In Mormonism, the concepts of heaven and hell are a little complicated. According to scripture, when our bodies die, our souls go to the Spirit World—which sounds a lot more fun than it is. In Spirit World we will face our final judgement. If we’ve been good, we go to one of three tiers of heaven—the Celestial Kingdom, Terrestrial Kingdom and the Telestial Kingdom. Don’t ask me the difference between them, but Celestial is the best. I assume it’s where people get to finally drink all the caffeinated sodas they’ve been denied throughout their lives.
But if you’ve been bad, your spirit goes to “outer darkness.” This is basically Mormon hell, where Satan and all his fallen angels reside. It’s a spiritual purgatory where no light and no love can enter. I assume they call it outer darkness because “hell” veers dangerously close to being a swear word, but you have to admit that outer darkness sounds pretty metal.
I haven’t thought about any of this in years, but suddenly it all comes rushing back to me as I step into the sensory deprivation float chamber.
Is this outer darkness?
I’ve always been curious about sensory deprivation. I mean, at least since I half-heartedly watched Altered States many years ago. Until recently, I had thought that these sort of isolation tanks were only accessible through clinical trials or at prohibitively expensive spas for rich eccentrics. But then I saw a friend post about his profound experience unlocking some deep emotions in a float tank and I was convinced.
I immediately hustled over to Groupon and discovered that float therapies are just not for the Howard Hugheses of the world. I found a deal for a 90-minute float session at the aptly-named spa, flōt. Hell yeah to starting deep spiritual journeys via the “add to cart” button.
Not gonna lie: to an anxiety-riddled brain like mine, the idea of shutting off all stimuli is very appealing. My day-to-day usually consists of dealing with constant self-doubt, theoreticals and “what ifs” that circle my head like a hyperactive rat. Over the years, I’ve learned how to step back and recognize how a lot of this stuff is beyond my control, but that still doesn’t stop it from happening. If floating offers “total relaxation”—which I took to mean a little respite from that torturous rat—then I am all in.
Plus, the world is just too noisy right now. Every day on social media is a new nightmare. It’s getting to the point where doomscrolling feels like a euphemism. I’m pretty sure the human soul was not built for this technology (it was built for flying [weeee!] to one of three levels of heaven). The float tank feels like a good opportunity to tell the world to stfu.
There’s a distinct spa-y scent when I arrive at flōt. What is it that these places always smell like? Lavender? Artesian spring water? Whatever the case, it’s pleasant and disarming—the smell of a place that typically prefers that a person like me (i.e. a disheveled schlub) wait outside.
But the woman who checks me in, Nicole, is incredibly welcoming. She takes me back to my room, which is basically a walk-in shower with soothing lighting. Pristine towels hang on the wall, and a bench with Q-tips, lotion and other fancy shit on it. In fact, the room is a model of luxury and influencer-type aesthetics... except for the large metal door.
Behind that door lies my float chamber. And within the chamber: utter darkness. Or, should I say, outer darkness.
Have you ever had a dream that verges on becoming a nightmare? It’s like everything is great, but there’s something lurking in the periphery. The heavy metal door in this otherwise fine room is that creeping thing. It’s a blot, a stain, a threat. It looks straight out of a Saw film, and no matter how nice and accommodating flōt’s facilities are—and they really are fantastic, objectively—I can’t help shake the feeling that something’s not right when I look at the metal door.
Nicole gives me the rundown: shower before getting in the tank, bring a towel to hang on the hand bar inside (in case I get any of the solution in my eyes), float, relax, try not to freak out (she doesn’t say this explicitly, but I hear it between the lines), and when my time’s up, she’ll knock rhythmically from the other side of the wall until she gets verbal confirmation that I’m up, awake, and alive.
When Nicole leaves, I strip down and stand in front of the door, physically and emotionally naked. It feels a little like that famous painting by Caspar David Friedrich where the man is standing on top of a mountain, overlooking a vast sea of fog. Just infinite vastness. Terrifying and sublime at the same time.
I pull the door open. A musky, aromatic warmth hits me. Something about it feels slightly grotesque, like I’ve just found the opening to a giant, strange womb. There could be anything in here—an alien, or perhaps another body—and I briefly contemplate shining my phone’s flashlight inside. But what if there is something else in there? I’m certain I’d go instantly mad like in a character in an old Lovecraft story.
I take a breath and step in. The heavy door closes behind me and all of the world’s nurturing light is snuffed. I lower myself into the salty solution; there’s a slight sting between my toes where the skin has been worn down from running and other jock stuff, and I cringe in anticipation for the salty solution to flow into my orifices to reveal unknown abrasions in my butthole (sorry, mom). But everything turns out to be A-OK.
I let go of the hand bar, my final tether to the real world, and then I’m floating. Spiraling, really. For a moment, panic takes over and I’m spinning out into infinity. I flail until I find the walls. One of the tips Nicole had told me was to spread my arms until I felt each side of the chamber, which would act as a centering technique. I do that, and the spinning stops. I pull my arms back to my side and then it’s just nothing.
It’s difficult to describe the feeling of nothing—much like thinking too hard on the concept of zero—because ultimately nothing becomes something. I quickly become fully attuned to every physiological process going on in my body: my breathing, the blood flowing, the sound of my eyeballs moving, my heartbeat. I open and close my eyes—the shapes that usually hide behind my eyelids are here, in the real world.
Sometimes my fingertips will touch the side of the tank and just that tiny sensation will spook me.
Maybe I fall asleep, maybe I just doze, but flashes of light startle me awake. Did I just imagine that? Am I hallucinating?
And then that’s when the death thoughts begin. These aren’t suicidal in any way—just an objective understanding of perhaps this is what it feels like to be dead. I wouldn’t say that this idea scares me per se, but the profundity definitely shakes me. Like, are we—humans—even supposed to know what this feels like?
The (oxymoronic) heaviness of isolation begins to manifest in my stomach, and I suddenly feel slightly nauseated. I try to take my mind off the deep thoughts by creating a game where I gently push off one side of the chamber to see how long it takes for me to float to the other side. Yes, this absolutely negates the point of sensory deprivation, but at least it keeps my mind from folding in on itself.
The weightlessness begins to feel substantial. My back yearns for support. It’s not pain, but an uncanny feeling of being held up for too long by phantom hands.
How long have I been in here? Surely more than 90 minutes. Did Nicole forget about me?
The warmth—not altogether comforting to begin with—becomes suffocating. My nausea ramps up. I push open the chamber door (O! That door) and it’s like I’m reborn. I crawl out of the tank, slimy with saline. Rebirthed into this world as a schlubby, hairy 37-year-old baby.
I check my phone. I’ve been in the tank for 35 minutes.
I shower and dress. Nicole seems concerned when I emerge in the waiting area. I tell her that whatever I ate for breakfast wasn’t agreeing with me—which is the truth—but I don’t get into the existential heaviness that comes from facing mortality in an infinite field of blackness. Nicole tells me that plenty of people experience digestion issues when they float. She also tells me that she tries to float at least once a week.
“Is there a record for how long someone has been in one of those things?” I ask.
“We only allow people to be in there for a maximum of two hours,” Nicole says. “But our owner has one at his home, and I imagine he’s been in there for...” she briefly trails off. “Hours.”
I nod, trying to hide a shudder. Nicole scans my Groupon. I have no regrets about not using my entire 90 minutes. In fact, I feel like I got way more than I paid for.
Turns out that nothing can be quite a lot.
For me, it was too much.
THE WEEKLY GOODS
Get tix to this
San Diego’s Weatherbox was—and still is—a band for emo kids who demand a little more oomph from their music. Since the mid-2000s, frontman and songwriter Brian Warren (Miss New Buddha) has crafted some of the most clever, earnest and distinct lyrics this side of Say Anything. And when paired with Weatherbox’s angular and abrasive pop-punk, the result is a sound that’s utterly unique. Since Weatherbox doesn’t play out often, Friday’s performance at Soda Bar is the one show this week you won’t want to miss. Plus, AWKSD favorites Shades McCool are also playing, and it’s impossible not to have fun at a Shades show.
Go to this
If you’re in the mood for something a little darker on Friday night, head on over to Kensington Club for the first iteration of San Diego’s newest goth night, Nothing (I wonder if they picked this name name from going in a sensory deprivation tank?). A co-production between DJ Disorder and Hemlock’s Javi Nunez (who I profiled a few months ago, remember??), Nothing will be a mix of old school, classic goth/deathrock and darkwave/modern EBM, so there should be something for everyone who has a little evil in their heart. Admission is $10 at the door.
Listen to this
A few weeks ago, KPBS relaunched film critic Beth Accomando’s indelible Cinema Junkie podcast which gives Accomando an opportunity to share her staggering film knowledge with the rest of us normies. Seriously, name any movie in any genre and Accomando will have something to say about it. As part of their relaunch, I was asked to participate in “Share Your Addiction,” a segment on the podcast where guests quickly dive into the niche aspects of film that they absolutely love. To hear my film addiction, you’re just going to have to listen to the podcast (I come in at around 2:30).
A few weeks ago, Matt Baker from Ocean Beach went viral with his completely unhinged rant at the San Diego County Board of Supervisors meeting. After watching the clip, like, a thousand times, I asked Twitter if there was anyone who still did remixes or autotunes of people freaking out. My friend Tony Gidlund pointed me to the work of Andre Atunes, a super talented musician who metalifies people’s public breakdowns and turns them into kickass songs. I reached out to Atunes, pleading with him to apply his magic to the Matt Baker clip.
Well, Atunes did, and the final product is nothing short of a masterpiece.
Were Tony and I responsible for bringing this baby into the world? Maybe? I mean, Matt Baker’s freakout surely would’ve caught Atunes’ eyes regardless, but... maybe? Whatever the case is, I’m just excited that this video exists.
Got a tip or wanna say hi? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow me on Twitter @theryanbradford. And if you like what you’ve just read, please hit that little heart icon at the end of the post.
Julia Dixon Evans edited this post. Thanks, Julia. Go follow her on Twitter.