Deprived of everything but your mind

One day last week, Kevin and I were walking by Chicago’s only sensory deprivation center, the SpaceTime Tanks, on Lincoln Ave,  in the basement-level plaza of a sterile 70s-era high-rise. We’d heard of this place. And what else were we gonna do tonight? Go to a coffee shop? Seized by spontaneity, we decided to venture in — and opened a poorly marked entrance to a dead-quiet waiting room with no one  manning the front desk. Kevin pointed to the  “please remove your shoes” sign, so we both got shoeless, and then for about five minutes stood around in our socks whispering “what should we do?”, inhaling the incense, watching the lazy fish in the aquarium. It could’ve been the waiting room of a totally hippie dentist.

Finally, a tall gentleman with an even-tempered smile, hunched shoulders, chin-length blonde hair and zoned-out eyes appeared, (I’ll call him “Gary”) and said he could take both of us for one-hour sessions, even without an appointment. He ushered us into a small room with a shower and a floor made of cedar planks like a dry sauna. Plus a large tank, fit for one person. Thanks to Gary, I learned that this is the process: 1) Get naked. 1.5) Put in the conveniently provided ear plugs. Or you will get tons of salt in your ears. 2) Open the hatch on the front of the tank and climb in. It’s metal, file-cabinet beige and about the size of a two-person tent. Or a very large front-loading washing machine. 3) Lay back in this tank. It is pitch-black inside and  filled with 10 inches of water and tons of epsom salts, which means that you will float without even trying. 4) Float there and relax your whole body for one hour. Don’t touch your eyes. 5) Enjoy. Self-exploration and total relaxation will be yours.

As he led Kevin to a separate room with another tank, he said he would knock on the door to my tank in one hour to let me know time was up. Whoa. The tour was so quick, the alone-ness so sudden.  So. This is it, huh? Just me and space and time. I took off my clothes and opened the door to the tank, then crouched down to step inside the dark chamber  –the bottom felt slick, like stepping onto a slip-and-slide, and I imagined this place got tons of law suits. I managed to get in without breaking my neck, and then started to lay back in the total blackness.  My first thought was: This is what it’s like to die.

My second thought was: Shit, I forgot to put in ear plugs.

So I sat up with great effort, pushing through the water that felt heavy as syrup, and opened the door to the hatch. Ok. The world was still there. Sweet. I grabbed the ear plugs and shoved them in my ears. Back to floating in the room-temperature shallow water that smelled vaguely of ocean, or YMCA pool.

At first I couldn’t feel my body at all. Then one trouble became apparent:  my skin, and especially any place that had ever been scratched or scraped, stung like hell because of the epsom salt. Each part of my body passed through its own stinging stage. Then numbness again. It was so dark that I couldn’t tell if my eyes were open or closed. Even my slightest movement seemed huge. I could fully my relax my whole head and my eyes, nose and mouth could remain above water. Total bliss hit randomly; weightless; being-less; until I bumped my head on the padded side of the tank somehow. I went to scratch my nose and bitter water dripped into my mouth.  I wondered if Gary was a serial killer and about to bust open the door at any minute. I tried to think deep thoughts: What should I do with my life? Does God exist? No answers. I wondered about Kevin and thought maybe we could telepathically communicate, both being in space-time tanks, after all. Kevin, are you as weirded out as I am? Do you want to get out? Meet you by the aquarium?

When I couldn’t take another minute of it, I sat up, pushed open the door, and stood up. Which was a huge relief in itself, and that alone blissed me out for a second. I started washing off the salt under the curtainless shower next to the tank–and then totally freaked out that Gary was about to barge in and tell me my time was up. He’d never knocked. But when I walked out, Kevin was already sitting on the leather sofa with a mug of tea, looking anxious, cold and wet.  It was an hour and a half after we’d gone in. I never got a knock, I said. I just got one a few minutes ago, he said. Our theory: Gary had heard me showering and remembered to knock for Kevin.

Out in the 10 degree January night, our wet hair freezing into hair-cicles, we debriefed:

“I think it would be better the second time,when I’m less bugged out by the oddness of the sensations.”

“Salt dripped in my eyes.”

“I couldn’t help but think about all the other people who’d been in that tank before me. And what they did while they were in there.”

“I wish I could’ve turned my mind off.”

“Yeah. Me too.”

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