(Moving forward into my second year of widowhood, I’ve committed to do one new thing—new to me—each week for a year. It can be big or small, important or silly—but it has to be new. It’s a way of reminding myself to focus forward, into my future life..)
Sensory deprivation tanks, also called isolation tanks, have been around since the 1950’s, but now they’re called float tanks. Floating in the tanks can supposedly reduce stress and chronic pain, by promoting deep relaxation. Their inventor, neuropsychiatrist Dr. John C. Lilly, must have been quite the character. He floated in the tanks after taking LSD, and by some accounts, discovered new dimensions and had encounters with aliens while floating.
I wasn’t seeking encounters with aliens, but floating sounded like an interesting new experience. (And, there was a Groupon deal, so it was pretty cheap.) The company advertised “Athletes, Meditators, and Creatives have been floating widely since the 1960’s.”
Back in the early days, though, the floater was fully immersed in a tank with a bizarre-looking mask that blocked out all sensory input. This company’s pictures showed tanks that looked more like plastic clamshells—not exactly appealing to me, but not terrifying. The tank water is saturated with epsom salt, and that provides buoyancy to keep a body afloat, even though the water is only about eighteen inches deep in the tank.
The float company’s lounge area was clean, well-lit and smelled vaguely of the ocean. While I waited, I was serenaded with the sounds of water burbles and faint strains of new age music. On top of a large coffee table lay a book in which clients have written about their float experiences. I leafed through the pages. There were some sketches, some general accolades (“it was relaxing”) and a very sad, long entry by someone who was hoping “to turn his fake smiles into real smiles.” I suspected he might need more than a float.
My favorite entry: “This is definitely the most L.A. thing I have ever done.”
My attendant—enthusiastic and clean-cut, with a lean long-distance runner’s body—escorted me back to my float room: a small, vaguely industrial space with an open shower, a place to hang and stack my belongings, and of course, my pod, which was emoting eerie green light and bubbling. I was given my instructions: Take off all my clothes (you do this buck naked), put in earplugs, shower and shampoo hair, turn off the room light and get in. After I was settled in, I was told, I should hit a button on the tank wall that would turn off the tank light. At that point, I would be in complete darkness and silence, floating in body temperature water. I was to “just relax,” and when my hour was up, the light would go back on.
I confessed that I was very nervous because I tend to be claustrophobic. Not a problem, he said, once you turn the light off you won’t be conscious of being in a small space. Well, okay. I showered, stepped into the tank and closed the lid. So far, so good. I slipped into the water, or perhaps onto the water, moving my arms into a goalpost position as I had been instructed. Then, I hit the button and turned out the light.
It was utterly dark and immediately disorienting. I floated, listening to myself breathe, for maybe five minutes. Then, I decided I wanted to turn the light on briefly, just for reassurance.
I couldn’t find the light switch.
The float tank isn’t that big, but in any total darkness, disorientation is common. I flapped and splashed around like a hooked salmon, slapping the tank walls, not panicked exactly, but close. Finally I shoved open the tank lid. With the help of just a shred of light from the room, I found the light switch.
Whew! Well, by my estimation, only about ten minutes were up, so I needed to try again. Lie back, turn off the light…but this time I did take note that the light switch was very near the lever bar for the tank top, just in case.
I floated and tried to relax, but I found it progressively harder and harder to breath. The humidity was intense and I couldn’t shake the impression that I was suffocating. My brain went into overdrive: “I’m suffocating, I’m running out of air, I’ll pass out and no one will know until the hour is up, and I could just die here…” Definitely not the stuff of deep relaxation. Nudging the tank lid open just a sliver with my foot, I let in a trickle of cooler air. That, of course, lowered the air temperature in the pod ever so slightly, so that the air and water temperatures weren’t exactly the same, which is how it’s supposed to be, but I don’t think I would have stayed in the tank otherwise.
I tried to enjoy the experience, and maybe I got close, for a time. I didn’t feel weightless, but more like my body was supported on a hard rubber-like surface that was perfectly fitted to my body. I never attained a sense of timeless relaxation. If fact, when the light went on to let me know that my hour was over, I was relieved.
After I’d showered off all the salt and dressed, I talked to the attendant. He was clearly disappointed that I hadn’t been delighted with my experience. When I told him about my breathing issues, he said there were runners’ breathing techniques that would help. He asked me if I’d be back, and I told him that I’d have to reflect about that. But really I don’t. I’ll just chalk this up to a new experience, but not one I think I have to repeat. If I decide to search for Dr. Lilly’s aliens and other dimensions, I’ll have to try another route.