee, eggs, and most suspiciously, wine. I don't remember taking Ambien regularly then, but I must have been taking it at least sometimes, because I started to miss it. I honestly missed anything that would take the edge off then. I noticed early on in my pregnancy how much I craved the nightly release of wine. I drank the occasional glass here and there—sometimes pushing the limit from one to one and a half glasses—but aside from the wine not feeling good to me physically, it was so incomplete, so unsatisfying to only have that much. Often, I’d be going about my day and suddenly get hit by an overwhelming urge to reach for it—for something—and not being able to do so sent a jolt of panic through me. It wasn’t that I had been drinking all the time, but the idea that I could was always there. The safety net was available to me: in the fridge, down the street, in a few hours, whenever I wanted it. To offset my anxiety about feeling this way, I joked about how I couldn’t wait to “jump off the cliff of sobriety” when she was born, and all the moms and non-moms alike would nod in camaraderie. Totally.
I never took any medication in those months. I promptly quit the SSRI I’d been taking for less than a year as soon as we learned I was pregnant and I didn’t touch Ambien until one night in the last few weeks. I was staying at my mom’s house overnight and my husband wasn’t with me, though I’m not sure why. For as long as I could remember, my grandma had taken 1/4 of a pill at bedtime and before I went to bed, I casually asked her for one, hoping neither she or my mom would make a fuss about it. My mom asked me if my doctor said it was okay to take and I heard myself lie to her that yes, of course, and it was fine (I had never asked). I told myself I deserved it, that it had been a long freaking nine months and there was no harm—my 90-year-old grandma was taking them for god sakes—and I was having such trouble sleeping in those last few weeks with my body so big, it was fine. But I knew there was something not quite right about how much solace I found in having that little pill in my hand, about washing it down my throat, about how much I longed to be carried off to another place.
After my daughter was born in February of 2009, everything changed. Within two months of having her, I’d lost over forty pounds which put me at a weight I hadn’t been since junior high school. My anxiety was so bad I could barely swallow food. I couldn’t sleep and the wine wasn’t working like it used to. Instead of bringing me relief, it just revved me up like a top, spinning me faster and faster until I eventually tipped over and went still for a few hours. And yet, I didn’t stop drinking it. Nightly: one glass, two, three, a whole bottle sometimes, trying to feel just a tiny bit better. One night, very drunk, I sat on the bedroom floor and told my husband I thought I needed help. With the anxiety. That I was scared and felt paralyzed. The next day I went to a psychiatrist and after a 60-minute intake and consultation, she wrote me four prescriptions: an anti-depressant, Klonopin for sleep, Xanax for fast relief from anxiety, and Ambien, also for sleep.
I hated the Klonopin, but the other three meds became part of my regular self-medicating routine. I quickly learned the SSRI allowed me to burn off my hangovers quickly, and also to drink more without feeling drunk. I took the Xanax to smooth out the anxiety of a particularly bad hangover or drinking spree. And I took the Ambien every night, usually after wine. I started to notice that instead of making me pass out, it put me in a euphoric, floating state. Tired but awake. Instead of it marking the end of the night, it would launch me into a second wind. I would write emails, texts, Facebook messages or go into the kitchen and gobble food like some kind of stoned cartoon character. Sometimes I’d pass out with my laptop on my chest, a full glass of wine spilled all over the bed; other times I’d stay up for hours and finally crash on the couch and then wake up disoriented and confused as to how I got there.
These episodes wore hard on my marriage to say the least. He didn’t even know the extent to which I was drinking and taking the pills together, but what he knew was bad enough. When he got really fed up, I would cut it out for a bit or just hide it better, but eventually, I’d pick right back up where I left off. Because everything was such a disaster for us then, my drinking and using just kind of blended in—neither one of us really knew how serious it was.
When we separated and he moved out, the wheels really came off. When Alma was in my care, I would exercise more control: forcing myself to go to sleep, putting a limit on how much wine I brought into the house. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. But when she was staying with him, all bets were off. I often wouldn’t come home and if I did, I would stay up until 2, 3, 4 in the morning, waking up at dawn to sift through whatever damage I’d done in my blackout, then go to work in a near-manic state. I would buy things online and have no recollection until I saw the Amazon boxes stacked on my doorstep. Once, I bought a $700 ticket to Puerto Rico for the very next day and made the trip only to turn around and fly back the next morning for an additional $1,000 because once all the booze and drugs wore off, I panicked. Another time, I went into Boston to go out with my friends and accidentally took an Ambien instead of a Xanax. I remembered feeling funny walking to their apartment as if I was floating above my body watching myself, but I thought maybe the Xanax was just hitting me strange. I remember nothing after walking into their place; I woke up in my bed the next morning with no memory of how I got home (an Uber) or when I left (I didn’t have the courage to ask my friends). I only put together that I’d mistakenly took the wrong pill when I checked my purse and saw the Ambien bottle in there instead of the Xanax one. The incidents piled up and eventually were no longer novel. Obliteration and terror became the norm.
In July of 2013, I started my reluctant walk toward sobriety. I stopped taking Xanax altogether then but continued taking the Ambien at night. Several times, I put myself to bed sober, took an Ambien, and twenty minutes later I'd find myself driving to the liquor store or opening a bottle of wine and finishing it. It was crazy how quickly it triggered me to drink and I thought this was only because I had linked the two together for so many years, but as it turns out, it actually targets the same part of the brain as alcohol. And, despite what I’d heard (or maybe what I heard and ignored), Ambien is in the same family as all the Benzos (Xanax, Valium, Ativan) and is just as addictive. Knowing this, I'd stay away from it for a week or two, but inevitably I’d have trouble sleeping or my anxiety would ratchet up and I’d end up refilling it, reasoning that quitting drinking alone was hard enough. When I finally got sober in September of 2014, I was using it nightly again. Never more than the prescribed dose of 10 mg, never abusing it, but also never, ever going without it. When I checked in with my doctor and informed her of my new sobriety she congratulated me and agreed I should continue taking the Ambien, along with my SSRI, for at least a year while I was getting my footing.
One, two, three years of sobriety ticked on and I was still taking the Ambien every night. I would be lying if I said I didn't think about that stupid pill all the goddamn time: it was my fire door, a guaranteed, brief period of escape at the end of the day, no matter what. A few times in these years I took one in the middle of the day on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon—after a break-up or a long string of travel—just to let myself go dark for a few hours. It felt violating to my sobriety to do this, but I reasoned that being tired put me at greater risk and I would always “even it out” by not taking it that night to prove to myself that it was no big deal. And yet, I never let the prescription run out, I always knew exactly how many I had, and I never—not once—got on a plane without it. Once, I turned around and went all the way back to my apartment from Logan airport because I realized I forgot it. I knew I might miss my flight. In other words, it was a big deal.
In my check-ups with my doctors, I downplayed how much I was using it, though that wasn't really necessary—there was never any resistance to refilling it every month, even though it’s only supposed to be a temporary solution for insomnia and I’d been taking it for almost nine years. When that little voice would start tapping my shoulder, hinting that maybe this wasn't such a good thing, I’d respond with, Hey, I just answered ZERO to the “How many alcoholic beverages do you consume in one week?” question again at the doctor's office. Chill.
And yet, that little voice wouldn’t stop nagging me. I knew it was right. I knew because I was protecting the Ambien like I had drinking. I kept the fact that I used it from my sponsors and everyone, really (secrets are a very good tip off you’re up to something shady). If I talked about it, I did so casually, as if it was a thing I did only when traveling or seldomly and only under very specific circumstances. I thought about tapering down or coming off completely all the time, but always told myself there would be a better time and I couldn’t afford to not sleep for several days, which I knew would be the case having come off it before. A couple times I raised my concern to my doctor and she told me not to worry, that it wasn't a high dose, and we could work on tapering when it was a "better time."
Aside from it making me feel sluggish and tired the next day, I didn’t feel like it was negatively affecting me otherwise. My work was going brilliantly, I was thriving and growing in so many ways, I took care of my responsibilities. And yet, new symptoms started popping up: migraines, anxiety spikes, irritability, mid-day exhaustion that required napping, and worst of all, horrible memory and recall. I connected other factors to these symptoms—my diet, not enough exercise, too much travel, stress, blah blah, blah—but deep down I knew the cause. Then finally, last fall, a thought started to nag at me: you will never write this book unless you quit.
I told myself it wasn’t true—that I’d written hundreds of thousands of words, had been published all over the place, and even had an agent—an agent! and a proposal that would eventually be ready for submission to publishers!—while I’d been taking it, that it had never interfered with my writing. But I knew. I knew it was in the way. I knew I was lying to myself. Because “would eventually be ready” isn't the same as “ready.” Not that bad isn't the same as good. Almost awake isn’t that different from asleep.
Earlier this spring, I became excessively tired. Listless. Almost depressed. Winter was coming to a close and I couldn’t blame it on the cold darkness any longer. When I woke up in the morning and had that same metallic taste in my mouth—a marker of having taken the medication—I felt dirty. Disappointed. Like a big fraud. Occasionally, I would wake to see a response to a text I didn’t remember sending, or an empty bowl with a spoon in it on my bedside table and I’d struggle to recall what I ate. It was haunting—way too much like the past. Like that little prescribed pill allowed me to get a just little drunk every night.
So I spent a bunch of time reading blog posts (there is very little out there) and scrolling message boards, trying to psych myself up for quitting. I stocked up on natural sleep aids: magnesium, passionflower, GABA, chamomile tea, melatonin, essential oils. I talked to my doctor about quitting and she gave me a tapering schedule that would bring me down over the course of six weeks or so. But every time I was supposed to take a lesser dose, say a quarter of a pill, I saw myself taking the full half. Or, I’d take the quarter and then get up thirty minutes later when I hadn’t fallen asleep yet and swallow the other quarter. Tapering wasn’t going to work, not for this girl.
Days ticked on and I just became more tired. I couldn’t write. I’d have energy in the morning after coffee and then plummet into a zombie state. More migraines. I was actually taking less of the medication but knowing what it was doing to me had caught up. My expiration date on bullshitting myself had come and gone.
Finally, I told a couple people what had been going on and that I was ready to stop. As it goes, my friend Meadow had just listened to Joe Rogan’s podcast with and sleep expert, Matthew Walker. Her words were, “Oh yeah, that stuff basically turns your brain into Swiss cheese.” My heart plummeted. I knew it, but those specific words cut through me. What the fuck was I doing to myself? Swiss cheese?
I listened to the podcast and immediately ordered Matthew Walker’s book, Why We Sleep and read it cover to cover in two days. What I learned wasn't only bad, it was so much worse than I ever imagined. It turns out all that time—in the ten years I'd been taking Ambien—I'd never really slept. I mean I knew alcohol had fucked with my sleep, but in the past four years even while sober, I'd been sedating myself, but not actually ever sleeping. And in this sedated state, my brain was not getting the kind of repair needed to actually fuction properly. This causes endless, documented problems physically, psychologically, emotionally. High risk of dementia. Shorter life expectancy. Depression. Anxiety. Hallucinations. The list goes on and on. And this is a pill that just last month 10 millions American's swallowed. TEN. MILLION.
I decided I had to believe my body knew how to sleep. That yes, it would suck for some time—some people reported not sleeping for months after quitting—but that eventually, I would be able to sleep naturally. I don’t remember the exact day, but sometime in early April, I didn’t take any Ambien before bed. I knew I wouldn’t sleep and didn’t, save a couple fitful hours in the early morning. But waking and starting my day knowing I hadn’t taken it the night before felt freeing and hopeful, the way I felt when I first got sober, like I was doing something monumentally important for myself. The following week was a mess sleep-wise, but every morning I woke up without that metallic taste in my mouth, I nearly cried with relief.
Over the course of the next few weeks, I kept the pills in a basket in my bathroom. I wasn’t ready to throw them out just yet. A few nights, I took half a pill—why?—just to see, I guess. And I was heartened when the following night, I didn’t take any and slept okay. I also hated the way I felt the day after taking it and could see the marked difference now that I'd gone without.
Finally, on a random Tuesday last month, after not taking any for almost six weeks, I grabbed the bottle, took a picture of it, and then unceremoniously dumped the remaining pills into the toilet. It took two flushes to get them down. I whispered an emphatic fuuuuuck youuuuuu as they disappeared.
It took a couple weeks, but eventually I started to sleep through the night, or at least, through the night with one or two trips to the bathroom because I have the smallest bladder ever. Every morning, even if I am groggy, I am clear in a way I haven't been for over a decade. A decade. I am still tired often; it will take a while to recalibrate and that's okay. I sometimes get anxious around bedtime and my mind automatically flips to reaching for that pill, but I don't because it's not there. I remind myself I don't need it, that I never really needed it.
I am writing again. I’ve only had one or two migraines. I remember my dreams and—I didn't realize this until just now—I haven't had any of the troubling "teeth" dreams: the recurring nightmares where my teeth are falling out, crumbling, or covered in gum I can't spit out, since I quit. I've had a few sleepless nights, but that's normal. When I’m restless, I read. I diffuse some lavender. I listen to an audiobook. I let myself not sleep for a while and I remind myself that it's okay, nothing bad is going to happen, I am free now. And, lo and behold, I was able to bring my book to a place where it will be shopped to publishers soon.
I suspected I’d be writing about this one day, but once I finally stopped, I knew I had to. I know in some circles “sobriety” means you do not take any mind-altering drugs, in which case—according to them—I've not been sober all this time. That’s not what’s true for me. What’s true for me is that I stopped drinking alcohol to save my life and when I stopped doing that, I got sober. I didn’t stop taking Ambien because I was worried I wasn’t sober, I stopped taking it because doing so felt out of integrity with my sobriety. And I also knew that voice was right: I wouldn’t finish my book if I kept taking it. Plain and simple: I’d never get to where I am capable of getting creatively, spiritually, emotionally, if I kept putting that shit into my body. And then of course, learning what I did recently not only confirmed but exceeded what I already suspected about the dangers of these drugs.
I'm obviously not writing this to criticize, shame, or judge anyone who uses prescription sleeping aids. But I am using my story to wave a flag and say, Hey, this is not only bad, it's WAY WORSE THAN YOU THINK. And, I want to offer some hope. I was terrified to let go of those pills and I didn't need to be. The only thing I'm afraid of now is what long-term damage I may have done. Like alcohol, even my worst day without it is far better than my best day drinking. I'm grateful as hell for even a mediocre night of natural sleep. And, you guys, I have a renewed hope and trust in my intuition. I knew this wasn't right, despite the normalization and all the professional opinions telling me it was. Like alcohol, sleep medication is a billion dollar business. (Americans spent an estimated $41 billion on sleep aids and remedies in 2015, and that's expected to grow to $52 billion by 2020. Spend on Ambien alone topped $4 billion.*) My doctors were never concerned, so long as I was taking it as prescribed. And it seems every other person I know is taking something. So, no big deal, right? No. No. Wrong.
For those wondering what I'm doing to support natural sleep now, this is my Rx: a cool room, a bed I love, I diffuse Serenity blend (doTERRA) or lavender essential oil most nights, I don't drink caffeine after noon, I try and sweat most days, and sometimes, when I remember, I take magnesium or passionflower. But above all, the best antidote to sleeplessness is living right. By that I mean practicing what I've learned in recovery: telling the truth, apologizing quickly when I've made mistakes, trusting in God, and helping others. I don't do this perfectly. I mess up all the time. But I am trying. Every day I try to do a little better than the day before.
Below is a picture of me today. No filter. About to hit publish. My eyes are puffy because allergies are killing me and it's also been a rough couple of weeks. I've had two cups of coffee and last night all I took before bed was a giant spoonful of peanut butter cup ice cream (that does not help with the sleep, by the way!). Not everything is perfect, but I've got my own back. Most importantly. Most importantly, I trust myself.
I love you. Keep going.
Why We Sleep: Unlocking The Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker, PhD