The Drift

I Slept All Night in a Sensory Deprivation Tank. This Is My Story.

Photo by Vlue/Shutterstock, with additional illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker.

Two years ago, I wrote for Slate about sensory deprivation tanks, those contraptions that let you float in skin-temperature water, enveloped in darkness and silence. While reporting that piece, I heard an intriguing rumor: One of the float tank enthusiasts I spoke with claimed to know a person who slept in a tank at night—every night. In fact, this person had become so accustomed to sleeping inside a tank, my source said, that she could no longer fall asleep outside one. When she traveled, she was forced to find a tank at her destination and beg the owner to make it available in the wee hours.

I couldn’t shake this thought from my mind. I’d adored my midday floating sessions. So restful and meditative, I’d come out feeling like I’d ingested a cocktail of sedatives and ’shrooms. And that was just an hour in the tank. Might a long night’s journey into the void be even more restorative and trippy?

I emailed Gina Antioco, owner of Brooklyn’s Lift/Next Level Floats, to ask if she’d let me sleep in one of her tanks overnight. She was game. What’s more, she said, she’d been meaning to try this again herself. She’d given it a go once before but hadn’t managed to fall asleep. She wondered if the second time might be the charm.

I arrived at Lift at about 11 p.m. on a weeknight. Gina told me we needed to wait for a couple floaters to finish before she could lock the entrance door, shut down the lobby, and let the sleepover begin. “One of the guys in the tanks right now is a DJ,” Gina explained. “He plays sets at a major soundcamp at Burning Man. I want him to compile some music to play over the speakers in the tanks when the session is beginning or ending.” The DJ at last emerged, dazed and relaxed, in the manner of all first-time floaters. He said he was envisioning music that sounded like a forest, alive but calm. We bid him goodbye and then Gina began to program the tanks for our overnight.

In a float tank, you lose all sense of time. A minute can feel like an hour, and vice-versa. I told Gina I didn’t want to be in the tank with no clear end point—wondering if I’d been forgotten and it was now 25 years later. I’d fail to relax unless I knew I’d be awakened at a set time. Because of some quirk in the tanks’ control systems, it turned out the latest Gina could program the music and lights come on in the tank was 5:30 am. I said that’d be fine. To be honest, I had grave doubts I’d make it that long.

Over the years, I’ve slept in all manner of ungainly milieus. An Indian train bunk with a colony of roaches scuttling next to my head, a boat at anchor in violent swells, the concrete steps of a friend’s apartment building when I arrived late and drunk and he wasn’t yet home. When I moved into my first apartment, I neglected to obtain a mattress before nightfall, so I slept on the hardwood—cheekbone to floor wax—and still caught a good six hours of nod.

Yet there’s one scenario in which I can’t sleep for more than about a minute at a time. I just can’t snooze on my back. I’m a stomach sleeper. And for obvious reasons, stomach sleeping won’t work when you’re floating in water. The concentrated Epsom salts in the tank make you so buoyant that there’s no danger you’ll accidentally roll over in your sleep. So I wasn’t scared of drowning. But I was scared I wouldn’t be able to drift off.

I said goodnight to Gina, entered my float room, stripped naked, showered off, killed the lights, and stepped into the tank. Soon, I remembered the many joys of floating. My brain slowed down. My thoughts became sparse, and wispy, and then disappeared altogether. I heard disembodied voices, including someone singing the Cars song “Drive.” I contemplated my place in the universe and also Ric Ocasek’s place in the universe, which seemed all the more poignant because he hadn’t been the lead singer on that song and I wondered if he ever felt sour about that.

At one point, I thought I saw bright lights. But there were no lights in the tank. I must have been dreaming—confirmed by the fact that I came to with a start, my limbs twitching. It was just a split-second of slumber. It had happened once before in a tank, on a sleepy afternoon. But in neither case had I achieved full-on, REM shut-eye.

I had no clue if it was 1 a.m. or 3 a.m. One floater I’ve met told me that the first time he tried it, he was supposed to float for only one hour, but the guy forgot about him and left him in there for several hours. It was a transformational experience. “I can’t describe it to you now in a way that wouldn’t devalue its meaning,” he said to me. It seemed he now divided his life into the eras before and after that long sojourn in the tank. Would this happen to me? Would I emerge a changed person?

I began to get restless. I was exhausted, given the late hour, yet I was still awake. And my physical discomfort was growing. I yearned to flip over onto my tummy so I could sleep for real. I contorted myself as far sideways as I could. I had my left eye submerged. Some salty water trickled into my nose and burned my left nostril.

I tried to wrangle myself into a comfortable position, locking an arm behind my head and crossing one foot beneath another. But I always reverted to my standard, belly-up ragdoll look, limbs akimbo. The water is so thick that it locks you into place as though you’re molded in Jello. I felt like Damien Hirst’s shark.

Suddenly, some hokey zither music blared over a set of speakers I hadn’t known were there. This was my alarm. And guess what? It had woken me up. I’d been totally out. I have no idea how long I was under, but it was long enough to count as real sleep.

I emerged, showered off, put on my clothes, and turned on my phone. It was only 4:30 a.m. Something had gone wrong, and the alarm went off an hour early. I’d been in the tank for a total of about five hours, some solid portion of which was spent asleep. I thought of stripping down and getting back in, to see if I could fall asleep again (less nervous about the whole thing now that I’d tried it), but the zither was blasting and the tank had begun some sort of auto-filtration sequence. So I left. On my way out, I saw Gina asleep on a couch in the lobby. She must have given up long before. I locked the entrance door behind me.

As I walked home through pre-dawn Brooklyn, I considered whether I should try this again sometime, with no set alarm—see if I could make it through the night. But the notion made me squirm. It was a struggle to fall asleep in the tank, my nose aflame with salt, my spine unhappy. I will absolutely float again. But the difference between an afternoon and a midnight float is like night and day. 

Read more from The Drift, Slate’s pop-up blog about sleep.