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Ambien: Addiction, Highs, and More You Should Know About the Sleep Aid

Your guide to zolpidem.

Ambien is a popular drug typically prescribed for insomnia. It became available by prescription in 1993, and since then it's become one of the most popular sleep aids of all time. Insomnia is a huge problem in the United States, with 50 to 70 million adults reporting sleep deprivation. Because of this, Ambien is one of the top five most popular prescription drugs in America.

What Is It?

Ambien (AKA zolpidem) belongs to a class of drugs known as sedative-hypnotics. It works by slowing down brain activity that leads to insomnia by binding the GABA neurotransmitter to receptors in the brain. Therefore, Ambien doesn't actually force you to fall asleep; it simply creates a peaceful, relaxed state of mind.

Side Effects

Ambien is fast-acting and can put even the most dedicated insomniacs to sleep in around 15 minutes, but it has a great deal of potential side effects. If you go to sleep right away after taking the drug, then even after you wake up, you might experience effects like daytime drowsiness or fatigue, dizziness or lightheadedness, and short-term memory loss. In rare cases, Ambien can actually make it more difficult to sleep.

It can also easily lead to dependence, which can develop in as little as two weeks of continual use. If you become dependent on Ambien, it can be harder to sleep than it was before you began taking the drug. All that said, Ambien can be immensely helpful for people who suffer from genuinely debilitating insomnia or sleep problems—if taken as directed.

But millions of people around the country stay awake on Ambien to experience its notorious "high," which can generate everything from euphoria to hallucinations to dangerous impulsivity and memory loss.

Ambien Highs (and Lows)

Not everyone experiences an Ambien high. Those who do report experiencing feelings of mellowness and euphoria, but sometimes things can go in a stranger direction, especially if Ambien is taken in higher quantities or paired with drugs. Just five milligrams of Ambien can create this sensation, though it's easy to develop a tolerance.

Ambien abusers—especially those who take it in higher doses—will sometimes drive, have sex, eat, or do other impulsive activities, and scariest of all, Ambien can cause memory loss, so Ambien users will frequently wake up in the morning not remembering how they ended up in a certain place and not knowing how they were injured. Some users have auditory or visual hallucinations, seeing patterns, lights, or hearing sounds or music that isn't there. In some cases, these hallucinations can cause paranoia and personality changes.

Users report all manner of bizarre activities, and an Internet connection and an Ambien prescription can be a particularly dangerous combination. The Reddit thread r/ambien is full of strange posts made by people on the drug, who have done everything from 2AM yoga to sending long, rambling email updates. For some, Ambien helps reduce social anxiety and creates a feeling of relief and relaxation.

When taken in high doses, Ambien highs can cause people to do truly strange things. "Under the hypnotic effect of Ambien, one user overnight shipped a crate of live, Maine lobsters to his ex-girlfriend," writes Jamal Stone for Milk. "Another user ordered a $70 leg of ham from BBQ-enthusiast website, Pig of the Month, despite having been vegetarian for years. And a Navy officer woke up on Inspection Day to find that he'd MacGyvered a tar-black, treelike 'superstructure' in the middle of the night–made out of cans, heated wax, Q-tips, and shoe polish. The list goes on, and on. The Walrus's conquests are many."

Ambien's strange, hallucinatory effects are sometimes collectively described as the "Walrus," perhaps in reference to the Beatles' surrealist song "I Am the Walrus." Although this sounds charming and fun, sometimes the Walrus can lead people to deadly ends. Ambien abusers have gotten in car crashes and used Ambien for date rape, and one person named Robert Stewart even committed eight murders while on the drug. Even if this type of harm doesn't occur, Ambien addiction is also a common problem, as covered in Laurie Sandell's essay for Glamour.

One thing Ambien does not do is cause racism (who could forget when Roseanne blamed racist tweets on the drug?). It can, however, significantly impair functioning. Rapper Eminem stated that he was addicted to the drug (along with others) for five years and it impaired his ability to write songs. "…a lot of my memory is gone. I don't know if you've ever taken Ambien, but it's kind of a memory-eraser," he said. "That sh** wiped out five years of my life. People will tell me stories, and it's like, 'I did that?' I saw myself doing this thing on [television network] BET recently, and I was like, 'When was that?'"

So if you are considering using Ambien, make sure that you're well aware of its risks and dangers. Never take it along with drugs and alcohol, as the pairing can be deadly.

If you insist on using it in a manner other than directed, make sure you're in a safe place, preferably with your wireless browser turned off and your door locked.