By James Johnson
It is said that while one is experiencing flotation therapy, the mind is set free to wander without the distractions of daily life, and at times inspiration can strike.
For Fayetteville-based veteran Nicole Walcott, who sought the experimental therapy as a way of relieving the chronic pain she was suffering after a long career in the military, that inspiration came in the form of a business idea: What if she brought the therapy that had given her so much relief back to Fayetteville to offer an option for all of the other veterans who were also living with pain?
In February of 2017, Walcott opened the Floating Shanti, a wellness center with a float tank, at 311 Hay Street in Fayetteville’s historic downtown district. She immediately had questions from puzzled members of the public.
Chiefly: What is flotation therapy?
The float tank was invented in 1954 by John C. Lilly, a physician and neurophysiologist. Among other things, he found that people who floated in warm dark tanks were able to relax deeply in both body and mind.
At Floating Shanti, clients lie in warm, magnesium-enriched water that’s so saturated with Epsom salts that they’re suspended weightlessly on the surface. They float for 60-90 minutes at a time in the darkened, quiet room, plugs in their ears and their eyes usually closed. Without the stress of gravity or the sensations of sound or light, Walcott said, a client can experience true sensory deprivation, and with it, some relief from pain or stress.
“I was injured in the military and doctors recommended that I do a pain management program but it involved painkillers and muscle relaxers and I don’t do any of that. I don’t even take Advil. But they couldn’t give me a good alternative to that,” Walcott said. “So I sought out on my own.”
The reason for Walcott’s reluctance to use traditional painkillers may be obvious to anyone who has been keeping up with the news. In 2017 the Health and Human Services Department declared a public health emergency as a result of America’s opioid epidemic, which was brought on by an increase in prescription of opioid medications for the relief of pain.
According to an article for Providers Clinical Support System, opioid use among soldiers after a deployment is greater than it is for the civilian population. As a result, there’s a higher risk of addiction. Walcott was not interested in becoming one of those statistics.
“I had always done yoga, that sort of thing, and flotation was the last piece of the puzzle,” she said. “It was recommended to me by my pediatrician, who actually now serves as our medical director.”
Walcott said her first experience with floating was almost a disaster.
“I am a very type-A person, former military, from New York, and I needed someone to tell me exactly what I needed to do and how to do it, and I walk in and the guy is giving me hippy speak,” Walcott said. “The guy is saying, ‘You can use this pillow or these earbuds to keep water out of your ears, I personally don’t use them, but some people do and some people don’t ...’ He says, ‘Just enjoy,’ then he leaves the room … I’m nervous. I had been living with chronic pain since 2013 and as soon as I hit the water and I can feel no pressure on any of my joints, within five minutes, I am feeling completely relaxed and this immense pain relief. However, I was so nervous that I didn’t realize that I hate water in my ears, and I hadn’t put the ear plugs in because the guy said that he hadn’t put the ear plugs in. So all of a sudden my ears are filling with water.”
Walcott jumped out of the tank to get the ear plugs but didn’t know that ear plugs don’t form a seal on a wet surface because of the type of silicone they’re made of. (That’s why it’s always recommended that ear plugs are put in before getting wet.)
“Now I am messing around with my ear plugs in the tank, trying to get to get them to stick because they keep falling out,” Walcott said. “The moral of that story is that, even though that was such a disaster, the pain relief was so immediate and so immense, that it inspired me to open up this center. I always tell people, ‘Don’t worry. You can never have a more disastrous first float than I did, so you’ll be fine.’”
Currently, the Floating Shanti has one float tank, usable with or without music, as well as massage therapy, private yoga lessons and chiropractic treatment. Walcott said the business’s success was immediate, both with civilians and Fayetteville’s military community.
“I actually learned about it from my primary care physician, as a way of treating stress reduction and helping with chronic pain issues,” said Grant Carlson, who served with Special Operations for 25 years.
In those 25 years, Carlson’s body suffered greatly due to injuries sustained during combat operations. He has had 14 surgeries on his neck and back and said that until recently the pain was merely masked by pharmaceuticals.
“I tried (floating) with music, without music, and found that complete silence with ear plugs, helped my back, helped my neck relax. I come out of there feeling like a new person,” Carlson said. “The place is clean and well-run by friendly people. I float at least once a week and ever since I started, I have been very happy.”
Carlson said he is hoping the VA considers covering flotation therapy for veterans, as he believes it has become a great resource for pain relief without the risks associated with other pain relievers.
“I live about 30 minutes outside of Fayetteville but I make it out there at least once a week for a float,” Carlson said.
Carlson isn’t the only person who feels the drive is worth it. Walcott said much of her business comes from the Raleigh-Durham area.
“We get about 20 percent of our clientele from the Triangle and every time … within like five to 10 minutes they will say, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe this is downtown Fayetteville. I had not pictured this at all.’ People still have this picture in their heads of downtown Fayetteville from the 1980s.”
Walcott says other downtown businesspeople have fully embraced her and Floating Shanti and the feeling is mutual.
“I love downtown. I would never want to be anywhere else,” she said. “I was nervous when we first opened up… which is why we only have one tank. I wish we had gotten a bigger space so we could have another tank. I wish I had been braver.”
Walcott is particularly excited about the upcoming downtown baseball stadium. She said professional athletes regularly use flotation therapy as a way of recovering from injuries. Meanwhile, the fans who come to games will likely boost business for everyone in the area.
“We want everyone to do better,” Walcott said “The more people who are shopping downtown, the more clients are potentially shopping at our stores. With the baseball stadium coming in, we are on the brink of being a little mini Durham.”
Besides, she added, “a rising tide lifts all sails.”