First things first: I did not turn into a monkey, although I may now be able to talk to dolphins. I also didn’t hallucinate, beyond the throbbing shadow images you see when you close your eyes in pitch blackness. I am, however, going to give it another shot.
Monday I treated myself to my first adventure in a sensory deprivation tank. I got a 10 am appointment, so I could go first thing. I made myself a good solid breakfast and drove across town. I was pretty nervous, but determined to give it a try.
I’ve written about my claustrophobia before. It’s better these days, but I wasn’t sure how I would react to being shut into what is basically a bed-sized coffin. It helped to know that there was a light switch inside the pod, so I could turn the lights on when I needed to. I could even leave them on. Just having that control helped.
The room itself had a door that locked from the inside, so that eased my worry that someone would sneak up on me. I showered, put vaseline on the paper-cut on my hand, dried my face off as directed, and stepped into the water.
I like my bathwater to be warm enough to raise goosebumps. This water wasn’t as hot as that, but it was a noticeably warm. The air in my private room was fairly tropical. I sat down and discovered the water reached only up to my waist. It was silky to the touch. The video I watched beforehand said that they used 1200 pounds of epsom salts in each tank.
I pulled the lid closed. The pod was big enough that I could sit up inside it comfortably. Its domed lid made it seem almost spacious. The light seemed bright, though, so I reached over and switched it off, ready to turn it back on as soon as I freaked out. To my surprise, that wasn’t necessary. I lay back in the water, floating with no effort at all, and reached out to touch the sides of the tank to check where they were.
It took a while to find a comfortable position. Once my ponytail got saturated with salt, it was heavy and tugged my head back in a way that put pressure on my neck. The parts of me floating above the water felt slightly chilled. I thought about getting out to ask the attendant to warm the water for me, but I didn’t have a robe and I didn’t want to shower to dress.
Time flowed differently with no way to measure it. My breathing was harsh and loud in the humid darkness. My stomach gurgled. Every now and then, I heard a splash that didn’t seem connected to anything I did — and I remembered my Facebook friend who said he could never use a floatation tank because he worried about the critters coming up from the darkness below him.
I thought about the story I’m working on. I thought about life. I thought about lying still for an hour and found I couldn’t do it. I thought about not touching my face because I didn’t want to get salt in my springtime allergy-sensitized eyes.
Whenever I changed position, I would drift around the pod, gently bumping into the walls. It didn’t matter if my eyes were open or closed. I saw gently pulsing shadows, blacker than the blackness, that changed shape like amoebas. If they’d reached for me, I would have screamed. They kept a polite distance.
Eventually, I decided I would do as the video instructed and count my breaths. They recommended you count to 300. I made it into the 30s before I decided it didn’t matter any longer.
And then the magic happened. I stopped worrying. I stopped thinking. I stopped feeling the temperature difference. I stopped hearing my breathing and my heartbeat and my digestion. I didn’t go to sleep — I was still aware on some level — but I stopped being consciously involved in what was going on. I wanted to stay in that state. I was happy.
Before I was ready, the music kicked in to signal the session was ending. I stretched gently, finding my edges again. The lights came up. I sat up in the pod.
I’m not sure if I can describe how relaxed I felt. This year has been rough: I worked every single day from December 26 to March 1, grinding out and revising the 199 Cemeteries book. In the weeks since I turned it in, I’ve dealt with the editor’s notes, the copyediting, and tried to pick up all the other pieces of my life. My dad’s been in and out of the hospital since Christmas. My daughter’s been sick for weeks at a time. She’s off on a school language trip to Italy now, her first plane flight without me, so I’ve been having anxious dreams about that. I’ve been working with a nutritionist for months, but completely unable to lose any weight — and I have to lose weight, if I want to cut back on my meds. I have been a ball of stress for months on end. All of that was gone.
I felt lighter than I had in months. I felt like I could breathe. It was a religious experience to feel the way I felt: a rare and special blessing.
As I walked over to get myself fish tacos for lunch, I wondered how long the euphoria would last.
The answer: not long. When I checked my email while I waited for lunch, my editor wrote to say as they added page numbers to 199 Cemeteries, they discovered there were only 198 cemeteries.
All the feelings of inadequacy and failure and my impostor syndrome came rushing back.
But I was out for lunch. It was a spectacular spring day in San Francisco: warm sun, cool breeze off the bay, not a cloud in the sky. The jasmine was blooming, scenting the air. I didn’t rush my lunch. There would be time to fix things later.
For the moment, I was going to take care of myself.