The Daily Heller: Auditory Hallucinations and Post-op Rama Lama Ding Dong

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Engraving: Charles Le Brun

While Steven Heller is vacationing in Herald Square between Christmas and New Year’s Day, he has agreed to reprise a few of his favorite recent posts—such as this one from July 19. The Daily Heller will return on Jan. 2.

This is not a tale about who put the bomp in the bomp bah bomp bah bomp, and the dip in the dip da dip da dip, but it is a post about music, noise and delusion.

Last week I had an afternoon of surgery and a sleepless post-op overnight stay in the recovery room at a New York hospital. I couldn’t sleep a wink because all the monitoring machinery was ringing, dinging, pinging and bomp bah bomp and dip da dip da dipping every three minutes.

So I was happy to be released back home to my freshly made bed, ready for restful slumbers. Yet just to make certain I would not be awakened by the ambient outdoor bomp bah bomp bah bomp, and the dip in the dip da dip da dipping, I turned the vintage GE motorized fan to high. It was not for the cool breeze but for the white noise that squelches the nightly cacophony of percussive trash compactors. And just to make doubly certain of silence, I stuck sound-muffling buds into my ears and a noise-eliminating Bose headset over them. Then, my head sunk deeply into those pillows, I closed my eyes and the audio nightmare began.

Source: Welcome Collection

Softly at first, not disturbing in the least, I heard faint tunes, mostly the soothing harmonics of string instruments seemingly emerging from the fan’s rotary blades. For a few minutes my mind quietly followed and hummed along to the unceasing few repeating bars in my ears. I’ve experienced this phenomenon before, where my mind turns rhythmic or percussive mechanical sounds into a familiar melody or baseline. So for the first 15 or so minutes this artificial music was kind of pleasant, until it was time to turn it off … at which point the tunes continued to play like a broken record in my brain.

I’ve often used the whirring metallic sound of the fan’s blades as a means to cover the upstairs and downstairs neighbors’ muffled buzz of records, radio, TV and conversations that frequently trespass on my auditory space. But this music was more intrusive than usual. It sounded very real until I lifted my head and it disappeared, only to return moments later as another tune that ran the gamut from folk to classical, from woodwind to string. Every 10 minutes or so, like an iPod Shuffle, the tune would completely change, but despite finding different places to lay my head, at no time did the music go away. Desperately, I’d leave the bedroom where the music stayed; I was convinced it was really the fan, and at first, the farther away I was the less I heard the tunes … then it started up in the other rooms. If I thought of a tune, my mental ChatGPT instantaneously composed a variation of it that, again, would repeat over and over.

The familiar chords—the kind one might hum to oneself in a subway as the wheels ran over the tracks—became increasingly annoying. At dawn I asked my wife if she could hear it. She said no.

During the course of the day, it subsided enough where I could no longer hear it. At night, however, I fell into a twilight state and all of a sudden it began again. By this time, I was freaking out.

I’ve heard about people who hear voices; was I one of those? Believing it was an unexpected reaction to drug interaction, I called my doctors, described the condition and met with their surprise and disbelief on the other end. I suggested it might be a form of tinnitus, hearing ringing in the inner ear. They all said no.

Only one had an answer: “General anesthesia does some strange things,” he said. “Anesthetic can last for a few days, too.” I was told to drink lots of liquid to flush it out, and as long as it wasn’t heavy metal or punk rock, just live with it another day because the odds are it was an auditory hallucination.

Whatever it was, it wasn’t happening but it was so real I couldn’t get it out of my head for three days.

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