A Sensory Deprivation Float Chamber & Me

yellow door to sensory deprivation chamber
Reading Time: 12 minutes

I’m in a dimly-lit basement in Westwood, LA. The acoustic ceiling, chequered in white tiles, reminds me of my father’s modest café in Tampa, Florida. It’s an unsightly feature, unbecoming of a wellness lab in ritzy Westwood, where sidewalks are adorned with flower baskets hanging from street lamps.

But the imperfect ceiling doesn’t phase me. In fact, it’s quite soothing. I like being reminded of my father’s cozy café. It puts me at ease.

Why do I need to feel more at ease? I think to myself.

“Because you’re about to enter a sensory deprivation chamber,” says the voice in my head. “Uncharted territories, my dude.”

The butterflies in my stomach flutter in unison, placing an emphatic period at the end of “dude.”

Maybe I shouldn’t have had that Chana Masala for lunch?

I look around the room.

There are others in this Float Lab — four of us to be exact — each with a dumbstruck look on our faces that can only mean one thing:

What the fuck is this place?

To quote Float Lab Technologies, Inc., their sensory deprivation lab is the world’s only “Isolation Floatation Chamber Systems” certified for commercial use.

This is the place I find myself in, summoned here by a birthday Groupon gifted to me by dear friends.

I still don’t know what this place is all about.

I want to ask an authority figure, but there’s no one behind the reception desk.

Maybe I’ll ask the other people in the room?

I bite my tongue. I adopt the persona of a man who’s too proud to ask for directions, fueled by my constant desire to appear brave at all times; a desire that can’t be evicted, it seems, from my subconscious.

To ask others, What’s going on? is to look a fool.

I’d be reliving the ninth grade all over again, where my teacher, Mr. Rademacher, went up and down the narrow spaces in between our desks, collecting homework at each station, not because he wanted this to be an efficient process, but because he got a kick out of shaming anyone who didn’t turn in their assignment.

Well, well, Mr. Suazo, I can hear him saying. What’s your excuse this time? Dog ate your notebook?

On this particular Tuesday afternoon, I clearly hadn’t done my homework.

I need an authority figure. I have so many questions. Foremost, what is this place? Second most, am I in a safe space?

Metallic signs hanging on the walls reassure me that, yes, I am in a safe space indeed.

Relax, the signs read.

Use the bathroom.

Sink into your chair.

We’ll be right with you.

SENSORY DEPRIVATION CHAMBER TRAINING

A young man emerges from the back rooms.

Is this the authority figure I was hoping for?

He greets us from behind the reception desk.

“Hi, I’m Bill,” the young man says.

“Inconsequential” is the word projected on the inner walls of my mind. Get to the point.

I relax when I notice crow’s feet spreading out from the corner of Bill’s eyes. This supports my inkling that Bill is, in essence, a nice person who likes to brandish a genuine smile, even though we can’t see it behind his N95 mask.

Bill’s long blonde hair is slicked back. His black T-shirt bears the company logo: a flat-lay of a stick figure “floating” above what appears to be radio waves in the background.

Am I supposed to believe that this “person” in the logo is enjoying their time in a dark float chamber?

I wonder if the owner hired the logo designer on Fiverr. 

Bill doesn’t ask if we have any questions about sensory deprivation, even though our cheeks are flushed with uncertainty. Perhaps he can’t see our collective consternation behind our face masks.

What I’m gathering from his brief intro is that it doesn’t matter if we have a question. The instructional video he’s about to play will address any concerns we might have before we proceed to the next room.

He speaks with such authority now that no one dares utter a word.

PREPARING FOR THE CHAMBER

The instructional video explains the do’s and don’ts of sensory deprivation: how to make the most of this unique, “zero-gravity” experience.

Watching the video reminds me of a scene in “Being John Malkovich” where John Cusack’s character completes his orientation training in a room full of empty chairs, save for the few bodies here and there, including the memorable and quirky Maxine played by Catherine Keener, who scoffs from the back row now and then.

On the other side of the room, a short film tells the tale of how the 7 ½ floor came to be — an explanation riddled with a level of absurdity that leaves you with more questions than you had before.

And still, no one at the float lab is phased. Not even me.

The video cautions us to resist the urge to touch our faces while in the float chamber. But of course, the first thing I’ll want to do is touch my face. (Little did they know that I was the kid who couldn’t be told what he can or cannot do.)

If the salt water gets in your eyes, it won’t damage your pupils. But it’ll be hella-uncomfortable. So, yeah, don’t let it get in your eyes. Hence, don’t touch your face.

This is what I’m able to paraphrase from this section of the video.

We’re also instructed to thoroughly wash before entering the chamber. That means stripping my body of chemicals currently found in my armpits, thanks to an expired Old Spice deodorant I refuse to chuck in the trash, thanks to my new economist outlook on life. I must also remove the sunscreen residue from my face; the one responsible for my shiny complexion.

There are other rules to keep in mind, but if this isn’t sinking in now, then don’t worry! We have signs everywhere reassuring you that you are in a safe space.

This is what I’m able to paraphrase from the remaining sections of the video.

THE CORRIDOR

Bill leads us to a corridor with eight doors, four on each side, flung completely open, ready to welcome us into Sensory Deprivation Bliss.

I still don’t know what I’m doing here.

There’s only the vague sense within me of something that longs to be healed and perhaps only this menacing chamber can heal it.

I feel as though I’m on the brink of a life-altering catharsis, but the butterflies in my stomach suggest otherwise.

Why am I being such a pussy?

Oh damn, there I go again! I promised my husband that I wouldn’t use the word “pussy.” Not even in my thoughts. Let me try this again:

Why am I being such a puseta? (FYI, Portuguese doesn’t count.)

According to Bill, I am to choose a room, lock it behind me, remove my clothes, wear a fresh set of earplugs (a sealed pack is waiting for me on the side table), take a shower and then finally enter the chamber.

“I’ll come get you in two hours,” he tells us. “Don’t forget to enjoy!”

Don’t forget to enjoy? The fuck does that mean?

Now I’m just being paranoid. Bill is clearly a gentleman and a scholar.

What’s up with me? I’m not the person I used to be.

I have some questions for Bill such as, “Will the water be warm? Do I have to be completely naked? Can I potentially drown in this claustrophobic chamber?”

But I’m still in a-man-doesn’t-ask-for-directions mode, my throat tied in an elaborate knot, or perhaps it’s the bridge upon which Gandalf stands in the film, “The Lord of the Rings,” where no words shall pass.

And even if they could pass, someone else from the group has already commanded Bill’s attention: a woman whispering questions in a flurry.

I am not close enough to eavesdrop.

Oh well! Here goes!

I lock the door behind me, remove my faded J-Crew button-down shirt and olive chinos, shove the earplugs into my earholes, take a shower (it feels wrong to take a shower with the earplugs on, but those were the instructions on the Being-John-Malkovich-inspired video), remove the grime from my armpits and eventually stand naked before the chamber door.

I got this! I tell myself.

But then I mutter less assertively:

I got this. Don’t I?

ENTERING THE CHAMBER

The chamber door has been coated in a glossy School Bus-yellow. It looks like a SMEG freezer door that houses an assortment of meat products.

I open it gingerly and peer inside.

The chamber is eerily cavernous as if bats are hanging upside down from the ceiling, dormant until they’re roused from a deep slumber by an intruder like me.

What I’m looking at can be easily mistaken for an “in-between space” — a gateway to another dimension that “Stranger Things” fans would appreciate — except there’s an impenetrable wall opposite the chamber door preventing me from crossing over to the “other side.”

In short, this chamber is scary AF.

And there’s no way I’m going inside.

Except for the voice in my head; one I haven’t heard in a while. It’s been quite vocal today in a way that feels wrong and unsettling like a string of rampaging tweets authored by Donald Trump.

Years ago, this voice convinced me that bungee-jumping from a tall gorge in South Africa was a good idea. It coaxed me into climbing a steep mountain ridge and traverse the valleys between its peaks on a zipline. Last but not least, it begged me to ride an ostrich, for fuck’s sake! And then to eat said ostrich for dinner in the form of a burger with a side of fries (sorry, Mr. Ostrich!)

In light of these adventures, I must ask myself: am I now fully-equipped to handle a pitch-black chamber where I would spend the next two hours of my life in complete silence with nothing but my naked-self and, granted, a vivid imagination to keep me company?

As I stood there awash with doubt, two things dawned on me: 1) my dear friends — the ones responsible for this “relaxing” afternoon — had severely overestimated my fearlessness, and 2) I had given my dear friends plenty of reasons not to doubt my fearlessness.

After all, I’m the guy who backpacked through Africa, from Senegal to Mozambique and places in between. The same guy who survived rickshaws in India under violent traffic.

It’s also worth mentioning that I’m quite adept at navigating tragedy. I have emerged from a broken home with my head held high above the rising water. And this is just one of many tragic examples.

What’s a sensory deprivation chamber in Westwood (of all places) got on me? I wondered.

Feeling emboldened, I step inside of the chamber.

Standing there in a shallow pool of saltwater, as if standing in someone’s closet that’s been flooded by a tidal wave, I’m acutely aware of my objective: to reap the benefits of sensory deprivation by allowing my mind to redirect its thoughts and focus inwardly.

Just like the brochure said.

I feel as though I must answer the voice in my head that is gradually defying the person I’ve become.

It begs the question: “Why are you scared?”

This is supposed to be a healing experience, so why am I hesitating to close the door behind me and float in this cramped space under the cover of darkness, completely naked save for the earplugs rammed into each ear canal and a vague sense of adventure that only the voice in my head can infer?

“Because something’s changed in you,” the voice says like a red devil on my shoulder.

I take a deep breath and shut the door.

Crouching into the water, I allow myself to float, relieving my brain of its duty to keep me from sinking. According to Float Lab Technologies, Inc., my brain doesn’t have to do shit — the amount of Epsom salt in the chamber is enough to rival even the Dead Sea.

So, here I am, one of the few people in the world partaking in this unique, zero-gravity phenomenon that the Float Lab brochure describes with vivacity.

I wonder if the authority figure who runs this place, aka Bill’s boss, hired a copywriter from Fiverr to pen such a persuasive hook. 

pitch black inside chamber door

MY AFTERNOON IN A SENSORY DEPRIVATION CHAMBER

After five minutes of sensory deprivation float-time in the above not-so-hot looking chamber, I ask myself, Is this it? 

I long for jet bubbles, hints of lavender, the soothing sound of ocean waves.

I realize three things: 1) I don’t fully understand the meaning of “sensory deprivation,” 2) this isn’t what I expected after skimming the reviews of this place (but who needs to read detailed reviews when Float Lab boasts 4 out of 5 stars on Yelp!?), and 3) I didn’t care to ask what to expect before entering the chamber, not even after watching the Being-John-Malkovich-inspired video.

Conclusion:

The joke’s on me.

Am I really going to spend the next two hours here alone with my thoughts, deprived of my senses?

Realization # 4: I’m not entirely deprived of my senses, am I?

For instance, I can feel the salt on my skin.

Running my fingers through my body, I’m as smooth as a dolphin. (I’ve never touched a dolphin before, but I imagine that this is what it would feel like.)

Oops, not everything’s silky-smooth, I think as I feel the pimples on my ass.

Can the Epsom salt help me get rid of these?

I now proceed to exfoliate my ass cheeks with my fingernails, pretending that I could fashion an abrasive pumice stone out of my bare hands. But then a mental image seeps in: dozens of loose pimple-particles floating in the saltwater like pulp in a glass of orange juice.

Not yummy.

That can’t be cool for the next person who enters this chamber. But then I wonder if Bill will drain the water upon my exit and replace it with fresh USP-grade Magnesium sulfate?

Or if the ultraviolet rays mentioned in the instructional video — the ones that purport to disinfect the chambers in between exit and re-entry — will destroy the thousands of microbes from the dozens of loose pimple-particles released from my ass cheeks, thereby sterilizing the mess I will no doubt leave behind?

Shouldn’t I be looking inwardly? I think to myself. Perhaps a sensory deprivation chamber isn’t the best place to digress.

As my bare toes become icy, my stomach begins to growl, not because I’m hungry, but because the Indian food I had for lunch is now waging a war in my lower intestines.

I also need to pee.

But I’ve got an hour and 45 minutes left in the chamber 😯

I’m supposed to relax, but I’m feeling tense AF.

I mustn’t tense, I tell myself. Tensing defeats the purpose.

So, I randomly think of Andy Puddicombe, the former Himalayan-monk-turned-co-founder-of-Headspace who has the most ethereal voice I’ve ever heard. If we existed in the twelfth century, I’d bet a million dollars that his voice could diffuse Mr. Genghis Khan’s notorious spells of rage and fabled jealousy.

That’s how calming Andy’s voice is.

As I’m floating in the dark without so much as a book, smartphone, or journal to quiet the thoughts ping-ponging in my head, I ask myself, What would Andy do?

“I’ll tell you what he’d do,” says the voice in my head. “That bitch would breathe.”

After all, what else can you do when you’re in a sensory deprivation chamber thoroughly annoyed by your ass pimples?

Alright, Andy. Here we go!

I interlock my fingers and pillow the back of my head.

I take deep, deliberate breaths. In through the nose. Out through the mouth.

The air inside of the chamber is as humid as a tropical jungle. (Voila! My sense of smell won’t fail me now!)

I think back to that moment, just a few minutes ago, when I was standing at the threshold of the chamber door.

Why do I pretend to be brave so that others would feel safe in my company?

I’m the guy who writes wellness articles; who instructs you, with a sense of authority, to shoot your fears in the face, leap over obstacles, and expose the illusions in your life that keep you from being the optimal version of yourself.

And yet, I look to authority figures to guide me through the unknown. Because I’ll never be brave enough.

“Now we’re getting somewhere,” says the voice in my head.

Drifting on the salty, shallow surface of a float chamber in Westwood, LA, I examine the life I’ve built.

I’ve made vows to a husband. I take care of a dog. I’m now entertaining the idea of caring for another human being. I devote myself to a network of family and friends, growing roots so deep that no mortal can yank from the earth. 

I no longer live for myself, is what I’m trying to say; not a soul in the room to listen.

When the stakes are this high, it’s easy to fear the unknown.

But knowing what lies beneath my surface, I can do without the salt in this chamber.

Because when I let go, I know that I’ll be lifted.

EXITING THE CHAMBER

Three knocks on the wall: Bill’s signal that my time is up. Just like the instructional video said.

Has it been two hours already?

I emerge from the chamber unscathed, throw my earplugs in the trash. I shower once more.

I still have pimples on my ass, but I can accept this.

I put my clothes back on and exit the room. I notice that every door in the hall is wide open, just as they were when I first passed through this corridor.

“Here he is! Our lone survivor,” Bill says. “The others didn’t last long.”

“I can see that,” I said. “It can get scary in there.”

He directs me to a flight of stairs that lead to a back exit. Before I ascend, I bid a final adieu to Bill and the crow’s feet on the corner of his eyes.

When I emerge from the building, the intense sunlight stings my eyes. I force them to adjust to the brighter environment cold-turkey.

I’m in a back alley of Westwood trying to find my bearings while noticing, at the same time, that this particular area isn’t as glamorous as the picture-postcard sidewalks from two hours ago.

Thick noodles are pasted on the white stucco of a time-worn building across from me, remnants, perhaps, of a food-fight-gone-wrong between the two homeless people that are currently meandering in the narrow alleyway, lurching now and then like blood-thirsty zombies.

A woman in a red Mini Cooper honks her car horn at them, clearing a path towards Westwood Boulevard where the flower baskets are hanging from the street lamps.

But I can’t smell the flowers. I can’t smell the humid air, either.

My senses struggle to make sense of this place.

Am I in a safe space now?

I look for metallic signs to reassure me that, yes, I am in a safe space indeed.

But there are none to behold.

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