I look in the mirror one more time to see if I can get away without wearing a bra, and decide it's fine. Then I'm in the back of some sweaty cab that smells like chicken noodle soup, suggesting alternate routes and half-yelling at a cabbie. I need to get to JFK in under an hour. Fuck, why do I always do this?
I don't plan well. I think it's because secretly I hope I miss my flight. Actually, I'm mad I ever have to go anywhere. I got this offer to perform one night in Dubai at the Palladium theater about a month ago. Images of different rap videos flashed through my head: Puffy on a tank in the desert. Kanye in a Range Rover with dunes behind him. Biggie in Bed-Stuy, standing in a sandbox. Plus, my layover is in Istanbul. Scenes from Midnight Express appear in my mind and then I remember how delicious Turkish delight sounded in The Lion, The Witch, & The Wardrobe. Food wins."Yes" I say.
This is a new thing I’m doing. My first instinct is always to say no (which certainly isn't reflected in the number of people I've had sex with). But I was ready for this. I was in the mood to see some shit, to hand someone my passport in a foreign land and feel alive. About three days before I leave, more paperwork comes in. I sign a contract saying that while on stage I won't talk about their political leader. Um, no problem. I don't know who their leader is. Don't talk about religion. Done and done.
Still, it’s a foreign concept to censor my material, and it takes traveling halfway around the world to understand just how oppressive that country can be. It literally and figuratively keeps me up at night, too; in the coming two weeks, I’ll struggle with an Ambien addiction while claiming my independence in a country that treats women as possessions.
First I have to get there. My cab arrives at JFK and I immediately walk to the biz class lounge, putting cheddar wedges and water crackers on my plate the way I think a rich person would. The goal is to match everyone else’s silent snobbery and act like I'm always in these privileged shit holes. I now realize I should have worn a bra. I'm trying to look regal balancing chardonnay, cheese and a laptop and flopping all over the place near children and possible diplomats. I open up my computer after a healthy sip of vino, deciding now will be a good time to Google the places I'm going. This is my normal routine. Like I said, I don’t plan well. I don't look at the weather of my destination until my bags are checked, which has meant borrowing coats in Denver and buying gross bathing suits in Virginia Beach. It’s 120 degrees in Dubai, and apparently I have to cover up all my lady parts. Oh well, too late. Other topics pop up, and the one that catches my eye (other than the indoor ski slope) is the one with the words, "Arrested for Ambien.”
My stomach drops. I specifically Google “Ambien in Dubai.” I discover it's illegal there. Of course it is. Even people who come with their pills in the prescription bottle and a note from their doctor? Jail time. It's a gray area, some people say on the message boards. I am pretty sure “Gray Area” is not a term used in Sharia Law. (I have been following Amanda Knox since day one and she is innocent.) I’d rather not do a real life reenactment of Brokedown Palace. I don't want to be a story people learn from.
Why is this alarming? Amy, don't you know you're not supposed to take Ambien every night? Yes, yes I have heard that. But no one ever told me that if you take it every night and want to get off of it, the withdrawal is comparable to that of heroin.
I started taking this tiny little white guy 11 months ago. I have always struggled with insomnia — well, that's not true. There is no struggle. It always wins. I had just booked my first TV show and broken up with my boyfriend even though I still loved him. Heartbreak + new job = anxiety. I was not sleeping at all. I went to my general practitioner, and as soon as I started talking, the tears came rushing. There I was, spilling my guts to a 60-year-old Polish GP with a bowl haircut the Beatles would be jealous of and an Adam’s apple the size of Wendy Williams’. He keeps handing me tissues. That's what’s great about crying at a doctor’s office. They have all the necessary hardware.
He let me know that his receptionist Talonda says "Men are like buses, one pulls away and another one pulls up.” I laugh picturing the two of them having intimate conversations about love and life. I see a tiny hesitation in the Ambien giving, but he can see I'm in a bad place and hands it over. "Don't get hooked on this stuff." He hands me the prescription. "I won't," I reply, feeling a huge wave of relief knowing I will sleep that night.
The first night I break it in half and take it. Of course, it doesn't occur to me I will be doing this every single night for the next year. I wake up eight hours later — groggy for sure, but ecstatic. Sweet relief. I feel a little out of it on my first day at the show. But cool. I’m already daydreaming about taking the other half of that pill and dozing off early, cuddling up in bed with my newest co-dependent relationship. I think I will just take it for days when I'm filming early in the a.m. I take it every night.
Talonda was right: Men are like buses, and Ambien, my new boyfriend, has pulled right on up. My parents will be happy — he’s white.
In the JFK lounge, just as I realize I won’t be taking my little friend with me overseas, a mother yells at an eight-year-old tap-dancing on America’s Got Talent. “You suck!” I like this lady’s style, so I take a chance: “Excuse me, do you know anyone who has gone cold turkey off Ambien after almost a year?" She laughs at me for a little too long and then says, "You're fucked."
Nine hours, three bad movies, and lots of wine later, we land in Istanbul. I hand my bottle of pills to the flight attendant and ask her to toss them for me. Can I get a witness? I feel like a female, white, entitled Tiny Tim. How will I walk?
During the five-hour layover, I hatch a plan: I will just be tired. I will be really positive with myself. I won't expect to sleep at all, I will just be grateful for the sleep I do get. I am excited to be off this stuff, and I convince myself this is the perfect excuse. But I can't lie, this drug has been good to me. I had no sleepwalking or -eating or hallucinating on it. The only problem was that I was in a constant haze. I didn't feel as sharp as I usually do and wasn't able to access my emotions as readily. It had turned me into a nihilist.
As I'm enjoying a Turkish beer — which, by the way, tastes like beer — I Google "How long until I can sleep after Ambien?" Thousands of postings flash before me. Withdrawal. Withdrawal. This can’t be right. I have seen a million Interventions on A&E. I am not a candidate. It lists the symptoms: sweating, nausea, fatigue, insomnia, irritability, stomach cramps, panic attacks, hallucinations, vomiting, tremors, seizures. Again: heroin. There is no going back. I don't sleep on my second flight. I thought I was just going to be a little tired and all of a sudden I'm starring in Trainspotting.
I land in Dubai at 1:30 a.m. It’s 95 degrees, but a cool 95 degrees. It doesn’t look all that different from JFK. I somehow manage to find my driver, who wastes no time. "Is your husband here already?" "No." "Is he meeting you?" I realize this dude needs me to be married. He can't fathom that I would be as old as I am and not be wed. "He's coming tomorrow," I say; let him and my mom have their fantasy for a minute.
I come to discover that in Dubai less than 20 percent of the population are locals, or Emiratis as they are called. Everyone else is an expat. Everything is in English. All the street signs, the television shows, everything. Dubai looks as if it was constructed by a nine-year-old’s erector set — no real rhyme or reason. “We have some extra oil money laying around, lets build a 50 million dollar building… Nah, I don’t really care where it goes. Just build it. People will come.” And they did, for the tax-free living, the exorbitant salaries, the lifestyle.
I learn that following the Global Economic Crisis, a lot of people jumped ship. I notice abandoned cars all over the place with months or years of dust piled on them. This is not a place you are allowed to be in debt. They will throw your ass in jail. The mystic surrounding Dubai seems to be a memory. It doesn’t feel like the exuberant young city people used to talk about, it’s a 30-year-old who hasn’t figured out what he wants to be when he grows up. Which also seems like the type of crowd it draws to live there. It feels like everyone I meet has escaped something or is running from someone. Just like in Key West. It’s a city with a third-world attitude and a first-world face. It's The Twilight Zone. Damn, I knew Kanye filmed “Jesus Walks” in Scottsdale!!
I get to the hotel, which is gorgeous. My suite is huge and lavish. I throw my bag on the bed and look around and realize I've just checked into rehab and it has a bidet. Dubai threw me a surprise intervention in the Turkish Airlines business class lounge and this is my facility. After 11 months on 5 mg of Ambien a night and 24 hours of travelling without sleeping a wink, I sleep. For four hours, but I wake up grateful that it felt like a lot. Maybe withdrawal won't happen to me.
Incorrect. I get in the shower and feel it come on like a monsoon. My head starts to hurt. My hands hurt. I can feel the blood pumping through my veins. Everything aches. I feel sick. I turn off the water and sit down in the empty tub. I feel like I'm dying.
I head out to meet the promoter of the stand-up show feeling like complete garbage. He warns me yet again not to talk about religion, but I’m thrown off by how much he looks like an Ethiopian Chris Rock. I nod. I apologize for my lack of energy and declare I'm getting off a drug. I tell a lot of people about it throughout the week. Anyone who will listen, really. Just like a breakup, in the hopes that just one person will say, "That happened to me, too." Nope, never. Everyone's reaction is the same, they raise their eyebrows and think, Gross.
We’re headed to do promotion on a show called Dubai One. We pick up another comic, my friend Matt from London. I know I won't have to explain my low-energy crackheadiness to Matt. He's the type that wouldn't ask you what was wrong if you were fully crying. Not because he's cruel. He's just oblivious. Perfect.
Dubai One is run and produced in the style of a local morning show — a format any comic is familiar with. The producer is a nice Englishman who is happy to have us. When I ask how he came to live here he mentions alimony and an ex. See: running. Before we go on they are interviewing Mr. Dubai. He won some sort of a competition. "What was your talent?" the Hugh Grant type host asks. To which Mr. Dubai responds by singing, "I'll be your dream, I'll be your wish I'll be your fantasy…”
After a chiropractor discusses the danger of sitting at a desk, we're on. We sit there being interviewed about our careers and the show we're there to promote. I get a tiny kick of adrenaline and am fine on the air. Only physically I mean. I say, "I just took my mom to a soccer game, because I wanted her to see what boundaries looked like." The hosts stare at me waiting for more. This is an example of a moment where ordinarily I would be quick on my feet and think of the perfect thing to say to get a laugh. But all my senses have gotten used to being dulled by the Ambien use. Whatever. I hope I make it to the car before I puke.
After a photo-op with Mr. Dubai, we leave and I get to my room for three more hours of sleep. Up for an hour. Sleep another two. By this time, I am enjoying chills so bad that I am sleeping on both of my arms for warmth, then waking up with both of them asleep. Then I need to pee like never before, but both of my arms are dead to the world. I struggle to pull my underwear off. I catch myself in the mirror. I look like a T-Rex. I feel worse. Feverish, disoriented. Yes that list didn't lie. I do my best to rest before my show that night. I will be doing 45 minutes, NO RELIGION JOKES!
I walk into the Palladium through the back door past six armed guards — not much different than the six guards at the front door. There are about 400 people sitting in a theater that seats 3000. I am led to the greenroom where I am greeted by three local comics — two guys and the host, a very tall gal who is married to one of the shorter comics. She looks like a combination flamenco dancer and Olive Oyl from Popeye. Her husband is a little plump and dressed like fat Joe. The other comedian and I get to talking. Actually he gets to talking, ignoring that I'm on my death bed and trying to write my set list. His name is Omar and he has the facial hair and stature of the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens. I am going over jokes and I ask him if he thinks it would be all right to say a couple of them that seem iffy to me. We get to one and he says, “Well I could get away with saying that, but you can't.” I ask why. A huge grin spreads across his face as he announces proudly, "Because I am an Emirati."
What does that mean? Through the rest of my trip, I realize the ugly truth. Here, all men are not created equal. Nowhere are the class lines so distinctly visible than in the UAE. So being an Emirati means privilege and separation. Omar was above the law. The other local comics nod to let me know this is the way it works here, but they don’t comment. The class system in Dubai has been written about ad-nausem, but seeing it up close knocked the wind out of me. Especially when it came to comedy.
Comedy is supposed to be pure — you are either funny or you’re not. The stage is a place where class lines don’t exist. So I thought. I felt icky about my material being censored for a live show. But hearing that some comics are allowed to broach certain subjects and others aren’t was sickening. To add insult to injury, this guy had only been doing stand-up a year. But he got to walk around with a chip on his shoulder because he has his daddy’s blood. At breakfast one morning I saw an Emirati man scream at a Filipino waitress for not bringing him orange juice fast enough, and I thought he was going to hit her. Class systems exist in every country in the world, but nowhere is it abused so overtly as Dubai. After watching a local woman dressed in an abaya — the burka head wrap gear and dress — swoop by me at the mall followed closely by her Indonesian maid carrying Gucci bags and simultaneously trying to manage two young Emirati children, I realized the root of Omar’s smugness.
I know all about using an invisible crutch. I threw mine away in Istanbul. But here I was face to face with someone so proud of theirs. But what’s great about comedy is if it’s not funny, people won’t laugh.
And watching him bomb on stage made me smile through my sickness.
The host introduces me, but I don’t hear a word of it. I’m out for blood. I forget about the fact that I feel like the creepy leper from Braveheart and I kill. Flowing from start to finish. The first thing I say when I get on stage is, “If any of this stuff offends you don’t worry, I’m Emirati.” The room explodes. I was supposed to do 45 minutes. I do an hour 15, and I never lose them for a second.
I get off stage and collapse in the back. The withdrawal comes right back like it never left. Omar says “good job.” I look him right in the eye and say, “I know.” I get in bed that night smiling.
The next five days involve going in and out of nausea, shaking from chills and massive headaches. Still, I fit in local activities early in the day. I ride a camel and go dune bashing — where a stranger who says they are a guide drives you out in the middle of the desert, deflates his car tires, and drives like a maniac up and down the dunes until you start scream crying and you beg him to stop. I see the indoor ski slope. I eat the delicious food. I do Dubai. The sleeping gets better, though I’m plagued with anxiety while I lay awake. But a few hours of natural real sleep feels way better than eight of the fake coma Ambien allowed.
My flight home is at 6 a.m., and after being cut in line by several Emiratis, I stay awake during take-off so I can see myself leaving this place. I land at JFK on July 3rd. The following night, I’m standing right by the water on the Upper West Side watching the fireworks, next to my friend, Nikki, a fellow comic. The sky is lit up with the beautiful lights and the ooos and ahhhs from the crowd. There is a stillness and quiet despite all the explosions.
I glance around. A little boy on his dad’s shoulders. A couple holding hands, a woman with a dog in a stroller. We all gaze up silently. I feel the leftover anxiety caused by the Ambien fade, and realize I will be all right. The veil is being lifted. I can feel the breeze off the water on my skin like I haven’t in almost a year. The end of the show is nearing and the fireworks are coming faster and stronger, louder and brighter. Everyone breaks out in applause and me into tears. As the last firework burns out, a girl wearing a bikini top and the shortest denim shorts I’ve ever seen says, “Yo they look like sperm yo.” Nikki and I laugh, though I laugh a little longer. Because she’s right, and because anyone can say anything about whatever they want — and wear a denim diaper in public — no matter where their daddy was born.
Amy Schumer is a New York comedian. She would like to thank Steve Heisler for his help editing.