A Claustophobe Walks Into A Sensory Deprivation Tank – Guest Blog by Caryn Hatcher

A Claustophobe Walks Into A Sensory Deprivation Tank – Guest Blog by Caryn Hatcher

A Claustophobe Walks Into A Sensory Deprivation Tank – Guest Blog by Caryn Hatcher
Stars, please!

The Escape Tank, Float Nashville
The Escape Tank, Float Nashville

People utilize sensory deprivation tanks for various reasons including muscular pain, anxiety, depression, insomnia, concentration, addictions, and fatigue. The removal of multiple senses takes the mind to a different place. Whether that place is lateral or elevated, there is certainly more of a focus. Ever since Float Nashville opened its doors I have been tempted to try it, but apprehensive as well. I have constant muscle pain and frequent insomnia. I also, at times, have crippling claustrophobia.

Last weekend James kindly offered the opportunity to experience a 90-minute float in a 7 foot by 4 foot enclosed and unlit sensory deprivation tank filled with 167 gallons of water settling out to about 11 inches deep. Add one thousand pounds of Epsom salts to the mix and not even the Titanic could sink. It was the chance to be suspended quiet and alone in total darkness in a cabinet smaller than an elevator. What could go wrong?

The real question was “What could go right?” Besides helping my sleep issues and muscle pain, I could also confront a long-seated fear of enclosed spaces. It’s all about perspective. It is also about preparation and mindset.

Norman Island Cave, British Virgin Islands
Norman Island Cave, British Virgin Islands

At Float Nashville, attendant Maggie was exactly what I needed her to be: welcoming, informative, encouraging, and soothing. Between her reassurances and my frame of mind, this was going to happen without incident. My concern came because two of my four panic attacks occurred in water in seemingly enclosed spaces: snorkeling into the opening of a cave (1996) and resort S.C.U.B.A. course (2001).

A quick shower pre-float and it was time to get in. Step in, turn around, kneel down, shut the tank door, lie back, and float. I put the optional white foam disc under my head for support and help with my suspended posture. It made me giggle. I thought I must look like an odd Russian icon of a saint with my foam halo. Saint Caryn, ha!

Wait a minute. I’m not freaking out. After about a minute of ‘not freaking out’, I realized I was going to be OK. I unintentionally reverted to that which has always comforted me: music, poetry, literature, and the sky. But, the old standbys were not the first in line. The mind had other ideas.

Don’t touch the sides. Don’t touch the floor. Breathe. Touch the sides unexpectedly. Quickly push off. Too quickly. Touch the other side. It’s only 4 feet wide, don’t move! Breathe deeply. Is the air stale? Is there a vent? Is the C02 rising in here? How much longer til the actual exit music plays?

The Battle of Epping Forest? WTH? I listen to Genesis probably four days each week. I NEVER actively seek out that song. Supper’s Ready? Sure, but this one? So I touch the wall and push away and feel like I am spinning. I envision a slowly spinning tie-dye with some dancing bears and now I hear the Grateful Dead’s ‘Dear Prudence’. Huh. Now we’re talking.

Stop spinning. (I was not spinning, it just felt like I was.) Breathe, Kiddo. There we go.

I would remind myself that everything was fine, that everything would be fine. All is well and all manner of thing shall be well. T.S.Eliot. T.S.Eliot. Those are stars that were his eyes. Stars? No, not stars. Pearls. Shakespeare. The Tempest. Full fathom five thy father lies, of his bones are coral made. Those are pearls that were his eyes. Stop with the water and being under it references! I wonder how many other Shakespeare quotes are squatting in my brain?

Breathe. Repeat. Concentrate on the in and the out, the duration. In through the nose, slowly. Out through the mouth even more so. James and I had previously discussed different calming breathing techniques and they served me well in this tank.

Open your eyes. Nothing, wait, I think I see stars. That can’t be! Again with the stars. Floating and stars and … Beethoven. My mind then set the needle on the record for Ode To Joy and it was magnificent. (Thank you, mind.) Ode To Joy was one of the few pieces I could play on the piano. When I saw its treatment in the Gary Oldman film about Beethoven, ‘Immortal Beloved’, it forever changed what I imagined when I heard the piece. 

This thought stream continued for the duration of my float. Thoughts sometimes had the track of a pinball and other times that of a looping cat’s cradle. As I wondered, again, how much time was remaining in my float, the exit music I was told would signal the end of the session started to play. It sounded just like the music at the start of Spaceship Earth in Walt Disney World’s EPCOT, my ‘happy place’. I smiled, broadly.

After another shower, I returned to my street clothes and continued on with my day. I was both relaxed and invigorated. Though a decade and a half behind me, the memory of the panic attacks linger. It likely always will. Each step, whether large or small, is a victory. For this effort, setting the appointment, showing up for the appointment on time, staying calm listening to the instructions, staying the entire 90 minutes, and calmly executing them marked a huge personal accomplishment. I am proud of my accomplishment. I am emboldened that other things can be achieved with the right preparation and mindset.

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