TAMPA — Blackness. Eyes closed or open, the same.
Imperfect silence, a faint hum that might be the purr of tires on Nebraska Avenue or the susurration of your breath passing through ten inches of water and foam ear plugs.
When your body stills you lose sensation of the water, that line that separates your submerged half from the half that rides above. It's floating in the Dead Sea, outer space, the womb.
Eventually, slowly, maybe 40 minutes in, your thoughts still, too. Usually corralled as easily as fitting an angry squid in a string bag, they stop stampeding, flit gently, quashable or at least ignorable.
• • •
I went to Sacred Floats and Gems in Seminole Heights to try a sensory deprivation tank for one hour. Fifty dollars to defy gravity, detoxify, heal, rest and, most importantly, to get away from the noise that was this past two weeks.
Irma. The noise of Twitter; of cones of uncertainty; of generators and plywood going up and coming down; of television news both network and local; of one million chips and pretzels nervous-eaten; of plans made and then made again; of texts from everyone I ever knew offering bedrooms and advice; of Zello and GasBuddy and Facebook notification bongs as each of my friends, one by one, marked themselves safe.
The dodged-a-bullet metaphor is flawed. A bullet is about intention and malice. This storm found purchase many places that weren't Tampa Bay. Hurricane Irma spared us here, so why is it so hard? Electricity is restored, the piles of debris are disappearing, but many Tampa Bay residents are still emotional wrecks.
Before that, there was Hurricane Harvey. Then, two major earthquakes in Mexico, Puerto Rico in the dark and the death toll for Hurricane Maria rising.
On Facebook, there was a post about adrenal fatigue: Your adrenals are responsible for regulating stress in your body, and needless to say they've been working overtime this past week. From the Weather Channel telling us repeatedly that we were going to lose everything and possibly die, to all the prepping, packing, and then un-prepping and unpacking.
I tracked it back to Sharon Drenner, an art dealer and consultant in Clearwater Beach. She didn't know where it originated, she'd just reposted, but she's had more than 400 shares and comments.
"Almost every comment was like, 'Oh my gosh, that explains what I've been feeling.' People have been unable to concentrate and get back into the flow of life."
Our brains process uncertainty the same way as seeing a snake in the woods, says Linda Hoopes, an Atlanta psychologist who grew up in Clearwater and just wrote her second book on resilience. It kicks us into that "fight or flight" mode. A mode we were in for about a week.
"It's a double-edged sword when you can see things coming."
I know a lot of psychologists. My husband Jon Rottenberg is one, a mood-disorder researcher on sabbatical from the University of South Florida and in a cabin in North Carolina (he wasn't fleeing, it was planned pre-Irma). Ironically, he says, one of the reasons Irma was hard for us is that weather forecasting has gotten so much better. We had a looming threat for days and days.
"What that does is bring out people's default reactions to stress, whether that's anxiety or depression or deep denial."
Social media amplifies the effect. But there's more, my husband, er, Rottenberg says: "Irma enabled our default political inclinations. For some people, this seemed like payback for neglect of the climate. Pre-blaming the administration for lack of preparation was also a secondary theme. More importantly, Harvey showed how fragile civilization is, and that the forces of order can be overwhelmed."
An intensely potent configuration of events, he says, ratcheted up by things like a gasoline shortage, gave folks a fear of chaos or societal breakdown. Plus, we've become so reliant on the ability to communicate instantaneously that losing connectivity fills many people with terror.
• • •
We need to take care of ourselves.
Many people are walking around thinking they are having an abnormal reaction, that there is "something wrong with me," an isolating thought. Reach out to people and connect. Contributing to a relief effort, even financially, is another way of recovering personally.
Attend to your physical self, Hoopes says: nutrition, hydration, breathing, movement and rest.
"We underestimate how much we abuse ourselves. People are plain fatigued. That makes you more emotionally vulnerable, so people get into an ill-health spiral."
But something good can come of our Irma experience. The work Hoopes does with resilience is about the ability to deal with high levels of turbulence while maintaining high levels of functioning.
"Challenging situations can be a catalyst for learning and growth."
If the extensive coverage of Irma was difficult for you, consider limiting consumption in future situations. Have a friend act as a filter. Choose a time limit. Lean on outlets that feel less alarming to you.
"It's a balance, though, of engaging in self-care without using your self-care strategies to avoid getting prepared or making important decisions," says USF clinical psychologist Diana Rancourt.
Jared Roa, who owns Sacred Floats and Gems, says people have been coming in steadily since the storm, eager to give their sensory receptors a break. Sensory deprivation is not a new concept (see the 1980 movie Altered States).
But these days, more people want to eliminate outside stimuli and take tension off of every muscle and joint with the zero-gravity buoyancy provided by 1,000 pounds of salt dissolved in warm water.
They want to bob, weightless, in the silent darkness for an hour.
• • •
The "shave and a haircut, two bits" knock comes gently on the side of the tank.
You stand slowly, opening the coffin-like door and squint in the dim light. Your skin is slick like a seal, mind largely blank.
And that night, you sleep like you don't know anyone named Irma.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.