Lunesta + Neck Pillow = Near-Death Experience

It is only on overnight flights that I allow myself the luxury of a sleeping pill. Not that I am afraid of flying itself. I rather like it, in fact. However, being tallish, anxiety-prone, addicted to nicotine and rather seriously claustrophobic, a night of consciousness in coach class is simply out of the question. 

To knock myself out, I have taken Melatonin (a joke), Ambien (inadequate), Lunesta (a crap shoot), Valium (mild reduction in suffering; no sleep), and—just once—the cakey, crumbling half of some unidentified pill that my alcoholic, single-mom neighbor takes when the beer is not enough. A good addict, she asked no questions when I appeared at her door. With the Super Shuttle already honking downstairs in front of our building, she quickly wrapped that half a pill in tin foil and thrust into my breast pocket. A dozen hours later, I woke up in Rio de Janeiro feeling as if I had hardly traveled at all. I found pre-dawn customs great fun. I bought Veuve-Cliquot at inflated “duty-free” prices for no good reason. To this day, I have never asked my neighbor the name of that medication. It is better that I don’t know. I liked it far too much.

Even at home, my Brazilian mate ribs me about all the implements I need to sleep. The Four Basics include: Claritin, earplugs (sometimes supplemented by over-the-ear headphones buzzing with white noise), an eye mask, and a “night guard” for the teeth grinding. He says, “When Brazilians want to sleep, we just lie down and close our eyes.” Thanks, I’ve tried that. It doesn’t work for me. Naturally, the job of sleeping in coach is much more complex than in my own bed and, until recently, has required at least two more specialized tools: a hypnotic psychoactive (see “sleeping pill” above) and a neck pillow. That is, until a near-death experience forced me to give up the latter.

It happened on my way from Brazil to New York after experiencing the first Rio Carnival of my life. After 21 indiscriminate days of drinking, dancing and sex, I felt both extremely happy and also, as I prepared to reenter America’s Protestant airspace, vaguely criminal. That night, the Lunesta was ultramarine—3 mg, the highest dose—while the inflatable neck pillow was a suede-like plastic of sleek pearly grey. Color-wise, they were a good match. I waited until takeoff to take my med (I learned this trick from a friend who didn’t wait, until the time her plane developed a problem on the runway; she had to be taken off in a wheelchair).

Sometime in the middle of night, I jerked awake with an oceanic nausea. I still remember that terrible feeling as I write—it was something at the level of the soul. (“I exist, that is all, and I find it nauseating,” Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea.) The next thing I remember, there was a commotion and someone had fallen in the plane’s aisle, which seemed funny to me or at least absurd. Then someone was shaking my shoulder. Out of the dark of the cabin, a half-dozen faces began to swirl around my own. This is when I began to realize that it was I who had fallen.

I don’t remember getting back to my seat, but I do know the nausea was so overwhelming it made me sweat. Then someone was saying something about my ear. I touched it. It was wet. But in some form of mental triage, I decided to ignore this fact. As I wondered (with curiosity more than fear) if I were dying, a flight attendant got on the PA system and asked if a doctor were on board. Very quickly, a pretty, youngish woman was at my side taking my blood pressure. She seemed to want to offer reassurance but wasn’t able to because she was also feeling put out by the whole affair. Maybe she assumed I was a drunk who’d brought it on myself. I must have been asleep again by the time she got a reading. Anyway, the next thing I remember, it was dawn, the doctor was long gone, and there was a “breakfast sandwich” on my tray table, which I ate ravenously. The nausea had past. Now the problem was my ear. It throbbed with a vivid pain. Instinctively, I touched it, which rocketed the pain into a kind of incandescent phenomenon. Out of this experience was instantly born a new respect—and pity—for boxers that to this day has never faded.

We landed in Miami at 4.30am, where I had a four-hour layover to look forward to. When the Starbucks finally opened at 6, I ordered a latte and another breakfast sandwich. The cashiers seemed reluctant to serve me. I attributed this to the ungodly hour. But when I went to the bathroom, I understood why: My ear and neck were crusted with dried blood. I looked like a wino in the midst of a blackout. I must have caught some sharp metallic corner as I fell. I started to wash off the blood, but when I got anywhere near the ear itself, the pain became overwhelming. I tried the lightest brushing with a damp paper towel. Impossible. Even a mere trickle of lukewarm water was excruciating. So I had just to give up and accept that I would be traveling in public for the next eight hours with an ear caked in blood. 

I suppose in some part of my lapsed-Puritan soul, I accepted this as a mark I had to bear for having just had so damn much unmitigated fun. However, when I recounted the event to a doctor friend, he told me the fall was probably just the result of hypoxia (lack of oxygen). Oxygen levels are already low in plane cabins. Then, as the cabin pressure fell, the inflatable neck pillow expanded, impinging the arteries in my neck and further reducing oxygen to the brain. Finally, the Lunesta kept me asleep throughout the slow process of strangulation—at least until some serious bells started ringing in the reptilian core of my brain. I am, frankly, surprised that this has not happened to more people. When I googled “suffocate sleeping pill neck pillow” I found nothing but links to anti-apnea products.

Without paying homage to Sartre (existentialism=depression=take an SSRI), I admit I am grateful for that oceanic nausea, which woke me up and, in doing so, kept me from dying. And I am glad too because I have decided that most days life seems, if not more meaningful, then at least quite good. That is, when I manage to get a good night’s sleep.


Robert Landon travels regularly, always in coach, between his home in Rio de Janeiro and friends and family in the U.S. He writes regularly for Lonely Planet, most recently travel guides to Italy and Brazil. His work has also been published in Dwell, Los Angeles Times, The Telegraph UK, and other newspapers and magazines.

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