I am going to do some of you a favor right now. I am going to clear up a mystery. If any of you are terrorized by the idea of a sensory deprivation tank, like I was a few weeks ago, I’m probably going to reassure you. Turns out, it’s not a big deal at all, and perfectly normal people can go spend some quiet time in a tank.
I have a friend who likes to float in a sensory deprivation tank. He has PTSD (Posttraumatic Stress Disorder) and the tank is a way to force peace onto himself. He repeatedly invited me to try it. I have PTSD too, and thought that my mental health condition would be the main reason I should AVOID a float. You see, one of the characteristics of this disability is that your brain thinks you need to be in fight or flight mode all the time, every day, just in case. Most of the time I have it under control, and I can keep my thoughts relatively quiet and my heart rate at a normal level. However, just under the surface of my calm behavior is this constant absorption of stimulation. Sights, sounds, smells, changes, impressions, suspicions, questions… all these things are being gathered every waking moment (and often when I should be sleeping) in this massive data collection operation. It’s exhausting. One of my tricks for smothering the data collection operation is to distract myself with activity. When I’m quiet is usually when the brain stimulation gets ramped up, sometimes into a swelling spiraling tornado of incoming thoughts that causes a panic attack.
What my friend was suggesting to me sounded CLEARLY like a situation I needed to avoid, for health reasons. But what made me keep my mind open to it is that he suffers with PTSD also, and said the tanks help him calm down.
I had heard of sensory deprivation tanks, but only barely. I had never actually given it serious thought before. It was the kind of thing I read about in magazine articles. In my mind I thought it would be a huge cube-shaped tank big enough to hold a person upright and underwater. In truth I was envisioning a tank containing spice in inhalant form from the Dune novels (I’m such a nerd). I couldn’t imagine how a person would breathe inside a tank of water. Would I have to wear a scuba mask? I tried to imagine how one would get out of such a tank in an emergency. What if I needed to get out while I was in the middle of panicking?!
Fear isn’t allowed to rule in my life, so anytime I feel myself getting frightened about something that I know other people think is normal, then I tend to make myself try it. First I did some research and found out I was totally off base to begin with. Instead of a “tank” it’s more like a big bathtub, and the water is only a foot deep. A billion tonnes of epsom salts have been dissolved into it (ok, not quite that much), so your regularly sink-prone human body floats right on top of the water with no effort. You can actually fall completely asleep in the water and be perfectly safe.
The idea is that your tank water is programmed to match your body temperature so you won’t feel it. You are suspended in the buoyant water so you won’t even feel the tank around you. The lights are turned out so you won’t see anything. The room is insulated so you won’t hear anything. Only the pure absence of stimulation for 90 minutes. People believe it results in increased visual acuity, improved tactile perception, improved hearing, and increased sense of taste. I said to my friend, “Omigosh, 90 minutes sounds like FOREVER. What do you do with your head for 90 minutes?” He said he just thought about stuff, and sometimes zoned out for awhile. I agreed to go with him to Enso Float in Portland, and float at the same time (different tanks) so he could reassure me up to the last minute.
Enso Float is relatively new, clean, and classy. We were met by Trevor, who had a soft, soothing voice and a veeerrryyy laid back nature. He made me think of a young hipster surfer hippie. My naturally loud voice clanged against his till I settled down and got in tune with the quiet place. It’s tastefully decorated with stone tiles and bamboo walls and simple modern elegance. He showed us our rooms and explained the rules.
There are lots of rules. Before you go, you are not supposed to drink caffeine, dye your hair, or shave. The caffeine I suppose would stimulate you when you’re trying to relax. Hair dye can dissolve into the epsom salts. Shaving can open up tiny wounds that will sting when the salt water gets into them. Trevor showed us earplugs that we were encouraged to use to keep the water out of our ears. He also pointed out the ointment we could use to cover any cuts or wounds that might sting in the salt water. My friend had learned some tips from his experience, and recommended inserting the earplugs before showering, because it’s hard to get a good seal in wet ears with wet hands. Also, he recommended drying the face absolutely before getting in, so the salt water doesn’t creep up your wet face into your eyes.
Trevor explained about the lights, and that we could float with lights on if we wanted to. The soothing nature music would fade after movement stopped outside. There are buttons inside the tank to turn lights on, and then off, and a button to summon help in an emergency. He showed me that the doors to get out are like saloon doors: just push them and I’m free. No need to feel trapped. He said, “At the end the tub light will come on and music will stop playing. But if you go to sleep, don’t worry, we will sound a bell that is louder and will wake you up.”
I said goodbye to them both, locked the door, and took a deep breath before I headed for the shower. I took a long time to get ready because I was so anxious. I tested the lights a little before I got in, pushing the buttons and making sure I knew which ones turned lights on, off, and how I could avoid pressing the emergency button (same shape, but in a different part of the pool). There were lights in the bottom of the circular pool that lit up the room, and “star” lights in the ceiling. I fantasized that it would be fun to turn off all the lights except the stars. Then I would try to see if there were constellations, or just random specks of light.
So I did it! And here are my impressions.
I’m glad I went to the float. It was very interesting and I have been curious (and terrified) about it for some time. I told my friend Will about it on the way home. Honestly I was bored out of my mind for most of the time, and I think I may have actually dozed a little because the time went by more quickly than I expected. I was doing all this stuff to try to entertain myself for 90 minutes. Stretching my arms, lifting my arms and legs out of the water, pressing them down, turning in circles, fascinated by the fact that I couldn’t make myself sink. As I described it to Will, he kept laughing and saying he didn’t think I was the right kind of person to benefit from a sensory deprivation tank. “You were doing it wrong,” he said. “You needed a mother in there to keep an eye on you. Instead of saying, ‘it’s time for bed, get ready for bed’ she needed to be in there saying ‘it’s time to relax now, stop playing around and see if you can be peaceful.'” ha ha.
I told the friend who floated with me that I repeatedly freaked out about the comment Trevor made at the beginning. At the time I wanted to ask Trevor “How do you know if I am asleep?” But I was too scared to hear the answer: cameras? what? I was too chicken to ask. So I was trying to figure it out the whole time I was lying there, “If somebody falls asleep, how will they know it? Do they come into the room?” Then I couldn’t remember if I had really locked the room, and every little thump or click the whole time sent me into full alert: Do they think I’m asleep? Are they in my room? I wonder if anyone has done a study on personality types to see who gets the most out of a float.
My idea to turn out all the lights except the stars didn’t work like I imagined. The light for the stars is behind the plastic ceiling, and illuminates the whole ceiling. I wished they had designed it so the ceiling would be black, with only the pinpoints of starlight. I still think that would have been cool. I confirmed that they are only random points of light though, not constellations.
I had another thought while I was floating, that it reminded me of being home. About the same level of quiet, and floating was almost as comfortable as my bed. It occurred to me that people who live in the country and have found their perfect mattress might not be good candidates for the float.
My biggest disappointment is that I don’t think I ever felt deprived of any senses. Not at all. Well, sight. It was purely black in there. And I could never get a good seal on the earplug in my left ear, so there was a steady pop, pop, pop as salt water slowly leaked into my ear. That scared me because I assumed I was plugging my ears for a good reason. I don’t think anything happened to my ears, and I never felt a sting anywhere on my body from the salt. But all the descriptions I read included someone saying how remarkable it was that they couldn’t tell where their body ended and the water began, and how they lost a sense of the room, felt like they were floating in space, and all that stuff. I never did. Maybe because I was trying so hard to discern it the whole time. I wasn’t playing the game. But…I had been hoping for it, because I wanted to see what it was like. Even though I was goofing around when I got really bored, I did periodically try to hold perfectly still and see if I could get the effect. But then I’d hear a low rumble sound that went the whole time – like the hum of the heater or something? I could tell when big trucks rumbled by the building on the street outside. Or I’d notice my left knee was further out of the water than my right knee. Then I’d notice the water was a little chilly. Then I’d notice my back was hurting. I couldn’t help but notice all those things.
My back was starting to ache by the time I got out. It was as though I had been standing too long. When I got out I had to curl into a ball for a while, and stretch my back the other other direction. I needed to sit down and take the pressure off my back. Weird! I never expected that. I wonder why that happened, since the water is so supportive. My theory is that it’s because I have mild scoliosis – that my hard mattress at home is comfortable to me because it forces my back to flatten out due to gravity, and the soft mattress of the water let my back curve too much. I don’t know. Just a guess.
My friend’s experience was that after a float all his senses are heightened, and the world is a fantastic place to walk around and experience: new sounds, new sensations, new smells, brighter colours. I was very eager to experience that! But… of course, I noticed no difference at all. I walked out of the place with wet hair into the lovely day, and was my usually chattery self, blabbing on and on about something unrelated, like what I had done that morning, till I realized my friend had not yet said a word. He moved dreamily along and was feeling unsteady and was focusing on obeying pedestrian rules and lifting his foot high enough to step over the curb onto the sidewalk. A little too out of it to even talk.
Huh. I really am not the right kind of person for a float.
After he came down off his float high, we went to a cider place called Schilling that he had heard of. It was a super choice. Schilling serves some creative and delicious snacks, but is not a restaurant. Their point is to be a place to drink cider. There were too many choices and we both ended up getting flights. That way we shared and were able to sample 12 ciders total. He likes sweet, I like dry, so we did get a wide variety. When I noted the numbers of the ciders I wanted in my flight, the guy behind the counter said, “Wow, #42 and #43, those are some serious ciders.” I asked what he meant. He said these are serious ciders for people who are all about cider. I asked him specifically what they taste like. He said there was no way to explain it, but as soon as I tasted, I would know what he meant. I did.
My fave of the day ended up being the #42 Herefordshire Blend. Brewers are Oliver’s from the UK, and Anxo from the US. Unlike the bartender, I can explain the taste. It tastes like dirt. But in a good way. Ciders #42 and #43 tasted like moss, and rotten wood with some fungus in it. You know, I don’t think that description would appeal to anyone, so the bartender’s choice to play dumb was the correct choice. I drank the distilled essence of a wet, old forest floor, and it was far and away my favourite taste of the twelve! It’s in a class by itself. Now that I know there is cider that tastes like this, I will be on the hunt for it. You can take your fruity sweet froo froo flowery ciders and shove them.
So there you go! If you’ve never heard of a sensory deprivation tank, now you know. And now maybe you’ll try one. If you decide not to, then I recommend you try a cider instead. In my opinion, the sense response I got from the ciders was way more fun.