Ambien, time, and the ferryboat captain


For more than a decade, I waged a nightly battle against sleeplessness.

Every night, shortly after shutting my eyes but before falling into unconsciousness – a movie-reel of the worst parts of my day and an unending series of previews for upcoming work-related deadlines would play inside my head. No matter what I did – or how hard I tried – I could not turn off the projector, and I could not fall asleep.

Before being introduced to Ambien, I devised strategies to combat my worry-borne sleeplessness. As soon as I flipped the bedroom light off and plopped my head onto my pillow, I would construct a quiet secluded place in my mind. For example, a cabin on the side of a mountain – surrounded by acres and acres of protective evergreens that shielded me from the buzzing reverberations of my day. I placed myself in this imaginary cabin, alone in a bed. Then, like a god, I painted a cold, crisp, blue-black sky and splashed it with sparkling stars – I envisioned myself enveloped in a cocoon of silence and serenity – sheltered safely from the remains of my day and the rumblings of my tomorrow.

This nightly exercise to keep anxiety at bay and worked for a while. But eventually, all my dreamscapes (be they cabins in the mountains or mud huts on a beach) would dissolve in a wave of worry- and I’d end up right where I was the night before – tossing and turning and unable to fall asleep.

I don’t t know what Ambien does physiologically – I have no idea how it acts on the brain – all I know is it works. I envision Ambien chemical agents starving the part of my brain that feeds on the memories of my day and the fear of my tomorrow – somehow disabling the mechanism that switches on that relentless movie-like projection of all things stressful.

It was 5 years of taking Ambien before I started to think hard about the fact that I needed this drug to trigger what was supposed to be a natural human function – the act of drifting off to sleep at the end of a busy day. I wondered what had changed in my life that made it impossible for me to fall asleep without chemical aid. I couldn’t pin it on one specific event. Perhaps it was the disconcerting realization (that simmered and hummed just under the surface of me), that more than half my life was over and that as a commodity, time was in short supply, while responsibilities and obligations were growing, creating a perfect recipe for worry.

After five years of being prescribed Ambien, I began to look at my habit as a character flaw. A drug addiction with none of the perks.

Last year our family took a trip to Maine to tour some colleges and universities. I left my Ambien home on that trip, and I’ve not taken it since.

I couldn’t tell you what changed in my life that allowed me to fall asleep without that little pill. My work is still stressful, and achieving a work-life balance is as impossible as ever – one son is heading to college in the Fall – and the other is close behind – so if anything, there’s has been an uptick in financial stress.

The only conclusion I can come to is that somewhere along the road, I arrived at perspective. All the things that kept me awake for years remain firmly ensconced in my life. Perhaps I understand futility – that all the worrying in the world will not shake these things loose – and that time remains a steadfast and unapologetic ferryboat captain – not caring one iota about what lies on the other shore or whether our arrival suits our schedule.

And so it is – and so I sleep.

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