When I was eight, my hair caught on fire in the middle of the night. I'd been illicitly reading far past my bedtime and eventually fell asleep with the lamp on. I woke to the awful smell of smoldering hair and ran downstairs in a panic, bursting into my parents' room.
"My hair's on fire!" I shrieked.
My mom and dad groaned, rolled over and shooed me away.
They weren't neglectful. They were simply the weary parents of a budding insomniac.
I've had a hard time sleeping through the night for as long as I can remember. When you have insomnia, exhaustion becomes so oppressive that if you're offered a quick fix, you take it. Instead of examining the reasons why I was up at 3 a.m. imagining my impending doom, I decided to fill an Ambien prescription. My doctor said I'd take it for a week, reset my circadian rhythm and return to my "Best Me."
"My nights became stranger. I would wander outside, foggy and disoriented."
I imagined Ambien would knock me out regardless of where I was or what I was doing, so the first time I took it I kept my music loud and continued reading for French class. After about 15 minutes, I felt a strange euphoria. Words jumped around on the page. I heard faint friendly voices calling to me from different corners of my dorm room. I had imagined I would slump into my homework like a tranquilized rogue elephant and clock a sound eight hours of sleep. Instead, I found myself trapped in a half-conscious hallucination - my very own Brian Wilson in the sandbox moment.
When I came out of my sleep medication fog the next morning, I was pants-less and covered in Snickers wrappers. I also had inscribed Baudelaire's oeuvre onto my dorm room walls.
I spent that day wondering if I'd walked through my co-ed dorm naked. I figured sleepwalking was a close enough approximation of actual sleep, so I continued to take the hypnotic sedative. My tolerance grew, and I was soon taking triple the recommended dose. I existed in a somnambulant twilight state. My nights became stranger. I would wander outside, foggy and disoriented. I would find myself standing in a laundry room immobilized after cramming myself into a single jean leg. I can't tell you how many uncooked frozen pizzas I've tried to eat under the influence. I have dipped and consumed everything in Nutella. More disturbingly, I began to take my medication after nights of heavy drinking, convinced it was the only path to 'sleep.'
I never had an issue refilling my prescription, and because my name was on the label, I didn't see my sleep medication use as problematic. In reality, I was abusing it just like I abused other illegal drugs.
"I never dreamed on my sleep medication, but my waking life turned into a nightmare."
As a seasoned binge drinker, waking up in a field or slumped against a vending machine didn't bother me. My sleep medication hangovers weren't as bad as alcohol hangovers. But when I emerged out of my haze one morning with a self-executed pageboy cut, I figured this thing might have gone too far. What can I say -- I'm vain!
The last time I took my sleep medication, I figured out how to sync my address book into Skype and took the opportunity to send a rambling, misspelled paragraph about an elaborate tattoo idea to a former employer. There was no part of me, no matter how far down into my psyche I searched, that wanted to message this man about tattoos. There is no such thing as "In Ambien Veritas." It was like the worst drunk text of all time. I was humiliated.
I don't take sleeping pills today. While they may work as a temporary sleep aid for some, I believe they are best kept out of irresponsible self-medicating hands. Instead of resorting to a prescription, I started seeing a therapist who helped me address the anxiety that was keeping me awake at 3 a.m. Good sleep requires common sense. I don't keep vampiric hours or embark on new TV shows in the middle of the night. I don't go to sleep with my iPhone and my laptop in the bed. I may not clock a solid eight hours each night, but it's not the end of the world.
I no longer live in a zombie twilight, and I dream. I'm a writer and I love to record them, and to bore my friends with epic dreams about giant lobsters or Kit Harrington. I've come to realize that they are an odd little part of my unconscious that make me feel human. I never dreamed on my sleep medication, but my waking life turned into a nightmare. Off of the pills, I'm getting better at sleeping, and better at handling the day. Best of all, I haven't eaten a solidly frozen margherita pizza in years.
This post is part of our series on sleep culture on college campuses. To join the conversation and share your own story, please email our Director of College Outreach Abby Williams directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can find out here if the #SleepRevolution College Tour will be visiting your campus, and learn how you can get involved. If your college is not one of the colleges already on our tour and you want it to be, please get in touch with Abby.