Ambien Helped Me Get Sober—Or Did It?

By Paul Fuhr 06/12/17

The little tablet gave me a deep calm, a sense of twilight and then a swift shutdown—the perfect replacement for alcohol. But several unconscious Facebook conversations and Amazon purchases later...

Somnambulist sleepwalker in pajamas and a night cap with hands forward walking on the roof on a background of the night sky with the moon.
Having to piece together what unconscious me did last night... sound familiar?

The packages started to arrive with alarming regularity. Without warning, one by one, Amazon boxes were showing up on my doorstep. Two or three times a week, boxes were waiting for me. At first, I sort of ignored them, guessing my wife had ordered a coffee table book or scented oils or maybe some surprise toy for the kids. Nope. They were each addressed to me. One was a rare Radiohead vinyl import from Germany. Another was a James Bond lithograph I’d wanted for years but never pulled the trigger on. A smaller box collected three hardcover books I’d been after. Not long after, I received text messages from people thanking me for things I’d purchased for them. It was as if someone was masquerading as a crazy-thoughtful version of me and yet, I remembered none of it. 

That’s when it dawned on me: Ambien. Little, innocuous, simple, peach-tablet Ambien. 

When I’d first gotten sober, my anxiety was so bad that it seemed to bleed from the walls. I’d been drinking for two straight decades, so I couldn’t be alone with myself for more than a few seconds before the panic would start to rise, threatening to geyser out. I’d pace, bouncing from room to room. I’d try going for walks around the block; I tried Beachbody videos; I downloaded meditation apps and did breathing exercises. Nothing worked. The fear was still there: sometimes sharp and pronounced; other times dull and persistent. I couldn’t sleep—nothing solid or long-lasting, anyway. I couldn’t even call my doctor to ask for help; I was too afraid to tell him what I was going through. So I did what all garden-variety alcoholics did: I hid from my problem. I made my wife call the doctor’s office and explain the situation. Before I knew it, I had an Ambien prescription. 

I’m not going to lie: I loved it. I felt invincible. You’re probably not supposed to take Ambien as long as I did, but I clung to those tablets like gold. When the end of my 30-day prescription came up, I was right on top of the next one. I didn’t miss a day. The drug worked in several stages with me: a deep calm, followed by a dim sense of twilight and then a straight, swift shutdown. In other words, it was the perfect replacement for alcohol. Truth be told, it did everything alcohol had done for me, but in pill form. I’d swallow the pill, check out, and drift off to wherever the drug took me. And that’s what explained the string of Amazon purchases, Facebook conversations, and missing food from our kitchen cabinets I didn’t recall. I’d just swapped one addiction for another. And I’m not the sort of person who swaps alcoholism for, say, jogging. Those people fascinate me in the same way that I’m blown away by people who believe in yetis and sasquatches. Goddammit, they’re going out into the woods with a camera, convinced. 

If I’m actually worried about something, you’ll find it in my Google search history. That’s how you know it’s real. You’ll see things like: “Can you die from a panic attack?” and “Why do people hate Anne Hathaway so much?” Nowhere in my search history is “Ambien addiction.” It never occurred to me that the mental brownouts and midnight amnesia were Actual Problems. I’d wake up the next morning, none the wiser to what had happened just hours before. So the Amazon boxes became testaments to a brand-new addiction I didn’t want to admit to. I did my best to shrug them off as intentional purchases rather than impulse buys, but it really terrified me. I wasn’t scared of Ambien so much as being at the mercy of yet another substance. More than that, I was worried that I’d have to reset my sobriety date. I’d fought hard for my sober time, dammit. I lived for all of those multi-colored chips I received in my AA meetings: the yellows, golds, purples and greens marking each passing month, ushered with applause. My sober clock app was into the thousands of day. But suddenly, it occurred to me that maybe the Ambien was helping me cheat my way to that time. 

At best, Ambien was a safety net; at worst, it was doing the exact same thing to my insides that alcohol had: I was relying on something to pump the brakes on my brain. In fact, I hadn’t known what a good, natural night’s sleep was for two decades. Most of my nights were steeped in some kind of alcohol—be it a whole bottle of wine or just a bottle of Miller Light. Either way, my circadian rhythms were probably all screwed up thanks to the alcohol, which kept my brain waves guessing. For me, sobriety isn’t about not drinking. That part I have locked down. I know how to look at an Instagrammed martini or the craft-beer section at Kroger without flying into a blind “Why can’t I drink?” rage. It’s also not even about not being miserable. My life is pretty rich and fulfilling. No, sobriety for me is just about being present and in the moment, which I’d never been before. 

As an alcoholic, I’d always been tethered outside the space station, drifting and occasionally tapping on the windows. I wasn’t interested in being inside and becoming a responsible person. Ambien robbed me of things in all the same ways I allowed alcohol to thieve my time and memories. It reduced me to Autopilot as much as it guaranteed that no one could wake me up if a zombie uprising (or midnight diaper change) was happening. I trusted it to take me somewhere I wasn’t willing to go myself. I don’t like working for things and I certainly don’t enjoy following the rules. All the bedtime rituals you’re supposed to follow: a glass of water, soft music, a paperback, avoiding the blue light of an iPhone? No way in hell. I needed a shortcut. After all, as a recovering alcoholic, I felt like I deserved one. I’d been through hell already. Unfortunately, my entire life was already nothing more than a series of sad shortcuts and Ambien was just another in a long list of those. I remember finally letting my prescription lapse and having that hangover wash over me: the crushing sadness and electric despair reminding me of my very worst alcoholic mornings. I don’t feel like I need to reset my sobriety date, but I’m humbled that addiction is constantly trying to seep into my life like coffee stains on a napkin. With Ambien behind me, I’m no longer sleeping my way through recovery. Still, I’m mindful that unwanted Amazon boxes and aimless Facebook conversations are always lurking just around the corner.

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