Drown your angst

Try flotation therapy, contemplate the futility of everything

photo by istock/activedia

I hate the world, openly and without regret. I would leave it, but I recognize that before I do that, there’s a lot of good work that I can do to lessen the acute suffering we all endure. In the meantime, my favorite self-indulgence is that of solitude, of self-removal.

There’s a place in Oak Park called Capitol Floats where you can spend $65 to spend an hour in a salt-water tank, totally alone and totally adrift in a soft, silent space perfect for midwater meditation. (If we weren’t here explicitly to talk about escapism, I’d focus a bit more on how many Oak Park residents can’t afford such a luxurious retreat.) They call it flotation therapy, and it’s just about as simple as it sounds: salt water, closed-off tub, a jab at attaining momentary serenity.

When I visited Capitol Floats, I felt that I should go as hard as possible in my first attempt at sensory deprivation. I was given an hour in a small room with a shower and a door to my own little float chamber, which glows with a soft, blue light while gentle, twinkling ambient music makes you wonder where they hide all the wind chimes. I took a cold shower and then entered the chamber, closed the door and made the outside world disappear.

Inside the pod, I quickly took to shutting off the lights and the music. I’d heard stories about what happens to people in sensory deprivation chambers—hallucinations, strange and unnerving experiences—and I didn’t want anything to get in the way of my digging directly to the core of my stripped psyche.

With no lights and no sound, I was left in total darkness. No clothes or other objects for nervous hands to handle like worry stones, no noises to occupy thoughts, no sights to give a sense of place. The only smell a stink of salt, the only touch a slowly dying ripple in the water and an occasional bump against a sidewall. A blackout, more total and pure than most can know, one that leaves you feeling as if you’re alone in an infinite landscape of negative space.

My first thoughts were sadly predictable. “Huh. So, this is it. I’m here. I’m floating. Doing the thing I wanted to do. What do I do now? Meditate? Do you even know how to meditate?” The disease of self-awareness takes a long time to heal, and let loose in a setting devoid of detail, my mind whirled with a need to generate an endless series of observations on my experience.

Once my addled thoughts learned that they had space to breathe and time to express themselves, I found myself thinking less and less, a calmness overtaking the normally agitated and exaggerated nature of my usual mental chatter. Ideas for songs, stories and poems wandered in and out of my head, completely formed and without my input.

I lack discipline, however, and often found myself snapping from mental relaxation back into my patterns of extreme self-awareness, and with that awareness came a pulsing desire to figure out how much time I had left in the tank. The woman who guided me in said that the lights would turn on five minutes before I needed to exit and that music with a percussive beat would come on, giving me time to mentally readjust myself before stumbling back into a state of constant overstimulation.

The more I thought about the time between the present moment and the eventual exit from the chamber, the more I realized that I had no way at all of knowing when that could be. I was completely disconnected from place, from time, from anything that we consider significant—and it felt alien, perfectly distinct and honest in revealing how little any of this matters.

Soon after releasing myself from the tyranny of time, the light clicked on; no warning, no fade-in, ripping me from an hour of infinite nothing and immediately dumping me into a clinical, claustrophobia-inducing little tub lit in an ominous blue. I jumped up and fumbled to leave the chamber as soon as possible, quivering with shock. I can’t rightly put into words how deeply affecting that transition was, aside from that I had trouble putting together sentences for a few hours after.

As I sat in a stupor in the post-float relaxation room, shivering and sipping on herbal tea and fussing around with the art supplies that litter the space, I considered what happened to me. I sat there with nothing to do and came out profoundly affected, both in how languidly my thoughts were unfurling now and in how disturbed I felt by my sudden return to reality. Everything inside was a little more quiet.

And the next day, everything went back to the gratingly loud normal.