In Buzz Commentary

Could you climb in?

Claustrophobic goes for a float

I was hesitant about climbing into a sensory deprivation tank for a "float" yesterday, mostly because I have claustrophobia so extreme that, at times, it makes wearing a scarf feel like a noose and elevators more like little prison cells with buttons that light up.

Plus, just hours before my noon appointment at Float Milwaukee – a Walker's Point business featuring three sensory deprivation tanks – I had already suffered early morning insomnia, bickered with my partner, experienced a bout of holiday dread, stressed over a writing deadline and found myself, unexpectedly, with a child in tow.

I thought about canceling the appointment to take a float, certain my "om" and "namaste" levels were way too low to attempt to meditate in a pod. But, as an incurable experience junkie ruled by FOMO, I went – with my 13-year-old kid.

When we arrived, owner Andy Larson asked us to remove our shoes and slip on a pair of rubber sandals instead. I thought, for a second, about walking back out the door in my germy shoes that were apparently too poopy to grace the serene space, but I did as I was told.

We then walked into the space and were greeted by Larson who, turns out, is a really likable, easy-going guy brimming with information and good vibes.

I appreciated the way Larson talked about the floating experience, without being too New Agey and yet affirming the merits of the experience. I asked him, early on, about being claustrophobic, and he assured me this was a common concern.

Most claustrophobics, he says, are fine once they realize that the pod is much bigger than they imagined – it's 7 feet by almost 5 feet – and even with the lid pulled down, people can still sit up. Floaters (er, where some of us come from this word has a very different meaning) can even keep the top off, he said; however, that will cool the water, which is regulated to 93.5 degrees.

Inside the pod, there's also a violet light and meditation music that can be turned on or off.

"You have total control," Larson said. "And you can get out at any time if need be."

All of this was appealing and I did feel my claustrophobia apprehension start to dissipate.

I wasn't sure if my son could float, too, but Larson encouraged him to do so. He told us he's had floaters as old as 87 and as young as his son, who is 8. Floating at a young age teaches valuable lessons.

"If you can learn how to 'let go' at a young age, you can take that with you your whole life," he said. "Plus, I've had a lot of 11 to 15-year-olds who think it's really cool how you can barely push the sides with your finger and float back and forth."

The three spa-like rooms at Float Milwaukee each have a shower, amenities, towels, robes and a tank. Larson suggested we begin by using the restroom, so we would be less likely to have to get out during the 60-minute float. Solid advice.

"The main things to remember is that this is a new and different experience and like all new and different experiences, it will take a little time to acclimate and get used to floating," said Larson. "Also, don't put pressure on yourself to 'quiet your mind' or feel that you have to meditate inside the tank. Just get in and see what happens."

And so, after taking a pee and a shower, I got in.

The tub is filled with 160-200 gallons of water, which makes it about 10 inches deep. There is 950 pounds of Epsom salt in the water which makes your body buoyant and means you don't want to get any water in your eyes.

The tanks are extremely clean, as they should be, as well as fully ventilated. The water is sterilized using hydrogen peroxide and the entire volume of the water is circulated and filtered three times between each float using ozone and UV.

I started out with the lid open and the light on. Then I started to feel more relaxed and I closed the lid half way, then I reopened it after experiencing a moment of panic, but eventually closed it all the way, leaving the light on at first. I went back and forth during the float with the light on and off. When it's off, it is completely dark – as in you-can't-see-your-hand-in-front-of-your-face dark.

At first I wanted the water to be warmer. I like to take extremely hot baths and showers, and I was expecting the tank water to be more like a hot tub. However, within a few minutes I found the temperature of the water to be irrelevant because, in time, the water felt neither hot or cold. It was perfect just the way it was and, ironically, I realized floating is not really about the water anyway – it's about the whole experience and how it makes you feel.

Salt water is interesting – your submerged skin feels very soft and slippery, even a little slimy but not in a bad way, and any parts that are under water but then exposed for a period of time become dotted with salt crystals.

Originally, I was concerned that floating for an hour would be too long, that I would get bored or feel antsy for my phone. But, like the temperature, the time eventually didn't matter either. Just as the temperature of the water is no longer hot or cold, the float is neither too short or too long. (Is this a physical manifestation of that balance the people speak of?)

It takes most floaters some time to acclimate to the tanks. For me, after what might have been 10 or 15 minutes, I felt surprisingly calm and serene. Floating is somewhere between being in a womb and a dream.

"It's hard to explain to someone what it's like to float," Larson said. "There's really nothing to compare it to, unless you're an astronaut and have floated in the darkness of space."

I went back and forth between floating in the middle, completely suspended without touching the sides to slowly traversing up and down.

"Some people like to count, focus on their breathing or meditate, but not everyone," said Larson. "Regardless, there are so many benefits from physical to mental to creative to spiritual."

I took Larson's advice and didn't try to clear my mind – I just floated. I did think about work and about the bickering and about whether or not my son was OK in the room next to mine, but I also thought about abstract imagery like shooting stars and swirly finger-painted art. At one point I could hear my heart beating and later, for seemingly no reason, I cried a little.

Eventually, I got so relaxed that I forgot about the 950 pounds of salt in the water and rubbed my eye with my finger. Luckily there is a spray bottle of cool water and a towel next to the tank for this very reason because, to paraphrase the mighty Johnny Cash, it burns, burns, burns.

After my float, I realized that – other than for a few seconds in the very beginning – I did not feel claustrophobic at all. I really lost sense of space and time and being inside the purple-lit pod became the only reality I knew. And it was fun.

I was surprised when the gentle recorded voice came over the speakers, informing me my hour was up.

Afterward, I felt really relaxed, less stressed and much like I do after a massage. I'm not sure I wold throw down $75 to do it again, only because I am not much of a self-pampering kind of girl, but I might.

As for my 13-year-old son, he came out with a huge smile on his face. "That was the best thing ever," he said.


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