I have. Four times. And I’m going to share with you my honest opinion, because I have mixed feelings.
That’s not true: actually, I think floating in massive amount of epsom salt in the dark is beneficial for your muscles and your brain. Many scientific studies (which I’m too lazy to link here) back that up. It’s just that…based on everything you read about it you’d think it was some sort of miracle. But just like everything else, there are things to consider.
When you go float the first time you have to sign a medical waiver. That you’ve discussed this with your doctor and all, yada yada. Of course you sign, because going to see your physician is time and money you just want to get to the relaxation part! But I did have some anxiety knowing it wasn’t the most responsible to get into something that causes altered moods and brain states without talking to my psychiatrist first. I mean, some people have auditory and visual hallucinations in these things!
On my visit I’m greeted by the actor Aaron Paul from Breaking Bad. Okay, not actually, but this young guy looked uncannily like him. Now, this really tripped me up because I’d been watching The Path on Hulu, where he plays a cult member who is having these religious experiences amist his skepticsm. And it just set me in weird state of mind.
The other thing that set me in a weird state of mind is that I hadn’t realized when I was alone in the dark that I had just watched a documentary in which a girl had been kidnapped and kept mostly in a box for years.
“Weird state of mind,” NO. More like terror.
Here’s what happened. I was led to a private room with a shower and a float tank. It was recommended that I float naked so as instructed after they left I stripped down to nothing, took a brief shower, put vaseline on a couple scrapes, ear putty to block the water and got into the tank.
There was a glowing blue light inside the tank and it reminded me of the ’80s movie, Cocoon. I saw the movie in elementary school so I don’t remember it well but I remember a glowing blue light and it creeping me out.
Anyway, I was already in a weird state when I got into the tank.
I started with a lot of anxiety. I hadn’t realized until I showed up at the place how much anxiety I feel whenever I try anything new. How much routine matters to me. How if I don’t know exactly what I’m supposed to be doing in a situation I feel tense and my mind races.
This was months ago so I can’t remember all the thoughts that were going through my head but there were a lot of what-ifs and I felt really unsettled.
I laid down in the water. It was easy to float. No effort at all. All that salt. The water was warm, but not hot like I like baths. Salt water got into sensitive areas of skin I didn’t know was there. Ouch.
I shut the lid to the tank. I felt a little panicky. I don’t like enclosed spaces.
It’s okay, I reassured myself. But a few seconds later I checked the lid to make sure I could open it from the inside. I could. I reminded myself that there was plenty of air in the tank and that I’d not suffocate in there for an hour.
Science, Quix. Science. I sat up and checked the lid one last time.
Then I used my body to “outline” the tank for me. I familiarized myself with my hands and feet where the light was, the speakers, the button to the front desk, the lights, and the handle to open the tank.
And then, after a few minutes of floating I decided to turn off the lights.
5 seconds of being okay. Then I realize I can’t really feel my body and I can see anything. The only thing I can hear is my pulse through my ears. I suddenly feel like I’m in space with no gravity. I have no concept of up, down, right, left. And vertigo sets in. I feel really dizzy.
I move my limps and I touch nothing. Then I start to panic. It takes over my brain. I nearly scream. My body is telling me I’m going to die. STOP! You are NOT going to die. I have to yell stop inside my head several times.
FOCUS. I tell my brain if my body wants to survive it’s got to focus on the objective. Except it didn’t come out like that.
My brain wanted to find the exit and get out NOW. I told my brain NO, you need to find the LIGHT first.
No LIGHT, need EXIT!
No. FOCUS. You need light first, THEN exit. Without the light finding the exit would take signficantly longer.
(I realize this sounds silly but it really was almost like an argument between different parts of my brain)
Decided to focus on finding the light. It took…30 seconds? Who the hell knows but it felt like forever.
It took a very long time because I was in a larger than average tank. For first-timers they want to impress you with the big tank. Unfortunately, there was nothing to grab onto because my limbs wouldn’t reach and so I had to manuever my body and I think while trying to find the sides I may have turned sideways. The combo of the complete darkness with the salt water being temp of your body makes it hard to discern what’s going on in the environment.
I found the speaker! But where’s the other? Oh shit, I’m sideways! I found the light! Turn on light.
Make my way to the tank exit. Lift the handle. Cool AIR. I just sit their breathing for a minute.
Then I get the fuck back in the tank. Why? Because this is supposed to be therapeutic, DAMN IT. And anxiety ain’t gonna rule me.
So I get back in. Lay back down. Letting my body recover from the panic attack. I decide to keep the soft blue light on.
I play with my hair and that is ALL I can seem to focus on. My brain has gone completely void of all thought, including the many what-ifs.
I think about my hair length, my hair texture. Different lengths and colors my hair has been. Now, thinking back on this experience I realize this is likely why I decided to make such a drastic cut of my hairlength.
So, eventually my time is up (an hour total) and the jets and music come on signaling me to get out. I step out and take a shower with some of the best-smelling shampoo and body wash.
I sit at the oxygen bar. Not-Aaron Paul asks me how it was. Another couple, whose first time it is as well, talks about how relaxing it was. How they fell asleep.
My response was to simply say I felt more awake. Not that I had had a full-on panic attack.
Not-Aaron Paul hooked me up at the oxygen bar and when he wasn’t looking I rolled my eyes about how silly the idea of an oxygen bar was and how priviledged I was. Then I looked through the journal of people’s experiences and how everyone had written down they had a wonderful time.
My body felt great and I was completely in that moment. My anxiety was almost nil. Most of my hip pain had gone away. So, yeah, it did something for me.
But boy was it scary what I experienced.
But then I fucking signed up for a membership. Because I was like, hells yeah – I want to torture myself.
Actually, what happened is that I read this huge binder full of scientific studies they had near the oxygen bar on the effectivness of floating in a sensory deprivation tank, particular for those with anxiety disorder and PTSD. So I said, okay let’s do this thing. Because I’m crazy. Obviously.
Second time around a woman was at the desk and she led me into the non-show room with a smaller tank. The water was cooler than it should have been which was mildly annoying, but I felt a bit grateful as well because I didn’t want to get that same vertigo as before that triggered the panic. So, the water was slightly cool and this time I could touch all around if I stretched out my limbs. In this tank the light was set to go off after a certain point but I wasn’t sure exactly when. It didn’t immediately go off like the other one when you pushed the button. So I had a little bit of an obsessive anxiety over when the damn light would turn off. My heart was racing waiting for it. I could hear I was breathing a little heavy.
The light finally went off and I stretched my limbs out and I could touch! So I felt somewhat grounded, which is not the point of a sensory deprivation tank but I realized that I didn’t want the experiences that others were seeking. I didn’t want a spiritual experience. I didn’t want to hallucinate. I wanted less anxiety and my body to ache less.
This time around my brain was very focused on the narrative of my experience. That is, it was as if my thoughts were writing a blog post in real time and I was describing it as it were happening. And then my brain started doing this with the rest of my life. And I realized that in the past couple years I do this frequently as a now innate therapeutic technique. When there is an audience (even a made up one in my head) I have to focus my thoughts into message. It calms my brain and gives me a sense of control. Additionally, when there is an audience I am forced to evaluate my perspective, which results in a less judgmental and harsh opinion of myself. Because if I’m not me and I’m simply observing me I see me clearer. Make sense?
The next float I did not have to deal with anxiety. I felt comfortable with the process and at that moment did not have anything precessing to be anxious about, which is quite remarkable.
What I had not anticipated was getting in touch with my depression. Yay!
I didn’t feel like being in the dark this time and so I floated in soft blue light. I hadn’t yet settled into a permanent position so I was moving enough to create ripples of light reflecting on the roof of the tank. It reminded me of swimming at dark in my grandparent’s pool.
As I didn’t swim in the dark often (my grandparents were attentive to my safety) my brain immediately switched over to swimming in the daytime. When I was a kid, I loved to swim. During my teens and much of college I’d spend a good chunk of my summer alone with my grandparents. My Nanny (grandma) would knit, garden, clean, and cook and my Granndad would watch golf, grill, play computer games, and read. Me? I’d read a lot but I’d also swim.
And though there were moments of peace and happiness it was around 14 when the depressive part of my bipolar disorder showed up. And there were countless hours that I’d float in my grandparents pool looking up at the sun thinking about how empty I felt inside, that life was pointless, and I wanted to die. That on top of being ashamed about my body, of course.
So floating in the tank I became connected to that feeling to the point as if I were 14 again but yet something had changed. I knew I was no longer helpless. And I knew those feelings were not me. And then I cried a little, grieving for the two decades I suffered severely without a proper diagnosis and treatment. Suffered for no goddamn reason. Just hated myself and wanted to die. It’s not as if those feelings are gone forever, they just aren’t around all the time. Most of the time they aren’t around.
At some point during the float I sat up, bored. I stretched. Thought about the rest of the day. I was bored. I remembered hearing stories about how the time just flew away. None of my floats had been like that. They all feel like the full hour that they are, with no stimulation. Just…thoughts. Thoughts I have anyway because I allow myself in my everyday life to think about things and reflect. So, bored.
The fourth float was today and it had been a while. To be honest, even though it was the most recent I remember it the least. I remember being bored at one point. I remember my skin feeling stung in spots where I have eczema. I remember realizing my body has less aches and wondering if it has to do with soaking in all that epsom salt on a regular basis. I remember wanting to finish this blog post. I thought about day-to-day stuff.
I thought about how I don’t think I’ve ever gotten to theta-wave stage (the stage right before you fall asleep), which is where most of the “magic” is supposed to happen. I realize that’s okay because I don’t want to have an experience that could split my psyche somehow. As a person with a mental illness, I don’t feel it is ideal to chase psychedelic experiences when I have, in the past, actually been psychotic.
And, to be honest, while I do believe in the benefits of floating I know it’s not a miracle.
Not-Aaron Paul was working today and told me an insurance company agreed to cover a veterans’ weekly float spa visits for his PTSD (which is awesome by the way). Claimed one session of floating was just as effective as CBT (cognitive behavioral medicine) and prescription med. My skeptic meter went up. I’m not gonna lie, it’s helped me. But if I didn’t have my therapist and wasn’t on meds if I was in the middle of a depressive, manic, or mixed episode it could possibly make me suicidal and/or psychotic. If I were worried about that I wouldn’t go in. But I do worry that if mentally ill persons start using this treatment on their own it could potentially be dangerous.
Now to you: Have you ever floated? What was your experience like? If not, would you want to try it?