Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Topic of the Week: Insomnia-- Ambien Be the Death of Me

I almost gave up on sleep around six am to write this. Last night was one of those rare nights (which are getting more common thanks to the acupuncture and Chinese medicine) where I fell asleep like a normal human being. But then I woke up at 5 am to pee and my mind started going. I wasn't even worrying about things, just having random thoughts. That's usually how it goes. I didn't fall back to sleep until Scott's alarm was going off at 7. Slept a couple hours and now here I am, tired as usual.

But despite this, I will not go back to using Ambien or any sleep medication on a regular basis. If I absolutely have to get a full night's sleep and be totally functional early in the morning (ie, if I have an event to attend or a deadline to meet), then I will take a pill. Otherwise, no more. I think after you read this, you'll understand why.

As I mentioned the first time I took Ambien, I was 18, on winter break from college. My friend Tai had been prescribed some. She spent the night and asked me if I wanted to try it. She told me she got a good night's sleep and also had some funny hallucinations if she resisted the urge to go to sleep for a little while. I'm not gonna lie, I was 18, I was all about experimenting substances, so I thought it sounded like an adventure.

When Tai and I woke up the morning after a very restful Ambien-induced sleep we both remembered vaguely something about an obsession with a Devo CD and making nests for little people. We sat up, glanced around the room and saw that indeed, we'd raided my laundry hamper and made nest-like shapes out of t-shirts and pants. And the Devo CD was sitting out. (The one time I did acid, I also became obsessed with the Devo CD, I really don't know what the deal is.. something about the cover, pictured above?) We laughed, totally amused that we'd sleep-nest-built. I'm sure the people on Ambien who sleep-eat and sleep-drive aren't nearly as amused by those sorts of side effects, but when you are 18 and just doing goofy shit, it's funny.

More importantly, I hadn't slept so soundly since I was a little kid. I immediately called my doctor and asked for an Ambien prescription, which she eagerly gave to me. Yesterday, I documented the way every doctor I dealt with until my current physician, felt that I could take Ambien forever without any problems. Maybe those commercials with the cute little puppies waking up on them say only take for a couple weeks at the time, but apparently that is not what the drug company is telling the physicians. Ambien was always made out to me to be completely safe, non-habit-forming, no side effects.

The only side effects I had were the occasional hallucination when I resisted the urge to go to sleep. Unlike so many people have reported, I always remembered what I did while on Ambien. My ex boyfriend and I watched dogs row boats across our ceiling and had the oddest of conversations. Like I said I was young and thought that kind of thing was fun, so I was sad when my tolerance for Ambien went up and I no longer had hallucinations/nonsensical conversations before bed.

I was also a heavy drinker at the time and I've gotta say that I'm lucky that Ambien was not the old sleeping meds of yore because no doubt I'd be dead from getting drunk and taking Ambien. Sometimes I do wonder how I lived through it. But it was my solution for when the Ambien stopped working as well-- it still worked great if I was plastered. There was only one time that I had a serious problem with drug/alcohol/drug interactions.

If you read IWBYJR, you may remember a scene where Emily does coke, drinks wine and takes some pills to come down, then she has a wild hallucination about tiny people in space helmets stacking furniture on her chest and she feels like she is going to suffocate? Yeah, that was actually one of my real life Ambien hallucinations. I didn't do coke, I did a form of speed that they use to treat ADD. Some college friends had told me if you took it, you could get really drunk without puking. I thought that was a great idea (god, I was so stupid), so I did it, but then realized it prevented me from passing out at the end of the night, which was one of the things I liked best about drinking (booze was all about self-medicating for me back then). So I took a couple Ambien.... Like I said, I'm surprised I'm still here. Those space people almost suffocated me to death.

Another part in IWBYJR that came from real life a little bit, is there is a character toward the end of the book, Finn Leahy, who was in a terrible accident and is addicted to pain meds as a result. He tries to resist taking the pain meds every night, but eventually is heard, rolling over, pouring pills from the plastic bottle into his hand.

That came straight from my experience as well, except it wasn't pain meds, it was Ambien. I spent the first three years I was on Ambien, thinking it was this miracle drug. Then there was a year where I was mixed about taking it. Then I spent the last six years trying to quit taking it. I cribbed a line from the Velvet Underground's song Heroin ("Heroin be the death of me...") on purpose because kicking Ambien was like kicking heroin for me.

I have an addictive personality, no doubt. Nowadays my internet addiction is really the worst of it, but between 14 and 21, I went through phases with different drugs and alcohol, though oddly, I would do them a lot and then just stop. I also quit smoking with relative ease (though when I picked it up again for a couple weeks after my friend died last summer that was probably tougher than when I quit after smoking for six years). Cutting on the other hand.... cutting was damn hard to quit and Ambien was the worst of all.

The thing that was most frustrating about Ambien was that virtually every doctor I saw swore to me that it was non-habit-forming and that I could just stop whenever I wanted. The sleep study told me, "There will be a little kickback."

I said, "You mean, withdrawal."

He said, "No a little kickback. Your sleep might be rough for a couple days while your body adjusts."

No, asshole, trust me, you mean W-I-T-H-D-R-A-W-A-L.

For years I would try something that would really get my sleep better and I'd lower the dose of the Ambien. I did this with hypnosis, with another kind of medication, with meditation. But ultimately on those nights I tried to go without Ambien completely, I'd have a Finn Leahy moment. Around 3 or 4 in the morning, I'd roll onto my side with a sigh, try to quietly shake pills out of bottle, and try not to hate myself as I swallowed them.

As I mentioned yesterday, when I decided to try acupuncture, I knew I'd have to go off of Ambien cold turkey.

Scott and I had been watching Celebrity Rehab around the time we did it, which I shouldn't have done because as I lay in bed awake all I could think about was the D-List celebs sweating through heroin and alcohol detox, not sleeping much like me. I'd turn and look at my clock and whimper louder each time an hour passed. 3 am, 4 am, 5 am, 6 am. I'd wake Scott up, sobbing, "I have to get up for work in an hour, how am I gonna do this? I feel like a junkie. I feel like a fucking junkie!"

The week that I kicked Ambien, I literally slept about 2 to 3 hours TOTAL. Not each night. Total, that whole week. Fuck you, doctor douche who called this "a little kickback." I always thought it was some cover story when Eminem went to rehab "for Ambien addiction" but I see now that it was totally plausible.

After my week of no sleep, my body finally crashed. Then the acupuncture started to work.

Until June 26th, 2008, I got the worst news I've ever received in my life. My friend Marcel was killed in a motorcycle accident. A lot of people sleep when they are depressed. Not me. I lay there, feeling completely empty, like life is so devoid of meaning. I drift off for an hour or two then I would wake up, feeling like my heart had been ripped out of my chest. Sobbing, sobbing, sobbing. Ambien was the only way I could rest. I knew this. And I had my first book coming out and I had to somehow be functional and pretend to be happy in spite of the grief. So yeah, Ambien, cigarettes. I was in a bad bad place.

I stayed on Ambien for about a month and a half. When I came home from tour, I knew it was time to kick again. It only took a couple days this time. Maybe because I'd used Ambien the way it was intended, for a short period of time. But still there was withdrawal. To say it is non-habit-forming if you only use it for a few weeks is a lie. And I still haven't gotten back to the place where I was thanks to acupuncture before Marcel's death. Hopefully it's coming though. And even if it's not. No more Ambien. No more drugs.

I'm not gonna tell people what to do when it comes to insomnia but I am going to advise you VERY STRONGLY not to rely on medication of any kind, particularly Ambien. But seriously, the other are just as bad. They are hell on your body (especially any kind of painkiller PM, taking unneccessary painkiller is so so so bad for you) and they are habit-forming, physically and especially psychologically. I suggest trying herbal and homeopathic stuff if you don't have money for the alternative treatments I'm going to be detailing Thursday and Friday of this week. Also a glass of red wine (like one glass, not like half a box of Franzia like I did in college) doesn't seem bad to me.... But yeah, I don't know. I wish had more solutions.


Keri Mikulski said...

So sorry, Stephanie. Sounds horrible. 2 - 3 hours total in a week? Yikes.

I went through a huge bout of insomnia in my early twenties.. It's horrible when you can't sleep. First, I tried different remedies, but after a while nothing work. Then, I found yoga and it really, really helped. Yoga taught me to relax and become in tune with my body. I'm sure very similar to accupunture. That reminds me, I need to start practicing yoga again.

Thanks for sharing your story.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I became completely addicted to ambien and actually went to detox/rehab to try and overcome it. It's amazing doctor's tell you it's fine and hand it out like candy. It does cause terrible wthdrawal etc. Just wanted to let you know I feel your pain. It almost ruined my life and it is a very serious drug. Good luck

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Alpine Laser said...

Wow, I'm really glad to have found your story. I have been taking at least half an ambien a night for the last year and a half. I have been struggling with single motherhood, love (more importantly no love), trying to be perfect (whatever that means), and turning 40. I also can't go home, my family is very fractured. I just saw my older brother today, he's 53 I think, for the first time in 4 years. It was horrible, he wasn't interested in me at all, he looked like a ghost of the vibrant person I always counted on him to be. This deeply saddens me as I am considering leaving my child, who's 7, behind so I can go chase after a younger man who fed me ecstasy three weeks ago....I think this has also had an affect on where I find myself right now. How depressing, I never thought that my life would come to this. I am the society party girl, the one who would have dinner at the club with the parents, and then slip out the back door to smoke pot with the boys....At this point I don't even remember any of their names. Like I said before, my home is gone, no one lives where I grew up anymore. I'm friends with some highschool people on Facebook, but that's it. I went away to college and never looked back really, I'm sad about that. I'm rambling now......Last night was the first night in 1.5 years that I had no ambien. I am visiting my mother, this is not my home, not my city, not my coast. I have to have a drink now, and a cigarette, though I don't have any of the latter on me. I want to write, but think that my story isn't actually all that interesting yet. Especially because I can't remember half of it because of all the drugs I did in college. Wow, good luck to everyone out there that has made bad choices and is suffering the consequences now. I wish us all the best.

augustinas said...

Warning - I have been taking ambien occasionally for a couple of years now and had no real side effects. But you do need to definitely heed the warnings and go directly to bed. I took two and stayed up a while longer picking up around the house. That is the last thing I remember for the next 30 hours. I hadn't put the bottle away and they tell me that I must have taken several more without knowing it. I had to be hospitalized for 2 days.

Ramesh said...

I have tried several other prescribed sleep medications which didn't work and dr prescriped this. After 2 hours am still awake. When I finally do fall asleep, I wake up after 2 or 3 hours of sleep. I find ambien very ineffective. Have not found it to cause hallucinations or bad dreams, just didn't work very well.