The Former Champion of Sleep

by Stephanie

I was hoping I could cure insomnia on my own, but after exhausting all of my resources, my doctor prescribed me a nightly dose of 10 milligrams of Ambien. I couldn’t help but think I’d just become a New York City cliché—in the city that never sleeps, chemical sedation was now my only option.

“Are you suuuuuure I need this,” I whine. “I’m not going to do weird things like cook in my sleep, am I?”

“Of course not,” he reassured me. “I think you’ve been watching too much TV.”

Before I take it, I read the encyclopedia of side effects that come with the prescription:

“Some patients have reported sleepwalking and sexual activity with short term memory loss.”

Apparently I should have greater concerns than sleep-cooking. I have to worry about sleep-sex now?

I performed my nightly grooming routines, tossed back the pill and waited. An empty stomach embraced the medicine rapidly. The best way to describe what I felt next was that, in 5 minutes, I felt what five shots of Tequila feel like. Swirly. Yeah, everything felt really swirly. I fell asleep with the room spinning and stayed asleep for the next seven hours. The bed indentation and perfectly situated blankets led me to believe I didn’t move the entire night. I wake up with virtually no medicine hangover. I felt human. It was the start of a beautiful friendship.

It wasn’t always like this. I used to be the champion of sleep. I would grunt and moan if anyone tried to rip me away from slumber before I was ready to leave (which was usually sometime around noon). Every November, I’d wake up just in time to see Santa Clause cruise on by at the tail end of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and I resented my mother for never being able to pry me out of bed in time for Saturday morning cartoons. It wasn’t just the length of my slumber that was impressive—it was also the depth. I have slept through several severe thunderstorms and at least one serious tornado in life. I guess most people don’t pride themselves on being good at sleep, but I believe one should never deny their true talents.

This life skill carried over from childhood well into my adolescence. Midnight was my independence hour. My creativity came alive when the moon rose, and I would toil in my room for hours after my parents went to sleep. Sometimes I’d sneak out into the living room and watch hours of VHS-recorded episodes of Saturday Night Live and take notes to put in my SNL Binder of Awesomeness (didn’t every teenager have one of those?). It didn’t matter if I went to bed at sunset or if I stayed awake until 3:00 am—mornings always felt equal parts misery and apathy. Things only got worse when I went to college and was no longer bound by the rigid structure of high school. I carefully orchestrated my class schedule to allow me enough time to make it to the university’s cafeteria minutes before shutting down breakfast. I measured my freedom in minutes of sleep.

After graduation, a corporate gig was harder to find than I had anticipated. I packed my bags and moved back home to sort out my life as a member of the boomerang generation, and that’s when everything went to shit.

After a month of unemployment and lazy days, I secured a high-profile position waiting tables at the local Olive Garden. Finally I’d found a career that enabled my night owl tendencies; maybe society had a place for me after all. I slept until at least 10:00 AM and often didn’t come home until well after midnight. If I could have made more than $70 in a single shift, I might have stayed there forever. However, the stress of my own quarter-life career failures and moving back in with my parents started to take its toll on my precious sleep. Before this, I could fall asleep minutes after my head crashed on my pillow, but I soon spent hours flopping around on my mattress searching for Mr. Sandman. It was not uncommon to find my bed inches away from my bedroom wall in the morning (a problem exacerbated by the fact my cheap bed frame was on wheels). Mostly, though, I just spent the time racking my brain on strategies that would get me back out into the real world on my own two feet again. Soup, salad and breadsticks could hardly fund a 401k. In addition to the delayed starts, I also discovered. I was waking up several times a night with a ravishing thirst. WebMD told me I had diabetes, but my doctor was unable to ascertain a diagnosis to explain my unquenchable nighttime thirst. Looking back now, it probably had something to do with my excessive Diet Coke habit.

Sleep troubles were an entirely new dilemma for me, so my mom gave me some Tylenol PM. I didn’t necessarily enjoy the grogginess of it, but it was a temporary solution. I went to work each day with a cloudy case of medicine-head. It was suddenly difficult to recall all the entrees served in the classic Tour of Italy—fettuccine alfredo, something with chicken and that pasta with the layers? After a month or so of consistent Tylenol dosing, I noticed the usual serving no longer worked. I tried increasing the dosage slightly, but my attempts to outsmart my biology were defeated. Now all I was left with was limited restless sleep AND morning grogginess. I went to the local natural food store seeking alternative methods and discovered an herbal blend of L-Tryptophan and Melatonin or a cocktail designed to trick your body into feeling like it just ate a bunch of turkey. I have no idea if there is any scientific backing to this herbal supplement, but they sweetened the deal by providing a free pair of neon yellow earplugs and a blindfold with each purchase, so I was in. The upside to this pill was that there was no residual sleepiness in the morning, and I was thrilled, until that stopped working also about two months later. After exhausting the buffet of over-the-counter drugs, a friend offered me some of her stash of Klonopin. It’s hard for me to describe my sleep during this time. Mostly because I don’t remember any of it. . In a last ditch effort; I made an appointment with an energy therapist. For 90 minutes, this woman waved her arms strategically over my fully clothed body in an effort to realign my chakras. I couldn’t fall asleep until 4:00 am that night. Sixty dollars wasted on a touch-less massage.

I really missed sleep. I mean good, dead-to-the-world, uninterrupted glorious sleep. I missed flying in my dreams. Life had inexplicably robbed me of a precious gift, and I was desperate to get it back. Instead I did the next best thing: I moved myself across the country to NYC, a city that romanticizes insomnia with its tagline. This is where I met Ambien.

The first few weeks on Ambien were perfectly delightful, but I started to notice a few nights where I stayed awake during the “drunken” phase. I also observed that the initial jolt to my system makes me a little anxious. I don’t necessarily love the drunk feeling, but I do adore the gentle sleepiness that occurs about a half-hour after the medicine kicks in. Also, that sleep-cooking thing? Totally real. Usually I stick to quick snack foods, but there has been the occasional bacon craving. Luckily, I’ve succeeded in not burning my apartment to the ground. In addition to monstrous cravings, I have also sent loopy messages to men on OkCupid (“Hey you, sir, in that blurry shirtless photo at the gym, how about this online dating thing, am I right?”), blogged incoherently (I shall title this post “53 Reasons Why I Love My Cat) and purchased several miscellaneous household products off of (one never knows when they might need a vegetable spiralizer). I remembered very little of this until I checked my email the next day, or until that box of weight-loss supplements arrived in the mail.

After a few too many online purchases outside of my budget (ahem, I’m looking at you, spare futon from Target), I decided to start quizzing myself each morning to ensure that I remember every waking moment of the previous evening. During one of my morning memory exercises, I found an ice cream cone wrapper and I managed to piece together the memories from the night before: around midnight, clad in my snowflake pajamas, I trekked down the street to the local 24-hour Dunkin Donuts/Baskin Robbins and ordered a double scoop of Pistachio and Mint-Chocolate Chip. I might have also eaten a Boston Cream Pie donut. The details are fuzzy. Later I had to explain to my friends that I ate all of their pickles and croutons while house-sitting, but at least I was finally sleeping.

There are many days where I wish I could sleep well and unassisted, but as I mentioned in my last post, the fact I can now sleep in a bed again is a huge victory in itself. If I’m truly honest here, I think what really bothers me is that there is this silly little thing in my life I can’t seem to fix on my own, but that won’t keep me from trying. Currently, I’m working with a personal trainer to get my health in order and setting up appointments with sleep specialists. Maybe, though, this tiny little tablet serves as a reminder for me that I can’t do everything on my own, and that’s okay.


*I promise this blog is not sponsored by Pfizer

**Please resist the urge to offer up tips for better sleep. Trust me, I know them all. I’m just sharing stories here 🙂