Before I Knew It, I Was Addicted to Sleeping Pills

I’m about to tell you a story that you may or may not have heard before. Actually, come to think of it, “mom to two young children becomes addicted to sleeping pills ” is not the kind of thing most women care to share with strangers online. Nor is it the kind of tale you want to blurt out at a dinner party. These things tend to stay hidden: in the suburbs, in the doctors’ waiting rooms, inside one’s bedside drawer.

The good news is that this story takes place in the past. That’s right: I used to be addicted to Ambien — but I haven’t been for years. In 2013 the National Survey on Drug Use and Health estimated that more than 250,000 people were abusing Ambien and other sedative-hypnotics. My story is alarmingly common, although since that time doctors and drug companies have stopped offering free samples like jellybeans. Today, thanks to research about the addictive qualities and adverse effects (including eating, having sex and even driving while sound asleep) of non-benzodiazepine “z-drugs” like Ambien and Lunesta, there’s increasing caution about prescribing these meds.

I swallowed my first dose of Ambien in 2001 courtesy of leftover prescription pills my grandmother took when she was dying of lung cancer. On an overnight trans-Pacific flight, I ate dinner, watched a movie and then washed down 10 milligrams of Ambien. I fluffed my neck pillow, secured my earplugs and woke up seven hours later in time for breakfast in the Southern Hemisphere.

Best. Flight. Ever.

From that point on, I used Ambien strictly for long-distance travel. But a few years later, there I was with a two-year-old and a newborn. My once-reliable sleeping patterns had become a distant memory, shoved rudely out of the way by the adrenaline-fueled, high-alert physical and mental state that motherhood demands. Despite my utter exhaustion, bedtime found me wired and wide-awake. When I mentioned this to my doctor, she promptly wrote me a prescription for Ambien. I could take a pill and breastfeed my baby with no risk, she assured me.

I believed her. That night, I finished nursing, settled my boy into his co-sleeper and then snuggled down for some Ambien-induced sleep. My husband took the middle of the night feeding, and I got my first solid ZZZs in months. The next day I felt alert and energized. I loaded up the double stroller, pushed swings at the playground for hours and whipped up a fresh batch of pureed peas to boot.

I figured if I could count of getting a full night of sleep on a regular basis — say, every Saturday night — I could muscle through the other sleepless nights. For a while, my once-a-week sleep treat worked. Then, unexpectedly, we moved. In a crazy, three-week period, we bought one house, sold another and relocated to a new city where we knew almost no one. My husband’s commute to work changed direction, but his place in the world remained familiar and constant. In contrast, I was alone in a strange city with a toddler and a baby. I was stressed and overwhelmed. My insomnia kicked into high gear.

This time, my doctor recommended Ambien nightly. I started taking 5 mg before bed. A few minutes later, the words on the page of my book would start to move like bees in a swarm, and I’d be out. Over time, however, I started feeling edgy and anxious around bedtime, and I began needing just a smidge more Ambien to drift into dreamland. I became expert at shaving small but significant slices off each tiny pill. Five milligrams crept up to 6, then 7, then to an easy-to-cut 7.5 serving.
Nearly a year into this routine, I considered ditching the drug, but my doctor dismissed my concerns. “You’re a busy mom,” she told me. “Just take the pill.”

Reluctantly, I continued. But when a whole pill now left me agitated (and, more to the point, awake) in the middle of the night, I knew something had to change. A psychologist friend who happened to be a sleep expert said I needed to follow a strict, careful weaning process — and definitely not the cold-turkey approach I’d been considering. For every year of use, I should plan to spend one month slowly and steadily reducing the amount of Ambien I took until I’d scaled down to none. It wouldn’t be easy, she warned me. Essentially, my brain had forgotten how to put itself to sleep.

I was determined — no, I was desperate — to help it remember.

Want to know what it was like to kick my yearlong Ambien habit? I kept a diary during that time. Here are a few excerpts from the last couple weeks of my month in hell.

May 16
Another brutal night without sleep. I just can’t stop my mind racing, my stomach tightening. I’m so busy and anxious when I get into bed. Just can’t SLIP into sleep — I feel like hell. I was crying at 3:30 a.m. This is crazy-making. I just want to know, is this really the dark before the light? I wish I knew if that was accurate or bullshit. But I’m being patient. Trying NOT to go back to Ambien. Will continue another few nights like this, I guess. Calm down. Calm down. Music. Yoga. Breathing. I’m trying so hard. Will keep it up.

May 18
Last night, no Ambien for the first time in a year. My last two weeks of sleep have been awful: Eight hours a night chasing sleep, without success. But: This is the dark before the light. I can’t wait to wake up and feel refreshed, energized and happy! Maybe tonight! I’m ready! Excited! You can see the POSITIVE FOCUS I am maintaining, right!?!?!?!?

May 19
Night #2 without Ambien. Slept really well from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. Awake, struggled for a while, but I did fall back to sleep. Just a little bit more sleep makes the day so much brighter! I can’t wait for the day/night when this is behind me … Oh, I hope it happens.

One year later
My sleep: Normal. Good. Sometimes great. But most of all, NORMAL. It feels truly revolutionary to me that I can go to sleep, stay asleep, go back to sleep if I wake up. This is AMAZING. Thank God I stuck it out through the last month of kicking Ambien — it was truly the dark before the light. Those days of stumbling around feeling muddled and zombie-like, grasping for words, nodding off while reading to my kids and barely able to carry on a conversation were awful. Today, my sleep still can be unreliable and unpredictable, which I guess for me is “normal.” Yet no matter how many disrupted nights I have, I decided a long time ago I’d never again rely on Ambien, or anything similar, to fall asleep.

Because here’s one thing I’ll never forget from that dreadful year of addiction. You know what follows a night of utter darkness? Sunrise. And then, always, comes the light.

Words, Willow Older. Illustration, Louisiana Mei Gelpi.