Last week, among the many emails in the ‘other’ folder of my inbox related to COVID-19, I noticed one from a wellness centre I had once visited. I was sure its website was not one I had subscribed to, as I had sworn back then never to subject myself to this kind of wellness again. On pondering over that email for a few minutes, I also dragged out a long locked-away memory of my time there, recounting each traumatic moment and feeling a tummy-twisting panic as I did. I laughed at myself then. Only a special kind of idiot could have trauma memories from a treatment at a wellness centre.
Until a year ago, travelling for work was a frequent undertaking. It meant time away from the desk, buffet breakfasts, minimalist hotel rooms and lots of uncomfortable schmoozing. On one of my last trips before closing this chapter of my career, I had decided to extend a trip to Perth by an extra day, given that it takes 4 hours to get there from Melbourne. I’d had a rough year leading up to that trip, and a day of reverting to my lone traveller days had felt like a most perfect thing to do.
On the morning of my ‘me’ day, I breakfasted with my colleague at our super on-trend shipping cart hotel (looks better than it sounds), then we said our farewells as she slid into the back of a London cab (strange, but true). I decided not to venture too far away or plan too much, given I knew Perth fairly well and wanted to be less of a sightseer and more of self-carist. I’d heard about a relatively new flotation tank therapy from friends who were devout floaters, so I quickly searched online and discovered such a place not too far away. I would float first, then explore and dine later.
The centre, in true Perth style, was on a large block of land set among homes; a cluster of white buildings with what looked like water chimneys sprouting from the tops of the flat roofs. It didn’t look inviting, but it did intrigue me. I tentatively approached and a couple of attractive and very relaxed-looking people exited, so I decided that if I could exit looking like that, it was worth the adventure.
I signed forms, read mindfulness magazines and drank the rice tea, trying to remember all the instructions I’d been given and the steps one must take before entering the sanctity of the tank. This would be simple, I thought, not like that time at the onsen in Japan where I felt my insides boiling, forgot the cold bath at the end and left woozy and with red-raw skin, almost passing out in the corridor on the way to my room.
When my name was called I was taken to the room, shown the tank and accompanying shower, and then told by the wellness man that if I felt confident, I could switch off the tank lights for a floating experience in complete darkness. Tempting, but no, I had thought.
I thanked the nice man and then locked the door behind me, stripping down to my bathers and rinsing off the impurities from the outside world under the shower. The calming, but upbeat music began and I knew it was time to enter the holy tank.
I grabbed the goggles and dipped my feet in, gradually slipping into the warm, salt-filled water. But it wasn’t right, I decided, as I felt my bikini top taking on a life of its own once I covered myself with the water. It had to go. So out I got and took off the top. I got back in and settled into the water, lying as flat as I could.
As I began to make small movements, I felt the water lap against my face and then splash behind the goggles and ever-so-slightly into my eyes. A flash of panic ensued. My contact lenses! They had to come out. I got out of the water again and began the difficult task of using salty hands to remove my contact lenses. I decided to also turn off the main light before getting back in, in case it felt too bright and to avoid having to leave the tank again. I was starting to seriously annoy myself. I also couldn’t see very much, on account of my poor eyesight and the low lighting, but I made it to the tank and quickly got back into the water.
Lying there topless, almost blind and waiting for relaxation to kick in, I started thinking about the average time taken to actually relax in these things. I thought about the Dead Sea, floating tourists, the schmoozees I had met with the night before and the way one of them had this disingenuous smile permanently fixed on her face, particularly when discussing contracts and money, which was aggravating to no end. I thought about how many had floated before me that day – were they in Perth on holiday or did they actually have jobs that allowed them to float on a Thursday morning. I thought about how much I sucked at relaxation.
I decided then that if I was going to do this, I had to do it properly. I turned to my left and there was the light switch; to my right, the emergency switch. I flicked the left one and then, just like that, I was in a pitch-black and silent room. I lay there for about 2 minutes – 3 minutes at most – feeling a deep sense of peace while I gently moved my arms and twirled my hands as though I was the Little Mermaid and my legs as though I was a water ballerina.
And then, as though I had reached my daily allowance of pleasure, my inner sergeant major woke up from its slumber to remind me that I had, indeed, locked the door and pulled the lid of the tank down to close over me, leaving only a tiny gap. That voice became more dominant as the seconds passed. The door was locked, the tank lid closed and I couldn’t see. I tried to access the part of me that could meditate and remain calm through a crisis, and shoo this other voice away. But there was a systems failure deep in the pit of my stomach and it was too late … the control tower had already been alerted and my brain had registered a code red.
For what was probably only 20 seconds, I used all of my strength to lift the lid of the tank and failed, and then failed again and again. There was no way for me to sit up, so I reached to the left to turn on the light and couldn’t feel the switch. I used my left leg to feel around and found a switch. I flicked it on and nothing happened. I kept flicking it. Nothing. My whole body registered one only thing then: panic. I decided to find the emergency switch and felt around with my right leg. But I couldn’t feel anything. I couldn’t hear anything either. Not a single, bloody thing. This really was a sensory-deprivation tank of the most deviant kind, and I was its chop liver.
More seconds, minutes, years passed. There were some tears. I decided I couldn’t bow out this way, in a float tank at a hipster wellness centre 4000 km from home. Through gritted teeth and with all the force I could summon while horizontal, I pretended I was in labour again and growled low and deep, pushing up until I could feel a little movement from the lid. It was heavy and came back down hard. I had to give it one more, good go. I took a deep breath and pushed so hard I felt my ribs crowd and stomach burn. Up and up it went and up I went with it, so as not to have it come down on me before locking in place high above me. I gulped in the air, jumped out and with the dimmest light from under the door, saw my error (among many errors). I had turned my body right around in my Little Mermaid moment of relaxation and had been flicking the emergency switch, not the light switch. I then heard banging on the door and a faint voice repeating ‘are you alright?’. I felt relieved, embarrassed, proud for making it out and like a complete moron, all at the same time.
I turned on the room light and then assured the poor person at the door I was OK. I looked at my watch. I still had another 30 minutes to go. I sat on the bench for a few minutes looking at the evil tank. Who would do this to themselves, I thought. I considered the idea of returning to my captor, and out of pure boredom and frustration at my own idiocy, I did just that, returning to the tank with all lights on and no funny business. I was not going to be some wellness hero this time.
When I finally made it to reception after the whole ordeal, plus the time it took to locate my contacts and rinse the saltwater off me, the wellness lady spoke just as I was preparing to explain myself. ‘It happens to lots of people’, she assured me, fairly matter-of-factly. I was grateful for her vindication, although thinly-veiled. I couldn’t blame her.
I didn’t leave there looking attractive or relaxed. I looked strung-out and grey, close to tears and feeling grateful to be alive and free. I walked like a drunken hobo in the rain, smiling at nothing, and I decided then that I was definitely not a tank girl. This version of self-care and relaxation was never to be mine. I went to the nearest cafe, part of a sprawling gallery, and ordered a beautiful meal and a wine. I sat outside to breathe in the dewy air and enjoy the wide-open space of the gallery yard.
I had learnt two valuable lessons that day. That one should not become too confident too quickly in new situations, and that some doors should not be locked. I deleted the email and also unsubscribed, with kind regards.