Today is my birthday. I’m 48, and I know what you’re all wondering, so I’ll just go ahead and answer that burning question right now: No, I’m not wearing granny panties.
Now where were we.
Yes. As requested, I’m here to tell the story of my sensory deprivation tank experience, which happened on Friday. Or, which didn’t happen on Friday, if we’re being technical about it. Technically, it didn’t happen. Because I failed.
The short story is that the tank door closed when I wasn’t prepared or expecting it, I panicked, and I spent the ensuing moments of terror struggling to get out.
The even shorter story is that an unexpected thing happened, I had a panic attack, and I thought I was going to die.
But you’re here for the long version, I’m guessing.
A staff person led me into the room and explained everything I needed to know as I observed the tank. She answered most of my questions before I asked them, and she patiently answered the additional questions I’d prepared. She stood with me as I opened and closed the tank’s door several times. It was as easy and light as she’d said it was! When we were both convinced that I was fine, she left me to complete privacy in the large room with its high ceiling that wasn’t really a ceiling… it was like… rafters, I guess. I liked it.
I took my shower and got into the tank. My heart was pounding despite the helpful girl and the nice room, so I just sat in the opening for a few minutes, getting a feel for the water and for the tank, itself. Filled with Epsom and Dead Sea salts, the water felt weirdly thick in its buoyancy.
Once I’d calmed my nerves a little sitting and breathing for a few minutes, I decided on a strategy: I would enter the sensory deprivation aspect slowly. I would ease the door down, lowering it inch by inch, pausing between inches to gradually enclose myself. If at any point it got to be too much, I would simply halt the process and return the door to its open position.
So I had my plan. I focused on keeping my breathing measured and my mind centered. I reassured myself with the girl’s words: “The door pushes open easily from the inside.” No problem, I thought. But very quickly, it all went horribly wrong.
Alarm became panic in a fraction of a second as the water began pulling at me. More of the girl’s words flared through my mind: “When you close the door, the water will suck you right in,” she’d said, cheerfully explaining how easy it would be. I wouldn’t have to bother with the hassle of getting situated in the tank! The water would suck me right in! No problem!
But it was a problem that the water was dragging me into the tank’s maw.
There could be no inch by inch. The door was coming down. My left hand was on the handle, so when the water pulled me back, the door pulled downward with me. My hand slipped from the handle and then I was kicking the water in a Herculean effort to keep the door from closing all the way.
I reached for the opening with my outstretched arm, clawing at the edge with my right hand, but there was nothing to grasp at fingertip length. I had no control over my body because the water was so heavy with salt that it pushed back against any move I made, pulling me in more the more I struggled. It flipped me over and back again. I was lying on my stomach on top of the water when I pushed my legs down and out; I managed to touch the bottom and sides of the tank, but the inside of the tank was slick and slippery. I couldn’t gain traction. There was nothing to hold onto. No bars on the sides. No footholds on the bottom.
I had to snatch my hand away before the door came down on it.
This whole ridiculous event happened within seconds.
With my claustrophobia and PTSD, I’d plunged into one of my worst-case scenarios: I was suddenly enclosed in a small, totally dark space, and I couldn’t get out. It was like I was trapped in a watery coffin. The tank is larger than a coffin, of course – you can sit up in it – but the buoyancy of the water made it difficult to move, which amplified the feeling of confinement. The water itself made me feel confined, and that, I certainly wasn’t expecting.
For those of you who don’t know, people with PTSD tend to be tired simply because we engage in battle every day. We battle the deeply rooted fear of not being able to control our environment.
When my hand slipped from that door handle and I found myself shut inside the tank – in its claustrophobia-hostile environment that I could not control – I felt like I couldn’t breathe. It took everything I had to avoid hyperventilating.
Had I not panicked, I probably could have just sat up and pushed open the door, like the girl said she and everyone else does. And everything would’ve been okay. But I couldn’t know that, because PTSD hijacked my brain before my brain could arrive at any such conclusion.
That is how PTSD works. PTSD is the enemy of cognition. PTSD does NOT know that everything is okay, and it does not care. PTSD just says YOU ARE GOING TO DIE.
(This inability of the brain to recognize okayness is a part of the anatomy of a panic disorder. There’s the healthy panic that everyone experiences. Then there’s disordered panic. People with panic disorders can also experience healthy panic, i.e. It’s normal to panic when you realize you’re going to be late for something important.)
Disordered panic is exhausting. The disordered panic of PTSD is exhausting. Constantly trying to control your environment is exhausting. Hyper-vigilance is exhausting. Exaggerated Startle Response (ESR) is exhausting. Imagine your adrenaline shooting through the roof every time someone comes up behind you, or when you hear a sudden noise. All of this spiking of adrenaline leads to fatigue, among other things. This is just a part of the struggle of PTSD.
PTSD is not easy to vanquish. It does not get miraculously fixed. There is no self-help buy this, do that and you’ll get over it. If it was that easy, then no one would have PTSD. There is no magic bullet that can put the PTSD monster to rest.
So how did I get the door open?
Still on my stomach, I stretched my legs back and flexed my feet and found that I could just barely touch the back of the tank with my toes, though the surface they touched was squishy (some kind of pipe, maybe). I made several attempts at propelling myself forward, pushing off with my toes, progressing forward enough to touch the door, which I’d nudge with my fingertips. The door would flip up and then fall again as I’d slide back to the rear of the tank before I could get a hold of the opening’s flexible rubber ledge, which was really just a lip. After this happened several times, I finally got the door all the way open.
But I didn’t leave the tank. I stayed in the water at the opening for the duration of my panic attack… and for the remainder of the hour… and I mostly just floated. The experience was surreal; it turns out that floating on the water – I mean, you literally cannot sink in Dead Sea salt – is a trip in and of itself. I’ll save that part for my next post!
Later that night, I was on the verge of tears when I called Mom and recounted my experience to her and Callaghan… but now I’m just angry. I’m angry that I failed. I’m mad as hell, actually, and I’m going back to do it again, because I will not be beaten by a tank of water. I made stupid mistakes, starting with going alone. Now I know what not to do and I WANT A RE-MATCH.
The experience of Callaghan’s company’s holiday party set me on a determined path to face this fear and overcome my claustrophobia. I will overcome it. I’m not giving up. As my very dear and wise friend pointed out the next day, the experience had to be hard. It could only be hard. If it wasn’t hard, then it wouldn’t be a phobia.