Cracked Open – Installment 3


As many of you know, I’ve been working steadily on Cracked Open, a book that chronicles my experience being a mother suffering terrible insomnia to a mother desperately dependent on benzodiazepines. I am not alone. I live in a state that ranks at the top for anti-depressant and anti-anxiety meds and we love to give them to women. But I’m not writing this book simply for mothers or for women. I’m writing it for anyone who has gone into a doctor’s office, desperate and sick, and come out with a prescription that led them down a path to illness and/or disability. It happens so often.

The section below talks of the beginning. After months of sleeping one to two hours of sleep a night, I was given unlimited prescriptions for Ambien CR. I wasn’t told anything about possible physical dependency. I wasn’t told that I could have sustained and horrific side effects (heart palpitations, skyrocketing anxiety, wandering into neighbors’ yards at midnight…). As so many of us, I was in a state of desperation. That desperation was a toxic mix when combined with the lack of information provided by my doctor.

I’m posting installments of the book on MIA because I want your feedback. We are the experts now because we have to be. I want this book to be a call to action for both prescribers and consumers. I want it to educate and inform via a narrative that speaks to all of us. If you have feedback that can help me hone the message of the book, please let me know. If you’re inspired, please share this post on Facebook or any other place of your choosing. My hope is that together we can dispel not just ignorance, but the ignorance that parades around with the illusion knowledge.

May 15, 2009

I suppose I should be happy that I’ve written something. I suppose I should be happy that I’ve managed anything at all besides buying eggs and potatoes and keeping the laundry going. Oh, and keeping Cassius alive. There’s that. That’s primary, though all other aspects of motherhood – teaching him things, urging him to crawl, bonding in beatific, heartrending ways – have dispersed. I don’t know if the insomnia is psychosomatic fragmentation or biological infirmary but I’m now officially medicated. The first night was a dream. I was out for seven hours – seven! It was staggering. And I felt so capable, so oxen. Oh ho – can I ever casserole now! I can teach my son how to sign in Egyptian! I can do weeks of laundry and plan meals for the next millennium! I will be the Cat in the Hat of motherhood. I will be the wife of the century! Watch me balance a bottle of milk on my head. Watch me stand on a ball. Watch me waffle and wiffle and chop, chop, chop, chop! Watch me sandwich a manwich and play peek-a-boo. And that is not all I can do! No, that is not all!

I’m sleeping four to five hours a night now. I feel almost human again, though still pretty desperate and out of it most of the time. Two nights ago I burst through the Ambien pharmaceutical haze and started wandering around the house half-cocked. I sat on the couch watching the little clock on the side table move from twelve o’clock to one o’clock to two. At two thirty I decided that it would be best if I just got into the car and drove. This sounded like a brilliant idea. The car would be safe. I wouldn’t wake anyone and I could drive and drive and end up in Utah’s south desert with all the pretty sandstone arches. Maybe I’d hike. Maybe I’d buy a donut. I grabbed my keys and was just opening the front door to leave when Sean stopped me. I only remember sections – staring at the clock, wondering if Ambien was actually poisoning my brain, wondering if I should call someone about this and then the knowledge that driving is what I should and must do. I don’t remember a tussle or getting back into bed. I don’t remember if Sean was angry because he had to get up in the morning and load his truck with dogwood trees for a client. Perhaps he just led me gently by the elbow, nudging me like an orderly with an elderly patient who’s been found wandering the hall in their skivvies. Regardless, I went back to bed and lay down, night sick and dreaming of a road desolate and distant that stretched to an impossible horizon.

May 28, 2009

Jack lost his job three days ago. Ivy called to tell me. She’s acting brave but I can tell that she’s scared. After a decade of being an administrator at a high school in Salt Lake, somebody decided to give Jack the boot. Not enough money, they told him. And he doesn’t have the proper degree, despite the fact that he’s taught and administrated for over half of his life. The fact that kids love him and he’s funny doesn’t matter. The fact that kids come to his office just to talk and Jack lets the ones who have shitty homes sleep on his couch doesn’t matter. And the stacks of thank you letters from parents are like so much flotsam. There was a meeting where his contract was supposed to be renewed for the fall and then they didn’t renew it and it was Ciao, baby. It’s less than a month until school is over and then Jack and Ivy will both be officially unemployed. We sat on the phone and I cried and Ivy was stoic. She’ll find something, she says. She’s got a PhD for godssakes. There’s got to be something.

We try brainstorming for a little while but all I can offer are receptive comments. I’m still so pathetically tired. After my fourth or fifth “that’s a good idea …” Ivy asks about my sleep. I tell her about the other night and then I tell her about the earworm.

“I haven’t even told Sean, but it’s Philadelphia Freedom, Ivy … Philadelphia Freedom playing over and over again in my head every night until the drugs kick in. And it’s not even the whole song, it’s just the chorus repeated ad nauseaum until I want to kill myself.”

“’Cause I live and breathe this Philadelphia Freedom?”  Ivy sings. “That one?”

“God, don’t sing it! Yes, that one. Fuck, now it’s in my head again.”

We discuss the notion of music as a device of torture.

“Shouldn’t an earworm be something – I don’t know – more Heavy Metal? Isn’t that what they use in Guantanamo to keep political prisoners from sleeping? That and the sound of crying babies? How’d you end up with Elton John?”

“I didn’t choose the earworm, okay? At least it’s not the Carpenters.”

“I happen to like the Carpenters. I don’t sing their songs, but I like them.”

“I know – I do too but don’t tell anyone.”

And then we sing a few lines from Close To You and I feel sad because the Carpenters wrote this song when Karen Carpenter was starving to death from anorexia and when you see videos, her voice is just about the only thing left of her.

“So, does Philadelphia Freedom mean something to you?” Ivy asks.

“No. Nothing. I mean, Elton’s an icon and everything but I mostly know his stuff through cultural osmosis. I’ve never really cared about the song until now because it’s in my head for hours every night. I dunno … okay, I’m feeling a little trapped with this June Cleaver role. I know that it’s just for now and God love the people who can stay home all day but the artist mother thing just isn’t working out. ”



“Well, that makes sense. I mean, don’t all parents feel that way sometimes?”

“I don’t know. I don’t feel trapped with Cassius. There’s just this feeling that I’m stuck in a room with no doors or windows. It feels like it might be this way forever.”

I’m holding the phone and crying again. Always, this crying. I am a zucchini patch in summer with this crying. I have taken over the house. I have grown over Sean’s trucks. We are trapped inside the overgrown garden of my crying and we don’t know how to get out.

“I’m a Sartre play, Ivy. I’m in an existential café and the coffee is black and the doors are all locked and my neurosis are like zucchini plants.” I’m sobbing into the phone. I pull in, trying to hold my shit together.

“Sorry. I’m so sorry, Ivy.”

“It’s okay,” Ivy says and pauses. “It won’t last. I know it feels like it will but your body will figure it out. You’ll get back to baseline.”

“I hope so,” I say. “Until then it’s me and Elton living it up in the Hotel California.”

Later I hate myself for hijacking the conversation. I feel so shaky and vulnerable and now I’ve proven that I’m an ass. Ivy and Jack are looking straight into the recession abyss and all I can do is cry and talk about my Elton John earworm and my own absurdist mama movement. I am swirling down my own drain. I am in a philosophical crush. I am a shitty friend with brain hammering medication and my body tearing me apart from the inside.


Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.


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  1. It does seem the medical community targets stay at home moms / artists. At least my medical records state that being an active volunteer, mother, and fairly prolific artist is “unemployed.” Are we really to the point where our medical community feels the need to try and murder all the “useless eaters,” who work to benefit society via a traditional feminine role?

    And I, too, have a musical component to my story. It’s as if someone is…

    “Strumming my pain with his fingers
    Singing my life with his words
    Killing me softly with his song …
    Telling my whole life with his words
    Killing me softly with his song”

    I can tell the story of my dreams and life, including describe relationships with people I’ve known throughout my entire life, in music lyrics. It’s a bizarre gift. Hopefully, it will make my tale of egregious medical maltreatment and ungodly disrespect within a way too paternalistic society more palatable.

    Best of luck with your book, Melissa.

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  2. I love the musical allusions, Melissa. As a musician, I tend to hear the soundtrack of a piece. Yours is built in. That’s my generation, I relate to those songs and artists, they take me back.

    I find it especially interesting and ironic that you talk about music as torture and eliciting bad feelings, whereas I always associate it with earth and light, pure harmonic energy, and healing. Plus, one song is about freedom and the other about intimacy, which are the gifts of life, so to see them with negative associations is beautiful polarity. I definitely feel the tension.

    Your writing is so clear and honest. I look forward to more!

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    • Thanks, Alex.

      Yeah, the music piece was strange. It has always been a refuge and it speaks to the horrors of the insomnia that it became torturous. It was simply the ceaseless refrain that did me in. I still haven’t figured out why that particular song. There’s so much that doesn’t and didn’t make sense. Koans all the way around!

      Just glad I can enjoy now.

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      • Very interested in your treatment plan, I was diagnosed with lyme but I suspect I may have long term issues with psychotropic drugs. Developed autonomic nervous system issues after being on lexapro for 7 years than found benzos in october of 2012 and been on them ever since. My only saving grace is that it’s stayed around the same fairly low dose about 1-1.5 mg of ativan a day. I wan’t to come off, I read a lot of your blogs and you seem to know the way.

        Any advice would be helpful I know I can beat this crap.

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