Art and Science of Delirium

For 3 weeks I was held in a room,

I was tied to the bed if I tried to get away.

I couldn’t talk; I couldn’t eat;

I was not allowed to sleep;

Groups of people would enter the room and look at me and talk about me and I was sometimes undressed in front of a small audience.

I was shot full of drugs;

I was too weak to move;

Sometimes, they would move me into another room so they could secretly try to kill me, or wait until the middle of the night to kill me when no one was around

I told my partner about the enemy in hushed tones so that they would not hear and redouble their efforts to kill me.

Where was I? They asked me everyday and I never knew the answer.

I was in the ICU of one of the best hospitals in the world, where nurses and doctors were using all the most current medical know-how to save my life.

What happened to me in the hospital?   Yes, my life was saved, and I am grateful for that, but life AFTER the ICU was extraordinarily difficult, not only physically but also mentally.

The ICU is a perfect storm for creating delirium— isolation, sleeplessness, narcotics, inability to speak,  pain…separation from everything that defines our normal lives.

But, my surgeon was “on to something” when he said maybe the memories helped me to survive.

Before my hospitalization, I was a filmmaker.  For months after, I was too weak to make films, but I was able to draw.  I drew images related to my memories.  For the patient who has experienced delirium, one of the keys to putting yourself together is to understand your experiences and to accept them.

Another key to survival for me was music.  The music on headphones was a “place” that I could go.  This stereo field of sound was comforting and stimulating.  It gave my brain something positive to work on, and gave me sensory input that was interesting and pleasant. 

When I got home, music was a big part of my healing process.  Even though I wept every time I heard certain songs, and still do, this weeping was part of getting OUT the trauma and pain I was experiencing.

As an artist, I can’t conduct the scientific trials to prove the effectiveness of music or art on delirium, but there ARE studies being done currently.   And Researchers and hospitals are now working on preventing ICU delirium because it is believed about 1/3 of cases are preventable.

What I can do is tell my story, show my artwork. My drawings have been used by researchers trying to help other healthcare professionals understand what the experience of delirium might be like. 

Oliver Sacks writes about hallucinations as something that can “constitute a severe challenge to a person’s world view and belief system.” This makes them something people find hard to reconcile and place within their life experience.

Talk about what you remember. Reconstruct what happened to you and sort it out.  Ask for help.

And for friends and family don’t give up on that older person who seems to suddenly be slipping into dementia after a prolonged ICU visit.  Alert your healthcare provider of these changes and ask about the reversibility of the symptoms.

The sooner we get help, the better we do.

Nancy Andrews displays her artwork and writes at her blog: Art and Science of Delirium: