A few weeks ago, I endured an overnight sleep study to figure out why I’m exhausted even after getting eight or nine hours of shut-eye.
Regardless of its cause, my doctor told me, my sleepiness might be remedied by a “wakefulness-promoting agent” called Nuvigil. My doctor described it as a less intense version of the stimulants that help people with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder feel focused.
Nuvigil can sometimes make patients feel “jittery,” my doctor warned. This made me sceptical of the drug. I am a jittery person by nature. I even take an anti-anxiety drug, which makes me have crazy dreams that are part of the reason I did the sleep study in the first place.
Still, I thought it couldn’t hurt to try the Nuvigil. Maybe, I imagined, it could turn me into a productivity machine. After all, the drug (and its predecessor, Provigil) have a reputation as “Viagra for the brain.” I envisioned the possibility of feeling alertness like none other I’d ever experienced.
On Monday, I finally popped a Nuvigil around 6 a.m. I’d had a restless night and thought I could use jolt of wakefulness. As I headed to my morning workout class, I started filling with energy. This was a much stronger jolt than coffee.
Usually at my 6:45 a.m. aerobics and weight-training class, the instructor yells at me to stop zoning out and do my reps more quickly. Not Monday. I was on fire, lifting heavier weights than usual racing through my reps. I went home to walk my dog and ended up sprinting around the block with him. My mood was unbelievably amped up.
I walked the mile to work more quickly than usual and raced up the stairs to the 8th floor so I could breathlessly tell a reporter about a story I heard about on NPR. Then I sent another colleague a message that summed up my state:
“I’ve never done cocaine before but in my mind this is what it feels like … I’M ON TOP OF THE WORLD.”
My enthusiasm worried me, of course. I feared I looked like the character Jessie on “Saved by the Bell” who got addicted to caffeine pills and melted down in this iconic scene:
My colleague assured me that I was not Jessie, but I started noticing some unpleasant jitteriness the day I took the drug that I can describe as a constant, low-grade anxiety. My hands shook a little, and I could feel my heart beating in my chest. The jitteriness did start to dissipate a little in the afternoon. As I assembled a salad in the office kitchen around 1 p.m., I also realised I didn’t have the urge to nap (as I almost always do).
I settled into my work for the afternoon, feeling a little more pumped-up than usual but less like Jessie. Near the end of the day, though, my well-meaning boss gave me mild criticism that filled me with rage, and I snapped at him. This is not my normal reaction to mild criticism.
When I went home, my fiancée (who’s a doctor) lovingly called me her “little rage-bot” and pointed out that aggression is a possible side effect of Nuvigil. This gave me pause, and I grew even more concerned about Nuvigil later that night. Usually, I start dozing off around 9 p.m. or 9:30 p.m., but I was still wide awake in bed at 11 p.m. trying to chat up my fiancée as she drifted off to sleep. I did a couple of shots of whiskey to take the edge off the Nuvigil. This could become a vicious cycle, I thought.
The next day, I felt mildly tired — given the opportunity, I could definitely take a nap — but I decided not to take anymore Nuvigil. Multiple studies have concluded that Nuvigil is effective and well-tolerated; the most common side effects are nausea and headache. But everyone’s experience with a drug is different, and for me, wakefulness comes with a price I’m not ready to pay.
Additional reporting by Lauren Friedman.
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