* Editor’s note: This column first ran on March 15, 2007.
“I remember when, I remember, I remember when I lost my mind … There was something so pleasant about that place… Even your emotions had an echo in so much space … And when you’re out there, without care, yeah, I was out of touch. But it wasn’t because I didn’t know enough … I just knew too much. Does that make me crazy? Possibly …”
That’s how Gnarls Barkley’s smash hit, “Crazy,” begins. I loved it the first time I heard it. And then one day, it came true. All thanks to a little pill called Lunesta.
The Food and Drug Administration recently ruled that warning labels for sleep medications like Lunesta must be improved. Apparently “sleep-driving” is a problem for some folks taking these drugs. Others have allergic reactions. And some of us just go crazy.
The back story: Last fall, I was losing my lifelong battle with insomnia. Waning midlife hormones had exacerbated the problem. Perimenopausal insomnia is bad enough if you normally sleep 8 hours daily. If you only sleep 5 (and that’s on a good day), it’s hell.
About seven years of this new and improved hardcore insomnia, and I was psychologically threadbare from exhaustion. Chronic insomnia isn’t merely an annoyance. Eventually, your body will make it clear that if you don’t do something about it, it will. And not in a way you’ll like. A heart attack, maybe? Stroke? What’ll it take to get your attention?
I tried this, I tried that, nothing worked. So, my doctor prescribed Lunesta. And it worked. I slept 8 hours the first night. Felt a little weird the next day, but hey, maybe that’s what “rested” feels like. Great stuff.
“Do not take Lunesta with alcohol,” the label says. I interpreted that as “Don’t wash Lunesta down with beer.” And I didn’t. A week later, I had a couple drinks at a party with my sister, nearly 20 hours after my last dose of Lunesta. I thought I was following the directions.
I didn’t go mad-dog-in-the-midday-sun crazy. It was more insidious. My negativity filters dissolved. You know those filters in your brain that halt negative thoughts from coming out your mouth? I no longer had them. My brain steeped in Lunesta, my sister started doing those things that normally make me grind my teeth and plot my escape. For the sake of preserving the dysfunctional family dance, I usually keep a tight lid on what I’m really thinking.
Not this time. A couple cocktails, and that lid popped right off. Decades of carefully suppressed annoyance erupted. And I reemphasized everything the next day in scathing emails. Not that she didn’t have it coming. Not that every word of it wasn’t true. Not that, on some level, it wasn’t an immense relief to get it off my chest. But, in retrospect, there might’ve been less volcanic ways of doing so.
Another week later, out with friends, just two glasses of wine and I became so verbally abusive that my wide-eyed friend gently took me home, later telling me, “I’ve never seen you act like that.”
And the days in between? I was sucked into a quicksand of depression. I wanted to quit my job. I wanted to break up with my boyfriend. One morning, while jogging, tears streaming inexplicably down my cheeks, it all became crystal clear: If I killed myself, all my problems would be solved. The thought came to me completely devoid of emotion, like solving a mathematical equation. But in the back of my brain, I was screaming, “You don’t really feel that way! Your problems aren’t that bad! What the hell’s the matter with you?”
As serendipity would have it, the answer came while flipping through a magazine later that same day. There was a Lunesta ad, the warning worded slightly differently: “Do not use alcohol while taking Lunesta.” Click.
This prompted me to check out Lunesta’s website. Buried way down the list of possible side effects, I found this: aggressive or strange behavior; agitation; increased depression; suicidal thoughts. That wasn’t on the warning label.
Should they revamp the labels? Ya think?
Long story, short ending: I flushed the Lunesta and soon felt normal. Now I’m using relaxation CDs and behavior modification for insomnia, with some success. But I’ll never forget my brief trip down the rabbit hole. The most alarming thing was that I felt utterly sane at the time. Completely aware of my every thought. I just knew too much. Did that make me crazy? Possibly …
— Email Debra DeAngelo, winner of the 2012 Best Serious Column award in the National Newspaper Association’s Better Newspaper Contest, at email@example.com; read more of her work at www.wintersexpress.com and www.edebra.com