One Pea in a Pod

I’m led downstairs and through a dark corridor where I hear a loud waterfall sound coming from ‘the Pod’. Tom gives me instructions and shouts over the noise, “Don’t worry, it’s just doing its cycle; it won’t be like this when you’re in it.” I should hope not. I look down at the gushing water pouring into the pod – I’ll drown if that’s going on.

He smiles at me, as if to say, ‘Don’t be a wimp.’

Invented by neuroscientist John C Lilly in the 1950s, the Sensory Deprivation Tank started as an experiment to see what would happen to a person when all sensory stimulation and interactions with the outside world were removed. Some reported complete relaxation, psychedelic imagery, pain relief, crisp ideas and even sleep.

The tanks have since been developed and modernised. They’re the size of a giant bath tub and filled with a mixture of water and Epsom salts that enable the body to float. A lid is closed, leaving you floating in darkness and silence with only your mind for company.

I’m nervous. I’ve never seen anything out of the norm before.

I clamber over the side and sit in the water. I’m surprised at how shallow the water is. It dawns on me that I have to make myself float; it doesn’t ‘just happen’. Shuffling forward and using my hands to balance my body like a couple of temporary stilts, I take a deep breath in. I don’t know why, it’s not as if I’m going under water – I hope.

I press the big round button.

The mechanics overhead thump as the enormous lid, shaped like a Russian doll, comes down slowly; as it edges closer towards me, I start to freak out.

Clunk. The door is shut.

Get me out of here – I don’t want to do this.

Tiny red lights illuminate my body; it’s a seedy sight (personally, I’d have voted for yellow lights). I fight my urge to keep them on and reach for the button to turn them off. One switch and it is dark. Pitch dark. I blink. There is nothing to see apart from blackness. Desperate to escape, I want to breathe air normally. This feels like I’m stuck in a baby’s incubator and I’m fighting for breath. This is crazy: I am lying in a contraption that has been compared to a womb – for an hour, alone. My upper lip is sweating. I guess I can cheat and get out early?

No, if other people can do it, so can you.

Floating without a lilo is no easy feat; I can’t determine if it is because of the weight of my bottom or my boobs, but something is preventing me from balancing. My feet are bobbing high above the water. One is straying, separating my legs. My neck hurts, which isn’t surprising because I’m holding my head up, so I drop my head into the water and lose the tension that I’ve created in my muscles. This helps, but in doing it my back arches which makes my stomach rise. It feels huge.

Why does my tummy feel massive?

I shouldn’t have had the cooked breakfast earlier.

It isn’t long before another physical sensation unnerves me: I’m being pulled upwards from my heart, towards the roof, only there is no roof in the darkness. It is as if I am being yanked by an invisible magnet. All this from floating?

I wonder how long I’ve been in here – maybe only a couple of minutes. It’s terrifying already.

Did I lock the room door? I did, I’m sure.

What if there’s a fire?

A stream of anxious thought gushes through my mind.


My heartbeat is thumping frantically. Sound effects of waves play inside the Pod. I let them sooth me. And as I’m listening, my body starts to drift, to the right.

Whoa – steady there – come back!

My top half is moving but my legs aren’t. I’ve become a rag doll, being dragged by salty water. I count to relax.

One elephant, two elephant, three…

I have to stop.

What if my mind trips and a herd of elephants comes at me in the tank?

The waves being played get louder. Focusing on the crashes of water, I pretend I’m looking at the waves, not drowning in them. Eventually it calms me.

There is a huge sense of aloneness and imprisonment in the Pod. I know there is a lid, but I can’t see it. It’s merely a piece of plastic that divides me from everything else I know, so why am I scared? Generally speaking, I don’t like the dark. As a child I was afraid of it; I always slept under the duvet. Even now as an adult, I fear that something is following me on the landing when I go for a night-time wee. And here in the Pod, I am surrounded by a black void with no escape from my mind. There is no sense of space. No view. No light. And more scarily, no one else.

Ow, what is that?  A tight pain creeps up my left forearm; I’ve not felt this before.

I bet it is repetitive strain injury – but why now? Nervous that I’ll lose balance I rest my hand on my hip bone. But now I feel contact between finger and hip, I don’t want to; I’m desperate to reap the benefits of sensory deprivation: I want my mind to reach a state of meditation. I drop my arms into the water.

Everything seems calm. I can’t feel a thing.

I can’t feel my body! Seriously, where is it?

The water is warmed to body temperature intentionally: it’s normal, you’re not supposed to be aware of your body.

But seriously – I can’t feel my legs!

I’m numb and I don’t like it. I’m torn: I want to do this properly and yet I’m desperate to have some physical sensation in my body. I clench my bottom. It’s still there, which is a welcome relief. But the wobble of my bum creates a ripple and my body is drifting again. I feel as if I am floating really far – in outer space.

They call this thing a Pod. It’s just a marketing ploy to make it sound like something little and friendly. It’s a Sensory Deprivation Tank: a torture chamber for the naïve. Sold as a method of relaxation – or pain relief for back complaints, pregnancy and muscle disorders – I have none of the above.

It works for some.

However, it’s not for everyone, I’m positive of that.

Is it any wonder I am nervous about being in here? Sensory Deprivation was used, among other methods, as a torture technique in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. This isn’t the same by any standards. And an hour is nothing in comparison to what the prisoners went through: days of torture led to hallucinations and in some cases, personality disorders. Psychological distress was the aim: making the subject more susceptible to interrogation. They weren’t in a sci-fi style orange bin – they were made to wear masks and goggles. Nor did they have sounds of the sea to comfort them. Nothing could help the horrific experiences they endured.

I can’t relax in this makeshift coffin. My mind ponders more.

Imagine seeing unreal things on a regular basis. Some do. Mental illness is rife. One friend I know suffered with schizophrenia: she would see shadows coming out of walls and chasing her down pavements. Someone else I know is diagnosed with paranoid psychosis: Princess Diana comes out of plug sockets and helicopters whir in his head. He sums it up, “It’s horrible.” Trusting and perhaps relying on the medication, he no longer sees a Psychiatrist or Community Psychiatric Nurse. His GP hears it all. I wonder what would happen if he ever has a session in the Pod. It could be a recipe for disaster.

The mind is fragile. It needs looking after. Like a porcelain bowl, it should stand the test of time, but it could break at any moment. It shouldn’t be left to gather dust, it shouldn’t be messed with or have its chips ignored. It needs care and a place in society, where it can glow. I’ve never suffered any serious mental illness. Pre-menstrual Syndrome, yes: I’ve been irritable, maybe even irrational and definitely emotional, but I’ve never felt terrified of my mind on a day-to-day basis.

Suddenly my right leg twitches. It interrupts my trail of thought. Like a mini electric shock in my leg, it makes me wobble again and I tilt side-to-side. It’s a wake-up call from my daydreaming.

I’m back in the Pod, aware of my dark surroundings.

Something dribbles down my face. Either a bead of sweat or a drip of condensation from above has dropped. Aware of the slow, wet trickle moving down my cheek, I open my eyes and immediately regret doing so; the salt water stings my left eye. I squint like Popeye. Knowing not to rub it because my hands are salty, I close my eyes tight.

The sound of waves get louder: so loud that it sounds like a thunderstorm is in my head. Only now do I realise that my ears are submerged under the water. The noise is unnerving – not relaxing.


The lid jolts and lifts up just as slowly as it came down. My hour is up.

It’s like being plummeted back to earth, from some distant place. The room is still dark. I can only see the silhouette of shapes in the room: the lid, the door handle, the shower. It’s another version of the dark and oddly, it’s worse than being in the Pod.

Please – put the lights on.

The lights flash on. The brightness is stark. I notice an ear plug floating on the water surface, it must have fallen out. When I go to reach it, I miss. Toddler-like, my coordination seems to have gone downhill. I splash about clumsily until I eventually grab it. My hair feels heavy as it clings to my back.

Like a hefty beast, I scramble out and stamp my way to the shower. My whole body is slimy with the salty water solution. My legs are like lead. Practically shaking with adrenalin, I use lots of soap to rinse away the slippery touch to my skin.

In the mirror I’m faced with something I’ve not seen for a long time: I look invigorated.

I did it.

I survived the tank. I’m keen to get dressed and out of here and dry my hair quickly. But I can still see them: clusters of white hairs on my head. Life is turning me grey. I just want to hide.


Roz Mascall is a creative non-fiction writer in the UK. She is writing her first novel: a true story about a journey of self-discovery that introduces her to mystical healers and a past she never knew she had.
Follow on twitter: @RozMascall

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