The Ambien Diaries


The first thing I always notice, after the mild cottonmouth that serves as the universal announcement of a chemical taking effect on the body, is that I’m not alone.

I no longer know who the cloaked figures inhabiting my brain were, but the sense of ceremony is fitting. Inside my mind, a civilization was coming into being.

Another entry seemed to deal with the problem of expression through language, by remarking on a different function of the mouth:

Swallowing is a curious activity, in that it allows the entry of another organism into the formerly safe international zone. Within this zone, war inevitably ensues. Unfortunately this stimulates the economy and cannot be dispensed with. Last night I swallowed my words. These were much harder to digest then I had expected, particularly the letter “g.” Yet another problem for which cranberry juice presents a solution.

Don’t ask me why I was drinking cranberry juice. You get some strange nutritional advice on drug forums.

I must confess to finding this political parable rather elegant:

There are several reasons dots are projected to win the election over lines. Dots, while small, have made the credible complaint that linear paradigms are more likely to lead to answers. Lines, on the other hand, accuse the dots of being TOO small. Who knows where this may lead.

The most consistent aspect of these writings is structure. This was not a stream of consciousness, but a canal, bearing the mark of human intervention. Within it was an aphorism:

This sounds not like an orgasm, but a man who just can’t get to one.

A riddle:

Is it better to say what you think, or to think what you say? To see what you believe, or to believe what you see?

To spray when I stink, or stink when I spray?

A recipe:

Ingredients for Chutney: Franfurter (sealed for posterity) Georgia O’Keefe vegetables Minty Fresh Gelatin Fish Sauce Elmer’s Glue Rice Salt and Pepper Desperation Drugs

Marinade and stir. Do not eat.

And a song:

“Rainin’ on my Baby” by Walter “Mudbone” Pater Rhymes rhymes rhymes rhymes Get ready for the hold up

You can’t live on surplus

No matter how little sense it made, each fragment tended to belong to an identifiable genre. Like Noam Chomsky’s famous illustration of universal grammar, the sentence “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” most entries are correct in some way, even as they are ultimately absurd.

That same year, a new literary genre was being born. Twitter had launched in March. I started tweeting a couple years later, in 2008. “I find one learns lessons in the course of life,” Elon Musk said in a recent interview with Rolling Stone, “and one lesson I’ve learned is, don’t tweet on Ambien.” For someone like Roseanne Barr, whose interior life is best kept there, he may be right. For the rest of us, Musk is wrong. Tweeting is the best thing to do on Ambien. Where else can you find a captive audience of second and third persons to whom you can broadcast your dream-logical propositions? (The tweet, incidentally, that Musk regretted was from the summer of 2017: “A little red wine, vintage record, some Ambien . . . and magic!” In the fall of 2017, the engine of SpaceX’s Merlin rocket exploded at the company’s facility in McGregor, Texas. No connection has been proven.)

I first attempted Ambien tweeting on the night of September 21, 2009. I began at 11:25 p.m., with what appears to be a self-reflexive examination of my own status as author. “People who concentrate right now,” the tweet read. Over the course of the following hour and four minutes, I covered a wide range of topics. “Animals pursued by military march,” began the most substantial installment, continuing, “GO GO GO GO GO. Heavenly intervention is all that can save us now.”

I went on to address matters like architecture (“public space/private space”), history (“ ‘Damn sure, in 1999’ ”), religion (“found supreme organism. has answers, no translator through”), terrorism (“19 piles of anthrax”), human cruelty (“betrayal”), and so on. I concluded at 12:29 a.m. with a wry observation: “ ‘Same struggle.’ ” I put some of these statements between quotation marks, for reasons lost to the sands of time. On the morning of September 22, I noticed I had lost several followers.

The internet may be new, but writing on drugs is certainly not. Opium, often taken in the form of the aromatic tincture laudanum, was beloved by the Romantic poets; Baudelaire and Jarry courted the “green muse” of absinthe, while alcohol’s role in literary history is too voluminous to trace. In 1924, André Breton put forth a theory of literary drug use, drawing from the new discipline of psychoanalysis. He wrote in the first issue of La Révolution surréaliste, the official periodical of French surrealism, that the movement was “the crossroads of the enchantments provided by sleep, alcohol, tobacco, ether, opium.” Surrealist art set out to achieve what Breton called “psychic automatism,” aspiring to the condition of free association identified by Freud, whether it took poetry, painting, or psychoactive drugs to get there. The goal was nothing less than bringing the unconscious mind to the surface.

(Bibliothèque nationale de France)

Zolpidem tartrate didn’t exist until 1978, and no major surrealist lived to try it. But it has shown a strange promise in excavating the unconscious, at a level beyond the production of weird poetry. Somehow, a medicine universally prescribed and used as a sleeping pill also seems to wake people up when nothing else can. This paradox was discovered in 1999 in Johannesburg, South Africa. Five years earlier, Sienie Engelbrecht’s son, Louis Viljoen, had fallen into a coma after being hit by a truck. He remained in a persistent vegetative state, expected never to recover. To alleviate involuntary muscle spasms, his doctor prescribed him Ambien. Engelbrecht administered the drug, crushed up and mixed into a soda, and 25 minutes later, Viljoen looked over at her and said, “Hello, Mummy.”

In a case study from 2004, a woman had suffered chronic aphasia—the inability to speak or understand language—for three years following a stroke. She was prescribed Ambien for unrelated symptoms of sleeplessness. “To the amazement of the patient and her family,” said a report in the New England Journal of Medicine, “ingestion of the first dose was followed by a dramatic improvement in her speech, which persisted until the patient went to bed later in the night.”

Though the evidence is still mostly anecdotal (a 2017 review of clinical trials was mostly inconclusive), Ambien has continued to show these contradictory effects. It’s hard to resist drawing a conclusion that wouldn’t pass muster at any medical journal: it’s as though what brings these patients back to life is access to the unconscious. It’s a single drug that can make you fall asleep, wake up, or lose your mind—depending on who you are. And I can’t help but think that the momentary liberation from repression Ambien has provided me tells me something about who I am.

Anyone who has ever lain on an analyst’s couch knows that free association is hard work. In a censorious, inhibited society, it goes against deep-seated reflexes. There are ways to overcome these obstacles—undergoing analysis, making art, improving relationships—but they are difficult. As Lou Reed said, in the Velvet Underground’s “Some Kinda Love”: “Between thought and expression lies a lifetime.”

The effects of Ambien, like those of most drugs, are dismayingly temporary, perhaps more than usual. The experience is short lived and quickly forgotten. At best, I can credit it with offering a fleeting glimpse, from a distance, of a better way of living—one that might require not just a different self, but a different world to achieve.

I wrote the final entry of my unconscious journal on March 6, 2007, going through the usual itemized lists and rhyming couplets, before concluding:


from last week's Popula.

Ahmed Hossam walks around the Egyptian Museum, sees the screaming mummy.

This is always my favourite way to see movies, few expectations = more magic.