This is a sleep history.
As a kid, I slept a pretty normal schedule but dreamed vividly, wildly. Every night felt like an eternity’s worth of impossible events and chaotic stories…the dreams had a quality of intensely-lived past lives all crammed into an eight-hour stretch. I’d wake up every morning exhausted and with a head full of strange new memories.
Sometimes I hallucinated. The dreams would carry over into the real world and I’d wake up seeing…well, things. Various things. Other times these visions preceded the dreams; I’d see things in the moments before falling asleep.
The hallucinations only lasted minutes. They were usually solitary characters, just standing there in the room. Sometimes it was a knight in coronation regalia. Sometimes it was a tiny, sentient mountain. A few times it was Chewbacca. Always right there, in the middle of my bedroom. I’d stare at the vision, sort of afraid, mostly confused. Then I’d konk out and do the vivid dreaming thing.
The seeing-things deal only lasted a few years. That stopped happening when I was nine or so. My brother had the same issue, but he carried those hallucinations with him into adulthood. Their nature changed and, eventually, the entities he could see started talking to him. He started talking back. That went on until he was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
In high school, I began to experience cycles of depression, each one worst than the last. That started then and continued into my thirties. It wasn’t peaks and valleys, it was more like valleys and then other, much lower valleys.
These cycles ended up changing my sleep habits.
Mood-wise, I’d go six months to a year down, then level out for six months or so, then start dropping again. During college and the first half of my 20s, this resulted in insomnia.
I couldn’t sleep during the down cycles, I think for all of the predictable reasons. My head was churning through anxious thoughts…black, world-ending thoughts. My heart was all twisted up and I couldn’t stop dwelling on negative things.
So, I’d go a few days without sleeping. Eventually I would sleep a few hours, feel a little better, and then go back into the insomnia. Sleep was hard to come by.
The one odd thing during this time was that, any time I did manage to crash out for a few hours, I tended to sleepwalk. I wouldn’t do very much, just roam around the apartment for a bit. But since I had roommates…and since I generally stayed up nights and tried to sleep during the day…my sleepwalking often happened around noon or so. This freaked the roommates out. Me, aimlessly strolling around the apartment…silent, not responding to anything they said: it was weird.
I of course never remembered any of this. I would wake up. They would describe the somnambulism. They weren’t thrilled with it. I was a pretty crappy roommate.
Eventually I started taking ambien and that stuff was magic. It was beautiful, but dark, dark magic.
Ambien would knock me out quickly and for a good eight hours or so. I wouldn’t dream. I was just out. I loved it. It wasn’t good for me to be so drugged and empty, but it was a relief to be sleeping.
The problem is that I experienced one of the more common side-effects of ambien: the blackouts.
Blackouts don’t mean you are unaware and immobilized. They mean that you are active and doing things, but not conscious while you are doing any of it. Basically, you’re not forming memories. You’re blacked out.
It didn’t happen a lot, but sometimes I would take ambien and make the mistake of not going directly to bed. I would later wake up, find that I had, in some instances, ordered pizza, watched movies, stuff like that…none of which I could remember. I frequently had to check my browser history to see what I’d been up to.
I spent a lot of my Blackout Ambien Time watching Netflix. Apparently, I’ve seen a lot of Doctor Who that I’ve basically still never seen. That seemed to be my go-to viewing during those blank hours.
My behaviors under ambien were never all that different from what I would normally do. Instead of Jeckyll and Hyde, it was more of a Jeckyll and Somehow Even Nerdier Jeckyll type of thing.
One time I woke up from an ambien blackout to find a blotch of dried mustard on one of my shoes. This was strange; I didn’t have a bottle of mustard in the apartment. Then I discovered a crumpled-up movie ticket next to my bed. I must have driven to a theater, watched a film and…I don’t know, eaten a corn dog or something. I’ll never know where the mustard came from.
That’s the day I stopped taking ambien. Driving around on it, that seemed a bit much in a scary sort of way. Way worse than soldiering through the roughly 26 episodes from Doctor Who’s 1978/79 Key of Time season.
As I entered my late 20s, early 30s, things changed again. The down cycles got worse and instead of insomnia, I had the opposite problem. I started sleeping all the time. I couldn’t stay awake. My brain lost interest in things; in everything.
I took lengthy, secret naps at work. Sometimes I fell asleep during meetings. On days off, I could sleep up to 16 hours at a time. It was always a heavy sleep, although my dreams had become sort of vague and unmemorable. They were less distinct…I think they just got in the way of the sleeping.
There’s not a lot more to say about those years. I slumbered through them. I suspect that my mind was closing down, slowly pushing reality away.
However, I was going to therapy by then and a nice psychologist did a pretty good job of tricking me into working on some life goals. She seemed pretty worried about the way things were going, but we conversed…she figured out that I liked words, so she did a Socratic Method deal and tricked me into getting through it all.
Today, I sleep normally. That’s a new thing. That started around five years ago when I finally stopped feeling depressed all the time and I transitioned into a more structured, people-oriented schedule. The kind of schedule where there’s stuff to do, a lot of it, so I end up getting too distracted to crash out and stare at the ceiling. That’s good.
My dreams have normalized as well. I play a lot of video games and, for no discernible reason, most of my dreams are based on whatever video game I’m playing at the time. Most recently, for example, I’m playing the sort of game where you’re a knightly hero type of character and you meander through dungeons and do battle with trolls and old ghosts and shady wizards. And then I go to sleep and spend the whole night dreaming about trolls and old ghosts and shady wizards.
It’s not very interesting. I just mention it because that’s how the sleep history ends.