It was a Friday night, and I was floating in a tank full of salt water of dubious origin, staring into the darkness surrounding me, trying to figure out how my life had gone from serial socializing at Soho House to paying to spend time in what could have doubled as an aquatic torture device—also known as a sensory deprivation chamber or (by the equally panic-inducing name of) "isolation tank." This is that story.
Lead image and image on this slide via Getty Images
A Bit of Background
I won’t bore you with the details of my life; however, I will say that the last two years have been the most challenging of my entire *25. (And by “challenging,” I mean “worst,” and if you think I’m being dramatic, you should see the dumb tattoo my frayed emotions caused me to get one winter’s day early last year. It’s a real cry for help.) In an effort to prevent further permanent proof of my inner struggles, I’ll try anything purported to bring peace, happiness, etcetera (short of a lobotomy, which I haven’t absolutely ruled out as of yet).
*give or take a few years
I'll Try Anything
I was out in Joshua Tree a few weeks ago when a friend started extolling the virtues of something called sensory deprivation. “You lay in this tank of salt water for two hours, and it’s totally dark, and you can’t hear or see anything, and after a while you don’t know if you’re lying down or standing up. Eventually you cross over to this other place, wherein the entire meaning of the universe is revealed.” Which is the most “Joshua Tree” sentence not involving ayahuasca, ever. Whoa. What? "That sounds insane," I thought, which obviously meant that I should try it immediately.
"'That sounds insane,' I thought, which obviously meant that I should try it immediately."
Now, I am incredibly claustrophobic, particularly when there is water involved or my access to air is otherwise compromised. I can’t even snorkel without having a panic attack. So this, I thought, was going to be a challenge, but the good kind of challenge as opposed to the kind of challenge that causes you to get a ridiculously dumb tattoo.
A Sensory Deprivation Tank Is What, Exactly?
For those who don’t know, a sensory deprivation tank is a soundproof, lightless tank in which you lie floating in room temperature salt water. It was invented in 1954 by a neuropsychiatrist, who apparently used it in combination with LSD. It’s now used therapeutically, as a means for reducing stress, anxiety, and other light mental ailments. In other words, it’s like meditation, but without the potential distraction of your senses. (Here is some information on how the tanks are disinfected after each use.)
My Journey To Isolation
Fast forward a couple of weeks and there I was, walking down the Venice Beach boardwalk towards the sensory deprivation tank, at night. For those who don’t know Los Angeles, this is the opposite of a Zen-inducing experience, as it’s probably less safe to walk that stretch of sand in the dark alone as a female than it is to let the “artist” who did my dumb tattoo give you a lobotomy. When I safely arrived some thirty-two silent panic attacks later, my nerves were not at all calmed by the sound of my name coming from a teenager who was standing, in the dark, outside of the lab. This zygote, apparently, was to be my guide to the tank. I considered running, but I figured the tank couldn’t be more dangerous than the walk back to my car, so I stayed.
Taking The Plunge
With alarming speed, the teenager walked me through what he thought I needed to know about this whole tank thing. First, you shower with earplugs in so they’ll stay in place better once you find yourself floating in salt water. Then, you take off all your clothes and get in. (I guess that’s it, actually; maybe the speed with which he went through these steps wasn’t so alarming after all.) At this point, the teenager said he would be back once my two hours were up, and then he left me to inevitably drown in the most Darwin-award worthy way possible.
"He left me to inevitably drown in the most Darwin-award worthy way possible."
I had heard from another friend that the actual process of floating in the tank wasn’t very comfortable. For starters, he said, you bump into the walls frequently, which startles you from your reverie. Secondly, he said, the saltwater kind of burns, particularly if you have so much as a scratch anywhere on your body. And finally, he warned, your head doesn’t actually float very well, so you have to hold it up by placing your hands behind it in a lounge-y sort of position, which is exhausting after about five minutes. Personally, I didn’t have an issue with bumping into the walls, but I’ve got a freakishly small head and other body parts, so I don’t know if my experience in that sense would necessarily be relevant to yours. The water, however, did sting, but only at first. Likewise, the head-floating-thing was a problem initially, as I alternated between propping my head up with my hands and letting it sag down into the water. Eventually, however, it lolled comfortably, and I forgot about it.
Somewhat surprisingly, I didn’t feel claustrophobic or freaked in the tank at all. (At least not at first, but we’ll come back to that.) Initially, I felt like “whoa, this is weird” more than anything except, maybe, some alarm regarding what had become my idea of a good time on a Friday night.
Then, my brain started to run at a hundred miles per minute, as it does whenever I lay down to sleep. Before I got into the tank, I figured that the most likely outcome of this experiment would be a severe panic attack, which is literally what happens when I so much as try to take a nap. Strangely, however, these runaway train-type thoughts weren’t actually anxious in nature at all. On the contrary, I found myself writing in my head, which was productive and therefore soothing in a way my brain rarely chooses to be. This is odd, I thought. Should I get out and grab a pen?
"I was at peace... at least momentarily."
The writing-in-my-head portion of the program went on for a while, but eventually my mind went quiet. This almost never happens; it’s like winning the lottery or not spilling red wine on your new handbag the day you get it if you’re me. I don’t know how, exactly, to explain what this felt like except to say that it didn’t feel like anything. I was experiencing nothing, in other words. I just was. I wouldn’t say I crossed over into anywhere, that I uncovered the meaning of life, or that something within me was fundamentally changed. I would, however, say that I was at peace. At least momentarily.
And Then, This Happened
I’m not sure how long that went on as there are no clocks inside the tank. (As an aside: if you’re the type of person who can’t go five minutes without checking your phone, you should definitely try the sensory deprivation tank, as you will 100% have what I like to call a breakthrough but what is probably more commonly referred to as a breakdown.) Then, at some point, a strange and disconcerting thought popped into my head. It went as follows: “That kid (the teenager) could’ve put anything into this tank. I can’t see at all. There could be giant dead beetles at the bottom. Spit. Dirty socks. Guacamole. Or worse.”
"Then, this strange and disconcerting thought popped into my head."
Once this thought entered my mind, it didn’t leave. I would guide my mind away from the nasty things the lab’s perfectly nice employee definitely didn’t put into the tank, but it would return with darker and more disgusting options. As a result, one voice in my head kept shouting “get out!” while another quietly countered, “but this feels sorta great.” Because I was planning to write about this for work, and my livelihood therefore depended on my completion of the experiment, the quieter voice won out. I stayed, but I was most definitely no longer at peace, at least not mentally. (Physically, it was a different story. My body felt like Jell-O in a good, pre-Cosby association kind of way.)
And Then, THIS Happened
"I think this was a scene in Saw IV."
This period in which my body was uber-relaxed but my mind was doing crazy things went on for ten years or five minutes until, suddenly, I realized that I had never checked the door to the tank to see if it actually opened. Once this thought occurred to me, I freaked the f*ck out. I reached frantically, blindly for the area in which the door was supposed to be and felt nothing. This got me upright, panting. “I think this was a scene in Saw IV,” I suddenly realized. The panic went on for just a few seconds, which felt like an eternity, before my hand found the lever that opened the door to the tank. It gave with little effort, and I spilled out of the chamber and back into the real world. Once there, I immediately felt ridiculous, regretted getting out before the time had been called, and contemplated getting back in. I looked up at the clock, realized I still had thirty minutes left in my session, but then thought about the walk back to the car and realized the sooner I left, the sooner I got the inevitably traumatic death I was going to meet on the road home out of the way. So, my experiment ended.
Once I had survived the incredibly dodgy walk back to my car, I felt exhilarated. I hadn’t crossed over into a parallel universe, but I did feel good in a way I hadn’t before I stepped into the tank. (I realize that “good” is a grossly inadequate adjective, but I’m at a loss for any other way to describe the state in which I emerged from this experience. See “pre-Cosby association Jell-O” for a potentially more vivid mental picture.) And strangely, I wanted to do it again; however, I’m not sure that the resultant exuberance was much different than that which comes from an hour of hot tubbing at a Korean Spa, if I’m being honest. I think that floating in water is inherently relaxing, though potentially more so in this scenario because you can’t be distracted by anything, including the somewhat disturbing sneak preview of what your naked body will look like in twenty to thirty years that you often get at the aforementioned spa.
The One Thing I Did Wrong
On the way home, I called my friend in Joshua Tree to report back on my findings. “Oh,” he responded. “I should have mentioned that you need to be in an 'altered state' for it to work. Like, before you get in.”
“I see," I said. “But in that case... is the sensory deprivation tank part even necessary?”
He thought about it for a moment before slowly conceding, “No. No, I guess not.”