By Terry Gotham
A lifetime ago, I worked in a Sleep Lab at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. We looked at the effects of sleep deprivation on pain tolerance & sensitivity. The non-clinical way of explaining that is, I poked and prodded a bunch of hilariously tired people. Inability to sleep continues to be a huge issue on & off playa, with 40% of Americans admitting to Gallup they don’t get as much sleep as they’d like. While the CDC has declared insufficient sleep a public health problem, Burners are the champions of functional partying with nowhere near appropriate amounts of sleep. But, because a lot of Americans are currently taking/addicted to sleep aids, I figured I’d run through the risks & rewards to consuming Ambien (Zolpidem). People are even attempting to tether it to the death of Justice Scalia, so get a non-caffinated beverage and strap in for this wild, amnesiac ride.
One of the immediate problems that people discount when they start taking Ambien is when you don’t follow the specific rule: Please allow yourself a full 8 hours of sleep to sleep after taking Ambien. There is nothing in the world so disoriented than a random dude attempting to build a geodesic dome 6hrs into an Ambien dose on playa. Seriously, if you need to get sleep and you don’t have 8hrs to sleep, take another drug. Do a shot of whiskey, eat some melatonin gummies (recommended option), or if you’re Archer, soak the melatonin gummies in whiskey. While the Indian Army gives its soldiers Ambien, I can’t say I recommend the practice if you’ve gotta be up at 0500 after getting to sleep at midnight.
This next point I cannot stress enough. Be very, very careful consuming Ambien on repeated evenings. Most sleep medicine practitioners agree that you can develop an addiction to Ambien in two weeks. The easiest way to keep this from happening is to try your hardest to not take the substance one night after another. Even reducing the frequency to once every 3 days or once a week, can seriously help your chances at preventing physical dependence. Don’t discount the potency of Ambien or other sleep aids, even over the counter ones. Over the long term, Ambien loses its effectiveness, but maintains the dependency. If you think taking a fistful of pills to sleep is scary, imagine taking them & realizing they’ve become totally ineffective.
But these aren’t the reasons you’ve heard of Ambien, or that you joke about it with your friends. You have because you’ve heard all these horror stories about people taking Ambien and sleep eating, sleep driving and sleep fucking with no memory of it. And I’m here to tell you all of those horror stories are true. Yes, even the ones you heard about people killing their spouse & mounting an Ambien defense, claiming they didn’t remember it.
First, Ambien has caused people to develop what I can only describe as a sleep eating disorder. This is where you binge eat while retaining no memory of it. The New York Times reported on research done by the Mayo Clinic & the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center, confirming this wackiness. Dr. Carlos Schenck has estimated that thousands of Ambien consumers suffer from this issue. While turned on gas burners, peanut butter in the sleeping bag & weight gain seem like it could be fun on the playa, I think we can all agree that this side effect should be a deal breaker.
Sleep driving is a real problem for people who consume Ambien in suburban & rural areas of the country. If I had to wager, more than 1 person who reads this will have had an experience of driving on playa on Ambien & not remember it. As you can imagine, this has significant legal ramifications, as this report from the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found. It reviewed cases where patients had reported 3-5hrs worth of amnesia and had been pulled over for driving while intoxicated. Personally, the risk of operating a motor vehicle sans-memory or non-autonomic functioning would keep me off a drug forever, but this is America, home of the brave. I’m not entirely sure what recommendations I could make from a harm reduction perspective, but hopefully, your unconscious self remembers to put your seatbelt on.
The third in the trio of “What The Fuck?!” side effects is sleep sex. So many people have reported going to sleep after Ambien, then waking their partners up and asking for wildly different sex, that the Daily Beast’s story about this was actually titled Is Ambien Sex Hotter? While the veracity of the reports may vary, the volume has been such that even non-drug publications like Men’s Health & the NY Daily News have reported on it. I’m not going to tell anyone they shouldn’t try to spice up their sex life, but as per my GHB article, I’m against people giving other people roofies. If you want to roofie yourself, maybe ask yourself a couple of questions as to why before doing so.
The last problem I need to mention doesn’t affect the vast majority of Burners, but it might affect their parents. Even after giving themselves the 8hrs of rest that Ambien directs, Consumer Reports and other sources have confirmed that if you’re over the age of 80, there’s some residual coordination/drowsiness problems that amplify the risk of accidents while driving. If Gramps has trouble sleeping, perhaps get him those gummy bears or ZZZQuil, instead.
Of course, it’s not all bad. It’s not only exceptional at providing 8hrs of restful sleep to those who need it very occasionally, but it might actually help you recover from a stroke. Researchers at the Stanford School of Medicine found that stroke recovery in mice was improved when given Ambien, both in sensory acuity & motor coordination. The findings still need to be independently verified by other insitutions for humans, but what kind of reporter would I be if I didn’t include some good news. If you’re interested in trends in pharmacology and sales information, here’s an exhaustive report on the industry and specific consumption patterns of Zolpidem in the USA & China. If you run into John Stamos, ask him about it. He’s probably got a story or two about how he got off the stuff.
If you’re planning on taking the stuff, take it and hit the pillow immediately. Don’t take it and go brush your teeth or try to do your taxes. Take it, crash out, and set your alarm for 8-9hrs from when your head hits the pillow. If you suffer from chronic insomnia, definitely speak to your doctor, therapist, herbalist or local Vitamin Shoppe employee. There are substances that can knock you out that won’t cause you to eat bacon at 3 AM or ask your husband to be tied up like a pig on a spit and not remember it.