“You have anxiety,” my doctor sighed, exasperated at the sight of me in her office for the fourth time in as many weeks. It was mid-March and I’d been enduring an unshakable sinus infection for more than a month. Downing a half-dozen prescription pills daily hadn’t been helping much, neither had a non-stop travel schedule with multiple trips to then-virus hotspots. But without a fever, my general practitioner of more than a decade said I wouldn’t qualify for a COVID-19 test, even if it was the culprit.
“Look, you have asthma, bad sinuses, and a weakened immune system,” she admitted, “but this infection should have gone away by now. I think you’re anxious.” I guffawed and protested that I felt fine, mentally. The only problem in my head, I insisted, was the nasty post-nasal drip wreaking havoc on my throat and clogging my ears.
“That’s the manifestation of your body absorbing the stress,” she patiently countered before rattling off a string of symptoms. “Do you have trouble sleeping at night? Feel like your brain can’t shut down? Can’t concentrate when you want to?” She continued on while I silently affirmed each, studying the floor. “You need to find things that will help you feel calm,” she finished, handing me a script for a final course of antibiotics and suggesting I contact her upon culmination to discuss a long-term SSRI option.
“Blearily scrolling Instagram one sleepless night, I paused on an ad for an inflatable hot tub. A bubbly font shouted the (unbelievable) price — $100.97 — while a family of four, holding unnatural poses, stared at me with toothy, plastered smiles.”
Within the week, my beloved New York City announced the stay-at-home order. I stared at the TV, slack-jawed, pondering how the hell one finds inner peace at the onset of a global pandemic? Instead of determining a viable solution, I lost my shit. I bought odd grocery items in bulk (why, yes, I do need a pound of cilantro); I picked fights with my wife over whether we should stay in our two-bedroom Manhattan apartment or decamp for a secluded rental cabin; I obsessively washed my hands until they cracked and bled; I refreshed fear-mongering news sites every few minutes; I tried myriad of Crossfit workouts with the fervor of a frenetic hamster trying to break free of its wheel. (The best free workout? Charlie Curtis’ WODs.) Nothing eased my escalating tension.
Things worsened a week later when I got laid off from various writer and editor gigs, three times in a single day. Media outlets that I’d regularly contributed to had eliminated budgets for freelancers like me and my panic intensified as I thought about paying rent, how fast my savings would run out, and when I’d be able to find steady work again. Once, while mired in these unpleasant thoughts, my Apple Watch chirped that my heart rate had increased so substantially, it wanted to know if I was working out.
Blearily scrolling Instagram one sleepless night, I paused on an ad for an inflatable hot tub. A bubbly font shouted the (unbelievable) price — $100.97 — while a family of four, holding unnatural poses, stared at me with toothy, plastered smiles. I lingered on the ad, contemplating. Our apartment has a sizable terrace and, on a lark during a scorching summer years ago, I’d set up a budget kiddie pool, complete with a filtration system and pump. It was large enough to accommodate several friends and admirably endured a season of spilled cocktails and nearby construction dust clouds. If that flimsy pool survived, surely a hot tub could.
While there was no outright rebuke, my wife voiced healthy skepticism — accompanied by a deserved but prolonged eye-roll—when I floated the notion. I’m sure she weighed the stupidity of my idea against my mounting stress and malaise and found the potential of a hot tub falling apart on a tenth-floor balcony preferable to her husband’s sanity deteriorating. “If it’ll make you happy, do it,” she offered.
After hours of comparative shopping, I ordered an Intex PureSpa Inflatable 4-Person Spa off Amazon for $369 dollars, $402 post-tax. (My order was a few days before Amazon requested halting non-essential orders.) After 144 ratings, it enjoyed 3.5 stars and ranked sixth in outdoor hot tubs. The singular comment that convinced me to click the “Buy Now” button: “Sure, it’s not as nice as a $5,000 hard-sided spa — of course it isn’t. [But for] a sub-$500 hot tub, this thing is amazing.”
It arrived five days later, in a box roughly the size and weight of a large dog or small horse. I wrestled it onto the patio and began the assembly process. The pump for the heater and filtration system doubled as the inflator and the sides of the tub were blown up within minutes. This sucker is sturdy. I weigh nearly 200 pounds and I can sit on the side of the tub without it moving. Two small paper filters screw into the walls to help clean the water, and the pump and heater is a stand-alone unit that affixes to the outer wall with three tubes. The whole thing plugs into a standard power outlet. To go from box to completely filled and running took under 30 minutes.
It took a full day for the 1300w heater to bring the 210 gallons up to 104 degrees, the maximum temperature, but the minute the LCD screen registered that triple-digit promised land, I had thrown the cover off and was settling in. At 77-inches in diameter, it’s surprisingly roomy. I can stretch my 6’2” frame out and still not hit the opposite wall with my feet unless my face is nearly underwater. And the pump is far more powerful than I anticipated. There aren’t traditional jets positioned in the sides; just a ring of 120 small holes along a seam where the floor of the tub meets the wall. But tap the jet button on the pump and the emerging bubbles are enough to shake and massage your whole body. After a hard workout, or long day hunched over a computer, it’s definitely soothing on aching muscles, especially my shoulders.
It’s not perfect, but for the cost, it’s pretty damn close. The air for the bubbles isn’t heated, so you’ll notice the water temp drop the longer you keep the bubbles going, and the filters can get dirty pretty quickly, even with plenty of shock and proper water maintenance. (Should you opt for a unit of your own, you’ll want some test strips, a sanitizing agent — I toss a capful of this Clorox all-in-one option after every dip—and you may need to increase or lower the alkalinity or the pH of the water, but you can do that easily with found things from the supermarket, like borax or baking soda.) After a month of consistent use, my electric bill only increased by about $35, too.
I use it nearly every day or night. After a few tries, I coaxed my wife in. Instead of rolling, her eyes widened. “This is actually great,” she smiled, sinking back. “I can see why you’re always happy when you get out.”
I’m incredibly fortunate to be able to splurge on something as seemingly impractical as an inflatable hot tub for my NYC balcony at a time like this. I get that. But I can feel the omnipresent tension leave my body the minute I hit that water. That interminable sinus infection fully abated and my Apple Watch hasn’t since erroneously flagged a heart rate spike. When my doctor called to check in on me a few weeks back, she inquired about my anxiety level. “Never felt calmer,” I replied. “You sound it,” she responded. “Whatever you’re doing, keep it up.”