Medical Examiner

Roseanne’s Ambien Story Almost Makes Sense

No, the drug doesn’t make you racist. But Ambien trips are really weird.

Roseanne Barr surrounded by Ambien.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Matt Petit/ABC via Getty Images, Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for SiriusXM, and Thinkstock.

Early Wednesday morning, Roseanne Barr blamed her racist, TV show–canceling tweets on Ambien, the popular prescription drug used for the short-term treatment of insomnia. In addition to saying that she had only compared former Obama aide Valerie Jarrett to an ape because she was “Ambien tweeting,” she added that it’s not the only weird thing she’s done on the drug—she’s also cracked eggs on the wall.

This “explanation” falls flat to anyone who has ever glanced at Barr’s Twitter feed—it’s pretty clear that she is racist with or without the drug. Ambien producer Sanofi felt compelled to tweet out that “racism is not a known side effect of any Sanofi medication.”

But Ambien is associated with some unfortunate side effects, and some may explain why Barr seemed to think she could use the medication as a cover in the first place.

Around 10 percent of users experience headaches, dizziness, and drowsiness, and between 1 and 4 percent report weird psychiatric effects, including hallucination and disorientation. An even smaller amount, less than 1 percent, report abnormal or aggressive behavior. Then there are the sleep walkers and talkers. According to an article in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, unconscious Ambien users have been known to engage in “sleep driving, sleep cooking, sleep eating, sleep conversations, and, rarely, sleep sex” with no memory of the activity the following day. Such behaviors are also creating a number of legal side effects, with people claiming “the pill made me do it” or “I was asleep” as a defense (it’s not clear which Barr is trying to invoke).

Some people can’t remember the things they do while on Ambien, but many others do recall their time under its effects. An “Ambien trip” has become the popular term for the trippy, buzzy sensation the drug induces if the user stays awake—accidentally or otherwise. Depending on who you ask, tripping on Ambien can induce a “pleasant little buzz”; a feeling of drunkenness; reduced anxiety and inhibitions; hallucinations, “crazy ass visuals,” and seeing movement in the corner of your vision; auditory distortion, “especially of repetitive (trains, fans) sounds”; a body high that is “a mix between Xanax and DXM”; and, to use a medical term, a “mindfuck.”

One user trying to get to sleep saw “an entire battlefield on my blanket,” while another insomniac reported:

There were gnomes sitting at the end of my bed. One on each corner. I was their translator and they kept verbally fighting. It reminded me of Italians yelling at each other, but in a gnome language. I actually got out of bed and walked to my sister’s room to tell her about the instructions they gave me. That stuff is crazy if you don’t fall asleep right away.

In a Thought Catalog post, Ambien user Ryan O’Connell writes that it’s something of a race to get to sleep before these effects kick in. If you are trying to avoid them, that is. Some recreational users actually induce an Ambien trip intentionally, fighting off sleep to enjoy the drug’s “almost-psychedelic” qualities. Ambien can be swallowed, snorted, or smoked, and some people who go to parties on it say it doesn’t make them tired if they don’t lie down. One Reddit “researcher” compares the effects to “staying awake for three days in a pill.” Apparently the distorted state of mind that comes about from extreme sleep deprivation feels something like this:

one of my favorite states of mind is the collapse of normal function after 70-100 hours of being awake. your mind works in strange, either genius or chaotic ways. people on the corners of your vision that you know arent there. a pen drops in the next room fells [sic] like it sent the sound in a wave across the ground, shimmering and titillating like it was full of electric energy. echoing into each room, along the floors… back and forth, I can’t tell how far away my dresser is. sometimes, 20 feet or so, and sometimes right in front of me… tapping my finger across a sheet, with my imagination filling in the blanks, can create beautiful music that no one would understand but me…

This is bizarre and disorienting, of course, to the point that it maybe even explains why Barr would think to blame her abhorrent outburst on the drug. It’s trippy, it’s legal, and it’s not linked to any embarrassing medical condition. Of course, she seems unlikely to get any traction with this claim—experts say it was unlikely Ambien caused Barr to tweet unconsciously. Rachel Salas, an associate professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins Medicine, told CNN that patients sometimes send texts in their Ambien-induced sleep, but they are usually incoherent.

So yes, Ambien can be mind-bending. But there’s no good reason to think Ambien made Barr more racist than usual—perhaps it just made her less inhibited.