“Many things–such as loving, going to sleep, or behaving unaffectedly–are done worst when we try hardest to do them.”
-C. S. Lewis
Today marks one year since I’ve taken a sleeping pill, or at least a prescription one anyway. I still take melatonin and the occasional Benadryl, but no Ativan and more importantly, no Ambien. For someone like me, this is huge.
I was addicted to Ambien for over 5 years. It started right around the time I went through an awful break-up, so it immediately became an escape for me. I was was prescribed Ambien because I was diagnosed with chronic insomnia, but I still couldn’t sleep because I was treating a condition that I didn’t have. What I really had was a little-known condition called Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome. That means Ambien doesn’t affect me the same way it affects other people. I usually stayed awake for a few hours after taking it.
They say it leaves your system by morning, but the more Ambien I took, the more depressed I would feel the next day. I suppose that was partly the break-up at first, but I think it developed into genuine depression. Around 2006, I hated life so much that I would get home from work at 5 and immediately take an Ambien–with every intention of going to bed, but usually just wandering around in a stupor for hours and hours. Oh, did I mention I lived with frat boys and was drunk many of those nights, too?
There was one night where I took an Ativan, two Benadryls, a shot of Nyquil, one and a half Ambiens and a bottle of wine, and I STILL couldn’t fall asleep. Good thing, too–I probably would have never woken up.
It seems like a no-brainer to stop, but after 10 years of chronic sleep deprivation–the kind that ruins your social life, hurts your loved ones, ruins your job, puts your health at risk and basically makes life hell–you will do anything to sleep.
This isn’t some sort of 12-step entry so I’m not going to list all the embarrassing things I did while on Ambien, or use it as an excuse. But I did a lot of very dangerous and very regrettable things, from what I remember at least. I don’t think anyone, except maybe my roommates Tony and Jason, knew how serious it was.
The death of Heath Ledger was the first time I really considered how dangerous Ambien and Ativan could be. Both of those drugs were found in his apartment when he died, and I remember anxiously awaiting his toxicology results with a genuine fear for my own health. I heard about other people who died from sleeping pills and drinking, too. My cousin’s dad. My co-worker’s son. I started realizing how lucky I was that it hadn’t happened to me.
But the big kicker was last year, about four weeks after my dad died. I took an Ambien one night, sat down to watch a movie, and just started crying. Two hours later, Justin came over after one of his outdoor movie gigs, and I was still crying. I don’t know how long he held me–it’s hard to remember anything with Ambien–but I know it was longer than I wanted to cry about anything ever again.
Here’s the thing about Ambien, at least when you’re awake: it amplifies whatever you’re feeling until the emotion consumes you. It’s why it took me such a long time to get over that big break-up, and that other dumb “break-up” three years ago. I couldn’t move past them because Ambien would take that small part of me that was still sad and magnify it until it hurt the way it did when my heart first broke.
But it’s one thing to dwell over a stupid break-up and another thing to dwell over the death of your father. Because a break-up, no matter how miserable, is always tinged with hope and excitement. When you break up with someone and get lost in those emotions, there’s always an electrifying sense of change and the knowledge (even if you deny it) that you’ll eventually meet someone better. But when your dad dies, it’s final. That’s it. You don’t get a new dad.
After that night of crying, I realized how easy and scary it was to get lost in my grief, and I knew that I would never be able to process my dad’s death in a healthy way if I was still taking Ambien. So I haven’t taken it since, and of course now I can clearly see endless other reasons why I needed to quit. I’m a thousand times happier and a thousand times healthier–I am a little more sleep deprived, but if it means having a functioning liver, it’s worth the trade.