Elle~ Having taken Ambien for insomnia since college, Amanda FitzSimons set out to discover what medical research had to say about the risks of her beloved sleeping pill. The answers just might keep you up at night.
Addiction to sleeping pills. As I type this, that phrase sounds so scary and cliché, the stuff of a Lifetime movie starring Meredith Baxter, crying alone in a dark apartment amid empty bottles of Southern Comfort. What I have, or at least the way I prefer to think of it, sounds a lot less harmful: just one little pill to help me go to sleep at night…every night.
I, like tens of millions of other Americans, take Ambien or its generic equivalents (zolpidem is the active ingredient), which makes the drug by far the country’s most popular sleep aid. When I first got a prescription, I was suffering from what doctors call "acute insomnia," i.e., a string of nights in which I stared at the ceiling for hours before finally being able to get some shut-eye. If this pattern of taking more than a half hour to fall asleep at least three nights a week persists beyond a month, it’s considered chronic. But, honestly, I wouldn’t know if that applies to me anymore. Having taken the pills for three- to six-month stints, with short breaks, over the past five and a half years, I’m like a person who’s been highlighting her hair so long she doesn’t know what her natural color is.
Ambien has gotten a lot of bad press recently for its adverse side effects: Kerry Kennedy crashed into a tractor-trailer on a New York highway, her explanation being that she'd mixed up her pill bottles and taken zolpidem instead of thyroid medication; then there was Tom Brokaw blaming an uncharacteristically loopy TV appearance on being under Ambien’s influence; and, in January, the FDA’s surprising recommendation that dosages be cut in half for female patients based on lab studies and driving tests that confirmed a risk of next-day drowsiness. (Women eliminate Ambien at a slower rate than men, the FDA said, and some still have enough in their system after eight hours to impair driving.)
But apart from an isolated incident in which I sent a PDF of a fan letter I'd received from a prisoner to an ex-boyfriend hoping to incite his jealousy (in case you're wondering, it didn't work) and some very vivid dreams, I can't complain about any side effects, not even the next-day hangover experienced by up to 8 percent of users, according to Ambien manufacturer Sanofi. And the truth is, for putting me out of my up-all-night misery, I can't sing the medication's praises enough: Almost every time I pop an Ambien, I fall into a warm, fuzzy, Serta commercial–quality slumber within minutes and sleep soundly for the entire night.
While I've always been a chronic ruminator—and had the occasional sleepless night throughout my adolescence—taking prescription sleeping pills never occurred to me until my senior year of college, when the uncertainty of postgraduation life sent me into an insomnia tailspin. After watching me repeatedly take Tylenol PM in vain (my body felt like it had been hit with a tranq dart, but my mind was still racing), one of my suite mates, who was something of a psychopharmaceutical adventuress, told me to look into Ambien. Her delivery—calm, nonchalant, no fine print—sold me. The way she made it seem, taking Ambien was about as risky as taking a daily vitamin. Why hadn't I thought of this before? I wondered, and made an appointment to see a doctor the next day.