I didn’t mean to become a junkie. It just kind of happened. My addiction to the prescription drug Ambien occurred back in 2001. There I was, in my late 20s, happily traveling to a lot of cool domestic and international locations thanks to my job as an editor at a travel magazine. But I’d planned to cut back on my usual 10-day-a-month work jaunts just for the summer, so I could do some serious hanging out at a pretty house I’d rented with a few other friends in New York’s Hudson Valley. It was going to rule: Long weekends, bike rides, nightly barbecues, cold beers, fireflies, picnics on the grounds of historic mansions, inordinate amounts of time logged at local swimming holes, and plenty of nights of good sleep in our sprawling, 19th-century caretaker’s cottage on a beautiful old estate outside a tiny town. Or so I thought.
I had been in a serious, yet irritatingly on-again/off-again relationship for a while, and at the start of that summer he and I happened to be off-again. (Or was it on-again?) This never-ending relationship melodrama, combined with all the stresses brought on by traveling way too much (though grateful for both the opportunity and the relatively cushy dream job) and not seeing your friends with any regularity, had led me to visit my GP — let’s call her Dr. Zzzz — for a checkup early that spring. I told her that I was a travel editor who wasn’t home for half of each month because of work. I said I was a somewhat nervous flier (raised Catholic, so always assume plane will crash), and needed help calming down and sleeping on those long trans-Atlantic flights — especially because I needed to be ready to work as soon as I landed. All of which was true. So she wrote me out a script for the sleep aid Ambien (a.k.a. Zolpidem), and told me that it wasn’t habit-forming. Super. I left and caught a flight for my next work trip, that prized orange pharmacy bottle safely stored in my carry-on.
I wasn’t worried one bit. Even if Ambien were addictive, I’d never had a particularly addictive personality. Did I like to drink? Hell, yes (and often alone), but I’m not a drunk. (I know, I know…that’s what every alcoholic says, but I swear, I’m not. Really. And yes, I know alcoholics say that, too.) Sure, I’ve experimented with many illegal drugs over the years, but none that particularly rocked my world so much that I couldn’t stop doing them whenever I pleased. I do have a nostalgic soft spot for processed junk food, but I’m not an emotional eater and I’m not overweight. (Well, I guess I am now, but that’s because I’m currently 26 weeks pregnant.) However, I’m a good, over-medicated American: Because society and the pharmaceutical industry have told me to, I’ve taken a lot of prescription meds throughout my life that I may or may not have actually needed (for bladder infections, yeast infections, mono, strep throat, the flu, ear infections, and the like), but never ones whose sole purpose was to completely zonk me out for a minimum of eight hours straight. But these miracle sedation pills were somehow different: They had been given to me by a board-certified doctor. And I really, really needed them. “These should last you a long time,” Dr. Zzzz predicted. Everything was fine. This was going to be good.
I dutifully took my 10 mg of Ambien before every plane took off. Turned out, this worked so well that I thought I’d take the bottle with me upstate, just for those nights when I went up to the house earlier than my friends, or stayed a day or two after they’d gone back to the city. After all, this was the country, and everyone knows that bad things happen in the country. It was eerily quiet at night. We had tornado cellar doors outside that wouldn’t lock and led directly into the basement. Things creaked. Wild animals were prowling around, but I was certain they were serial killers of the human variety. There was an old graveyard next door. But, damn, you wouldn’t believe how much less scary our haunted rental house became after swallowing just one little pill.
Soon I was back in Dr. Zzzz’s office. Like a strung-out junkie jonesing for a fix, I told Dr. Zzzz that — oops, silly me — I had accidentally dropped my half-full bottle of Ambien in the toilet of my hotel during one of my extended work trips. (Which was a lie. I had taken the rest of the bottle’s contents while upstate.) So could I have some more magic sleep potion that’s conveniently covered by insurance, please? Apparently, Dr. Zzzz bought my story (did I mention that I also used to act professionally?), because she called in a refill. I was proud of my performance, but at the time didn’t realize that “I dropped my pills in the toilet by mistake” was probably the #1 fabricated excuse of someone who was becoming addicted to prescription meds. (Not only was I a prescription drug addict, I was now a liar.)
Back upstate and mentally exhausted after agreeing to be on-again with my boyfriend (or maybe it was it off-again), I decided that if 10 mg of Ambien every night was good, then 20 mg were better. The truth was that I felt like I was becoming immune to the 10 mg (i.e. not falling asleep fast enough), and needed to kick this party up a notch. (And yes, by this time I was taking the stuff every night like clockwork, often accompanied by an evening’s worth of alcohol. And I was seriously groggy for most of every morning.) At this rate, I’d be crawling back to my dealer in less than two weeks. Which is exactly what happened. Turns out, there are terms for this kind of thing: Drug tolerance and drug dependency.
I called Dr. Zzzz, but this time she turned on me, like a drug dealer does when you don’t feel like paying them for services rendered. “How can you possibly need more Ambien? You took all of them? Already?” she asked, sounding shocked. “Yes,” I replied. “But only because 10 mg weren’t doing it for me. I felt like I needed more. And what’s the big deal, anyway? You told me Ambien wasn’t habit-forming,” I added smugly. “WHAAAT???” Dr. Zzzz squawked into the phone. “No, no, no! I said it WAS habit-forming!!!”
Somehow I guess I must’ve missed that part.
Needless to say, my supply chain was cut off immediately. Which is a good thing, because this medical newsflash had actually scared the crap out of me. Good God: I had actually become addicted to Ambien, a prescription medication! And it had happened really, really fast. To me, Ambien had seemed so harmless and helpful, like chamomile tea or warm milk or Unisom. To this day, I swear I heard Dr. Zzzz say that Ambien wasn’t addictive. But then again, maybe I had just heard what I wanted to hear.
Luckily for me, I didn’t find another doctor or go looking for my fix elsewhere. Yes, I still wanted to sleep well, but I wanted not to become an addict more. I didn’t see a therapist about this whole incident (and oddly, Dr. Zzzz never suggested it), but I probably should have. Instead, I chose to go upstate for my mini-withdrawal period. Every night, I loosely and lamely barricaded my bedroom door with a chair, and, listening to the sounds of the walking dead, replayed conversations with on-again/off-again boyfriend, and mass murderers on the loose, I finally, finally fell asleep.