Insane Stories Of People On Ambien That'll Brighten Your Day
“Have you tripped on Ambien before?”
Asking friends, family, and strangers if they’ve experimented with Ambien is hardly an ideal ice breaker. The question was usually met with a confused silence–one of those pin-drop moments–or, on Facebook, an ice-cold “Seen” notification that would haunt me for hours. Hurriedly, I’d assure them that I wasn’t a narc, that I was simply gathering intel for an article. Unfortunately, my circles aren’t littered with insomniacs. “Nope,” my friend Dan* said, plainly, “never done it.”
But he was wrong. He had done it before; he just couldn’t remember. He’d encountered what some call the Ambien Walrus. The Walrus–large, lazy, flippered, and flippant–is the internet’s way of personifying the sleeping pill’s recreational effects, a mix of hypnosis, amnesia, and hallucinations.
The Ambien Walrus first scuttled into the public’s eye in 2007, thanks to an appearance in Drew Dee’s webcomic, Toothpaste for Dinner. Since then, the recurring character has become a fan favorite, especially among Ambien users and abusers, who can relate to the idiosyncratic demands that the crudely-drawn bag of blubber barks out. “Come with me on an adventure you’ll never remember,” the walrus beckons in a 2010 strip, urging the reader along with an outstretched flipper. “Call all your ex-girlfriends.” “Cut off all your hair.” Eventually, the Walrus’ fame outgrew the publication, becoming slang for any Ambien-fueled behavior: sleep-talking, sleep-eating, sleep-driving. Sleep time is no longer a passive act. Ambien has practically monopolized the hyphenated sleep market.
At his heart, the Ambien Walrus is a trader. He exchanges memories for mystery, thanks to the pill’s amnesic effect. “I think the Ambien Walrus stole all my brie last night,” one might say, keenly aware of the dried cheese matter commingled in their hair. You might as well trade in your rationale, too. If you’re still under Ambien’s grasp during waking hours, your oddball dream logic could still hold. Sleep-eaters on the drug have made an array of delectable late-night meals, such as “buttered cigarettes,” and “salt sandwiches”–just like Grandma used to make.
We snooped around Reddit’s Ambien subforum to see what high jinks the Walrus had been getting into lately–and boy, the confessional was packed. Under the hypnotic effect of Ambien, one user overnight shipped a crate of live, Maine lobsters to his ex-girlfriend. Another user ordered a $70 leg of ham from BBQ-enthusiast website, Pig of the Month, despite having been vegetarian for years. And a Navy officer woke up on Inspection Day to find that he’d MacGyvered a tar-black, treelike “superstructure” in the middle of the night–made out of cans, heated wax, Q-tips, and shoe polish. The list goes on, and on. The Walrus’s conquests are many.
Could sleep medication really have such odd ramifications? Perhaps the internet, a bastion of hyperbole, is overselling it. Stan*, an astrophysicist by day, pill-popper by night, corroborated Reddit’s wild tales. He broke Ambien’s effects down into subcategories: it’s “emotionally inspired, socially in love, and rationally inhibited.” “Go on Facebook and profess your love for someone you barely knew in high school,” he suggested, echoing the foolhardiness of the Walrus. To Stan, Ambien brought about a muddle of “euphoria and confusion.” Sounds like one hell of a sleepwalk—slipping through the mind’s back door out into a wilder expression of one’s self.
But inner expression and outward reality don’t necessarily align, especially when recreational drug use is involved. Ambien’s ability to aid with sleep can easily shift to dependency–if you start taking it regularly, you might not be able to sleep without it.
In her autobiographical essay, “Confessions of a Sleeping Pill Junkie,” Glamour writer Laurie Sandell tells all about her past with Ambien addiction. The amnesic effects can negatively impact one’s social life. Entire conversations with her beau—even intimate phone sessions—were lost to Ambien. Her daily regimen of Ambien nearly killed her. In one instance, she awoke to find herself neck-deep in a candle-lit bathtub brimming with water–if she had slid an inch or two further down, and she would’ve drowned in her sleep.
Paired with Ambien’s mood-altering effects, the raw anxiety that accompanies heavy drug-use can form a cyclical reliance. You’re restless, so you need the pill. You’re anxious, so you need the pill. You’re depressed because of your behavior on the pill, so you need the pill.
Dr. Yasmin Panahy, a board-certified internist from the Washington, D.C. area, says that, in order to curb usage, she and her colleagues give out a 30-day-supply at most, and never issue refills. “If the patient is not lucky enough to fall asleep within the narrow sedation window, then they succumb to the drug’s hypnotic effect and are prone to adverse consequences,” she tells me. “Ambien is habit-forming. My advice is to avoid daily use.”
Stories like Sandell’s led Barack Obama to declare America’s prescription drug abuse an “epidemic” in 2011. In a 2013 CDC report, four percent of Americans over the age of 20 were found to have used prescription sleeping aids in the past month. That same year, the FDA cut women’s recommended dosage for Ambien and other sleeping aids containing Zolpidem, since they metabolize the drug at a different rate than men.
In the “Drugs” episode of Chelsea Handler’s latest special, a four-part documentary miniseries for Netflix entitled Chelsea Does…, the comedienne chronicles her tumultuous relationship with sleeping pills. Under the care of a neuroscientist and friend, Heather, Chelsea chases a 10mg dosage of Ambien with two vodka cocktails–a mix that the show emphasizes is a no-no, since the depressants can work in tandem, potentially slowing the patient’s breathing to a halt. Within a few minutes, the effects of the drug are largely written on Chelsea’s face–her eyelids droop, her posture loosens, even her skin tone blanches a couple of shades. She looks disinterested in the world around her, like a drunkard in a state of yogic calm.
In order to get a qualitative read on how Ambien affects the mind, Heather challenges Chelsea to draw a family portrait while under the influence. “I’m a little girl very confused about why our parents don’t have a bank account,” Chelsea says, as she scribbles her family onto the page. The parents feature shattered eyes and detached mouths that make the sketch look like a doodle Picasso would leave on the backside of a napkin. And, of course, the following morning, Chelsea has no recollection of drawing any of it.
Later in the episode, Chelsea and her friends’ laughter becomes more frequent as they tear through marijuana-infused catering. Tomato bisque soup with OG Kush, or braised lamb and gnocchi with mari-butter? During the meal, a friend of hers asks her if she ever felt like she went too far with her drug-use. She considers, and says, “I feel like the toughest time in my life was when I was taking sleeping pills all the time, because I was completely reliant on them.” If you give Ambien the chance, it can, and will, suck you in. The Ambien Walrus has his tusks for a reason.
Sitting on the couch next to me, Dan pauses the episode as Chelsea is reflecting and turns to me. “Dude…I have done Ambien before. I completely forgot until this episode.” One moment, he was on a date with a girl he’d met on Tinder, bar-hopping before visiting her place. She suggested that they take a couple of sleeping pills, and then, the scene goes dark. The next thing he remembers is waking up, completely naked, wrapped in blankets next to her–neither of them had a clue as to what had transpired. For all we know, they could’ve had a naked pillow fight, or worn wigs and read children’s books back-to-front. But, under the amnesic hold of Ambien, neither of them had any recollection. “That was the last time I bought Plan B,” he tells me, “and it’s the last time I’ll ever used Ambien.”
These cautionary tales aren’t meant to negate the valid reasons to take Ambien. Insomniacs, who require immediate sleep, might have to take Ambien in order to get vital rest, while seeking treatment elsewhere to mitigate underlying issues. Ambien can be used to fight off jetlag before it hits–a conk-out pill for the translatlantic flight. But, for those who use the drug recreationally, and, in rare cases, even those that use the drug according to the label, there is a real risk that you might awake to strange, unexpected circumstances. Rock, paper, scissors. Wake up in bed, wake up in your car, wake up in custody. Only the Walrus truly knows.
Stay tuned to Milk to stay in a post-drug haze.
Main image by Kathryn Chadason. Additional images via Toothpaste for Dinner, imgur.