I Was Sensory Deprived for an Hour and All I Got Was…

Reading Time: 8 minutes
Image via flotationtanks.com
Image via flotationtanks.com

My life is loud.

Two kids, two cats, a husband with ADHD. I live, by choice, in a city. I work in an office far too small for the number of people who share it under a parking garage with thin walls where the phone rings ALL. DAY.

I also have anxiety and some sensory processing issues, which have created a vicious feedback loop wherein too much input, especially the auditory variety, makes me anxious, which in turn makes me more sensitive to sound which… you get the idea. That I acquired the sensory processing issues as an adult (concussion, long story) has made it both easier (I understand the process) and more difficult (the inevitable loss of neuroplasticity with aging) than it would have been had I been born with the disorder or acquired it as a child. Having anxiety, as I’m sure many of you know, has the added joy *sarcasm font* of a mind that has an extremely difficult time letting go of a given thought or piece of self-dialogue and is, thus, NEVER. FREAKIN’. QUIET. Which is probably why I don’t sleep particularly well.

What to do?

I am on a daily medication, which allows me to function with some semblance of normalcy by turning my internal monologue down several notches, allowing me to consciously dismiss (at least for a time) the thought hamster-wheels by distracting myself with… well, other hamster-wheels. It allows me to enjoy my kids despite the sensory assault of their presences (so… much… touching… so… much… noise) though I’m often so overloaded by the end of the night, even TV can be a bit too much. I do okay. Much better on meds than not, and, as I get older and more comfortable with myself, a little more tolerant of the way I feel about things.

That said, there are other tools. Meditation (at which I am terrible and yes, I am placing a value judgment on it), baths (get antsy thinking of things I need to be doing or good lines for whatever I’m writing or that I maybe, possibly left, the stove on or forgot to empty the lint trap in the dryer), exercise (which I am continually planning to restart), and baking (which I really need to stop doing). The list goes on. If it’s out there, I’ve tried it.

Recently, however, I read an article about something I had never tried.

A float tank.

Which is a fancy, not scary name for a water-filled sensory deprivation chamber.

Well. Why the hell not?

I chose Pittsburgh Float because it had decent reviews, was close to my house, and was one of few options in town. They had a lot of availability. It’s a bit of a spend at seventy dollars for an hour (or ninety for ninety minutes), though that’s less than most hour long massages and FOR SCIENCE! Because of my work schedule, there was a bit of delay between making the appointment and having it, which gave me time to think. And get nervous. And then I worked a bunch of crazy shifts and my house was even louder than usual and shutting myself in absolute darkness for an hour started to sound like a good idea again.

The Experience:

I arrived a little bit early, having read on the website that they request you shower before getting in the tank. Coolio. Pittsburgh Float is part of a larger salon/spa and they had me wait in the salon reception area, which was not so awesome because it smelled like perm and bleach and people were yelling at each other on the news and the receptionist was talking very loudly about someone who had called off and how they were switching her appointment around. As the confirmation email had told me to “start relaxing” on my way to the appointment, I was a little miffed but, okay, they share the space. Greeter dude was prompt in coming to get me and was nice and soft-voiced and all of those lovely things, though he was drinking coffee which was totally unfair because I had only had one cup because they also instruct you to avoid caffeine for “several hours” before going into the tank. He asked me if I had a meditation practice. I told him I had two small kids. He stared blankly at me, suggesting he does not. He gave me the procedural talk, explained I’d hear birds chirping when my time was up, and left me the room.

Having intermittent claustrophobia, I turned the room lights off (there was a sort of cheesy faux-fireplace for low light) knowing I’d probably have to open the tank up for fresh air at some point, took my shower, and got into the tank.

The water wasn’t as warm as I expected, but once I was stretched out, it was nice enough. The smell hit me really hard; they use Epsom salts rather than chlorine, but the water is supersaturated (think Dead Sea) so you can float without any effort, and it was a little oppressive. I eventually got used to it, but the first couple of minutes were rough.

My brain immediately started spinning up, making shopping lists for the week, signing the kids up for summer camp, dreading going my next shift at work, trying to organize the weekend’s activities… I struggled a little bit to get comfortable (the two recommended arm positions are at your side or arms stretched out over your head and neither was entirely right for me). Then I accidentally cracked one of my toes and everything changed.

No joke. I have never heard a joint crack through such heavily salinated water before and it was this fascinating little pop that, for some strange reason, made me giggle. So I cracked all of my toes and then all of my knuckles, listening to the difference in resonances between fingers and toes, the delay between the physical sensation and the sound reaching me through the water. It was focus on that tiny detail that eventually relaxed me because it was so absurd and yet so in the moment, so present, so connected to me and only me.

After that, I drifted for a bit. I’m not sure if I’d classify it as meditation or falling asleep. Either way, it was very peaceful. When I became aware again I got a little panicky because I had no idea how long I’d been in the tank and how long I had to go. Which is the point but for someone with anxiety, amorphous time is, literally, torture. The fear of endless put some heavy pressure on my chest so I opened the door to the tank. The room was still there. The fake fire was still cheesy. The air was cooler and I got a couple of good lungfuls while I considered my options. In the end, I decided to give it another go and got back in.

I’m glad I did. I had a difficult time with the lack of time reference but I also pretended I was a mermaid. After a few additional minutes, I was able to embrace another wonderful part of childhood in which, even if you know what time it is, you don’t care because it’s the middle of the summer and you don’t have to go to school and there’s a glorious afternoon stretching out in front of you.

The birds did indeed chirp when my session was up and I was both relieved and disappointed to hear them. Relieved because I knew what time it was again, which calmed my instinctive need to be in control but disappointed because I felt like I had finally found my happy place and the damn birds were making me give it up.

image via flotationtanks.com
image via flotationtanks.com

The Aftermath:

Greeter dude had told me that I might find myself thinking differently for several days post-float. I sort of laughed privately and nodded sagely because, in all honesty, I’ve been trying to change the way I think for years and, as I said above, while medication has improved my quality of life immensely, the basic fabric of my brain remains unchanged; on the rare occasions I forget to take my Paxil in the morning, I know it and so does everyone around me.

Damned if he wasn’t right, though.

It wasn’t an immediate thing. I came home. I slept for a bit. I got up to get the boy from the bus stop. On the way home the kids started their usual kid stuff and I had absolutely positively no patience for it. Now, I grant you, this is not an uncommon ailment among parents, but usually, when I’ve been away from them most of the day and I’ve been missing them, I have a high threshold. That afternoon I had no threshold whatsoever. First bicker, first whine, mommy go boom. Luckily, I realized I was doing it relatively quickly, apologized to the rug rats, and started trying to track the lack of patience.

It took me an hour or so to figure it out but, when I did, it was pretty revelatory.

I didn’t have any other mental processes distracting me from their sibling interactions. Usually, when they started up, I could referee with part of my brain and distract myself making a list or working on fiction, preventing me from getting so immersed, so surrounded, I got annoyed quickly. In that moment, however, I wasn’t planning or worrying or grappling.

I had absolutely, positively no mental background noise.

It was lovely.

It was also terrifying.

Thought has been my constant companion since I was eleven years old. And while it wasn’t always a kind one, it was, at least, reliable. I knew what to expect from it, even if it was difficult, could anticipate where it was going to go and what it as going to do even if I wasn’t pleased about it.

I had no idea what to do with the newfound silence.

So I remembered the lessons I learned when I did try to meditate in a Zen group back in Davis Square ages ago.

I breathed.

I breathed and the panic ebbed and when next the kids were doing kid things, I was able to maintain my patience. To a point, anyway.

My brain remains a lot quieter than it was prior to my float. I’m multitasking in a way I haven’t been able since the concussion eight years ago. I’ve slept better the last three days than I have in years (okay, one night I stayed up all night reading, but it’s been years since I did that my choice and not by virtue of insomnia, so that’s something as well). I have better focus when I’m writing and I’m enjoying myself more because I have a newfound ability to live in the moment.

It’s really nice.

It’s also unlikely to be permanent, which means if I want to recapture this new clarity and peace, I’ll have to do more floats. I’m not sure that’s going to happen. It’s expensive for something that I didn’t absolutely love, though, in fairness, I think I need to take on at least a couple more trials before I make a definitive judgment on “enjoyment”; how many of us liked kimchi or fra diavolo the first time we tried it?

Either way, it’s nice to know float is there if I need it.

Things I Learned:

Pre-scout your location. Walking into a loud, stinky hair salon got me all jacked and uncomfortable and it took me longer than it otherwise might have to relax at the beginning of the session. I think next time I might ask them if the spa has a separate entrance or look for a free standing float experience.

Wearing a bathing suit did not stimulate my nerves to the point I noticed it. The recommend floating nude. If you’re comfortable in the buff, go for it, but if you’re not, don’t let them talk you out of a suit.

Be prepared for an initial stink. The water is really salty. It did not smell super and that bugged me way more than having a bathing suit on. I wish the dude had warned me.

Don’t be afraid to open the tank. If you’re concerned with claustrophobia, this is absolutely something you can try. I didn’t feel trapped because I couldn’t see anything and even when I was fully stretched out, I was floating unless I deliberately felt around. There was one point my chest got sort of tight and I felt a little panicky so I opened the door for a minute and then went back in; reminding myself there was an outside world seemed to do the trick.

Pick something goofy to focus on: it doesn’t have to be cracking knuckles. It can be a knock-knock joke or the weirdest interpretive dance you’ve ever seen, but you’ll get in the zone earlier in the experience if you have that thing to help you salt-water and chill.

Next time, I’ll utilize the music system. Quite is nice. Quiet is lovely. But, for me, even with the sensory processing disorder, a little background noise is soothing. That need is why I live in the city and it’s why I almost always have music on at home and in the car. Having something I love to focus on will help me relax a little bit more quickly and become a little more immersed in the experience.