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Nightmares and Daydreams in the Sensory Deprivation Tank

Nightmares and Daydreams in the Sensory Deprivation Tank

Man sitting in a pink and blue sensory deprivation tank with his back to the viewer

The man shuffling out of the cryotherapy chamber resembles an uncooked fish defrosting on a kitchen counter.

His hair, brown and straggly, clings to his scalp. His pinkish skin is almost translucent, with bluish-purple veins visible just beneath the surface. He looks very, very cold, despite the fact that he’s wearing the spa’s signature fluffy white robe and fuzzy bunny slippers. 

The man stops at the sofa directly across from mine and plops down abruptly, bright blue irises fixated on the wall behind me all the while. He gives no indication that he sees me.

I wonder if everybody looks like this post-cryo. If so, then I’m not sure I want to try it.

Fortunately, I’m not at Rejuvenation, a float and cryotherapy spa, to expose my semi-naked body to near-freezing temperatures. I’m here to experience sensory deprivation. For the next hour and a half, I will lie in an enclosed chamber filled with twelve inches of water and one thousand pounds of Epsom salt. I won’t be able to see, hear, smell, touch, or taste anything. According to rave reviews from friends and the Internet, I will emerge in a state of complete tranquility, calmer than I’ve ever been before.

Complete tranquility sounds nice, but the real reason I want to be in a sensory deprivation tank is because I want to experience a cultural phenomenon. Originally loved by hippies, stoners, and other people who wanted to explore the depths of human consciousness, sensory deprivation tanks became popular in Silicon Valley and have since gone from random vessels in strangers’ apartments to fancy pods found in bougie spas. It’s a thing here in the Bay Area, and I want to try it, just to see what all the hype is about.

Rejuvenation is definitely bougie. The outside of the building looks just like any other brick facade, save for a sign featuring a woman floating in a glowing pod with a blissful expression on her face. Inside is a waiting area filled with white couches, fluffy white rugs, and delicate glass beverage dispensers filled with mint- and grapefruit-infused water. Lo-fi music plays softly through invisible speakers. 

The sensory deprivation tanks are located down a long hallway illuminated with hot pink lights. At the end of the hallway, a neon sign reads “The power of imagination makes us infinite.” The overall effect is millennial-minimalism-meets-Apple-Store — bright and airy, but also unsettlingly smooth and sterile.

Uncooked Fish Guy makes me uneasy with his unmoving gaze. I’m about to get up and explore the hallway when an attendant, a cheerful woman wearing a T-shirt that says “breathe” in curvy bridesmaid font, calls my name. I follow her into a small room lit with the same pink light as the hallway outside. There’s a small shower to the right, with soap bottles mounted on the wall that read “pre-float,” “post-float,” and “conditioner.” A small table by the shower holds bright orange earplugs. Against the back wall hangs a fluffy bathrobe bearing the Rejuvenation logo.

An enormous white pod takes up the bulk of the room. It resembles a little spaceship, round and white and shiny. The top is propped open; inside, the Epsom-salt bath shimmers like a swimming pool. An underwater light turns the water an ethereal indigo.

The attendant shows me how to operate the pod. There’s a button to control the light, which can change colors or be turned off completely, and a latch at the bottom of the cover that I need to pull in order to get out.

“There will be a five-minute notice before the filters come on,” she explains, her voice silky like a therapist’s or a couture-store saleswoman’s. “Try to be out by the time that happens. The noise can be a little alarming.”

I nod. She steps out the door, quietly shutting it behind her, and I bounce on my toes in excitement as I look at the indigo water. I’ve heard so much about others’ experiences with sensory deprivation. I wonder what mine will be like. Will I get any hallucinations, any mind-expanding thoughts?

It’s time to find out. I rush myself through a very cold, very quick shower with the soap marked “pre-float,” then cautiously dip one foot into the pod. The water is not too warm and not too cold — skin temperature, the spa’s website had read, exactly ninety-eight point six degrees Farenheit. Soon, I’m lying on my back, feeling like an overgrown child floating in a giant womb.

I pull down the top after a minute or two, observing my body floating in the indigo water like a doll. The water is thick and gooey, like egg white. Every movement I make has a delayed reaction, as if I’m in a laggy 4D simulation. It’s endlessly amusing; I feel like a little kid as I move my arms like a jellyfish, sway my hips to the sound of absolutely nothing, and splash my fingers around in the water. My thoughts are all over the place. If sensory deprivation is supposed to slow them down, I have yet to feel the effects. 

I think about the articles I still have to make edits to and the pretty walls I’m supposed to scout after my float. I make a mental note to buy a new Swell bottle. I wonder if anyone has peed in a sensory deprivation tank before. I wonder if anyone has peed in this sensory deprivation tank before. I was told that the water isn’t replaced between floats — the half-ton of Epsom salt in it acts as its own disinfectant.

A few more minutes pass. I wonder how many people have been naked in here before me.

If I’m supposed to be relaxing, I am definitely not doing this right. Maybe it’s time to turn off the lights.

I press the light switch and am suddenly left in pitch-blackness. It’s dark, but somehow soothing, welcoming. I completely submerge my arm and move it around in the goopy liquid. For now, I can still hear and smell and touch. I listen to the occasional splashing noise and the sound of my own slow, deep breaths.

This is much better. I tilt my head further back and —

Fuck, I forgot the earplugs! 

I’ve been told that it’s okay to not wear earplugs, but my ears are submerged and I don’t like the thought of the salty water getting in them. I press the light switch again, push open the lid, and scramble for the basket of earplugs on the little shelf by the shower, squinting at the sudden light the entire time. Goosebumps instantly rise on my skin — it’s cold outside the pod. In my few minutes floating, I seem to have forgotten that the world is not made of warm, humid air.

The bright orange earplugs feel like Silly Putty in my hands. Later, I will notice that there are very clear instructions stating that the user’s “hands and ear openings should be clean and dry,” saying that the disk-shaped earplugs are not meant to be stuck into the ear canal. But I’m shivering and dripping salty water onto the floor, so I hurriedly squish each plug into an elongated shape with my wet fingers and cram them into my damp ear canals.

Get. Back. In. The. Womb, my mind commands. I step back into the water. Instantly, I feel at home within the warm, rich liquid. Ears properly plugged, I pull down the cover, turn off the light, and zone out for real.

I have no idea how much time has passed when I start consciously thinking again. I’m not sleeping, exactly — my mind is very much awake — but I’m in a state that I’ve never experienced before, one where I can almost physically feel my brain relaxing. I lost track of all senses a while ago; I’m floating in deep space, but it’s serene and tranquil, not airless and claustrophobic like I’d been afraid of. This is by far the most tripped out I’ve been while sober, with thoughts coming out of nowhere, blending into other thoughts, and disappearing almost unconsciously. It’s pleasant, with none of the anxiety-euphoria that comes with actually tripping. Maybe this is a good time to process the things I’ve been carrying with me, things that I’m normally afraid to examine too closely.

As soon as I have this thought, images and recollections that I’d relegated to the dusty attic in my mind gently float to the surface: old conflicts with former friends, the face of a girl I had a summer fling with a few years ago who I’d stupidly pretended not to like, the particularly cruel breakup text I’d sent to someone I’d dated for the wrong reasons. 

Current dilemmas about my life and future come up, too. I’ve just realized that I’m a man, not a woman, but I’m afraid that people won’t believe me when I tell them. I’ve been blaming my indifference about working in tech to post-graduation burnout, but I think it’s actually because I’d rather be a writer. There’s a new person I’ve been casually seeing who I’m starting to like a little too much. 

What to do about these things? I don’t want to not tell this new guy that I like him, lest this go the same way as that summer fling from years ago. I don’t want to change careers, because I’ve worked so hard to get to Silicon Valley. And, of course, “writer” sounds so much more stereotypically feminine than “computer programmer.” Officially making the switch would be even more proof that I wasn’t really transgender, that I was obviously coming out just for attention.

I wish I had closer friends to discuss all of these things with, but I’ve failed to make good ones here because I still feel bad about the way I treated my former best friends back home. I didn’t listen to them enough, didn’t take their feelings into consideration, ever; I’d made everything about me, all the time.

I shut my eyes and focus on these things one by one, allowing myself to acutely feel the fear and longing and remorse that I normally keep at bay with my tight schedule and busy social calendar. Under close examination, each thorny emotion dissipates, floating away into the ether.

This must be what Silicon Valley yuppies shell out eighty dollars a session for. Hell, maybe even I could be persuaded to pay that much to float in gooey water in the dark instead of spending that same money on random app subscriptions, weed, and take-out.

I lose track of time again. When I come to next, my hands are clasped together underwater, behind the small of my back — it’s a strange way to hold hands with myself, but it feels right. I try to process more long-buried emotions, but they don’t come; instead, I feel a warm, buzzing sensation in my head. 

I feel relaxed, refreshed — rejuvenated, I think with a smile. The spa has certainly lived up to its name.

“This is the end of the float,” a preprogrammed voice announces before I can sink back into oblivion. 

Damn, I think. Just as I’m starting to really relax.

I open my eyes in the dark and feel my way around the wall for the switch that pops the lid open. Weren’t the lights supposed to come back on?

A few long seconds pass. No light.

It’s a little weird, but okay. I’ll make a note to the attendant once I get out.

Except I can’t find the latch. My hands only make contact with the chamber’s salt-covered surface.

All right, I think. I’ll just find the button and turn on the light, and then I’ll get out.

To my surprise, I can’t find the button, either. The filters turn on then, making the churning water roar and gurgle under the surface. The air seems to grow thicker, moister.

Good thing I’m not claustrophobic, I think.

A minute later, that thought has gone out the window. I’ve sat up in the water; I’m feeling around more frantically now. The button to turn the light back on is still nowhere to be found. I manage to locate one of the metal poles that prop the lid up. Where is that damn button?

The whirring intensifies. I bang on the lid of the pod. Maybe someone else will hear me and get me out.

No such luck. I’m in a sealed pod inside a room down a long hallway with the door closed, and the filters are overwhelmingly loud. The chances of anybody hearing me, even if they were in the same room, were slim to none.

I hit the ceiling harder. “Excuse me! I’m stuck! Can someone please help me get out?”

A tiny tremor of fear has crept into my voice. Where the fuck is the — 

button! Finally! I give the circular object a long press, desperately wanting the light to come back on, and …

… nothing happens. Everything remains dark.

I press the button faster and faster, again and again. Still nothing.

The humidity seems to condense around me, making me all too aware that I’m in a small, pitch-black, tightly sealed space. I tell myself to breathe, to keep my heart rate low.

“Excuse me!” My voice is definitely panicked now, high-pitched and thin and somehow still excruciatingly polite. “Excuse me! I’m stuck! EXCUSE ME! PLEASE!”

My pleas reverberate off the walls for a split second before disappearing under the noise of the filters.

Oh God Oh God Oh God OH GOD OH GOD OH GOD, screams my mind. A muffled sob escapes my lips, drowned out a moment later by the ever-increasing whirs.

This is it. This is how I’m going to die — trapped in a tiny, moist, pitch-black sensory deprivation pod with all the jets whirring.

I bang on the cover again, but this time I know it’s useless. I draw in a ragged breath and let my hand fall into the water. Calm down, I tell myself. You won’t be able to do anything if you’re freaking out. 

I lean against the wall. Breathe. In. Out. Breathe. It. Will. Be. Okay.

You. Will. Get. Out. I’m determined to wait through this, even if the jets are terrifying.

You’re not going to die in here. Breathe.

I breathe. I also do a last-resort feel for the wall of the latch. If the button was broken, maybe I could force myself out.

There’s another session right after yours, remember? Someone’s going to come in here to kick you out sooner or later.

I don’t find the latch, but my hands land on one of the metal bars propping the door up, and I slowly feel my way down until I reach the button.

I know it’s irrational to press it again. I do so anyway.

To my surprise, the light comes on, revealing the fact that I have somehow rotated a hundred and eighty degrees during my float. The exit latch is by my feet, not my head, and there are two buttons, not just one.

I did it! 

Exuberation replaces fear. I feel my sense of resolve return. So much for the lack of anxiety-euphoria, I think wryly as I half-swim over to the latch, prop open the lid, and drape myself over the edge of the pod, breathing heavily. 

The sudden rush of cold air — my reward after being in the wet darkness for so long — feels so good that I stay there for a few minutes before dragging my body into the adjacent shower. The clichéd descriptions of terror, I realize, are cliché for a reason: my heart is pounding, my arms and legs feel like they’re made of Jell-O, and I’m about to burst into tears, for real. My wrinkly hands shake as I shampoo the residual Epsom salt out of my hair.

When I finally step out into the neon-pink hallway, I wonder if I, too, resemble an uncooked fish. No, I probably look like a chicken that has narrowly escaped slaughter, or a survivor in an action movie — wild-eyed, disheveled, and shaken beyond belief. I’m anything but frozen. 

I’ve only had a few nightmares about being trapped in a dark, cramped space with no way out. Being stuck in a sensory deprivation chamber came a little too close to making that a reality.

“How was it?” the receptionist asks with a smile as I gather up my belongings.

I have to consider this for a moment. The last hour and a half has been one of the most calming — and most distressing — experiences of my life. The actual float, where I started to make peace with nasty thoughts long hidden in my subconscious, left me feeling calm, rejuvenated, lighter than air. Getting stuck provided me with enough nightmare fuel to last well into adulthood. I’m jittery, rattled … and also clean, smooth, refreshed. The irony isn’t lost on me.

“I think my tank is broken,” I say. “The light didn’t come on until after the voice said that my float was over.”

“Oh, the light’s not supposed to come on. You have to turn it back on yourself.”

I wonder how many people have also been reinvigorated, then retraumatized, by this little design flaw. “I pressed the light switch several times, and it only worked on my last try …”

She looks at me, concerned. “That’s not supposed to happen. I’ll take a look at it. Did you get out okay?”

“I’m here, aren’t I? Don’t worry about it.” At this point, I just want to leave. I pull open the glass-and-chrome door, not bothering to register the receptionist’s response. 

My legs are still a little wobbly as I walk out into the unseasonably sunny, seventy-degree San Francisco afternoon. I grab a drink at the taqueria down the street, choosing an outdoor seat at the corner, away from all of the action. Thankfully, the experience doesn’t seem to have corrupted my love of small spaces.

I shiver a little, even though I’m sitting under direct sunlight. The sun’s rays, the wind tickling my bare legs, and the chatter of the patrons around me feel light-years away from the muggy, cramped darkness of the sensory deprivation tank. Not even twenty minutes ago, I’d been in there, banging on the lid, crying out for help. And a little more than twenty minutes before that, I was thinking that I’d make sensory deprivation floats a regular part of my life.

Would I go back? Not anytime soon, that was for sure. But maybe if they made the button work again, maybe if I kept track of how I was oriented while I was in there … 

My untouched drink is starting to sweat. I watch a bead of condensation roll down the side of the glass and disappear into the stem. 

Yes, I decide. I probably will return, and next time I will be prepared.

I take a sip of my drink, enjoying the cool, refreshing sweetness, and close my eyes, letting the warmth of the day wash over me, banishing the last two hours into the dusty attic of my mind. ✦

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