Pixie Dust, Promises and Bizarre Side Effects

Reporters far and wide have been mining the story-rich terrain of the sleep drug Ambien -- and we're having trouble staying awake long enough to keep up.

Yesterday, producers at CNN broke a wacky story about a Manhattan resident who paints pictures in his sleep.

“For several weeks we have been bringing you incredible stories from people who say Ambien, the nation’s most widely prescribed sleeping pill, not only caused them to sleep, but also to sleepwalk, sleep-eat and even sleep-drive,” reported host Heidi Collins, on Paula Zahn Now. “And that’s just the beginning.”

What followed was a story from correspondent Jeanne Moos about Edwin “Itsi” Atkins who, after being prescribed Ambien, began painting pictures in his sleep, including such masterpieces as an “abstract Charles Manson” — basically a bunch of messy lines on the back of a movie poster.

“You can bet the makers of Ambien are losing sleep,” reported Moos. “First came the stories of sleep driving. Then came the stories of sleep eating. And now sleep painting?”

In the meantime, breaking the news about Ambien painting constitutes a major scoop for CNN. After all, in recent months, Ambien reportage has become a crowded and hyper-competitive field. Ditto for Ambien coinage.

Just recently, for instance, the Boston Herald passed along the terms “Ambi-talking,” and “ambinging.” The New York Times floated the phrase “the Ambien driver.” The Independent tossed off “Ambien Zombie.” While NBC passed along the inspired “DUIA” — “driving under the influence of Ambien.”

This past weekend, writing on the op-ed page of the Times, Maureen Dowd broke new Ambien ground by giving an Ambien confessional: “I am a sleep-eater.” A few paragraphs later, as if to prove the durability of Ambien-inspired rhetoric, Dowd segued from a missing bag of Oreo cookies in her own kitchen to the shortcomings of the Bush administration and arrived at the inevitable coinage:

“Sleepers in Chief.”

The day after Dowd’s piece, yet another bit of Ambien opining appeared in the Times, where op-ed contributor Lauren Slater argued that the current Ambien saturation in the media is actually part of a larger, predictable cycle.

“The new Ambien uproar — our supposedly safe sleeping pills have been reported to cause amnesia and sleep-disordered states — is just one more example of a pattern so pervasive in the brief and labile history of psychiatric medication,” wrote Slater, “that I’m surprised we haven’t yet created chemical cures for those mourning their chemical cures.”

“Psychotropics rise to prominence in ways that are distressingly familiar, with pixie dust and promise, making their way into the news media and onto the covers of national magazines,” added Slater.

Then, according to Slater, once the pixie dust and promise settle down, a backlash of sorts takes place—and a fresh round of media stories tend to appear focusing on the various shortcomings and weird side effects of the drug.

As for us, our choice of bedtime narcotic is not Ambien. But, we confess, we’re beginning to critique the press in our sleep.

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Felix Gillette writes about the media for The New York Observer.