We were cleaning up the kitchen after dinner last night, when remembering it was Marti Gras, my husband asked me what I was going to give up for Lent, thinking my answer would involve food, probably Corn Dippers, Trader Joe's organic take on Fritos, my post-midnight go-to.
But a moment later, the answer that shot boldly from my mouth surprised us both: Ambien.
Those of you who can turn your brains off at bedtime, you blessed folk who can climb under the covers and doze into dreamland within minutes, will not know what Ambien is, except to have heard crazy stories about people who drive to destinations unawares, or conduct online shopping sprees, or refrigerator raids under the influence of this sleep aid.
Those of you, like me, who have struggled with insomnia, as I have since at least the age of seven, will know that Ambien is guaranteed uninterrupted sleep (5 hours of sleep with 2.5 mgs for me).
As far back as I can remember, when I lay down at night, my mind lights up. All that I have experienced in the bright noisy hours of day parade past for review: things I should have said or done and didn't, couldn't. The comeback to a criticism finally formulates. Future events line up for speculation: courses and classes and vacations a year or two or ten away.
Anxiety's long shadows sweep into view as humdrum house sounds become ominous, car doors slammed in the street become burglars at my windows. Thoughts of death intrude: my parents', my husband's, my children's, and how I would survive without them.
Plots of books and movies that filled my head before bed play an endless, revising loop.
Insomnia has its very few benefits. As a child, I never fell asleep at slumber parties, and so was the prankster (freezing bras and drawing toothpaste mustaches on friends) rather than the pranked upon. In high school, I worked until ten or eleven at night and still had energy for homework afterward. In college, I waitressed graveyard shifts on weekends, and pulling an all-nighter to study was only difficult after four a.m.
But mostly, my insomnia has been like the pile of medieval weapons stuffed under Princess Winifred’s mattress (in Once Upon a Mattress): painful, impossible to ignore, leaving me groggy and grumpy and accident prone.
I often sneaked out of bed as a child and sat in the hallway while my mother sewed, listening to the TV. Eventually she would escort me back to bed, where I would toss and turn for hours.
As a teen and well into adulthood, I would read in bed, but unlike others, who fell asleep in minutes, I would still be turning pages at 3 a.m.
I come home from an evening class or workshop imagination sparked and wound up for hours.
The first weeks after my wedding my husband's breathing kept me awake nearly all night. When fall classes began a month later, I found earplugs at the bookstore checkout counter, and have worn them every night since.
When my children were infants and woke to nurse throughout the night, I often didn't sleep until morning.
Later there were nights we shared a hotel room, and the drone of the air conditioner, it's blast across my face, the shuffling sheets and puffing breaths as my husband and children slept drove me to tears. I closed myself in the bathroom, lamenting in my journal.
I'm naturally a night owl and the world I've inhabited is designed for early birds. I have gone to work and meetings and medical appointments and airports many mornings wrapped in gauzy dullness with a throbbing headache from inadequate sleep. I have been cranky and snappy and ruined other people's days, as well as my own.
By the time I hit my late forties and had unsuccessfully run through myriad over-the-counter and herbal sleep remedies, I began to wake from my already fitful sleep drenched, thinking my mattress was ablaze. The beginnings of menopause. It was more than I could take. I needed sleep; I wanted sleep. My doctor prescribed Ambien.
The first night, I took a full 10 mg and was amazed that I slept an entire eight hours without waking once. It felt miraculous.
Ambien was a godsend those next few years when I travelled to earlier time zones in Nashville and San Antonio for church programs, to Santa Fe for my grad school residencies. It allowed me to participate in the day's programming (although I never did make it out for breakfast), to sleep in unfamiliar surroundings, to artificially unplug my over-stimulated mind because I couldn't do it myself.
In the years since, I’ve cut down drastically on dose and frequency, as I’ve begun to experiences side effects: headaches, nightmares, and depression in the following days. Now the sleep is no longer uninterrupted.
If I’m going to bounce out bed multiple times to write to-do lists, or finish an editing project, if I’m going to rotate like a rotisserie chicken all night, tossing covers off and pulling them back on, if I’m going to barely dip into unconsciousness, and be off-kilter the next day, I might as well do it naturally.
So this Lent I will give up Ambien and give in fully to my nocturnal nature. I will listen to my insomnia when I’m under the covers and let my mind meander through thoughts dark and light until its exhausted.
I will try to be patient with myself in the wide-awake dark as well as the dim daylight. And, hopefully, I will learn what being sleepless near Seattle has to teach me.