Curiosity and self-loathing can be a dangerous combination.
I was listening to Spontaneanation, one of my favorite podcats, the other day. On it, Paul F. Tompkins was interviewing Derek Waters of Drunk History fame, and the subject of sensory deprivation tanks came up. Mr. Waters was recounting his recent visit to a spa which specialized in sensory deprivation, er, treatment (?). I became intrigued. Most everything I knew about sensory deprivation came from that old movie, Altered States. Wasn’t getting into a sensory deprivation tank somewhat dangerous? More importantly, I thought, was there a place in town where I could try it? I opened up a Google search on “sensory deprivation tank Columbus OH” and dove into the resulting rabbit hole.
Imagine my surprise. Not only were sensory deprivation tanks still a thing, but their usage was spreading in a wildly commercialized way. Only they’re not called sensory deprivation tanks anymore. Now it’s referred to as REST (Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy). Articles I read touted REST as the new alternative therapy of choice for sufferers of chronic pain, lack of sleep, and depression. Since I suffered from all three of those, my desire to visit a sensor-, pardon, a REST center grew into obsession. Sometimes Columbus, with its persistent obsession in Buckeye football, can seem as cosmopolitan as Tombstone circa 1881. I was shocked to see that several REST spas were in operation around the city. I chose the one nearest me and made an appointment online.
As the time of my appointment neared, I grew nervous. What would happen to me once I got into that tank and the door shut? Derek Water’s experience was for the most part benign. He did find it disturbing that the workers at the spa stressed to him that he should not let the water enter any of his orifices at any time. What the hell was in the water that made it so toxic? Wasn’t it just filtered water loaded with Epsom salt? And that was just the liquid in the tank. What would my brain do when it was deprived of all stimulation? Comedian and MMA announcer Joe Rogan described his trips inside a chamber as damn near transcendental. He experienced hallucinations along with profound insights and a deep sense of relaxation. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to handle that. I’d never hallucinated, and I didn’t feel confident that age 42 was the time to start giving it a go. What if I freaked out? I mean, it would be an hour alone with just my thoughts in the dark. Bill Cosby’s old joke about cocaine users sprang unbidden to my mind.
Cosby: “Tell me, what is it about cocaine that makes it so wonderful?”
Cocaine User: “Well, it intensifies your personality.”
Cosby: “Yes, but what if you’re an asshole?”
There I would be. Alone. In the dark. Just my thoughts. What if you’re an asshole?
On the day of my appointment I showed up with my bath towel in hand and trepidation in my heart. The spa itself was lovely, a nice mix of modern cleanliness and new age relaxation. Gentle music played in the background. A faux waterfall trickled down the wall on my left. The walls were a bright, vibrant blue. And the waiting room was packed. I wasn’t expecting that last bit. Despite walking in on what appeared to be a rush, the front desk attendant quickly checked me in and with a disarming smile handed me an iPad.
I sat down and began reading the documents on the device. At first it was your typical medical boilerplate stuff. No worries there. But then there was a section where you had to read over all the potential side effects and the risk factors involved, and then initial each one indicating that you understood. There were a lot. There were mentions of what could happen if the salt water solution entered into your body. There were mentions of nausea, hallucinations, and psychosis. And the list kept going. I have friends who sky dive and I wondered if they had to sign off on so many potential risks. However, curiosity and self-loathing are a dangerous combination. Check. Check. Check. Check. Check. Check. Check. Check. Check. Check. Check. Check. Check. Electronic signature. And I was led to the darkened room from where the relaxing music was emanating. I and my fellow first timers were instructed to lie down on one of the reclined lounges and stare at the screen on the wall. The screen displayed a random series of geometric shapes and colors. We were told that watching the screen would prep our minds for the experience inside the tank. I couldn’t help but think it was a prelude to brainwashing.
That train of thought kept chugging along, making relaxation difficult. It reminded me of why I was there in the first place. After about 15 minutes of shape watching, we were shown an instructional video on the history of REST and how to maximize our time in solitary. Another attendant then gave us a tour of the facility and instructed us on how to use the tank. Again, the dangers of the water were emphasized.
“Don’t get it in your eyes,” he said. “I’ve done it. It sucks.”
We were then each led to our individual chamber and left alone so that our session could begin. For any potential germaphobes out there who may be reading this: each room was equipped with a shower, and we were told that we must shower both before entering the tank and after exiting. The water inside the tank is filtered continuously throughout the day, gets bathed in UV light in between visits, and contains over 1000 pounds of Epsom salt. Nothing can live in that water, and provided every customer is fastidious in their cleansing, germs shouldn’t be an issue.
So I stripped down to nothing, showered, plugged my ears with the complimentary ear plugs, and stepped up to the tank. The tank itself was like a giant aspirin colored mechanical womb whose bottom half opened like a clam via hydraulics. I guess a vagina shaped opening may have been too on the nose. The lid whooshed upwards and I was bathed in pale blue light, ambient music, and the smell and humidity of body temperature salt water. I climbed in and shut the lid behind me.
However I was not in total darkness. The controls for the lighting were within the tank itself. If I chose, I could have left the blue light on or changed it to any one of a number of soft, LED colors. But I came for the full blown experience. So after lying down I killed the light.
My muscles tensed. Trying to get situated inside the tank was not unlike being stuck in that moment when you first enter a hammock. Each limb is trying to get into a position where you won’t get tossed onto the ground. However there was no ground to get tossed onto in this case. I was floating in 10 inches of water in which sinking was not an option.
After several minutes of struggling, I remembered the instructional video and started counting in an effort to get my brain out of the way. It worked. I found my muscles letting go as my body got used to its surroundings. The music inside the tank switched off- my hour had officially begun.
I tried to tune out the world, but my inner monologue reminded me of Chevy Chase trying to get Michael O’Keefe to relax and hit the ball while blindfolded in Caddyshack.
“It’s kinda hard to relax when keep harping on me to relax,” I told myself.
Part of the problem was that my face itched. I found myself sweating inside the humidity of the tank. So I reached up and scratched the offending spot.
“Don’t get it in your eyes,” the attendant had told me. “I’ve done it. It sucks.”
He was absolutely right. A burning sensation ringed around the eye close to where I’d scratched. It sucked.
“Fuck,” I thought. “I ruined my hour of relaxation and my eye!”
Yet after several minutes of blinking furiously in the dark, the sting subsided and I was once again left alone. In the dark. With just my thoughts.
Well, I say that, but my heartbeat pounded in my ears. And whenever I took a deep breath to enhance my relaxation, it sounded like Darth Vader had joined me in the tank. Still, I persisted in my attempts to relax. My thoughts at one point turned to the stories I had been working on and the problems I faced with each.
“Stop doing that,” my brain said. “We’re here to relax. You’re working.”
“You shut up,” I told my brain. “Those stories aren’t going to fix themselves.”
“No, you shut up,” my brain retorted. “Those problems will be there when we get out of here. If you relax in now, you might just find the answers you seek later.”
I went back to counting. There were times when I felt nothing. Sensation slipped away and for a moment I could feel myself on the cusp of slipping into theta wave state when- *bump*
I’d drift into a side of the tank.
I’d nudge away, inhale, and start over. While drifting, a few other things went through my head.
99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.
99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall (the extended remix).
And, finally, “Well, here I am.”
The time passed, and before I knew it, relaxing music was piped into my tank again, signifying the end of my session. I stretched (which felt marvelous), exited the tank, and showered. As I left the spa, I reflected on the experience. Yes, I did feel an odd sense of peace. Yes, I would do it again. And I was not an asshole. No. I was just dull.