My “wake-up call” actually came in the form of an early morning phone call — one of those dreaded warnings from the credit card company reporting suspicious charges.
"Ma'am, there was an unusually large charge placed on your credit card at 2 a.m. this morning."
"What?! That can't be!" I said. I mouthed "credit card fraud" to my husband as I reached for my purse to see if my card was missing.
"It was an online charge in the amount of $2,980 at Anthropologie.com," the credit card lady continued.
I froze. This was starting to sound ... familiar. That’s the catalog I flip through when I’m putting together my fantasy wardrobe.
I dashed into my home office and brought my laptop to life. At the top of my inbox was an e-receipt itemizing stacks of blouses and sweaters, five pairs of nearly identical skinny jeans, a plaid winter coat, designer cowboy boots and a fabulous, lacy cocktail dress. All in my size.
"So, it's not fraud, exactly,” I stammered. “Thanks for calling.”
I stared, aghast, at the screen, as my husband hovered behind me, piecing it together.
"You did this on Ambien, didn't you?"
Desperately seeking sleep
Zolpidem, the generic name for Ambien, and other similar sleeping pills are some of the most prescribed drugs in the country, especially for women under 45. Desperate for rest after frenzied, multi-tasking days, I’m one of the nearly 3 in 10 women who rely on some sort of sleeping aid.
But while this version of mother’s little helper provides coveted shut-eye for insomniacs like me, the pills also come with bizarre side effects: hallucinations, amnesia, even driving, eating and having sex while totally asleep.
In other words, mama has a hoppin’ nightlife.
My nocturnal shopping binge wasn’t even the most disturbing thing I’ve done in my sleep (though it was the most expensive). Five things I've done while asleep on Ambien:
- Responded “Yes!” to an Evite for party I had no intention of attending
- Ate brown sugar directly out of the bag
- Ate two of my son's bedazzled eggs (the night before Easter)
- Woke up in the bathtub in my underwear
- Wrote a fairly coherent email response to my buttoned-up boss, then signed it, "I love you!" (Note: While he was perfectly admirable, I didn't.)
On the bright side, Ambien antics like mine make for hilarious mommy cocktail party conversation.
My favorite: A successful Seattle woman’s teenage son came home from a party late one night with some friends. They discovered his sleeping mom standing in the kitchen, topless, eating a bag of brown sugar (I know — brown sugar again!). He draped his coat over her and walked her to bed while his friends rolled on the floor laughing.
But there are consequences even more tragic than a teen’s mom-induced humiliation. The pills have been blamed for an uptick in car accidents and cited as a murder defense. Research has also shown a link to higher death rates as well as dementia and memory loss (which might explain why I no longer remember the European capitals).
So why did I keep taking them? Because they work like a dream — although, strangely, they made me stop dreaming.
Twenty minutes after taking an Ambien (or Sonata or Lunesta — I’ve tried most of them and love them all), I felt like I was sinking into a perfectly warm pool. The dark stillness was luxurious.
I’ve never been much of a sleeper. As I child, I'd read for hours into the night under the covers with a flashlight; in college I'd watch “Beverly Hills 90210” reruns until 3 a.m.
But sleep troubles developed into full-blown, mind-melting insomnia after I became a mom six years ago. From birth through the toddler years, my son, Jude, was up several times a night. But even on the blessed nights when zonked out for good, I'd have trouble drifting off. My mind couldn’t stop making to-do lists. Did I send that e-mail? Had I applied for all the best preschools? Did the car registration expire at the start of the month or the end? I told the doctor my shut-off switch was broken.
I couldn’t focus at work. I had headaches and was nauseated, irritable and had no energy for playing with my son.
Plus, I was so haggard, I looked like I'd aged 10 years. And not in that blissfully tired new mommy way, but rather in a crazy-eyed torture victim kind of way.
By this point, Jude was 3, so I turned the overnight shift over to my husband, started popping a 5 mg Ambien nightly and slept gloriously.
My doctor kept trying to wean me off, as the pills are habit-forming and supposed to be used as a temporary crutch. When she told me I was on my last refill, I had a panic attack — and I found a new doctor.
Zombie, er, mombie?
After the "Anthropologie incident," my husband staged an intervention of sorts. Well, not exactly a textbook intervention — mostly just getting really angry every time an Anthropologie box landed on our doorstep. The shameful parade of boxes lasted about a month because apparently I'd bought some items on back-order. When I finally went to the store to return my haul of late-night loot, the manager had to be called over. I'm pretty sure they put me on some sort of watch list.
"It's like being married to a zombie — you actually are scaring me," my husband said one night, watching me pop a pill.
I laughed because, until now, the creepy factor had seemed kind of funny. One night, he'd woken up to find me sleep-standing in the corner of our bedroom, facing the wall, "Blair Witch" style. His scream (the only time I've actually heard him scream) woke me up enough that I trudged back to bed. He slept on the couch the rest of the night because he couldn't get over the feeling that I was that girl from "The Ring."
But this time he said the magic word. He invoked our son: "How can you be sure you'd never hurt Jude? What if you decided to put him in the car?”
I wanted to vomit up the pill I had just swallowed. I was so ashamed. I’ve spent my career as a journalist so have always joked that the rule of thumb for not making regrettable decisions is “don’t ever do something you wouldn’t want in a headline.” Suddenly, all I could imagine were horrific headlines.
Giving up sleeping pills meant giving up sleep for a long time. It didn’t feel like a healthy choice — every day I was off, the worse I felt. Instead of being a quirky zombie at night, I was the walking dead in the daytime. Finally, some combination of melatonin, Chamomile tea, a cool bedroom, a warm bath, black-out curtains, shrouded electronics and breathing exercises began to work, at least sometimes.
Still, some nights, I just can’t find my way to sleep. I lie there thinking about how one little pill could deliver me to that blissful warm pool. But then I’m struck by the fear of those headlines, and I find comfort knowing that asleep or not, I’m in control of my own actions. And I never find brown sugar in my bed.
Julia Sommerfeld has also organized her Tupperware drawer in her sleep. When awake, she’s the director of content strategy for TODAY.com.
Follow Julia Sommerfeld on Twitter @juliasommerfeld.