After I had a stroke, for obvious reasons, the doctors in the hospital gave me all of my prescriptions except for one: Ambien. Why would they need to induce sleep in a patient after brain surgery? They were doing me a favor. I hadn’t slept in 14 years. Naturally, that is. THANK YOU, Yale-New Haven Hospital.
I can blame the decade-plus sleep-crutch on my dear friend, Jo.
“Let’s go to Brussels for the weekend!” she said. A close friend of ours was eminently dying of cancer and we had to go. If we took the 7:30 p.m. flight, arrived at about 2:30 a.m. our time, plus add five hours, we’d be getting there at about 7:30 in the morning. Between the trip and the anxiety about our friend, it was going to be a quick, yet exhausting, trip for just the weekend.
Jo and I landed in Belgium and went straight to the hotel. After a quick nap, we headed over to see our friend. That night, back at the hotel, the bed was inviting enough: thick down blanket, European shams, and neck rolls. It beckoned sleep. But we were too heartbroken, and jetlagged, to sleep. I was desperately tired and tomorrow was a big day. We were going to take a stroll in the Sonian Forest, a lush forest of more than 10,000 acres in the southeast corner of Brussels. Our friend was really looking forward to it.
I tossed around and whispered to Jo that I couldn’t sleep.
She immediately got up from the bed next to me and dug around in her ditty bag. “Here, take this tonight.” Jo handed me the tiny pink pill. “You’ll sleep like a pig in a blanket.”
Funny phrase. I usually said, “Sleep like a baby,” but this sounded intriguing. I was eager to try anything and game enough to experience how it felt to sleep like a “pig in a blanket.”
I looked around our dark room. The bathroom light reflected in a gold sconce on the wall. Before I knew it, it was morning. I woke up refreshed. Adjusting to Europe time was a snap.
Once back in the States, I told my doctor that I was having trouble sleeping. Even though it was a lie, he prescribed Ambien.
It is suggested to take the pill an hour or so before bedtime. That way the body has time to ease into sleep. But I always waited until I was in a state of sheer exhaustion. I called it “Hitting the Wall.” Insomniacs know the feeling. You stay up so late that you are beyond tired and begin to have hallucinations. At that point, my heart got speedy and I felt manic. To stretch out the feeling, I waited before taking an Ambien. At that point, I was poised to take the pill.
After I took it, I could feel my limbs become limp. My eyes went to half-mast. If I was writing in my journal in bed, the effects of the drug could be seen. I was frequently complimented on my beautiful script. Here, what started off as distinctive handwriting, with flourishing g’s, became scribbled and messy. Succinct sentences no longer made sense. I was oscillating between here-and-now and Dreamland. The pen would drop out of my hand. I’d slump over. I was a drug addict.
I kept it a secret from my husband. The children had no idea, other than wonder why their mother stayed up every night into the morning. If a friend asked me to spend the night, when younger, I panicked. I knew I wouldn’t be able to fall asleep. I had to have an Ambien and tried to remember to keep one in my makeup bag in my purse.
I tried to stop many times on my own in the past. “It’s only five milligrams,” I said to myself. “The minimum dosage. Right?” Hell, I could stop anytime I wanted.
The last time I tried was about nine years ago. It was the night before my son returned to college after summer break. I didn’t cut down the dosage. (It’s only five milligrams. Remember?) That night, I would stop my addiction cold. I said “Good night,” but it wasn’t a good night. I was awake the entirety of it.
In the morning, my son saw my bleak stare. “Are you okay, Mom?” he asked.
“Sure. I was so excited about your leaving for school that I couldn’t fall asleep,” I said. He believed me.
I tried to stop several times before by cutting the pill in half. I figured if I did that for a few nights, going cold would be a cinch.
That would last maybe two nights and then I’d give in. At 1:45 a.m. (even on a school night), I was awake, waiting to take the Ambien. When I woke in the morning, I usually cleared the sleeping pill fog by the fourth wash of my face. It seemed like every day I promised myself that I would no longer stay up that late. Still, I neurotically kept track of the little oval pills left in the plastic container and diligently called in for a renewal of the prescription when I got down to seven. I couldn’t risk being out. Every attempt to stop was a flop. I was in a real spiral.
Unbeknownst to me, the night before my stroke, I would be taking my very last dosage of Ambien.
Every night now — every single night — before going to sleep, I think, “Sweet slumber.” No more drugs. I close my eyes. I’m aware that my mind wanders, often reviewing things that came up during the day. I’m aware that my thinking gets fuzzy. And then, I am aware of the sensation of “falling” asleep. I literally fall. For the first time in a long time, I go to sleep naturally. And each morning, I awake as fresh as a “pig in a blanket,” as Jo called it. I’m ready to start another best day of my life.