The first thing to know about Float Milwaukee—the city’s newest and only sensory deprivation flotation tank business—is that the folks who run it have heard all the Altered States jokes before. The 1980 sci-fi flick tells the tale of a scientist who experiments with sensory deprivation flotation tanks, leading to mind-melting hallucinations, biological de-evolution, and a finale that inspired the video for a-ha’s “Take On Me.” References to Altered States are sprinkled throughout Float Milwaukee’s website, from the appointment confirmation page to the FAQ. (Q: “Is this like Altered States?” A: “Yes, but you’re not submerged in water, you don’t eat ritualistic mushrooms, and only a small percentage of floaters turn into proto-human monkeys.”) So yeah, they’ve heard it all before. They get it.
So what does Float Milwaukee offer beyond a chance to reference a 35-year-old Ken Russell movie? Well, a chance to climb into an egg-shaped sensory deprivation pod; close the lid; lie back in 160 gallons of body-temperature water containing 900 pounds of dissolved Epsom salts; and let your troubles float away, man. Deep relaxation, stress relief, pain relief, heightened creativity, and, um, increased theta waves are all promised. Floating has been around for over 40 years, explains the Float Milwaukee website, and is completely devoid of any “new-age-y mumbo jumbo.” In other words, it’s a thing, and a thing that has recently opened in Milwaukee.
But is it a thing worth $75 an hour? Is it even a thing worth the introductory price of $50 an hour? After recently learning that Float Milwaukee was finally, er, afloat, I quickly and impulsively made an appointment. I would find out for myself. Yes, I would soon be floating in a salt-water-filled sensory deprivation tank. No sound, no light, no anything. Just me and the ultimate nothingness of the universe squaring off, reckoning with each other, meeting face to face on a rainy Saturday afternoon in a nondescript building at 211 W. Freshwater Way in the Third Ward. Floating. This is my report.
I arrive 15 minutes before my scheduled session, per Float Milwaukee’s suggestions. Also per their suggestions, I arrive having eaten a light meal an hour ahead of time. I’ve refrained from shaving (the salt water can sting a freshly shaven face, apparently) and from drinking my customary morning two-liter bottle of Mountain Dew (caffeine and relaxing your body don’t mix, apparently). Beyond that, there’s no preparation needed. I do my best to purge my mind of any unnecessary It lines (“Beep, beep, Richie! They all float down here!”) and old David Letterman sketches (“Will It Float!”)
A sign inside the entrance instructs me to take off my shoes and slip on some spa sandals. I oblige and head over to the minimally appointed lobby. Owner Andy Larson is there, sitting behind a desk. I say hello and shake his hand. He’s a cheery 30-something fellow with glasses and an easy laugh. We chat a little about floating (it’s a thing!), a little about cleanliness (the water in each of Float Milwaukee’s three tanks is filtered three times between each float, and sterilized via hydrogen peroxide, ozone, and UV), and a little about the long and delay-ridden road to starting his business (Larson spent weeks getting up to speed with Wisconsin’s float tank regulations before the state decided to eliminate them). I sign a simple waver, pay my $50, and take a seat.
Almost immediately, a man-bunned dude emerges from one of the tank rooms. “Whoa!” is all he says as he heads for the small adjoining “chill-out” room (“For readjusting to the real world,” Larson explains). A woman follows after him. “It was…different.” Another dude appears. “I’d do it again, right now!” All three seem pleased. Larson seems pleased. I realize that while I was initially largely indifferent to this experiment, I’m suddenly looking forward to it.
Soon it’s time to go. Larson leads me into one of the rooms. There’s a shower to be used before and after my float, and a small bench with some towels, earplugs, and an optional neck pillow. A robe hangs from the door. There’s little else. (Did I mention you float naked? You can wear a swimsuit if you want, but yeah, it’s suggested you float in the buff.) Then there’s the pod itself. It’s a crazy looking thing, all futuristic and white and glowing. Honestly, it looks like a giant toilet bowl. Larson explains that I’ll have eight minutes of shower and prep time before the session begins. He wishes me luck and leaves the room.
Well, okay. I close the door (double insulated, for maximum sound-proofing), strip, and take a shower. That’s when things go wrong. There are three dispensers on the wall with body wash, shampoo, and conditioner. First, I can’t figure out which one contains the body wash. Next, I can’t seem to get what I think is the body wash dispenser to dispense. I give it a tug. It flies off the wall and crashes to the ground. I sigh. I’m off to a brilliant start.
I reinstall the unharmed dispenser, gather myself, and turn off the room lights. It’s time to do this. I step into the tank. The water is not-too-warm and not-too-cool. Perfect body temperature. I take a seat. There’s an optional light, which I turn off, and optional soothing music, which I also turn off. If I’m doing this, I’m doing this all the way, and I’m sure as hell not going to listen to Jazz Loon or whatever for an hour. I close the lid, lie back, and relax. Here I go!
Okay. So. Here I am. In a sensory deprivation tank. For an hour. Huh. A Star Wars: Battle Pod this ain’t. It’s rather pleasant, actually. The saltwater takes care of the floating, and it only takes a few tries to figure out a comfortable position. My ears are underwater, which is a bit strange, but other than that I’m fine. I relax. My arms float at my side, akimbo. My legs instantly melt away. Nice. I focus on my breathing. Minutes begin to pass…
That’s when it hits me: This tank is quiet. Really quiet. To paraphrase Douglas Adams, you just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly quiet it is. There’s nothing. Absolutely nothing. In fact, when I occasionally glance to the left and right I can hear the sound of my eyes moving in my skull. This experience is almost worth the price of admission alone. Imagine your eyes as heavy wooden marbles slowly rolling around in a heavy wooden box and you’ll get the general idea of what it sounds like. It’s wonderfully weird and vaguely unsettling.
The tank is also dark. Really dark. To paraphrase Adams again, you may think it’s dark when you walk into Foundation on a summer afternoon, but that’s just peanuts to this pod. Stupidly, I decide to test the darkness by waving my hand above my face. That’s when things go wrong, again. Turns out if you wave your hand that was previously floating in a saltwater bath above your face, you’re going to end up with a bunch of saltwater in your eyes. Who knew? Fuck.
I jolt upright and grope for the light. Luckily, the button is oversized and perfect for groping-around dipshits like myself. I hit the button, open the lid, and exit the tank. My brilliant start continues unabated. I dry my face off with a small towel and, not trusting myself, decide to take it with me. I climb back in the tank, shove the towel in the lid handle, close the lid, lose the light, and lie back down. I let my body settle. I relax. Here we go, for real this time. Minutes pass…
I find myself wavering in and out of a series of mental states: relaxation, bemusement, frustration, anxiousness, boredom, relaxation again, boredom again, relaxation again, and so on. I’m not a meditator, but I try my best to empty my head. Sometimes it works. Other times it doesn’t. Sometimes I concentrate on the nothingness surrounding me and blissfully lose track of time. Other times something just pops into my head, Ray-Stantz-inadvertently-summoning-the-Stay-Puft-Marshmallow-Man-in-Ghostbusters-style. I suddenly find myself thinking about a room in my high school girlfriend’s house—not her bedroom, but just a random room, a room I was probably in only once or twice over two decades ago. Why am I thinking about that room? Why now? I need to clear my…
Whatever happened to her, anyway? And whatever happened to the girlfriend you had after her? You know the one. You met her after your band played one of its first shows. The only thing she said to you was “I love you.” “My band?” you asked. “No. You,” she said. So sure of herself. So terrifying. She lived with her mom and she smoked clove cigarettes and her bedroom smelled like vanilla. She made you mix tapes. Oh, things went so badly with her. So, so badly. She moved away. San Francisco? Yeah, San Francisco. Remember that night a few years ago when she suddenly reappeared and…
I shake my head. Stop it. I try to relax. I probably have only a half-hour left and I need to get serious. Well, maybe it’s more than a half-hour. Forty-five minutes? Twenty minutes? Jesus, how long have I been in this thing? I need to…
Why are you doing this? Do you really need to spend an hour floating in a sensory deprivation tank? Are you really that stressed out? Is the world really beating you down with deadlines and responsibilities and appointment television viewing? No, you’re just curious, and it should make a good article. The part where you bust the soap dispenser will be funny. Same with the part where you get saltwater in your eyes. How could you be so stu…oh, what’s that? Stars? Yes, stars. So many stars! Are you hallucinating? Yes, you’re hallucinating. Wow, it’s beautiful! Are you really hallucinating? Weird. Well, it only makes sense. You’ve been in this thing forever and your mind is starting to glitch out. Finally! It’s like that time you…
Suddenly a light comes on. My hour is up.
“How did it go?” Larson asks as I make my way back to the lobby. I’m at a loss for words. It was, well, something. Strange, relaxing, exhilarating, perplexing, too long, too short all at once. Like college or sex, it seems what you get out of it is directly related to what you put in. Or, in this case, what you don’t put in. Or something. I try to sum it up. All I can say is this: “Ten out of ten. Would float again.”
And you know what? I mean it. Yes, dammit, I would do this again. Not tomorrow, not next week, but, I dunno, maybe a month from now? Yeah, I could see doing this once a month. Why not? I take a seat in the chill-out room and sip some water from a paper cup, pondering the last sensory-deprived hour of my life. Another guy who went in at the same time as me is there, too. He smiles. “Would float again. That’s exactly what I thought,” he says.
I say my goodbyes, tell Larson I’ll be back, put my shoes on, and leave. I feel good. I feel relaxed. I feel happy. It’s a subtle feeling, but it’s there. It’s real. It’s raining outside. I get in my car, start it up, and pull away. I turn on the radio and—no kidding—the first song to come on is a-ha’s “Take On Me.” Weird.
I drive through downtown, blasting a-ha, singing along like an idiot, somehow managing to hit those impossibly high notes in the chorus. For a little while, at least, I’m still floating.