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 my introduction 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 – 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 – completely sheltered from the remains of my day and the rumblings of my tomorrow.

This nightly exercise to keep anxiety at bay worked for short periods of time – 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 – and 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 – for the first time in 5 years – to fall asleep without that little pill. Work is still stressful – 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 up-tick in financial stress.

The only conclusion I can come to, is that somewhere along the road, I arrived at perspective – because all the things that kept me awake for years remain firmly ensconced in my life – perhaps I better 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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