Riley*, now 29, started dating Paul* in the winter of 2010. After rebuffing his advances for months, she succumbed to his particular brand of needling charm and they eased into the rhythms of coupledom. Weekend meetups gave way to dinner-dates and mid-week sleepovers. Riley, however, neglected to tell Paul that she struggled with insomnia, or that she threw back Ambien to combat it. Why bother, she figured.
One Monday evening, Paul went over to Riley’s for thai food and trash TV. To the best of Riley’s recollection, the remainder of the night was uneventful: They had sex, set their alarms and turned in. Then, Riley popped a sleeping pill and drifted off.
The night went differently for Paul. For whatever reason, Riley was up when her meds kicked in. In her Ambied-out state, Riley rose from bed and putzed around the apartment, making enough noise to jostle Paul awake. After climbing back into bed, Riley stared Paul squarely in the face and told him that he "knew he'd only gotten his banking job because of his dad."
Paul brought up the comment the next day to an oblivious Riley. He laughed it off, but their relationship didn't last much longer.
“Oh god. That is one of my least favorite me moments,” said Riley via text, six years later.
Dating advice isn’t hard to come by. If someone wants pointers on when and how to have “the talk” about exclusivity, then they can turn to internet forums, human friends or the archives of lifestyle publications. Everyone has an opinion on DTR-ing. It’s similarly easy to find guidance on other disclosures — about kids, herpes, threesomes, gender fluidity, you name it. The “Ambien talk,” however, isn’t a thing. There’s no standard protocol for introducing hypnotic sedatives into a relationship. But, maybe there should be.
Upwards of nine million Americans use prescription sleep aids, Ambien being the most popular. While it and other hypnotic sedatives can help induce slumber, they’re finicky drugs. Take too much or stay up too long and prepare for side effects including hallucinations and disinhibited, hyper-“social” behavior. It's not hard to imagine someone feeling awkward about telling a new love interest that they take Ambien and need to hit the sack ASAP to avoid turning into a humping, egg-shell-eating creature. But, when two people start sharing a bed, it might be hard for one bedfellow to pop a pill stealthily and conk out within 20 minutes, free of interference. As Riley learned, sneaking a sleeping pill doesn't always pan out. Sometimes, you accuse your almost-boyfriend of nepotism.
How many people might face the same issue? Well, in 2015, 15 percent of American adults used online or mobile dating sites and apps. That’s roughly 36 million people. And, as of 2013, about one in 25 American adults reported using prescription sleep aids, according to the CDC. Ambien (or Zolpidem, the generic version) is the most popular sleeping pill, although it’s hard to find precise figures for it. Even by conservative estimates, millions of Americans are on the dating scene at any given moment, and hundreds of thousands are at least occasionally invoking big pharma’s help to nod off.
Someone might wonder how hard it really is to control Ambien-fueled impulses. Rest assured, it's hard, thanks to the way Ambien works in the brain (aka, its “mechanism of action”).
Ambien is the best-known z-drug, a class of drugs that also includes Sonata, Lunesta and Intermezzo. Like benzodiazepines (e.g., Xanax, Valium), z-drugs induce drowsiness by targeting the neurotransmitter GABA. But, benzos and z-drugs interact differently with GABA receptors littered throughout the brain. And, the specificity with which Ambien targets one GABA receptor underlies its potency as both a sedative and a hypnotic. It’s hard to get one without the other. In most cases, however, people can avoid Ambi-tripping by going to sleep. (Though, Ambien is also tied to unconscious behaviors like sleepwalking.)
In retrospect, Riley’s decision to keep mum may seem like the wrong move, but consider her other options. She could have chosen not to take the drug in Paul’s presence and dealt with sleeping shittily. Or, she could have told Paul she took Ambien and given him an overview of the Dos and Don’ts of post-pill interactions.
But, in dating, most of us try to present a palatable version of our “real” selves — authenticity, toned down. Because, when you date, you implicitly agree to judge and be judged. It’s hard to anticipate how people will interpret personal disclosures, especially when it comes to mental health, or anything related to it. Insomnia doesn’t neatly fit into the framework of illness as mental or physical. Someone might put “I can’t sleep” in the same category as either “I have high blood pressure” or “I’m depressed.” It’s hard to know. (And of course, it shouldn't matter, but neither should the fact that an otherwise lovely person says "I should have went.")
Still, given how many people use the big A to get Zzzs, disclosure might prompt a response of "me too" rather than "k, peace." And, in the end, what's more embarrassing, issuing an Ambien warning or learning about Ambien antics after the fact?