Sensory deprivation tank experience, Part 2c. (The experience!)

Now to describe my second experience in the sensory deprivation tank! First, I couldn’t have done it without Callaghan, my partner in crime. I was especially thankful considering that he took time from his super busy agenda. He’s signed up for the entire on-going effort, and I’m grateful to him for his moral support and commitment of time in this venture.

My goal this second time was simple: I just wanted to experience being in the tank with the door closed, if only for a minute.

 

Sensory deprivation tank (pic taken by Callaghan during my second attempt)

Sensory deprivation tank (pic taken by Callaghan during my second attempt)

 

(Never fear – I’ll have a new pic to accompany the posts I write about my third try!)

I started by getting in and stretching out on the water, lying on my front and gripping the lip of the door opening with my fingertips. If I didn’t keep that fingertip hold, I would’ve drifted to the back of the tank.

Once I had the feel of the water, I asked Callaghan to close the door and hang out right there so we could test how he could hear me through the enclosed tank. Here we found that I had to speak very loudly in order for him to hear me.

Then I wanted to test opening the door by myself. This turned out to be a good gauge of the extent of the battle ahead of me: I was able to push the door up, but it felt arduous. It felt like the door wasn’t opening easily enough or fast enough, because I could feel the water pulling at me as I was doing it.

At this point, it seems that any resistance I meet while pushing the door open will cause me to panic. I know that this is irrational (definition of a phobia)… of course some effort has to be made when opening a door. Any door. Doors do not open magically upon touch. The thing about this tank is that the effort involves some other element – the water – challenging my control of my body. No part of me is anchored anywhere when I try to open the tank door.

When you open any normal door, you’re on something solid, usually the ground, and usually while you’re standing. Your feet are rooted. I like being rooted. Being rooted in every sense of the word is essential to my wellness in every sense of that word.

Callaghan had to pull the door open the rest of the way, not because I physically couldn’t, but because I was starting to freak out. I didn’t want to get to the same level of panic I found myself in the first time.

So that was terrifying. I had to take a minute to breathe. After Callaghan talked me down from my ledge, we moved on to the next step.

The next step would not involve me trying to open the door. I would lay back on the water, he would close the door (I’m nowhere near ready to close the door myself, as that was what caused the fiasco that took place the first time), and I would stay in the enclosed tank for as long as I could stand it.

My anxiety was profound as I settled myself. He asked if I was ready for him to close the door. I said yes. I felt like I was bracing myself for that puff of air in your eye when they do that one test during an eye exam. Times 1,000.

He closed the door, and I closed my eyes. I focused on my breathing. So far, so good!

Lying on my back on top of the water, I tried to imagine that I was floating in outer space, since my body was suspended in zero gravity in the complete darkness. This worked at first, and then I felt encroaching panic urging me to open my eyes. I opened my eyes. My heart-rate went up more as my brain said YOU ARE INSIDE A SMALL TANK. I closed my eyes again as I reasoned with myself in a soothing inner voice. I tried the outer-space imagery a second time.

When I reached my threshold – past my threshold, actually – I called for Callaghan to open the door. He did and I sat up and I felt the cool outside air and I took a few deep breaths, and then I asked, “It’s been about half an hour, right? I was in there for around 30 minutes…?!” I was excited about my progress. But he said, “No. Not even 10.”

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t crestfallen to hear that after all the painful effort, it’d only been 10 minutes. 10 minutes is a good start, though, right? I was proud of myself for staying in the enclosed tank for 10 minutes, even though it felt like 30, at least.

The aspect of the tank that really started to trigger my next-level panic was the warm, humid air inside. It was stuffy. It made me feel stifled, like I couldn’t breathe physically, let alone psychologically.

When I go for my third try, I’ll pick up where I left off. I have until then to meditate on it and to practice the meditation I want to try in my next attempt.

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Sensory deprivation tank experience, Part 2b. (The “WHY?”)

Good morning! So. I said I would write about my second experience in the sensory deprivation tank, and I will, but there’s still so much interest in the “WHY?” that I thought I’d take today’s post to elaborate on that. If I also describe my second experience in the tank, this post would be too lengthy. Look out for that part next week Friday, if you please.

[Tuesday’s post will feature my January Favorites. Hello, February.]

*****

Q: WHY the insistence on this sensory deprivation tank?

A: I’ve been saying, “I’m working on overcoming my claustrophobia.” But being honest with myself, I recognize that answer as an abbreviation for: “I want to be able to keep my composure during claustrophobia events.”

Because in all likelihood, I’ll always be claustrophobic to some degree. No doubt I’ll improve, but I’ll never be completely stress-free in a small space, or while trapped anywhere.

I’m training myself to be mentally strong in the face of my phobia, because the ability to deal with claustrophobia would be the next best thing to not having it. It’s easier to approach the sensory deprivation tank with this mindset of acceptance. This is reality. If I do end up free of claustrophobia, great; if not, I should at least be able to handle it in a situation.

Naturally, PTSD is behind this, and I’m thankful for it. I’m always looking for exits, for the way out; always checking people out in the elevator, assessing threats and potential dangers, etc. At Callaghan’s company party in December, I realized that it would behoove me to assess the dangers within myself as well as the dangers around me.

One of the dangers within myself is claustrophobia. It makes me vulnerable.

For instance, if I meet with foul play and wake up in the trunk of the Bad Guy’s car, the last thing I want to do is freak out because I’m in the trunk of a car. I want to be able to stay calm so I can think and act. If I flounder in panic, I would be a victim… of my claustrophobia. I’d be a victim of myself. Not acceptable. Hence:

 

Sensory deprivation tank (pic taken by Callaghan during my second attempt)

Sensory deprivation tank (pic taken by Callaghan during my second attempt)

 

…here’s my dummy car trunk. Filled with water. Just as an example, of course.

That’s the longer explanation behind this sensory deprivation tank endeavor. I figure I train to be physically prepared for various situations, so I should also train for mental preparedness; I know my weak area, and I am correcting it. I need to be armed with the confidence of knowing that I can depend on myself.

I’m choosing the sensory deprivation tank route because I’ve learned from experience that an effective way for me to overcome a phobia is to confront it head-on. (Let’s please not talk about roaches at this time, though. Or ever.) After all, I overcame my elevator phobia by getting into an elevator every day to get to work. I had no choice! I still hate elevators, and being in one still stresses me out, but now I can take one without going nuclear in my head.

I hope this makes sense! Next Friday’s post will be about my second experience in the tank. Happy Friday, All.

Sensory deprivation tank experience, Part 2a. (Meet the tank.)

Continuing with my personal war on claustrophobia, I went for my second session in the sensory deprivation tank last weekend. Actually, it’s more of a battle against the tank at the moment. I can focus on the claustrophobia part in earnest once I get past the tank part.

I took a pic of the tank when I went that first time, but I didn’t post it – an omission that didn’t make sense, I realized afterward. It would’ve been useful as a visual aid as I described my experience! So I’ll present the tank in this post, and then I’ll write about my actual second experience in the next.

Meet my foe:

 

Sensory deprivation tank

Sensory deprivation tank

 

May I just say that I’m not proud of this pic, but I was working with a difficult subject, so I shouldn’t be too hard on myself, I know. There’s just no way to make this thing look appealing. It’s an ugly S.O.B. and no amount of lipstick is going to change that.

The tank is oblong and angled; I wasn’t exaggerating when I said it reminded me of a coffin. It’s actually quite coffinesque, complete with six sides.

The second time I went, Callaghan came with me, and he took pics of the tank while I was inside:

 

Sensory deprivation tank, front view (pic taken by Callaghan during my second attempt)

Sensory deprivation tank, front view (pic taken by Callaghan during my second attempt)

 

Evidently, there are “sensory deprivation tanks” that allow for light, music, colors (I’ve heard a couple of mentions of colors, but I’m not sure what that means… colors of lights…?) and communication with a staff person via intercom. I’ve seen pics of these tanks online. They’re round and they look like pods, serene and blue, with lids that close like clamshells.

Whereas this thing I go into looks like a cross between a coffin and an ice chest.

 

Sensory deprivation tank (pic taken by Callaghan during my second attempt)

Sensory deprivation tank (pic taken by Callaghan during my second attempt)

 

This tank is exactly what it says it is: it’s designed to deprive you of your senses. It’s used for flotation therapy, too, but you don’t get to control the environment with niceties that contradict its name.

It’s pitch-black inside, and there’s no option for light. There’s no sound, and no option for music. There’s no intercom, so no option for communication.* There’s no level change or ledge or shelving inside, and nothing to grasp… the interior walls and floor are slick, and there’s nothing to hold onto. The tank is filled with heated water, so the air inside is humid and warm. You’re floating on top of the nearly-body-temperature water because it’s loaded with Dead Sea and Epsom salts; your body is suspended in a zero-gravity environment.

It almost feels like your body doesn’t even exist. And that, I suppose, is one of the broader points of the experience: you lose sense of your physical self, so you can go in the other direction and explore inward, in the depths of your mind, and outward, maybe, into an expanse of limitless unknown, where you can make discoveries about yourself and your place in the universe, and so on, and so forth.

So far, the only epiphany I’ve had in the damn tank is that I still get mad when I get hit.

The tank got on my bad side when it shut me in before I was ready that first time. It also made me angry at myself, which fueled my motivation even more. There’s nothing like losing to light a fire under your ass.

I will put myself into this tank until I can withstand it for a full hour with the door closed and no one else in the room. Then we’ll see who has claustrophobia!!

Plenty of people (probably most people) enter this tank for sensory-deprived flotation therapy, and they have a lovely time from the get-go with no problem at all. But for a claustrophobic person – I’m thinking it’s safe to speak on behalf of us all – this tank presents a considerable mental challenge. That’s why I’m doing it. I’m up for it. BRING IT.

Part 2 of Day 2 coming on Tuesday.

~~~~~

*When the staff person told me that there’s no intercom/communication system, I asked her how someone could alert her if there was a problem requiring immediate assistance. She assured me that they could hear if someone was “splashing around in there.”

Sensory deprivation tank experience, Part 1b. (The floating part!)

After I got the tank door open, I sat in the water. Then I floated, explored the tank, and floated again, never leaving the front of the tank beneath the opening.

The first part of my float was informed by my panic attack, so the experience I had during that time was more an experience of recovery.

My recovery was at first compromised as I drifted to the inside corner of the front of the tank, where I was partially concealed and could only see beyond half of the opening. I felt stirrings of new anxiety as the water controlled this re-direction of my body and my PTSD balked. Unlike the evocative guidance of currents in a general body of water, the water in the sensory deprivation tank was emphatic; I felt the movement as a pulling, or as a manipulation.

The urge to fight the water for control of my body was potent, but I didn’t allow myself to make that effort. And rather than fighting the new anxiety, I focused on breathing through it. I stared up at the rafters – I think that’s what they were; the high reaches of the non-ceiling were shadowy, and I wasn’t wearing glasses – and I listened to my heartbeat, which was the only thing I could hear.

Then something else unexpected happened: As I released control of my body, the water seemed to dilute the limitations of my mind. In this meditative state, the first place my mind visited was the place where I knew something else about PTSD: the silver lining of PTSD is the gratitude it promotes.

I would ponder this positive realization later. I wanted to take note of some unfamiliar physical sensations as I regained mental equilibrium:

First, there was the sensation of the floating, itself. I’m not one who can float easily… I tend to sink. At best, I can keep my head and lower legs above water (while the rest of me refuses to cooperate). So it was bizarre to find my entire body floating fully on top of the water with no part of my front submerged.

Secondly, there was the matter of how to relax my head and neck, as it seems instinctive to resist letting your head drop backward into water… I had to experiment to find a way to rest my head comfortably on its flat, watery pillow that had give and didn’t have give at the same time.

As for my exploration of the tank, which I did next: I didn’t venture into the dark reaches during my reconnaissance. I stayed under the opening and explored the tank by feeling around the sides and the bottom, noting the force I had to use to move my limbs in the water’s density. With my hands and feet, I felt for anything that could be used as a hold or a grip. The only thing I found was an area on the floor toward the back of the tank where two faint indentations might have worked as footholds… but they were really just slightly raised bumps. I doubted they could be easily found, much less used.

I returned to floating, staring into the room’s dark heavens and slipping back into that meditative state with no intention of doing so whatsoever. I lost my sense of bodily self. Physical sensation rejoined my consciousness only when the air flowing in through the tank’s open door began to register as cool, and then cold. I began to feel not only the disconcerting temperature difference, but also the prickle of salt drying on the exposed surface of my body. By the end of the hour, the skin on my front crackled under a layer of salt, and there were crystals in my hair. One of the strangest sensations was that of lifting my head under the weight of hair heavy with salt. It felt like my hair weighed 20 pounds. I was reminded of neck strength-training in Muay Thai, where we’d lie face-down and on our sides at the edge of the ring, raising our heads repeatedly against the resistance of our partners’ hands pressing down on our heads.

In conclusion, it seemed to me that I experienced a degree of sensory deprivation even with the tank door open. Floating on water that was just shy of body-temperature, I was devoid of physical sensation. Suspended in the absence of gravity, it was like I had no body at all. I heard only my heartbeat. When I closed my eyes, I felt a suggestion of déjà vu deep in my consciousness, like my body was remembering something inside of itself. As I thought of this later, it occurred to me that had I also been sightless, enclosed in total temperature-controlled darkness from beginning to end, the tank would have seemed womb-like. Is that one of the ideas behind this therapy?

On that note…. I wish you all a very Happy New Year!

 

Happy New Year!! (Dec. 26, 2016)

Happy New Year!! (Dec. 26, 2016)

 

Celebrating the eve of New Year’s Eve! Good-bye, 2016.

Sensory deprivation tank experience, Part 1a. (Birthday post!)

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.

 

Birthday Eve, last day of my 47th year, waking up from a rare nap on the futon. That's Cita's butt behind my head.

Birthday Eve, last day of my 47th year, waking up from a rare nap on the futon. That’s Cita’s butt behind my head.

 

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.

I went to a big-ass party and this is what happened.

We went to a party on Sunday. It was Callaghan’s company’s “holiday soiree.”

 

thatasianlookingchick-com-holidaysoiree2016

 

(I concealed the names of the company and the party’s hosts.)

If the colors on the invitation seem unusual for such an event, it’s because the party’s theme was “early Mardi Gras.” If you didn’t know, Mardi Gras colors are purple, green, and gold. I’m not sure why it was decided to celebrate the holidays as another holiday that takes place in February, but that’s irrelevant. Well… mostly irrelevant.

We donned the requested semi-formal “festive attire” (I wore a red dress because I was feeling the current season… I wasn’t alone in this), and we ordered an Uber.

The Uber took us to BFE (far away from us, in the middle of nowhere) with no discernible civilization around. We were dropped off in a big-ass parking lot. To enter a big-ass tent. Which led us into a big-ass warehouse. In which there was a big-ass party with roughly 800 people, pretty much in the dark, save for spot lighting here and there.

No part of which agreed with my big-ass case of PTSD.

Not only that, but when we walked into the warehouse, the first thing that happened was a few metallic strings suddenly dropped from the air, straight down, and landed with a clatter on the concrete floor, right in front of my feet. Because, you know, Mardi Gras. It was someone’s role to stand on a second-floor balcony and throw beads down in front of people walking in. This surprise INCOMING situation set me more on edge, though I didn’t show it. I smiled and laughed and talked to people, and I enjoyed the excellent band. I enjoyed meeting some of Callaghan’s co-workers and their wives. I did have a good time in some sense. I focused on that. We stayed for four hours, and I was fine.

Here’s the thing: Like everyone with PTSD, I have some known triggers, and I have some random triggers that can come out of nowhere. I went into the party thinking that my introversion would be the issue, but my panic disorder overrode that completely. It would’ve been great if being an introvert was my biggest challenge.

In response to all of this, I’ve decided to book myself an hour in a sensory deprivation tank.

Yes, you read that right. I’m going to strenuously push my limits in the tank – claustrophobia is one of my issues – and that is the point.

I may never be able to enter a room without immediately looking for the exits and other avenues of escape. I may never be able to sit in a room with my back to the door. But that’s okay. That’s my normal, and those behaviors are valuable, so I have no problems there. Meanwhile, though, I would like to work on lessening the impact of some of my known triggers. Coming out of the party with this realization was the gift of the whole thing. I will act on it! I’ll let you know how it goes.

An aside: I have no pics of us or of the party, I’m sorry to say. There were roaming photographers and co-workers who wanted to take pics, so there are some images floating around somewhere… if I get my hands on one and get the permission of the people in them, I’ll post them at that time.