Poet, journalist, and artist Melissa Bond joins Zibby to talk about her debut memoir, Blood Orange Night. The two talk about Melissa’s pathological insomnia which spiraled into a dangerous addiction to her sleeping pills, how this experience affected her as a creator, a wife, and a mother, and what she wishes more people would know about the side effects of certain prescription drugs. Melissa shares an update on how she’s doing since the book ended and what project she is working on next.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Melissa. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Blood Orange Night: My Journey to the Edge of Madness.

Melissa Bond: I could not be more thrilled to be here with you. This is super exciting for me.

Zibby: I should’ve just saved this for the podcast. I was just telling you that as soon as I was pitched this book, even just the name and the subtitle, My Journey to the Edge of Madness, I was like, oh, yes. I have to read this. It sounds amazing. I was so looking forward to reading it. I savored it. Your writing is so good. Your experience was so compelling. I just felt like I was in your head going through all of this with you, as great memoirs do. I’m a big fan of you and your writing and this whole story and just feel like I have been through this journey with you now, so thanks.

Melissa: Absolutely. One of the things that was really interesting as I was writing the book, the two parts of my writing history, which is as a poet and then as a journalist, they were kind of duking it out. How do we want to tell this story? What’s going to be the most potent way for people to really understand how intense it is to become dependent upon your doctor’s prescribed medicine and then suddenly realize, oh, I don’t know how to get off and they don’t know how to get me off? I ended up deciding that trying to bring people along with me in the real visceral experience of it would be so much more important, and the heart of it, than just speaking to their heads. The journalist part of me wanted to dig me and say, what do these drugs really do? How much do they change the brain structure? My hope is that I created a balance of both. I’m so excited to hear you say that you felt it.

Zibby: I did. I felt it. Tell listeners a little bit about what this book is — give your synopsis of it and also when you knew it would be a book.

Melissa: I’ll start with the synopsis. The book starts with my marriage and the birth of son, who was born with Down syndrome, so this sudden upheaval in my life. It follows this trajectory of a number of really intense life events. I think we’ve all experienced that where you think, there can’t be something else. I can’t handle another thing. I call it my personal Fukushima. There was the earthquake of my son being born and having to navigate being not just a mom, but a mom to a special needs child. Then losing my absolutely beloved job as a magazine editor and poetry editor of this great glossy magazine. My desires to be a narrative journalist were crushed in the recession. Then getting pregnant again and having all of these identities that I had really lived with for so long stripped away and having pathological insomnia. That’s where it starts.

It follows this trajectory of this level of desperation I’ve never felt in my life and getting prescribed what are called Ativan. First, Ambien, but then Ativan, which is a drug in the family of benzodiazepines, which we all know as Xanax, Klonopin, Valium, mother’s little helper. My doctor had said, “These drugs are fine. You have an adrenal issue. If you don’t sleep, you’re going to have a psychotic break. We have got to get you to sleep.” I was so desperate after months and months of getting maybe two hours of sleep a night that I basically said it’s that or take a two-by-four to my head because I cannot take it. What happened that I didn’t realize was, these are drugs that are so potent and so addictive. It was in the medical literature, but they’re prescribed like candy nowadays. He kept raising my dose and raising my dose until I started having neurological symptoms that made me think I had MS or a brain tumor. Then it follows the path of who I became and what I had to do to get off of these drugs, so trauma but also lots of humor and the love that I found and the will that I found in that process, which I think a lot of people can relate to because we don’t get out of this life without suffering at times.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. The descriptions of your insomnia were just so compelling. It’s not just like you couldn’t sleep a little bit. You were ill. People saw you and were like, what’s wrong?

Melissa: It was CIA interrogation-level insomnia. I had never in my life experienced anything like it. I had experienced maybe waking up and being awake for two or three hours and then feeling really hammered the next day, but this was hanging on for dear life just to my sanity. There was this moment I remember where my son was maybe seven or eight months old. I was pregnant with my second. I couldn’t remember where I had left him. He had been in his little — there are little rockers with the little mobile over it. I remember being in the kitchen and thinking, oh, my god, where did I put him? and just having this absolute terror. Of course, I had put him somewhere responsible, but half of my brain was absolutely being ravaged by the insomnia. I just sobbed holding his little feet in my hands when I found him. He was just on the bed, but it was this terror. More and more when I talk to people, I hear these stories. A lot of people feel like they suffer in silence because we got to get up and go in this culture. I’m amazed at how many people suffer through it. We just want something that will help. The level of desperation of we get to, these drugs were what were prescribed to me. They’re prescribed to lots and lots of people.

Zibby: I also feel like with insomnia, as a starting point, the effects of sleep deprivation on mood and food and cognition, you become a different person. I feel like I become a different person after one night of four hours versus one night of eight hours. To be chronically sleep-deprived, it almost is a psychosis, in a way, in and of itself.

Melissa: I think you’re exactly right. I remember it felt like I was kind of crawling through an underground tunnel. My points of awareness were, make sure my kids are okay. Track that I have fed him on a schedule, and then just trying to make it through the day and feeling my skin on fire. I described it as these gaps. There would be this gap where it was like my brain couldn’t quite catch up because it was so exhausted by being awake for so long. I was like, if I was being interrogated right now, I would say anything to get sleep.

Zibby: Not to throw your husband under the bus here or anything, but I think that was a challenge. I don’t know that you were getting the support, perhaps, that maybe you needed in that moment. That, of course, exacerbates everything. The night when he went out — Sean, right? Sean went out for drinks with his friends. You’re like, it should’ve just been a normal night when he went out. Instead, I was sure somebody was breaking into the house. Really, it was your cat. You’re like, “You can’t do that again.” He’s like, “What? I went out for a beer.”

Melissa: Right. There’s that sense of wanting to retain normalcy. I had so much guilt, which was something that I had to work through, of suddenly becoming this fragile, glass-spun creature. I was like, where’s the woman that traveled to third-world countries alone? Where’s the woman that was a rock climber and was so strong? Suddenly, I was brought to my knees. I was embarrassed by that. I want to be that strong woman and to try to give him a normal life, and at the same time not acknowledging my own pain. There was that moment. I remember I had been pacing the house. I was sure someone was going to break in and do unmentionable things to my son. I was pregnant and wouldn’t be able to defend him. My husband at the time walked in after a night of beers. I’m crouched by the back door with contractions from my pregnancy and absolutely desperate. He looks at me. He’s like, “What the hell’s going on?” I just broke down in sobs.

Zibby: Can we fast-forward for a second to today? I really want the update on how you are since the book came out. What’s going on with you? I know it’s a spoiler, but here we are. How are you sleeping? What is going on? How are your kids? Tell me, what is the update?

Melissa: You’re asking the question that everyone, after they read the book, were like, okay, but I just need to know, are you okay? It’s true because it’s such a radical trauma. What I will say is that I’m really — it’s 2022. I’m definitely about seven years out. I will say that the amount of time to recover from a brain injury — I really do believe these drugs cause significant structural changes that just take a long time to recover from. I sleep great. I’m now divorced. We just got torn apart. It’s much better. I’m basically a single, full-time working mom, writing. I’m back in my artist self. I just feel like coming out of the mud — it’s almost like Persephone’s underworld, it felt like. Then coming back into the sunshine, it’s so much brighter and so much more precious. I am stronger than I’ve ever been. My nervous system is more fragile than it was before this, but I know how to take care of it, for the most part. I really know when I’m like, oh, I can feel that burn in my skin. I can feel that I’m starting to shake. I know what I need to do to take care of myself. I’m fully functional. I’m joyous to be alive. I feel just incredibly grateful that I’ve been able to come out of it without significant damage and communicate my story, which feels like the story of hundreds of thousands of people, to the world.

Zibby: And your kids?

Melissa: My kids are great. They are twelve and fourteen now. They’re just so much fun. They’re the lights in my sky, really.

Zibby: Wow. Going back to the drug piece, what were some of the worst that you can share, some of the worst side effects? What would surprise listeners the most?

Melissa: You know what surprised me? When I finally started researching it after I had — there’s a seminal scene in the book where I’m holding my one-and-a-half-year-old daughter. She’d just gotten out of the tub. I’m wrapping her in a towel. I take a step out of the bathroom, and I fall like a dead body from a bridge. The signals that tell your muscles to contract just stop. They don’t have the air traffic control. They’re just like, do we go? Do we not? Sometimes you’re up. Sometimes you’re down. The intensity of the withdrawal symptoms and the fact that they’re so varied is one thing that shocked me when I started doing research. I would have vision sometimes, and then it would go black. I would be fully conscious, but there was something that was happening with the muscles. I don’t even know what was happening. It made it scary to drive. I would have nausea and fire all over my skin every single day. It felt like I had a really high-level flu every single day. That was just my working state. There would be emotional swings, oh, my gosh, something that I had never experienced before that gave me a tremendous amount of compassion. I would swing from rage to despair constantly. I had been a pretty even-keeled person. The instability of everything, am I going to barf in the parking lot while I’m trying to go get groceries for my kids? Am I going to fall while I’m just trying to pick up some diapers? Am I going to be clutched with these — I would get these really radical muscle cramps that would fold me over. I describe it as a rottweiler had suddenly attacked my stomach. I would just have to fold over and wait knowing that this was neurotransmitters that were not sending the release chemical to my muscles. I was in this contraction. I would literally be barely breathing for an hour on the floor. It’s crazy, isn’t it? It’s something I could not have imagined going through. It was like the Olympics but without any kind of clear sense of what you’re going to face on a given day.

Zibby: I am so sorry that you’ve had to live through all this.

Melissa: Thank you. What I will say is, coming out of it, the humility and the joy at being alive is something that I really, really deeply value. It’s not something I would wish on anyone. I feel incredibly lucky that somehow, I was able to devise and put together a system that helped support me to survive it. A lot of people don’t, or they stay in disability for a long, long time. A lot of why I wrote the book was because it wasn’t just a really rough story, something I had gone through, but the hundreds of emails that I’ve gotten from people saying, please keep writing. Are you okay? I’m four years out, and I still have really debilitating withdrawal symptoms. It’s crazy because my story’s really rough, but I’m lucky. I’m lucky.

Zibby: Do you feel like people should not take any of these drugs? What is your takeaway from the whole thing?

Melissa: I love that you asked that because people might think that I’m totally anti-Western medicine, which I’m definitely not. There are two things that I would love people to take away. One is this idea of informed consent so that doctors will tell you — I was told these were not addictive. My doctor said, “I’ve known a guy who’s taken these for nineteen years and never had a problem.” I felt this sense of safety in following his prescriptions to take them every night. There’s a black-box warning around them now saying, these are highly addictive within the space of one or two weeks, and they’re extremely difficult to get off of. Had I known that, there’s so many other tools in the medical toolbox. Knowing that you don’t have to use the sledgehammer — we all go through really trying times. We have to create our own toolbox of, what helps me? What keeps me in a more stable — what’s our wellness recipe? For me, that is eating well, exercise, all your basics. I also do acupuncture. If you do get to a place of more acute medicine, really knowing and being educated and having the doctors being able to tell you, “This is really heavy-handed. You can only use this for a very short period.” There are other things that are much softer and won’t cause that kind of disability.

Zibby: Wow. What now for you? You’ve got the book out. You’re talking about it. You’re letting people know. You’ve got your kids. Where are you going from here?

Melissa: Oh, I have so many dreams. After crawling through the mud for so long, now my heart feels so, so open. The creativity is this incredible tsunami. I feel like the tide of my creativity is just so much higher because of what I’ve been through. I appreciate it. I’m working on a book of fiction that is two-thirds done. Because my son has special needs, I feel very much an advocate for the special needs community. I have my soft spots. There’s lots of creativity around that. I’m really interested in film. I’ve done a short film about my son. It feels like the world is this beautiful, ripe fruit that I am just digging my teeth into and wanting to connect and also support and advocate in specific areas. Once you’ve suffered like that, you don’t want anyone else to go through it.

Zibby: Wonderful. What advice would you give for aspiring authors?

Melissa: Oh, my gosh. I would say believe in your work. The idea that you have to wait for inspiration to strike before you actually write is a disservice. You have to invite the muses in and then open the door. What that looks like in practice is sitting down to write every day if you can. I have a practice of writing in my journal every single morning with my creative piece. Should I give you a teaser?

Zibby: Yes, please.

Melissa: We’ll see if my editor wants to keep the name, but I think it’s a great name. It’s called Streamline Jenny.

Zibby: Love it.

Melissa: It’s something I’ve been writing for fifteen years. It’s interesting. It’s ripening. I’m really excited about it. That’s your teaser.

Zibby: Can you say anything about what it’s about?

Melissa: It’s kind of an experimental novel about, interestingly, a visual artist. She has a form of epilepsy they can’t really diagnose. She goes into these alternate realms. There are all these really juicy characters that are pretty quirky.

Zibby: You don’t have to give it away.

Melissa: The other thing that I want to say to aspiring authors that’s so important — one of the things that I did for a long time was to say, I don’t think I’m good enough. That is your death nail. You have got to absolutely be your best ally. Really just sit in that space of being an ally for your work.

Zibby: Melissa, thank you. Thank you for your powerful, beautiful story and sharing it with everybody. The warmth I can feel coming from, it’s just awesome. It’s really wonderful. It was really great to meet you.

Melissa: It was great to meet you and just a delight. I love what you do on your podcast and all of the other things you do. It’s really remarkable.

Zibby: Thank you. I hope to meet you in person sometime. Where do you live, by the way? Where are you in the world?

Melissa: I live in Utah. You’re on the East Coast?

Zibby: I’m on the East Coast, yeah. I’m in New York area.

Melissa: In New York, okay. I love New York.

Zibby: I’m usually in the city, but not right now. Hopefully, to be continued.

Melissa: Absolutely. Thanks so much.

Zibby: Thanks. Buh-bye.

Melissa: Bye.


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