Three A.M.

Does seem to be the canonical time for writers – all those songs that begin with being wide awake at three a.m….  In my case, it’s just that the slide back to Pacific Standard Time from Accra is dragging a bit. But what with me pretending to be a Real Writer, I might as well take advantage of it – though it would mean pretending that I’d been awake since Bob-knows-when, drenched in angst as I grappled with the inherent meaninglessness of the human condition. Rather than having had a lovely – if short – night’s sleep and popped awake fresh as a somewhat timezone-displaced daisy.
I used to solve this problem with Ambien. Still do on occasion. Love the stuff, or did – now I’m a bit soured on it. Used to seem like the perfect sleep aid – as I understand it, rather than being a sedative, as most sleeping pills are, Ambien is a “hypnotic”. Awakeness is supported by a synchronization between different parts of the brain – the amygdala, hypothalamus and a couple of others, all throwing signals back and forth in some mind-bogglingly complicated game of neuronal catch.
What Ambien does (again, this is hearsay, if I weren’t so lazy, I’d look it up) is holler out to all these bits of your brain: “Hey guys – donuts!”  They drop the ball, and you “forget” to stay awake. Bonk.
For me, this worked wonders; I could reliably take one (prescribed) dose of Ambien, close my eyes, and 15 minutes later, I’d notice that it was actually four hours later. If I were on a long flight, I’d stretch for a couple of minutes, take a second dose, and viola – another four hours. Eight hours of deep sleep, regardless of how crushed, crowded and cramped the airline seat was. Made transoceanic flights in cargo class entirely uneventful.
Of course, if you’re in the habit of doing this, you’ve got to make sure that you’ve really got four-hour chunks of time in which your brain is not going to be needed. Because you know how it is when you’re trying to get your kids to do some complicated task – like put on their shoes – when something bright and shiny is on the TV? This is your brain on Ambien.
I’ve only ever had to deal with that once – a couple of trips ago in Accra. We’d just launched the user experiment, and I was responsible for keeping the server up. Which was turning out to be a bit more challenging than any of us would have liked. I’d turned in after a long hard day, and taken one dose of Ambien to ensure that jet lag wouldn’t kick my feet out from under me the next morning.
Then the pager went off – server had crashed again. Hard. For some reason, I wasn’t thinking particularly effectively, and even though we had Everett online back in Mountain View (where it was mid-afternoon), I found myself trying to debug the problem. I only have vague memories of this. Ev and Greg were apparently trying to convince me that they had this one, that I really should go back to bed,  and while this (apparently hilarious) transatlantic debugging dialog with my team is lost forever, I happened to also be chatting with Lorien, who had the foresight to save a snippet of our conversation. Kids – don’t try this at home, okay? Or anywhere:
Based on my rather limited research, having your keyboard keys “stuff melt away like stained glass in an oven” is a common problem in this situation. Who would have guessed.
Anyhow. As I said, I used to be a fan of Ambien. But wasn’t the risk of drunk coding that soured me on the stuff. After however many years of modest prescribed doses, I noticed a disturbing correlation: the day after spending time with (what Zach calls) the Ambien Walrus, I’d feel refreshed and well rested, but…  I’d also feel angry. Emotionally fragile. Sad.  Going back through the Roadtrip posts, I can actually pick out which ones were written post-Ambien. And that was unnerving.
I tried Ambien – when I really needed to – a few more times once I’d noticed the correlation, and it definitely played out. There were a few occasions when I had to make the decision – which did I want to be tomorrow: Groggy or Cranky? (Not all of the original 11 dwarves made the final cut in Snow White). And when I decided to go for “cranky”, regretted it the next day.
So I think I’m done with the stuff. Damn.
Oh – speaking of 3 a.m. and writing: some of you know that, as I move over to my new role at work, I’m going to initially be taking some time off, just working part time for the first few months. This is so that I can carve out some you-now-have-no-excuses-not-to time to write. Gonna try writing some fiction again – no, not NaNoWriMo style. Some actual slow, contemplative stuff.  And going to try to package up some loose bits on non-fiction I’ve had sitting around forever into something that I can actually get published.
Ironically, this is probably going to have the perceived opposite effect on the blog: I’m guessing that, for the next few months, I’m not going to be posting nearly as much. It’s not a hiatus or anything, I’m just expecting that I’ll be focusing more on stuff that isn’t quite so roadtrippy.
So – I don’t know how most of you come across this blog, whether you’ve got it bookmarked and eagerly click on it each morning (hah!) or have it in your RSS reader feed (better). But the lowest-wasted-time way to read is probably to just subscribe to the mailing list. If you do that, you don’t need to check anything – whenever I post, it’ll show up in your inbox to relish, enjoy or ignore.
The easiest way to subscribe is to send email to; if you get sick and tired of my yammering by email, you unsubscribe by sending email to; fairly simple.
Okay – I think that’s all I’ve got for you this morning. It’s well past 3 a.m. by now, and I should probably get, um, writing.

4 responses to “Three A.M.

  1. I thought it was just me that got the Ambien-Angries! (Actually, it was Patti that noticed it.) Throw in the Ambien-snoring, and she doubly doesn't like me taking the stuff. I'd write more, but I'm about to board a plane to Sao Paulo Brazil. And yes, I've got my Ambien in my carry-on laptop bag. D'oh!


  2. @Ken – yeah, it's surprising how many people are coming out of the woodwork on experiencing emotional hangovers post-Ambien. I'd never heard of the side effect before, but now that I've mentioned it, sounds like it's not uncommon at all!


  3. Once Robin threw up on the carpet about 20 minutes after I'd taken an ambien… there's no documentary evidence, but someday I'll demonstrate for you my paper towel seeking behavior. I'm curious about the angries, and will have to watch for them.


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