Sleep had always eluded me.
I used to take Benadryl in high school (more than the average dose), and growing up I was used to being the last one awake at sleepovers. That usually resulted in me calling my mom to pick me up from slumber parties at 2 am. At a young age, I developed a fear of the night, of not sleeping, of being tired the next day, of being alone with my thoughts.
Insomnia ran in my family and I hit a rough patch at age 18. I was a camp counselor at the time, and couldn’t manage to turn my little brain off at night. High performance and ‘go, go, go’ was expected of me, and I simply couldn’t function on 2 hours of sleep every night. Fix it fast, as fast as you can, I told myself, a notion confirmed by doctors. And what better immediate solution than a pill?
For the next seven years straight, I would take a powerful prescription medication to sleep: Ambien.
I became someone with an addiction. Ambien (and eventually wine), would soon become my higher power, the only way I knew how to do life.
I grew such a tolerance and such a reliance, that my small frame would take three to four times the maximum amount prescribed just so that I could sleep peacefully.
It did not start out as an addiction or dark cloud, far from it. What started as a desire to simply sleep, experience one of life’s most natural functions, turned into a raging addiction. One pill turned into two, two into three, three into God knows how much. Often times I’d wake up and half the bottle of Ambien would be gone, and I’d have no recollection of how it happened: The last thing I remembered was taking one. I grew such a tolerance and such a reliance, that my small frame would take three to four times the maximum amount prescribed just so that I could sleep peacefully.
Needless to say, I felt as if I lived much of those seven years as a zombie, with no true rest. As Ambien began to stop working, as all of our bandaids eventually do, I quickly learned that alcohol could speed up the sleep process. So, I started combining the two: way too much Ambien and a couple of glasses of wine, eventually to become a bottle of wine a night. I would take my Ambien religiously and drink out of my sophisticated, tall- stemmed glass of Sauvignon Blanc devotedly. Every. Single. Night.
You would do it too if you knew the misery in not sleeping night after night, I told myself. Sleep had to occur to function. Therefore, I needed to do what I needed to do in order to make that happen. It was all in the name of sleep, I told myself and concerned loved ones. But over time, it became to be about so much more than physical rest.
I drank and took Ambien to soothe the spiritual unrest I felt, to escape hard things, to escape from myself, to numb the emotions that I had.
I drank and took Ambien to soothe the spiritual unrest I felt, to escape hard things, to escape from myself, to numb the emotions that I had. Why do I have to fu***** feel everything? I hated that I felt every emotion so acutely.
If you knew me in the past, you might be quite surprised to read this. For much of my life, I didn’t enjoy getting drunk. That’s not to say I didn’t get drunk, but I didn’t love it when it happened. I was so fixated on maintaining my composure, being in control, and being productive — all of which don’t mix with alcohol. So in college, I went grocery shopping during football tailgates my freshman year because homegirl didn’t want to drink warm Natty Light with a bunch of sweaty boys. Instead, I drove people around, went on runs, painted in my room.
My sophomore year, I learned that “day-drinking” was a thing. Again, it didn’t quite suit my personality — I was a do-er, and how could I do anything if I’m drinking during the day? Nevertheless, I partook. And I actually grew to enjoy it.
But still, I wasn’t partying until I puked. In fact, I could count on one hand the number of times I’ve thrown up from drinking, (as if that were an accomplishment, ha!). I wasn’t really much of a partier at all. Don’t get me wrong, I was not a saint either and no doubt I drank like my friends around me, but there was always someone more drunk than me in the room. I was usually the first to call it a night – being in my bed just sounded better than being in a bar packed like sardines drinking shots of Fireball. When I traveled to Spain two summers in a row, I often called it a night before the party ever got started.
All of these things would later become qualifications for “why I didn’t have a problem”
The boys I’d crush on and date for a hot minute in college would give me a hard time when we went out, because I always insisted on drinking water in between each drink, and the last hour of the night, water only.
All of these things would later become qualifications for “why I didn’t have a problem”, and I would cling to them for dear life — anything to prove I was not an addict.
I had a group of women in college that I surrounded myself with and was never afraid to get honest, raw, and real with them. I was open about my struggle with sleep in our weekly Bible studies, but the truth is, as honest and open as I thought I was being — I didn’t truly know the depth of the struggle. I never intended to abuse alcohol. I never intended to be on a medication for as long as I was. I had good intentions. But even the best of intentions and the strongest of moral convictions don’t stand a chance in the face of addiction.
Dependence on sleeping medication? Absolutely. But addiction? Never. Even. Crossed. My. Mind. I knew it ran in my family to some degree, but that was the extent of my knowledge. I had this idea of an addict in my head: He had red veins broken out on his face, drinking a 40 out of a brown paper bag under a bridge with a stacked record of DWIs. Not me. I felt sorry for those who struggled with it, deeply sorry, but I didn’t bother to learn about it, because it could never touch me, right? The word addict or alcoholic did not ring synonymous with Caroline Pullen.
But looking back I can see that those beginning years on Ambien every night mixed in with some casual drinking were laying the foundation for the dark days of true addiction that laid ahead.
For another story on addiction, check out Jordan Roger’s short film: