I Work At A Spa Where You Can Take Drugs and Trip Balls
It seems like sensory deprivation tanks are everywhere these days. From Stranger Things to Stephen Curry, depriving yourself of multiple senses is so hot right now. If Helen Keller were alive, she'd say ... well, nothing. That was her whole deal. But she might be a bit confused by the phenomenon. So we spoke to the folks who operate those sensory deprivation tanks, plus a few users, to find out why people pay good money just to get trapped.
Sometimes The Customers Really Don't Want To Get In
There are a lot of risk-takers out there, but not everybody gets high on life. Some folks are dragged to the tanks mentally kicking and psychically screaming. According to Cameron, who worked in a sensory deprivation spa, his job mainly consisted of comforting those folks.
"Everyone is worried about different things" he told us. "I've heard, 'Will I go crazy in there?,' 'What if I come out a different person?,' 'How can I call for help?,' and 'Do I have to be naked? I'm not going in there naked.' And, if they've seen Fringe, 'Will it fuck me up that badly?'"
Worse, the guy who dragged his buddy to the sensory deprivation tank in the first place usually isn't all that helpful.
"I had a claustrophobic guy come in with a friend, and he took one look at the pod and said no way," Cameron remembered. "I told him that inside, as soon as the door was shut, he'd feel like he was inside a vast area. His friend said the exact wrong thing to say -- 'Hey, maybe this will cure your claustrophobia!' He finally agreed to try it, but I felt compelled to tell him that it may help him, but it's not a cure, but he said 'I know.'"
"We put him in there, and less than two minutes later came the screaming. He did what you're not supposed to do, touch the sides of the pod for very long. He kept feeling around, and suddenly he wasn't in a void as promised, but in the dark in a closed pod. It's hard to get sound to come out, but when he couldn't find the handle to open the pod, he screamed. When we opened it, he got out as fast as he could, grabbed a robe, and pretty much ran outside. We refunded his money, of course. We should not have been so insistent. We have potential floaters drop out because they're afraid, but now we make sure it isn't a real phobia. We don't want another screaming pod. It was terrifying for everyone involved."
You Might Pee Yourself, And You'll Almost Definitely Hallucinate
Cameron was quick to point out that most people seem to genuinely enjoy it. They find it relaxing. Perhaps a little ... too relaxing.
"Of course no one is going to admit to peeing," he said. "But it happens."
Cameron took the time to assure us that these pods are super sterile, and they're cleaned after each and every use regardless of urine content. We're trying to find that comforting. Even stranger: Sometimes people won't even know if they've peed.
"Some floaters enter this state inside the pod where they're on the line of being asleep and awake," Cameron explained. "They honestly couldn't tell [if they'd peed]. If a float pod worker tells you no one has peed in these, they're lying. In warm water after having lunch, you have to assume they do. We had someone sign off on six hours straight (please don't, by the by, you might get hypothermia and die), and with a session that long you have to assume they're gonna pee."
Plus the hallucinations don't help. With the peeing. One Cambridge study found that even people who wouldn't normally hallucinate were prone to having visions in the pod. These can range from simple shapes and dots of light, to full-on out-of-body experiences.
One pod-racer we talked to, Saundra, told us that it could be calming for her. "If I saw anything, it was the same brand of goofy surreal images I generally see as I'm drifting off to sleep; I tend to lean into them, because I know that the sillier and more free-association the mind-cartoon, the closer I am to sleep. I might have slept a little in the pod, but I mostly remained in that warm purgatory between wakefulness and dreaming."
"I've heard about spirals, rainbows, flying in space, becoming a lion for awhile, and climbing stairs with no end," Cameron added. "Sometimes the floater can't even explain what they saw. Everyone comes out feeling anew, but some also coming out swearing they just got high."
People Combine The Tanks With Drugs
Sensory Deprivation is often compared to LSD trips, minus the LSD. But what if it was plus the LSD?
"We had someone who took either LSD or mushrooms before going in," Cameron remembered. "Before going in he was staring straight ahead, like he was acting like everything was normal, but I don't think it all was. Anyway, when I led him to the pod he walked like he was balancing to stay up and was taking deep breaths. He got in, and two hours later I let him out. He told me, in a really calm tone, 'You only put me in there ten minutes ago. I was sailing on the triangles in there.' That sounded fucking crazy to me, but then he said, 'All of my problems were gone. I was me for once. I was with the triangles.' And that sounded more like other floaters who become more self-aware and more calm, minus the triangles. Then he said, 'I took something to enhance this and it worked. This was great.' I was like yeah, that explains the triangles."
"We have someone who blazes up before coming in every other week," he went on. "I don't see him do it, but I can smell it on him, and his eyes give it away too. He goes in calm and comes out even calmer. It's hard to explain. He was already chill before going in, and when he's going out with all his clothes back on it looks like he knows how to solve all the world's problems. He's said that it makes it more relaxing and comfortable (since both floating and marijuana help out anxiety, combining the two can make it even more effective in reducing stress), and I believe him. It's a winning combination [laughs]."
There Are Some Risks
A lot of people have a pleasant experience, and emerge like wise butterflies from the cocoon of their own urine. Others emerge having faced the Demogorgon.
"I've had floaters who I took out who were surprised they were still alive," said Cameron. "Because you can't tell if you're conscious sometimes, some half-believe they died. It's only you and your thoughts, and they go to strange places in there, death included. When you get out of a pod, everything looks amazing. For me, colors seem brighter and more vibrant. When floaters who have gone through death come out they'll sit down for several minutes and reflect. They know their mortality more. We had a first-time floater leave his car in the lot here overnight because he didn't want to risk driving, because he was so shaken up."
Cameron said that, in addition to depriving someone of touch, sight, and sound, the pods also have a way of depriving folks of their sense of time, and that's the one that really scares folks.
"It can shock people," he said. "I've heard from some floaters that it threw off their sleeping schedule for days. If you undershoot by three hours, that's almost like jet lag. If you sleep in the pod, or think you sleep, then it may not be as bad, but it still messes you up. I've had floaters go from that coming-out calmness straight into panic because their sense of time was off so much. Like they come in with the sun up, and they think it's been 15 minutes, but come out and it's night."
There are other risks, too:
"We warn people not to go in if they have just shaved or have a healing wound," Cameron went on. "This water is 25 percent salt, and if any gets past the skin, it will hurt like hell. This ruins the experience for some because it means they're stuck in a pod for two hours and all they can feel is pain. One floater came in who was a swimmer who had shaved, as he put it, everything. We warned him about the salt, but he said he could handle it. Two hours later, he comes out and the first thing he says is, 'My balls are on fire.'"
It Can Actually Be Therapeutic
Lennon apparently used a sensory deprivation tank to get off of heroin, with reasonable success. Tom Brady uses one to keep his mind Super Bowl-caliber focused, though it appears it cannot cure him of his inherent Tom Brady-ness.
"I can't say it's a miracle cure like some websites say it is, but some people take it as a treatment," said Cameron. "We had a floater who came in three times a week to help with his depression. He said it helped because it was only him and his mind in there with nothing else to influence it, and it worked in blocking everything out. I had to help a paraplegic get into a pod. He had his spine messed up in an accident, and he was really self-conscious about using a wheelchair. In there, he said, he didn't even feel his body anymore, and that it was one of the few places where he could relax, and the only place he could feel like he was before the accident. A lot of that was in his mind, but our pods helped him get there."
One of our sources, Chelsea, definitely agrees:
"I've had stress problems for years. My doctor has never recommended it, but it was better than yoga."
Another, Kyle, thinks it helps as well. He took a salty plunge after a one-two combo of tragedy: losing a good friend, and then dealing with a partner's serious illness. He claims his time in the pods helped to "prepare me in some way by [letting me learn] how to let go and how to relax ... It was very difficult to relax when we were dealing with [my partner]'s prognosis before her surgery, and particularly after [my friend]'s death, but I've attempted to reframe it and gain strength from the float time rather than fear the silence and separation."
All that being said, however ...
"Paraplegics don't think this is Lourdes where they'll be healed. It really just helps them mentally from what I've seen," Cameron cautioned. "I'm a proponent of the pods and having others experience it, but you cannot say it's going to heal you or cure you ... We're told upon hiring to never say it's a cure or even hint that it is. There's lots of good in sensory deprivation, but you need to watch out for claims that are false."
Leaving Is Like Being Reborn: Being Reborn Isn't Necessarily Fun
If it sounds like a religious experience, it may not be far off for some:
"Most will get a feeling like they're reborn," Cameron said. "I've done it before, and it's pretty accurate."
"The attendants always call it being born again, and I can see where they come from," added Chelsea. "You're cold, wet, and have felt like you've been in the womb. Every time I go in I tell myself that I won't be amazed with everything coming out, but every time I am. The floor there has this colorful pattern of twisting leaves, and every time I come out I'm mesmerized by it. It looks so alive -- despite being tacky-looking leaves. They always say, 'You're looking at them again' when they catch me doing it."
If they'd had a lava lamp in the lobby she might have literally died of ecstasy.
Studies on sensory deprivation tanks have shown that 90 percent of floaters felt more relaxed after a session. But sometimes, if they go through some bad hallucinations, or get salt in their wounds, or think they died, or stay in for too long and develop depression from extended isolation, or maybe just get a little liquid in their mouth and taste pee, it can be a challenge figuring out how to cope afterward.
"Sometimes floaters aren't prepared for the experience or didn't know what to expect," Cameron admitted. "I'll see at least one a day. They don't calmly climb out. They see the light and get out as fast as they can."
You don't need any kind of degree to dunk a dude in a tank, and there's not exactly a standard training course for dealing with hallucinating naked people.
"They don't train you on freak-outs," Cameron said. "There was a floater, like a 20s-ish girl, who was bragging about how she could take this on, but after coming out she said she thought she was dead. She thought she had been forgotten and her air ran out."
That's why, Cameron assured us, all pods either have a panic button, or can at least be opened from the inside. Which is comforting. Unless you dance with the triangles too long, and forget you have hands.