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First, some background: I fear the ocean.
I fear lakes. I fear swimming pools. I hate swimming. I loathe swimmers. I despise chlorine. I abhor diving boards. I detest bathing suits. And I’m not too fond of bathtubs.
I am not alone, apparently. Mary Ellen “Melon” Dash, founder of the Transpersonal Swimming Institute, says that half of Americans share my hydrophobia. Only five of them, however, have sacrificed this Saturday evening to trek out to the Bethesda YMCA, don an ancient, little-used bathing suit, and take Melon’s class, “How to Overcome Your Fear of Deep Water.”
Melon stands 6 imposing feet tall and has shoulders that would satisfy most NFL linemen; she looks like my elementary-school gym teacher (except that my elementary-school gym teacher did not wear teal-and-black tie-dyed pantsuits). Melon has been teaching hydrophobes since 1983. She lives in California but travels east periodically to help fearful Washingtonians. Her four-day classes cost $525; tonight’s four-and-a-half-hour lesson is a (relative) bargain at $75.
We begin the session in a classroom, not a pool, and as I feared, Melon opens by asking us to recount our histories of aquatic humiliation. It is not a proud moment for any of us. One student has not been in a swimming pool since she graduated from high school in 1968; she just returned from a Caribbean vacation in which she managed to avoid the ocean entirely. Another student says she breathes hard when she thinks about deep water. A third student has tried and failed repeatedly to conquer her hydrophobia; her last effort ended with her “freaking out” at the deep end of a pool. Another tells us that she escaped her high-school swim class by getting her period “every day.”
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As for me, I was a born coward. At 6, I spent a summer hating my mother for sending me to Mr. Fogan’s swimming lessons (what I learned: how to not float). At 13, I was the oldest camper in the beginner’s swim class…by five years; now, at 26, I tell pathetic lies to escape beach vacations (“We can’t go to Rehoboth—haven’t you heard about its treacherous riptides?”).
Melon counters our woeful narratives with her own optimistic philosophy, which can be summed up in two words: Have fun. Since her students’ philosophy can be summed up in two rather different words—don’t drown—Melon would seem to be undertaking a hopeless venture. But she is undeterred. She quickly launches into a chalk-talk that is half inspirational, half instructional, and mostly mumbo jumbo.
As Melon tells it, hydrotherapy is really psychotherapy in trunks. We don’t need to learn the mechanics of swimming or treading water, we need to “heal the fear.” To overcome our phobia, she tells us, we must shed our past failures and “forgive” ourselves for mistakes we’ve made in the water (e.g., belly-flopping into Lake Winnipesaukee while a dozen 13-year-olds snickered). “Memories are still with you of bad things that happened to you in a pool. I want you to feel happy, to feel calm and safe and in control,” she says. “I want you to do what the 2-year-old in you wants to do.”
As a firm believer that indulging the 2-year-old in you usually leads to Big Wheel accidents and dirty diapers, I am instinctively suspicious of her do-what-feels-right vibe. Would the Marines ask a recruit “to do what the 2-year-old in you wants to do”? Never. They’d chuck him off the high-dive in full uniform, then make him tread water while shouting “Semper Fi, Do or Die!” until he fainted from exhaustion. That’s the last time he’d be afraid of water, I assure you.
But Melon lives in Berkeley—land of the free, home of the $12 colonic—so she massages us with an encouraging lecture instead of telling us to drop and give her 20. She riffs for awhile about “staying within our bodies.” Everyone nods and smiles. (I, too, nod and smile, but actually have no idea what she is talking about. It seems to have something to do with the stick-figures she drew on a flip chart, and infrared energy. Melon is very big on infrared energy.)
After about an hour of this, she moves on to relaxation exercises. Their purpose, I imagine, is to steady our nerves before we dip in the dreaded pool. As we sit, eyes shut, Melon advises us that “if there is any tension in your body, let that tension be what it is.” She tells us to imagine doing something we would love to do in water: I visualize the pool scene from Showgirls.
Finally it’s time to swim. I adjourn to (Davy Jones’) locker room, which is swarming with 8-year-old boys and 67-year-old men in various stages of undress (none of them pleasant). I put on a pair of dingy yellow shorts, my simulacrum of a bathing suit.
Melon has rented the pool, so we have it to ourselves (except for the usual pair of buff adolescent lifeguards lounging in deck chairs, listening to Coolio on their Discmans). I slowly lower myself into the shallow end. The water is not so much scary as it is cold. I look around at my classmates and see that Melon’s encouragement has already worked wonders on them. All of us are splashing in the shallow end; even the woman who hasn’t been in chlorinated water since the Johnson administration is gingerly inching her way through water up to her waist.
After a few minutes’ warm-up, we get down to business. Melon has us walk the width of the shallow end, eyes closed, “staying within ourselves.” I do not stay within myself. Instead I imagine what we must look like: blind senior citizens practicing tai chi? Clumsy giraffes performing Swan Lake?
Melon prefaces every exercise by telling us to do it “only if it sounds like fun.” She asks us to put our faces in the water. This sounds like fun, so I do it. She asks us to let water flow into our mouths (to prove that water is not the enemy). This sounds like fun, so I do it. She asks us to hold our breath and go underwater. This too sounds like fun, so I do it.
It may sound like fun, but I quickly realize that going underwater holding my breath is distinctly unfun. I believe, fundamentally, that if I spend more than five seconds underwater I will: 1) swallow water and die or 2) get the bends and die. Call it drowning by numbers. So after a few brief seconds (or, more likely, one brief second), I surface, gasping for air.
At this point Melon earns her keep. She tells me to hold my breath (in the air, not underwater). I take a deep breath and hold it for nearly a minute. Epiphany! I finally realize that I can hold my breath underwater for more than a few seconds. (This sounds pathetic, I know, but it works.) Soon I am paddling down to the deep end with three classmates. There we bob up and down very contentedly: 10 seconds underwater, 15 seconds, a half-minute. (During one particularly long descent, I experience my second, slightly less pleasant, epiphany: I don’t float. I’m too scrawny.)
We gather again at the shallow end after a couple of hours of this surprisingly pleasant pool frolic. Everyone feels much, much better. The 1968 woman had floated happily around the shallow end. The freak-out woman did not freak out. The woman who menstruated her way out of swim class had stroked calmly around the deep end. Melon congratulates us and asks us to give ourselves a standing ovation. It sounds like fun (sort of), so we do.—David Plotz
Melon Dash will be teaching her next Washington class in June. You can reach her at the Transpersonal Swimming Institute in Berkeley, Calif., (800) 723-7946.