On Tuesday, the New York Times reported on the emerging phenomenon of "sleep-driving." According to an American Academy of Forensic Science study, the popular sleep aid Ambien regularly surfaces as one of the top 10 drugs in toxicology tests of impaired drivers, many of whom claim they have no memory of their actions. In one example cited by the Times, a registered nurse in Denver -- with a previously pristine driving record -- got in her car in freezing weather wearing only a nightshirt, peed in an intersection and fought with the cops -- and had no recollection of any of it. Shocking, right? But having dated a guy who would take an Ambien, have a drink, and then engage in what might be called "sleep-loving," I greeted the report with a massive "no-duh."
- - - - - - - - - - - -
We met nine years ago when our eyes locked across a crowded West Village party. The host wanted me to meet a polite boy with humble roots and good business acumen. But instead, a guy I'll call Sam -- a pampered, handsome Harvard architect -- claimed my affections.
We started dating immediately. He took me to the Metropolitan Museum (where his name graces the wall of major donors). He showered me with gifts -- blue flannel pajamas with red piping from Barneys, a first edition of Wilfred Owen poems that he bought at auction. There were fabulous "Metropolitan"-esque parties where I met Oscar de la Renta, Cosima von Bulow and the occasional royal. He flew me to Positano for a wedding and we took a bigger suite at Le Sirenuse than the bride and groom. We were in love and I had a Pucci scarf to prove it.
But soon things got confusing. As long as I was too busy for Sam, he courted me ceaselessly. But as soon as I openly cared about him -- promptly returning his phone calls, making him breakfast in the morning -- he turned stone cold. The night my first film was screening in New York, he opted to attend the opera with an impresario of New York society instead. And at one point, he told me my three-quarter sleeves were really better suited to "Audrey Hepburn" types. Soon after, he mentioned that he found my red lipstick garish.
I wish I could have walked away, told him to undermine some other malleable coed, and sent him and his Prada shoes packing. But I couldn't.
I blame Ambien.
Sure, he was a critical jackass by the light of day, but by the warm glow of a small yellow pill and a single malt scotch, he was a gallant suitor, a crooner of sweet nothings, my accessible, chatty fianci-to-be. He would call every weeknight around 11 p.m. and it was just like it was in the heady beginning of our romance. He would embarrass me with compliments. Tell me that he knew we would spend our lives together. Beg me to be patient with his daytime behavior.
And by then, his behavior begged forgiving. About six months into the relationship we spent a winter weekend at his uncle's house in Connecticut, where he virtually ignored me until the blessed hour when he could slip himself a Mickey. Then he would sidle into bed, cuddle and -- the ultimate aphrodisiac -- talk. We would talk and talk and talk -- about how much he hated the Degas ballerina series, about our similarly disorienting childhoods, about the infinite, exciting future in front of us. And then we would have the sweetest, nuzzliest sex. (Ambien muted his passion, transforming lovemaking into consummated cuddling. Ultimately, I preferred the rough sexual arrogance of his unmedicated state, but it was worth the sacrifice for these rare tender moments.) We were like pandas in heat.
Until the next day, when he would suggest I wear lower heels and we would have angry, argument-fueled sex.
Let me be clear -- Sam was never abusive, he was often funny, and he was unfailingly smart. But he was not a warm guy, unless aided by the chemical collision of zolpidem and booze.
At first, I didn't know that Ambien was the wellspring of his devotion. Until one morning he woke up on the floor next to his couch, a half-finished Macallan in one hand and the phone in the other, and called me to ask what happened. Turns out he hadn't known that our relationship was flourishing at this intimate after-party. I should have been horrified. I should have insisted he quit. Spouses commit themselves to a lifetime of Al-Anon for lesser dependencies than this.
Instead ... I kept seeing him. I craved the cozy warmth in his voice and the playful fantasies he would weave, even though I knew them to be synthetic sentiments manufactured by the scientists at Sanofi-Aventis. During these late-night phone calls, we imagined our future home -- a brownstone on Bethune Street -- and our children's names -- Jane, Nick, Nell. We imagined how well our parents would get along as they chased after their toddler grandchildren. We were like heated teenage lovers, whispering dangerous promises to each other in the dark of night.
Then the next morning he would call me at work and ask me what Ambien had said to me the night before. You're still in the clear. No marriage proposals yet. Then one night, when he was in a particularly gauzy frame of mind, he demanded that I elope with him right then. He was so certain; he never slurred his words; he truly sounded like he meant it. I told him to ask me again the next morning, but he never did. And here's the scary part: If he had asked, I might have said yes.
In retrospect, I am ashamed by my passivity. Normally, I'm a self-sufficient loudmouth. But I endured Sam's withholding indifference during the day just to hear his delicious seductions at night. I wanted to believe that Ambien accessed his buried desires and sensitivities. I engaged in passionate debates with my friends about whether drugs revealed a truer self or created a false one. I endured the eye-rolling of my best friend who regularly asked about the exploits of "ole Ambien Sam."
After a soulless garden party in Southampton, Sam said he was "worried" about our relationship. And thus began our long and bumpy breakup.
It is embarrassing to remember now (as a happily married mother) the soul-crushing agony of trying to salvage a doomed romance. I hadn't been happy for a long time. I was in love with a cocktail of man, drug and alcohol. But in the face of Sam's retreat, I panicked. So I formulated a compelling theory of our relationship and constructed a plan that would make everything better!
Sam and I had a marathon phone conversation. Here was the problem as I saw it: We were spending too much time with married people, and comparing our nascent relationship to that mature benchmark. Here was the solution: We would see his shrink together, "date" again and grow our relationship in organic, incremental ways. Sam agreed. We cried at the relief of not breaking up. We talked until the sun rose in the sky. This was going to work.
Then over the next few days, Sam didn't make an appointment with his therapist for us. He didn't call when he said he would. He didn't meet my train.
I was devastated.
Some months later, we had a postmortem. As we walked along the Hudson on a warm October night, Sam was confused that I was angry with him. "We are all allowed to fall out of love with each other." Yes, but you are not allowed to say you are going to try to make it work, and then bail without explanation. He looked confused. Remember? The phone call? When we made the decision to stay together? "That's why you're angry? That phone call?" Yes, that phone call. "Yeah, I don't really remember it. I took Ambien that night."
To be fair, Sanofi-Aventis is handling the "sleep-driving" problem with a grace not evidenced by Vioxx's parent company, Merck. While there are explicit instructions not to mix Ambien with alcohol, and warnings of the risk of sleepwalking and hallucinations, the company wisely acknowledges that an ongoing evaluation of the medication is needed.
But it is a spooky drug indeed that can turn a perfectly sweet Denver nurse into a raving lunatic, and a wealthy, capricious Manhattan architect into a cuddle muffin.