Sleeping Pills: The Good, Bad, and Ugly

19 June 2013

“The nightmare of that fall night haunts me like a desert wind.

It had been the summer of raccoon love. The tall juniper tree in my backyard was the frequent scene of the raccoons’ nighttime bordello and they were none too quiet each night as I retired. I’m a light sleeper, and was not coping well with the uninvited raccoon noise that was disconcertingly taking place just outside. Given the cacophony, and being a sometimes observer of the chemical arts, I had just taken a nighttime ‘mickey.’

I wake with a start. Mind in a haze. Howls of raccoon ecstasy. Rage. I go outside. There on a high branch was a raccoon, smoking a cigarette. Rage. The gun is loaded.

Crack! The scent of gunpowder is in the air. Neighbor’s lights are coming on. …Waiting… Sirens? Blood on my hands.

Cold blood.

Cold, raccoon blood.

Maybe it was the sleeping pill. But, in the recesses of my soul, I often wonder. Today, there are no raccoons in that juniper. Only the memory of what, was once, the summer of raccoon love.”

*Disclaimer: Mickey here refers to a sleeping pill, not an animated mouse. No animals were harmed in the writing of this blog.*

That, dear readers, was my co-worker’s tale of the effects of taking a sleeping pill, or a nighttime “mickey.” It seems that when it comes to oversleeping, we all have a fair share of great stories, and when it comes to oversleeping due to sleeping pills, those stories are wilder but far and few between. So I would now like to share my own story.

While it may not have been the summer of raccoon love, it was summer, and there was love as I was set to get married the next morning. Now, all you once-were blushing brides, remember how the night before your wedding is a pretty difficult one to try to sleep through. Add onto that the fact that someone from work sent out a message at 1:30 a.m. Rage… ok yeah, I was really mad.

At about 3:00 in the morning, I went to the kitchen because I knew I would find a sleeping pill there. True, I had never taken one before. True, it was 3:00 and I needed to be up in about four hours. True, this pill was designed for you to sleep about eight hours. False, I’m great at waking up in the morning….

Yes, I’m sure you can see where this is headed. 7:30 rolls around, and I threw my alarm clock across the room. 7:35 arrives, and my Dad comes in and tries to wake me up, gently at first. He eventually pulled me out of my bed and stood me on my feet, trying to explain that I needed to wake up because I was getting married. The right reaction would have been for those words to send a thrill through my body, popping my eyes open and clearing my mind.

My reaction? “It’s not happening today.”

My Dad’s reaction? “Oh yes it is. I’ve spent way too much money for you to bail now.”

My Dad’s a pretty strong guy, so needless to say, my attempts to crawl back into bed and sleep off the effects of the pill did not go well. I ended up starting my day about a half an hour late, but it definitely could have been a lot worse. As an added disclaimer, I really was very excited to get married, and am very happy that my Dad was there to help me get out of bed. (That’s about as non-mushy as I could get.)

Well, this blog’s title promised you the good, not just the bad and ugly. There are a few benefits of taking a sleeping pill other than just to create funny stories.

The Good

Sleeping pills are meant to be used short term, and are best when your sleep is being disrupted due to travel, stress, recovering from a medical procedure, or something that bumps into your normal sleep schedule. When used for that reason, sleeping pills can be a wonderful way to help you get the rest you need to stay healthy.

Sleeping pills of the past created a high addiction rate, but today’s don’t carry the same level of risks of dependency or overdoses. Of course, there are still risks, and those with certain medical conditions are more likely to have problems. Check in with you doctor before you start taking some cure-all.

The Bad

All too often though, a sleeping pill is used as a temporary fix for those with insomnia. While a sleeping pill may be treating the symptoms, there are deeper issues that need to be taken care of that the pill just won’t cure. Lifestyle changes, better sleep habits, and treating any other conditions are usually what it takes to help with insomnia.

While the pill I took the night before my wedding just wouldn’t get out of my system, my husband might have had a different experience. Recent research is showing that men and women are different (imagine that) and so are reacting differently to sleep medication. The biggest problem with this is when sleep medication is being tested for safety, it’s mostly used on only male testers, even mostly male animals. So what is deemed safe for a guy may react pretty different for a girl.

The main reason for this is that women generally metabolize slower than men do. That means the pill is staying in a girl’s blood stream longer. The effects of this could be as minimal as leftover grogginess, or more severe like dangerous heart rhythms.

The Ugly

Some common side effects of sleeping pills include forgetfulness, hallucinations, and confusion. This confusion has been shown to affect judgment and behavior. Perhaps my co-worker can fully blame the sleeping pill for seeing a raccoon smoking a cigarette and his reaction to the loud noises.

Over time, your body can develop a tolerance to sleeping pills. Your normal dose may not work anymore, so you’ll have to take more and more in order to achieve the same results. This means patients are using more of a pill and for longer, and the effects just aren’t known yet. When new pills are developed, most clinical trials that evaluate the safety and effectiveness only last a few weeks. The problem is, most people take them for years, even if it was only approved for short-term use.

There are also some pretty bizarre effects that prolonged use may have. In some extreme cases people will sleep-walk, or even scarier, sleep-drive. Another complex behavior is sleep-eating, where the person will raid the fridge in the middle of the night with no recollection of having done so.

Really though, good can come from taking a sleeping pill. Just take it with caution, and understand that it’s meant to be a short-term help. If you find yourself having a bad night’s rest at least three nights per week, there is probably an underlying cause that you need to get worked out. Talk to your doctor, and be sure to invest in a good night’s rest.