Sleeping Pills in Sobriety Continue to Save My Sanity

By Tracy Chabala 08/11/17

It’s clear that my first sponsor made a dangerous assertion and a dangerous recommendation to someone with bipolar disorder.

woman sleeping in bed

“Sober people don’t take sleeping pills,” my first AA sponsor told me over the phone back in 2007. At the time, I was taking Lunesta, a sleeping pill, under my psychiatrist’s care to keep my bipolar moods stabilized. Maintaining baseline mood was especially critical given I had just been discharged from a psych unit a few weeks earlier.

“But my doctor prescribed it,” I said, confused. “It helps me stay stable.” I had just begun attending AA meetings, a journey that began during my hospitalization at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. (It was in their psych unit that I was forcefully introduced to the program in the form of AA panels.)

“It’s really important that I sleep because I have bipolar disorder,” I continued. “I feel really crazy when I don’t get it and can’t function.”

“No one died from lack of sleep,” she retorted. “Truckers go two or three days without sleeping and they survive just fine while managing to drive across the country.”

For some reason I didn’t ask her for any kind of substantiation to this claim, neither did I do my own research. Had I done so, I would have discovered that medical research proved her to be dead-wrong. Being new to the program and legitimately “desperate” to stay sober, I followed her advice and stopped taking the pills, without consulting my psychiatrist.

This was not a wise idea, as my mood began to fluctuate. Uncontrollable crying spells were one symptom, along with a revved-up mood, increased irritability, poor impulse control, and really reckless driving. After all this subsided, I plummeted into a downward tailspin; lack of sleep always proves a catalyst for severe depression.

The potential benefits of sleeping pills are not addressed in the AA pamphlet The AA Member—Medication and Other Drugs, which details experiences from members who take psychiatric medications with success, along with a few anecdotes of members who felt they jeopardized their sobriety by taking tranquilizers and sleeping pills. In “Ann’s Story,” we follow a woman who pops one sleeping pill and feels drunk, ultimately downing cup after cup of coffee in order to abate the unwelcome feeling of inebriation. Unfortunately, this is the only story in the pamphlet that addresses the use of sleeping pills, one that fails to mention that these sleep-aids may prove life-saving.

Not long after I stopped taking the Lunesta, I attended a meeting wherein a member who had just celebrated a year of sobriety changed his date publicly because he took two tablets of Tylenol PM to help him “crash out.”

“I’m changing my date,” he said to the room. “It’s not okay to take something like that.”

It’s true that everyone’s journey through sobriety should be their own—I have no right to conclude that this man’s choice to change his date is wrong, or to tell anyone, for that matter, what does or does not constitute sobriety for them. Still, the message I gleaned from his share is that even taking Tylenol PM is grounds for sobriety violation in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Through the course of my eight years in the program, I stayed off any kind of sleeping aid, until I began working with a sponsor who suggested I take melatonin when I was dealing with chronic insomnia that not only destabilized my mood but also threatened my sobriety.

“I take more than the bottle says,” my 73-year-old sponsor, who happened to have 32 years of sobriety, told me while chuckling. “One or two doesn’t work, so I take around four pills. But don’t tell anyone I said that!” Clearly, she knew that certain AA’s would find this behavior questionable. I appreciated her honesty.

Melatonin, a hormone in the brain responsible for naturally inducing sleepiness, can be purchased over the counter as a supplement at everywhere from Target to Amazon to your local vitamin shop. It rarely works for me, unfortunately, so I finally decided to follow my psychiatrist’s advice and take Trazadone, an old-school and very sedating antidepressant, as-needed for sleep.

This drug has saved my sanity more times than I can count. I don’t take it very often because it does make me somewhat drowsy the next day, but if I go one or two nights without sleep it always helps me to do so and I feel more balanced the next morning.

Multiple studies have confirmed that sleep deprivation can trigger symptoms of mental illnesses for those who have psychiatric diagnoses, as well as cause psychosis for people with no history of mental illness. Another study confirmed that just moderate sleep jeopardized impairs one’s faculties as much as “legally prescribed levels of alcohol intoxication.”

If people in sobriety are prescribed a sleeping pill by their doctor, they should absolutely feel free to take it without guilt or fear of what the Sobriety Police will say. Yes, side effects can occur, and in some cases dependency (especially infamous with Ambien) might arise, but these concerns and problems should be addressed between the doctor and the patient, not an AA member. It’s obviously possible to develop sound sleep hygiene without taking medication, but sometimes it just doesn’t come even after forfeiting caffeine, taking on exercise, drinking warm milk or tea, meditating, or trying other means to coerce your circadian rhythm into submission. Trust me, I’ve been there.

It’s clear that my first sponsor made a dangerous assertion and a dangerous recommendation to someone with bipolar disorder. This kind of ignorant “direction” by AA members with no medical credentials continues to be one of the major criticisms and controversies of the program, with anecdotes of members who are now deceased after following their sponsor’s—not their doctor’s—orders to ditch various psychoactive medications. The sad reality is I knew one such woman. Lucky for me I’m not in that camp.

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