An Isolation Tank in Winter is the Best Place to Feel Happy and Alone
At an aggressively loud party a few weeks ago, as the lights from a rainbow disco ball flashed directly into my eyes, I thought about the float tank. A skinny white DJ bounced along to an EDM remix of a well-known pop song, but nestled behind my forehead was serenity and peace. I stayed for one drink and got the fuck out, hustling through the streets of New York with the image of capsuled meditation dancing in my brain. If I tried to imagine it hard enough, I was floating like a baby in the womb.
In the beginning of January, I decided to try "floating," the act of purposely isolating oneself in a coffin-like tank filled with epsom salt water for upwards of sixty minutes. Given my punishing claustrophobia, this was likely a terrible idea. Add my aversion to hippie shit meant to cleanse my aura or whatever, even more so.
My first appointment, I panicked and canceled. I delayed making another by an entire month. I thought about the tank day—written in enormous blue letters in my planner F L O A T T A N K—with equal humiliation and fear. I had signed up to be closed into a tank from which I may never emerge. The salt would surely kill me. The tank lock would malfunction and I would die there in ten inches of water. My family would have to bury me in a cereal box because I'd have shriveled up to the size of a baby alligator.
I had learned about isolation tanks, just like everyone will at one point in their lives, through a spontaneous encounter with a float spa in North Philly, a location on the same street as a Dos Funny Frogs cleaning service and a local pizza shop with juicy calzones. I sent my editor an email, "You ever heard of this?" with the link to the float spa. For the record, that was in October—it's incredible what fear can do to our abilities to actually perform. In an attempt to bring my other friends into the fold, I told them about this experiment, maybe they'd like to join me? In response, one friend pulled up a clip from the 1980 film Altered States where a scientist couple, who had designed their own float tanks as an experiment, lose their fucking minds. Their bodies turning into sinewy inside-out versions of themselves, and all their muscles are pink-red as they spontaneously burst into flames.
No, thank you.
When I finally got around to fulfilling my editor's request and signing up to for a float, it was a Thursday in January and I felt like shit. I sometimes have trouble sleeping and the previous night I had been unable to close my eyes for more than thirty minutes; I was miserable but sedated by the time I was ready to go. This was the best state of mind I could have been in if I was going to be stuffed into a plastic capsule for an hour.
The place that I'd chosen to go to was, incongruously, on 34th Street. I had thought perhaps wrongly that businesses that housed "float spas" were reserved for the more genteel or Berkeley-ified areas of New York City. I expected to find one in Williamsburg or the East Village or Park Slope. On the train up to 34th Street, I reached into my jacket pocket where I found an old Mars Bar. I stuffed it into my face unceremoniously and grumbled at the early afternoon subway crowd. Winter had rendered me a stodgy old man.
I had done no real research on floating outside of google image searching "float tank" and panicking, so when I arrived at the Aspire Health Center and heard Iggy Azalea's "Fancy" playing over the speakers, I interpreted it as a very bad sign. Inside the center, there were a few pieces of gym equipment, two people running on treadmills, and a man and woman in different states of catatonia sitting in wheelchairs. Aspire's slogan is "Feel better, live better, be better." When the dusty Mars Bar started hitting the center of my gut, I hoped that the float would, at the least, help me live better.
Rana Seabrook, the manager of the float spa, greeted me wearing a psychedelic rainbow dress, her hair dyed the color of a summertime popsicle. After a warm introduction, she led me up a flight of carpeted stairs to my new alien home. Seabrook explained that she'd worked at the health center in a different capacity before she'd begun floating, which she'd done as a relief when she was pregnant. She loved it so much that she was given full charge of the float spa.
We reached a door, which Seabrook pushed open gently into what felt like an alternate universe. The light glowed purple and blue, a calming aura in the closed space. A wall of tan-wood lockers. A bathroom. A shower. A clean carpet and some towels, and a candle flickering in the soft darkness. Seabrook casually explained to me what I was expected to do: put myself into the tank, press a button to my left, wait for the lid of the tank to lower, and then float. I asked her what I was supposed to think about while I was floating and she explained that I could attempt to meditate, though the first float would always be spent trying to figure out exactly how to float. Meditation would come later.
I was allowed to use earplugs if I wanted, to keep water out of my ears. I could use a waterproof neck pillow. If I really needed to, like if I started panicking and yelling for mercy, I could press the button to my left that raised the ceiling of the tank and just float out in the open, like I was in some sort of salt-based hot tub. Seabrook left me to my devices and shut the door behind her.
I tried to lock the door but it wouldn't lock. I suppose I would be left to die at the hands of an unhinged float spa murderer. I quickly rinsed my body (protocol) and stood defiant and naked in front of the vehicle of my doom, a pile of my clothes crushed together at my feet.
Have you ever seen a picture of a parasaurolophus? They were dinosaurs with uncomfortable protruding long knobs that came out the back of their heads. When they opened their mouths, they looked like someone was pulling the long knob, as if they were puppets. The gaping wet pool of the float spa and its melted plastic lid made me think I was about to be swallowed by a dinosaur. No problem. Or maybe some sort of vaginal mouth. Or a clam. It didn't matter. The room itself was dimly lit in shades of purple and blue, which contributed to a sense of unease, feeling as if I'd walked into a nightclub with no dancing and no people.
I put in ear plugs, grabbed the neck pillow, and stepped into the gaping mouthhole. As I laid flat, I could feel the dense water swill around me. My naked body was floating. Not unlike a spa, I thought. Just like hanging out in a hot tub.
There were two buttons to my left. A red one and a black one, both cartoonishly large, like they could ignite a booby trap set by Wile E. Coyote. I assumed, rightly, that the red one was to be used in emergencies and in the event that I needed to lift the float lid. The black button just turned the lights off. Great button. I went for the red and watched as the rounded lid closed me into my personal hell.
The darkness was almost pure, only a sliver of light leaked in through the crack in the door, and everything in my coffin was initially very silent. When I'd settled into floating, I began to hear ambient sound outside of the float room—people running on treadmills, a pop song that I couldn't determine quavering through the atmosphere, a few people talking like several Charlie Brown teachers in a faraway place. I tried to block out all sound, if I could.
The water was slimy and viscous to the touch, and the air was damp and smelled of nothing, like a spa. The tank was a swampy temperature, slightly humid, which occasionally made it hard to breathe. My body, lousy with fear, reached out each limb and finger and toe to feel the outside edges of the tank, getting acclimated to my new plastic shell. If this was to be home for the next hour, I had to know what I was working with.
I started counting up silently without even realizing it. I had my eyes closed and felt salt crawling up and around my body very acutely. My earplugs fell out. I had kept my eyes closed so that I knew not to think about how close the roof of the tank was to my face—when I reached up, my fingertips could stroke the slick plastic—and made a conscious plan to not open them until the whole ordeal was over.
I took deep breaths, whispering inaudibly that everything was okay. Everything around me was black. Behind my head was a very narrow glimmer of auric light, which was my one signal that I was still firmly planted on this earth and not somewhere floating in space.
The feeling of being inside a flotation tank is not unlike getting inside a sleeping bag and zipping it up above your head. Or being put into a refrigerator box and having someone sit on top of it. Or getting closed into a closet by a maleficent trickster. The instinct to scream, "Let me out! Let me out! Stop fucking around!" is persistent, but the only person who is fucking with you is yourself. Before I'd made it into the tank, Seabrook had told me that the first time floating would be a lot of me trying to figure out what my body was supposed to do and the second time would be more about actual meditation. Quietly I swore that there would never be a second time, so none of what she said really mattered.
Inside, time passed very, very slowly. Eyes closed, in total darkness, I fought the urge to be aware. I moved my fingers around in the water and recognized my body's weightlessness for the first time. I wiggled my toes and craned my neck back. There was nothing holding me up except salt and there was no sound except for my breathing. It was warm in the plastic clamshell. I instinctively allowed myself to start letting go, initially from boredom and then from necessity.
Still with my eyes closed tightly, I began to think about hurt that I'd felt or trauma that I was holding on to. Like one would in meditation, I tried to push those feelings out of my head and just repeat the same mantra over and over. Occasionally, I would become aware of the salt in my ears or the steam in the tank, which was sometimes a little much to bear. After what felt like a half hour, but could have been longer or shorter, I decided to open the lid for a little fresh air. This immediately felt like a mistake when I realized now I knew where I was and was even more conscious that I was willingly trapping myself.
I closed it again, but this time the floating was easier. I allowed myself to think less and process more. I kept repeating the mantra. And then the strangest thing happened, a thing that I had not been expecting at all: I began to hallucinate. There were colors floating in and out of my purview, when my eyes were open and when they were closed. Nothing was totally formed or making sense, and there were no specific meanings to the images I was seeing, just splatters of warm color on a black backdrop. I settled into this feeling, allowing myself finally to feel comfortable with my restriction.
Before long the roof of the tank began to spontaneously rise and before I had even gotten a chance to relax, the hour was up.
Seabrook told me that she gets anywhere between 20 and 50 people coming in a week. She has regulars who come for scheduled weekly sessions. She has couples who attend the spa together and float in two tanks at a time. Seabrook herself got into floating when she was pregnant and needed some relief on her back. After the birth of her child, she started going as often as she could, sometimes once a week, just to relieve the stress of the outside world.
"In a place like New York City, you can get lost in the crowd," she told me on the phone a week after I had floated myself. "When you're floating, you're breathing."
The feeling that floating gives you, Seabrook explained, could "last for up to days after the fact. It's you, yourself, and your comfort." She told me that she feels that the experience of floating is like getting "a facial or a massage," a luxurious treatment through which management of everyday stress is possible. Especially, I add, given how truly isolated the experience makes—from technology and availability to friends, family members. When I first walked into the float room, I had a "where do I hold my hands" moment with my cell phone. "Where do I throw this thing?" I tossed onto my pile of clothes. It was blissful to be out of reach from the entire world for one full hour.
"A lot of people don't know about it. That's the weird part," Seabrook explained. "Everybody needs it."
I rinsed my body in the shower again and dressed. I was so deeply relaxed as to feel nearly high; a yellow aura was floating around my brain. After paying the $90 fee (pricey, I thought, but Seabrook assured me that there were deals that made the floating cheaper), I walked out onto 34th Street, still enveloped in peaceful bliss. Was this what I'd needed in winter in order to settle my nerves? I was calmer than I'd been since August.
Waiting for the subway, I wasn't impatient like I normally am. On the train, I wasn't angry and stressed. I didn't listen to music to distract myself. My head maintained a soft buzz. I had a doctor's appointment, so I got off at Sixth Avenue and 14th Street and walked west at dusk. These kinds of nights are rare but there was a pleasant glow in the sky, the kind that manifests itself on Instagram in photos of our glorious skyline, reds and yellows and sharp blue.
As I was walking, I felt like I was pushing through a gauzy fog. I briefly looked down at my phone to check an incoming message. When I looked up, I locked eyes with two women working at the counter of a newly-opened bakery, wherein the light was such a brilliant yellow that for one second I believed I'd dreamed them up. They smiled at me—I shit you not—and I sort of drearily smiled back at them, and I took it as an invitation to go in. They had just opened, would I like to try some fresh raisin pastries still warm from the oven?
Are you fucking kidding me? Yes. Yes, I would.
I stuffed some free pastries in my face, went to the doctor, took a trip home, and went to sleep without consequence at 9 p.m., and slept the most restful night of sleep I've had in probably ten years, stashing the memory of being held captive in a warm, wet cocoon—silently, serenely, uninterrupted—in the depth of my headbox for future callbacks in times of need. As it turns out, there would be many.
[Image by Jim Cooke]