My Affair With Ms. Ambien
My Affair with Ms. Ambien
“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.
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.
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.