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My Affair With Ms. Ambien

September 1, 2010
SEPTEMBER 1, 2010 2:25PM

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“I started out on Burgundy, but soon hit the harder stuff” –B. Dylan, Just Like Tom Thumb Blues


Johannessen – Femme Fatale

We met in the dark days after my father’s death. The devil insomnia had plagued most of my nights since I was 12. It had stolen enough hours that I’d spent the equivalent of 6 or 7 whole years tossing, turning, reading, fretting and generally going crazy. Now it tightened its grip on me, squeezing out most of what was left of my sleep, until there was only 2 ½ hours a night.

It was making me punchy. That made it hard to deal with the remains of my family of origin, which my father’s death for some reason had dealt some kind of blunt trauma. Though we were still together we ground against each other like the ends of broken bones.

I went to my doc, whom I liked and trusted. He handed me some free samples, saying, “Try this.”  Looked like pills, but it was actually my new honey, Ms. Ambien. I drove her home, keeping one hand on her to make sure she felt safe. Our first night together the sex wasn’t great. Actually we never had sex. But Ms. Ambien did what no sex, no other drug, no silent mountain retreat blissfully absent rock and roll had ever been able to. She put me to sleep.

800px-Ambien10mg(Actually, she looked like this. Not much but she packed a punch.)

My mind was doing its usual nocturnal business of chasing itself, going over the bad parts of the day, with the added annoyance of – Hey, this Ambien’s no good. I’m not the least bit sleepy. It’s…The next thing I knew it was 4 – 4 ½ hrs later. It’s like someone had just come by and pulled my plug and snap! I was off. Kaput. Dead to the world. I don’t know, perhaps that should have warned me, that the stuff didn’t make me sleepy before it shut me off.

It’s hard to explain to the non-insomniac segment of the population the thrill of knowing you have something that will reliably knock you out, pull that plug, stop the torture of tossing and turning. It was love at first sight.

The doc said, “It’s OK if you take it every night for a month or so while this crazy stuff is going on with your family.” Oh if only it were just a month. “After that, its OK to take it a few times a week.”

So me and the Ms. got together a couple of times a week. I’d take what I could get.

After a year of this my doc moved away. I went to a new doc. “I see you’re taking Ambien. How are you sleeping?” “Fine when I take the Ambien…but also it only works for about half the night. That’s OK when I wake up, but when I have trouble getting to sleep in the first place…”

As I spoke she was fiddling with a little electronic device, some smart something or other. Now she looked at me and said, “It’s OK to take it every night. And if you have trouble initially getting to sleep there’s something new, Ambien CR. It spreads out the dosage so you can sleep all night.”

I left grinning like the groom I was. That night me and the Ms. were getting married. We’d sleep together every night, all night now if I wanted, with the CR.

Like the old Beach Boy’s song:

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could wake up

In the morning when the day is new

And after having spent the day together

Hold each other close the whole night through

Thing is our days together were not so great.  With the 7 or even 8 hours of sleep she gave me I felt no more rested, no more alert than I did after a night of 4 ½ or 5.  But – at least I told myself – I didn’t feel worse. Except I did. There was this funny kind of blank feeling in the center of my head. It was usually gone by afternoon. It didn’t matter, because we were married.

About a year and a half after we’d first met that blank feeling started getting blanker. I decided on a temporary separation. The Ms. got totally pissed, beat me black and blue using her nastiest weapon, the rebound effect. The devil insomnia was back with a vengeance.

I made up with the Ms. and we started sleeping together again every night.

Now around this time I started reading stuff about some odd side effects of Ambien. Sleepwalking. I shrugged – not me. Sleep eating. That sounded bizarre – some guy suddenly gaining 20 pounds, no explanation…except that stuff like whole chickens kept disappearing from his fridge.  Apparently he’d been “sleep eating,” sleepwalking down to the kitchen and pigging out with no memory of it the next morning.

Sleep driving was scary. People were getting in their cars, fast asleep, and driving in heavy traffic. Dangerous. Embarrassing, too. One woman cracked up her car, got out in the middle of a busy intersection, hiked up her skirt and peed.

These stories came out over a period of weeks. They sounded like urban legends. Except that urban legends don’t generally get reported in the New York Times. Still, those people were crazy. Not me and my honey.

My wife (never to be confused with the Ms.) and I were renting an apartment in Cambridge, Mass for a month that summer. Mornings I would walk up to the Starbucks, my exertions with the Ms. the night before invariably having me ordering a monster latte – Vento, Venty, whatever they called it. That blank spot in my head was no longer blank. It was starting to fill with disturbing thoughts. Like my usual worries and guilts, except accompanied by a new feeling. I’d remember saying something stupid– the kind of thing we all do, which is painful to recall. Except these were little things I’d said decades ago.

These thoughts made me feel not just shame, or embarrassment, but dread. The feeling that something  horrible was about to occur. When I got back with my latte and sat down to write I just couldn’t get my brain to work. Back up to Starbucks, another Vente, but no luck.

One night…

The devil lunged at me. Part clichéd dude with horns and a crimson face all screwed up in rage, grinning with a mouth full of sharp teeth. Also part upscale: an Indonesian demon crossed with a Tibetan diety. He reached for me with his claws. I pushed him away but he kept coming. I got him by the neck and started squeezing. He wasn’t gonna give it up til he was dead.

john, John, JOHN…someone yelling my name. I woke up. My wife had me by the wrists. I slurred, “Wadya doing?” She said, “You had your hands around my neck. You were strangling me. I kept saying your name but I couldn’t wake you up. “I’m sorry, so sorry, sorry….” Talk about things to be embarrassed about, to obsess about later. Would she ever forgive me? “It’s OK, you’re awake now.”  Giant blank space in my head be damned, I got the two vials of Ambien and the one with Ambien CR and flushed every pill down the toilet.

It was a rough couple of weeks mourning the breakup with Ms. Ambien. I was back to not sleeping. But that blank spot thankfully shrank up, then was gone. Better, my wife forgave me.

I always thought there was little worse than chronic insomnia, drip drip all those years, eating away at joy and sanity. There is something worse. Strangling your loving wife in your sleep. I suppose the moral is: better to go with the devil you know than the one you don’t.

I don’t watch TV anymore, but I imagine they’re still playing those ads: with the dreamy music, people with blissful smiles lying hugging the pillow, loving the Ms. At the end the obligatory warning “If you’re having any of the following symptoms -drowsiness, hallucinations, sleep-eating, sleep-driving, sleep-pissing, sleep-screwing….or sleep-strangling – consult your doctor.

Or a lawyer.


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Oh my goodness! This chronic insomniac tips her hat to the fellow who explained this plight so eloquently. I too had a love affair with Ambien, then Lunesta (which one has the glowing, luminescent, purple butterfly?) Both were co-dependent relationships that ended badly. With the latter, I couldn’t stand the bad taste in my mouth and constant state of agitation. I continually wanted to lash out at something since I couldn’t leap out of my own skin.

As for Ambien, it got to the point of throwing casting the evil master out when I booked a flight for the evening instead of morning, but didn’t notice until two days before departure. This was after I checked my itinerary three times. I had to pay an extra $100 to change the flight. I should have known something was up when as an accountant, I was having simple math errors pointed out to me. But love is blind.

Thank you for sharing. It is always reassuring that I am not the only one suffering in this way. Misery does indeed love company.

What an incredibly horrible nightmare this was for you. Worse than the insomnia. It’s staggering that it had to get as bad as it did for you to finally flush the pills. I’m glad you’re back. Steer clear of those giganta gulp Starbucks thingies.
As an example of how chronic insomnia can be such a burden, I noticed a mistake in my comment. While I did literally throw out the Ambien, I meant to write that I was just casting out that demon, not “throwing casting”. Oy, I need sleep.
“Though we were still together we ground against each other like the ends of broken bones.”

This is an amazing sentence. No blank spot there.

Congrats on resurfacing.

Excellent piece! I feel for you with your insomnia. I never had it myself, but the few times I have struggled to sleep…I can remember the frustration. Going through that every night, well.. maybe there’s something else you can try. But then I guess if you’ve been dealing with this problem for years, you’re probably well versed on alternative remedies.

Thanks for the info. I’ll pass it on if anyone I know is prescribed Ambien.

Sleep DRIVING?????
How did this stuff ever get cleared by FDA?
Wonderfully written, and pretty darn scary. I’ve had some success with trytophane, or combinations of it with valerian root and/or melatonin. I say “some” success because it gives me the 4 1/2 hours, much better than the none or 2-3 previously, and no blank spot. Sometimes, blissfully, I get 6-7.
God bless your wife, Luminous, and as for that whore you were keeping company with . . . . thank goodness you were able to quit her.

And is it not odd that I was just listening to the album “Pet Sounds” yesterday?

there’s tragedy waiting outside the fog. that you write to tell about it shows no tragedy… just blissful reality.
Yeah, buddy of mine ended up in a two day rampage on that stuff, “woke” up in a ‘rest’ home after it wondering what the hell happened — he didn’t remember putting his hands around his step son’s throat and lifting him off the floor while trying to strangle him…among numerous other things he did.


When you are going through a bout of insomnia, it does eventually feel like you’d do anything, pay anything for a good night’s sleep. But, probably, strangling your wife would be too high a price for a few hours of shut eye. I hope you bought her flowers — and not grocery store flowers!

I’ve used Ambien on occasion, but not for long term insomnia. (I’ve had a few runs of insomnia, but not in a while.) Your account does make me wonder if artificial sleep does actual brain damage if you take it long enough. I do heartily recommend a sound machine. It’s not a magic bullet, but over time your response to hearing the white noise is to relax and shut down, and it also masks any noises that might keep you on high alert.

Ambien sex is very hot right now.I take it hoping I’ll have a better time even if I don’t remember it…my husband does. When I started gaining weight, I realized that I might be sleep eating so….I cut the pills in half and diet more just in case…you may feel the pull from Ms yet.
Great cautionary tale. I think I’ll stick with the burgundy. 🙂 Maybe its time to put more reality in those commercials! I have no problem sleeping, it’s waking up that’s the problem …
Incredible story, so well told.~r
Whoa! What a tale! I have never ‘slept’ with Ambien , although I will admit to the occasional one-night stand with Mr. Melatonin. He’s always discreetly gone by morning and never leaves a note.
I’ve had insomnia off and on for 20 years. I’ve trued everything legal and illegal just to get a few hours of uninterrupted sleep. Ambien, I loved for awhile. But I had to take more because it took longer and longer to go to sleep. I am now taking a nerve pill and an Elevil for Restless Leg Syndrome. It also helps me sleep, for now. Nothing is forever, unfortunately! Great Post!
i didn’t experience insomnia until well until my 30s and then, oh then. thank you–clear-eyed and sometimes funny, always true.
Wow, I have been on ambien for years and have never had a problem. Thank God for that though, because I too am a chronic insomniac. I’m sorry you had such a bad time with it!
Oh, and Tom, it’s not just “rich people” who take Ambien. I am on Medicare and Medicaid. I make less than $600 per month. There is a generic, first of all, which makes it a lot cheaper. And the copay, if you have insurance, is very small. Your sarcasm is misplaced and unnecessary. Educate yourself before you get the urge to weild the sarcasm/envy hammer again.
Wow. I have a prescription for Ambien that I never filled…I won’t be. This was full of phrases and images that made this so much more than a tale of pharmaceuticals gone wild. It was a really fine read.
You should try Lunesta. It doesn’t have the side effect that Ambien does.
I was here earlier when you first posted this. I have been a similar zombie about sleep for years also. I was interested in your new gal, Ms. A, at first. But after hearing about her darker side, the sleep-driving in particular, I do not think we will be sharing hands across the bathtubs anytime soon. Great writing; it was very entertaining.
Take the cheap stuff, no problems after forty plus years of no sleep. It’s a miracle to me. Not all side effects bother everyone.
I too am a chronic insomniac. Luckily I’ve only tried the occasional xanax and that even scares me.
I had to go out when OS was dead this afternoon. All these brilliant comments! Sobering (tee-hee) to see I’m not the only sleep-strangler.
Tried Lunesta and Rozeram. Can’t remember which, but one gave me great sleep and a hangover from hell; the other no sleep and the same hangover.

My latest drug: Kenken. Harmless way to pass the hours, no hangover.

BTW, my dad had this problem, too.

I count sleep. One Two One Two or backwards from One hundred. Ninety nine etc. or I get up and look on my computer for a couple hours. IF I can go back to sleep even for a half hour I can function the next day. Some people cant go back to sleep and cant get thru the day. But it is anxiety. Pills only go so far. Counting only goes so far. Seems to me you have to find peace in your life somehow. Wonderful post and writing. Thanks.
Thats for the warning Luminous. I’ve had an aversion to pills since I can remember and you’ve reminded me why. Good thing I have enough other vices to keep me balanced. Speaking of which, as a chronic insomniac, my rememdy of preference is a glass, well sometimes two, of Cab Sauv or Malbec before hitting the sack. They keep the blank spots well disguised and I’ve never found myself strangling a loved one or taking a piss in the middle of the highway.
Somehow no surprise, OS insomnia. I’ve not used pills, though I’ve used wine & brandy, but there go the dreams.
These days between 2 & 6 am I call it meditation. I sleep alone, but if there were someone beside me I’d use earphones tuned to classical fm, low, still, hands by sides, relaxed, drifting in and out of all that needs to be thought about and lots of things that don’t.
The main thing is be still, and relax.
I guess I’m blissfully lucky like Kara. I have taken ambien literally for YEARS. About 7 I think. I have always been an insomniac. Oh let me rephrase. I have insomnia….however my natural sleep patterns also do not jive with the world. My sleep pattern is about 5 AM to 1 or 2 PM. This doesn’t really work in the “real world.” (I’m a teacher) So I take ambien. CR, although I think I prefer the white ones because you can take them even if you only have a few hours to sleep. I haven’t had any of those effects. I will admit that food tastes wonderful on ambien so I have to use willpower… I did initially gain weight until I realized what was going on. But that’s it. I wake up. I sleep. I can function in the world. Without them I am similar to the Tyler Durdan–never quite awake, never quite asleep. They are a miracle for me. It’s too bad they have been abused by so many and are cruel to others. I have taken they almost nightly and have never upped my dose. I am not “hooked” as I’ve read people become. I have never experienced rebound when I’ve gone without them (which I have for days and weeks from time to time)… it’s just that unless I’m exhausted beyond the brink I just flip back to my regular sleep schedule–none. I’m sorry you’ve had such a hard time…..
Well done; glad you flushed the she-devil. Nice art to accompany the piece.
I’ve been an insomniac for decades. Try to avoid drugs to deal but when I’m feeling desperate I’ll use over the counter meds to grab just a few hours. Your post has definitely made me want to stay celibate and off the affair path.
Wow. My GF used to take the stuff, and then keep me up half the night talking….while she was asleep.
I have many family members who have to deal with chronic insomnia and pills seem not to work at all. But your experience was truly a nightmare. I am glad to read it in the past tense.
Such a well written piece.
Thanks for posting this. I’ll pass the information along.
I had the experience of using ambien for awhile but my VA doc substituted lorazepam which worked for a couple years and then was not so effective and I was only sleeping 2 1/2 hrs,/night. He switched the med to another in the same class, clonazapam. I get a good 6 hours a night. I have had combat related PTSD with sleep disturbances for about 35 years. For the past 18 years I have been seeing a psychiatrist who was in combat himself before using the GI Bill for all it was a worth and becoming an MD . He has been my VA Medical Center’s go-to doctor for my generation’s wartime PTSD and now he’s a blessing for the new crop of spiritually and emotionally wounded combat veterans from the Mideast wars. Very well written post . It’s a treat to read folks who can spell, Too bad grammar and spelling are too often anathema to the comments I see posted on OS.
Great metaphor of pharma-mistress, too.
Wow. I’m married to a chronic insomniac, who has avoided drugs like the plague. Instead, we listen to Harry Potter books on CD. I know every damn one by heart, and Jim Dale is an excellent narrator. It helps to get bored and fall asleep to a fairly innocuous story told by a British actor. Good luck and lots of hugs.
Drugs like this scare the hell out of me.
A harrowing tale. Rue Morgue Avenue, for certain. I’m glad you got off of that stuff. My son took Rozeram for awhile, but has been taking Lunesta for about three years, with good results. I’ve known others who’ve been helped by Lunesta, which doesn’t seem to have the side effects that Ambien does. So glad you put the devil behind you.
Yep – been there, done that. And here I am, at early-o-clock, awake…
Great and scary post. I’m glad you were able to stop before things got any worse. And that your wife understood and forgave you. Good luck with your insomnia. I wrote to another poster the other day that I, too, have this condition from time to time. I’m seeing a therapist about generalized anxiety and she reccommended deep muscle relaxation. You can get MP3 recordings of people working you through it. The testimonials sound convincing, and it’s got to be less dangerous than medication. I’ll be starting it soon. If you’re interested, here’s the CD my therapist suggested:…;
Good luck to you. Rated.
Oh my goodness, you wrote this well! Aside from the extremely disturbing subject matter, this was a most entertaining read. A sentence from heaven: “Though we were still together we ground against each other like the ends of broken bones.” Masterful!


Wow, I tried Ambien and I thought it was great. I cut the tablets in half though.
Happy Blogging,
Excellent piece. I find a little yoga, 4 oz of plain yogurt with little honey and a CD of nature sounds are very helpful to sleep. Oh, also the purring of my kitty by my feet on the bed.
Wow! I’d heard about some of those side effects, but yours . . . damn! The “affair” analogy is apt, I think.
Great piece. For years I’ve been resisting the lure of big pharma to help me sleep for the reasons you so aptly describe.

Two glasses of red and occasional hit of weed does wonders for me when needed.

That would be scary! I have to say, my love affair with Trazadone has kept me sleeping for over three years without any noticeable effect (as long as I at least get 7 hours, which I always do). Ambien? Killed me.

I love the presentation of this piece – it is scary how I feel when I forget my medication. I hope you are on more, ahem, restful terms now. 😉

I have always insomniated also, and for medical reasons need a full 8 plus, so I must be able to regulate my sleep since work schedules vary day to day, usually P.M.’s but sometimes A.M.’s the very next day or doubles or stuff like that.
I’ve had good success with half an Ambien and 3mg. of melatonin. Works invariably but I still wake up hourly to pee. Never tried to strangle my cat while sleeping though, waking is another story entirely.
Sonata here (lovely name for the musically inclined). But my worst nightmares have occurred sleeping alone, including one where I woke up from a dream where I played the flute holding a torchiere lamp over my head and another where I was Nicolae Ceauşescu, the police came in the door to take me to the firing squad but I dove out the window and….awoke on the floor with a broken clavicle. I didn’t need any “help” for that and I think I’ll stick with meditation for the insomnia…great article.
Sometimes the magic pill isn’t so good. As a person with manic issues my cocktail is heavy duty carbs–mainlined mac and cheese–very strong chamomile tea and reading a dull book. My mom gave my dad apple cider vinegar and honey for his sleep issues–worth a try.
What a well written post. Great style and voice. An although I hated Ambien enough the first few nights to never give it another chance, I’ve had relationships with others. Sometimes the cure will kill you for sure. Thanks for a wonderful piece.

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