Motherhood takes you many places you never expected: today, I’m in an egg-shaped, saltwater-filled sensory-deprivation pod. Mothering a child isn’t a prerequisite for this womb-like experience promoted as “flotation therapy,” but it does make me an ideal candidate for the latest trend in self-care. Generally overworked and underslept, with two children under age three and one million thoughts in my head, I am just like every other millennial mom who’s told that self-care will solve our problems.

Do I sound like a skeptic? Consider, then, that I’m a skeptic who has embraced sheet masks and dry brushing this year, who has learned about serums and found joy in the ritual of washing my face: I’m wading in the very water I’m wary of. If others experience the same inner conflict, they don’t show it. “Self-care” has become a $10 billion industry, with Google searches spiking in the last two years alone. As media outlets advise us all on “45 essential ways to practice self-care,” whole wellness empires have been built on curious forays much like my own. What is self-care?

In some ways, the movement is a victory for our time, especially for women and marginalized communities. Culturally and collectively choosing to care for ourselves, “consciously tending to one’s own wellbeing,” as Aisha Harris defines it, can have profound implications for our health. And, historically, women’s needs have been dismissed as secondary to the service of others, so there’s a rightness in advocating for the renewal we need. The good brings its share of bad, though, and while the practice of self-care has roots in the radical ’60s, it has been diluted and repackaged by consumerism. For so many, the way into self-care is money out: crystals, face masks, fluffy slippers, bath bombs, hydrafacials, meditation apps, rosé wine. It seems the only radical thing about self-care these days is how much profit there is to be made in the name of it.

Illustration by Timothy Banks

The alternative to self-care you shop for comes at a different cost: disengagement. The free practices of self-care routinely advise coping with the stress of daily life by leaving it. Stop reading the news. Don noise-canceling headphones. Flake on previously made plans if it feels like too much. If something upsets you on social media, unfollow. Ditch all the demands of your ordinary life by the wayside and just focus on you, baby. Maybe you hear my skepticism coming through now. There’s a time and place for each of these practices, to be sure, but I find fault with the larger idea that the only way to deal with the hard parts of life is to hide from them.

So what am I doing at this float spa, an experience that feels otherworldly right from the moment I enter the suite with a chalkboard sign reserved for “Kathryn: The Magical Mermaid”? I came to investigate because floating in a sound-and-light-proof tank seems emblematic of America’s current idea of self-care—paying to momentarily disappear from the world in order to relax. And I came because I am curious.

Flotation therapy, or restricted environmental stimulation therapy (REST), has been studied for more than 50 years, but its popularity has skyrocketed only recently. Float spas have opened all across the country, touting benefits like stress and anxiety reduction, pain relief for chronic conditions and sore muscles, increased endorphins, and higher levels of creativity and inner growth. Floaters relax in lightproof, soundproof tanks that generally contain 1,000-plus pounds of pharmaceutical-grade Epsom salts to create buoyancy and water maintained at body temperature, somewhere around 95 degrees, to minimize stimuli. These hour-plus float sessions are supposed to trigger theta brain waves—a state that can unlock creativity or trigger profound emotional and mental clarity.

After rinsing off in a cold shower and sealing my ears with earplugs, I step shivering and with some nervous energy into the pod. Immediately, the water soothes me. It’s warm and salty, somehow amplifying the colored light that gently changes every few seconds. I lean back until I’m floating half in, half out of the water. It feels like I’m being bathed in light and sound, and it’s very nice, but after a few minutes, the music and lights fade out to total blackness. I expected to struggle with shutting my thoughts off, so when my breathing almost instantly slips into the steady rhythm I associate with sleep, I’m surprised. I am warm and suspended and, frankly, very proud that I have achieved this zen state so quickly.

“I paid for an hour of nothing, but confronted everything in the dark, salty water—my mind a pinball machine of thoughts, some silly, some serious.”

Completely unmoored from time in the womb-like blackness, I am unsure of how many minutes have passed when I am jolted out of mindless bliss into the cyclone of thoughts I initially anticipated. I try to pray, try to focus on my breathing, place a hand on my stomach as an anchor, but for naught; my mind dips and swoops, a rogue starling in flight. Conscious now of the seam where my body meets the water, I change positions, drift, feel disoriented, wonder desperately how much time has passed. I don’t think my experience is unusual. In fact, flotation therapy practitioners advise first-timers to give the treatment multiple tries, noting that it often takes several float sessions for the body to surrender to the sensation.

I am a writer, and I knew I would write about my float. Afterward, I shower the slick salt off my body, turning the whole, strange drift over in my mind. Where was my mindless zen? Where were the deep insights, the emotional clarity, the theta waves? It wasn’t until hours later, with my thick hair still damp from the shower, that I thought about the drive home from the spa. It had been silent, and somehow rich. The gift of the float was not the retreat it offered, but the return. I paid for an hour of nothing, but confronted everything in the dark, salty water—my mind a pinball machine of thoughts, some silly, some serious.

But the reason I could drive home so dreamily, walk into my house and greet my wailing child so benevolently was because in the float tank, there weren’t any other voices to crowd out my own—there wasn’t anywhere to run. I’m hardly the person to define self-care, but I have to believe that “conscious tending of wellbeing” begins with listening to our body, our mind, our spirit. In the endless barrage of messages we all face daily, the practice of listening to ourselves is a lost one—maybe even a radical one. And it doesn’t require purchasing a session in a sensory-deprivation pod to try it.

It’s why self-care as pure commerce or detachment will always fall short of the destination. We can’t slap on a sheet mask in a hot bath and check “self-care” off our to-do list, although this may be the portrait of self-care we have in our minds and Instagram feeds. Caring for self comes not through floating away from real life or covering it up with luxurious products, but making space to listen where often there is none—a walk in the woods, a silenced phone, or, who knows, maybe even a float session.