Ambien has been around since 1993, but only now has it reached its cultural saturation point. Like Ecstasy in 1989 or LSD in 1969, it's the drug that unlocks the fantasy of the moment, which for the owners of 27 million prescriptions means pulling a pillow over their heads. Eminem just did an album about getting hooked on it. Coldplay write their songs on it. It has inspired untold hours of binge-eating and Halo-playing, not to mention years of U.S. foreign policy. ("Everybody here uses Ambien," Colin Powell told a reporter in 2003.) If you stay awake past the 15-minute window when it's supposed to zonk you out, you will end up writing nightmarishly bad poetry and sexting your roommate's exes.
Every night, you can practically smell the Ambien fog settling over a nation of Zolpidem zombies. You can see it in your friends, when they start Twittering in those dangerous late-night hours, when the Ainbien has gone down but they haven't fallen asleep yet. You can read it in the after-midnight Facebook status updates along the lines of "Speak to cheese arm steak of united face." It inspires sleep-eating, sleep-driving, sleep-shopping, sleep-blogging. Ambien gives you the hallucinatory urge to indulge your most moronic whims — in other words, it turns you into the pitiful jerk you already are. That's the clanger of this drug: The side effect is you.
Insomniacs used to get prescribed sedatives like Tuinal, Valium, Seconal, even Thorazine or lithium, just for their meagerly soporific side effects, which is like sticking your head in the microwave for an earache. But Ambien takes a sharpshooter approach, targeting brain receptors to promote gamma-aminobutyric acid — if other sleep aids were Keith Moon, Ambien was Charlie Watts, getting the job done with ruthless efficiency. So it appeals to casual users who have no idea how to handle its heavy hypnotic effect, which means deep sleep for insomniacs, and cheap laughs for the rest of us.
The Ambien alibi, like Ambien amnesia, is part of the lure. There's something about this moment people are eager not to remember, and the empty Doritos Collisions bags on the floor can always be blamed on the drugs, if not forgotten entirely. No wonder it's become America's drug. It's the drug that turns America into America. So what's in the fridge?