Stopping Sleep Medication After 30 Years

“I’ve been off Ambien for 40 days!” 

This is some of the best news I’ve ever received from my mother.

As a psychologist who treats insomnia with behavioral interventions, I know how difficult it is for people with insomnia to give up their sleep medications. Over months or years, their medication is the only tool they have come to trust, the only way to guarantee a few hours of solid sleep. But long-term use of sleep medication is not recommended by any medical association and can carry risks.

Worrisome behaviors caught my attention

My mom has struggled with insomnia for decades and I recall her odd behavior soon after she was prescribed Ambien (zolpidem). I vividly remember her arguing with teenaged me one night because I wouldn’t give her a taste of my toothbrush. No matter how many ways I told and showed her, she could not compute that I was brushing my teeth, not eating a delicious treat that I refused to share with her. 

I talked to her about it the next morning and she had no recollection of it. Over the years, she also had many phone conversations in the middle of the night, which she only knew about because her friends told her the next morning.

Receiving good news from my mom

I’ve been nagging her to discontinue her medication for years because I’ve been worried about her health and was also pretty sure Ambien wasn’t helping her anymore. She never seemed to take my advice seriously. So imagine my surprise (and delight!) when she called me with her news last week.

I am so proud of her that I asked her to share her story with others. She agreed to a short interview with me. Here’s what she had to say about discontinuing her sleep medication after almost 30 years:

An interview with my mother

What has it been like to take sleep medication for so long?

My doctor prescribed zolpidem in 1992 when I was experiencing insomnia due to many stressful situations. I took it every night until 7/21/2021, even after hearing and reading how dangerous and addictive this medicine is. I was in denial that I was a prisoner being controlled by zolpidem. I allowed this little oval pill to regulate when I would sleep and when I would wake up. I had become an addict and dependent on a sedative.

What was it like to stop the medication?

I experienced a lot of anxiety, mood swings, and torturous insomnia for about 10 days. There were nights when I tossed and turned and felt cold one minute and sweaty the next. I was tempted to take zolpidem so many nights but was determined to no longer be controlled by it. By the end of the third week, I began to sleep more comfortably. It is now 46 days that I am zolpidem-free and am able to have a restful night.

What advice do you have for other people who are considering stopping their sleep medication?

Try not to take sleeping medications every night because, in my experience, they affect your brain and dominate your body. When I am ready to go to bed, I have learned to leave my problems outside my bedroom door, and I do not allow them into my bedroom. I close my eyes and imagine that I am floating on clouds. It took weeks of practicing, but it gets easier every time.

How your doctor can help you

Although it is difficult to discontinue sleep medications, it’s not impossible. My mother is proof! If you’re thinking about stopping or reducing your medication, talk to your doctor about your goals and work with them to set realistic expectations.

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