Both my parents, who were phobic in general, had a particular fear of the water. My mother told me that they had both had near-drowning experiences. Since neither of them knew how to swim, and since I never saw them at a beach or near a swimming pool, I came to believe after a while that my mother told me that story with the explicit wish to frighten me. Certainly, that was a strategy they used in general to keep me safe. They did not want me to swim, to bicycle, to drive, to walk through dangerous neighborhoods, to go without sufficient sleep, and so on. So, by the time I was sixteen, I was afraid of the water. But, as it turned out, my college required me to pass a swimming test in order to matriculate. It wasn’t much of a test. I had to stay afloat for ten minutes; but I couldn’t do it. So, I took lessons to learn how to swim. I realized many years later that learning how to swim captured many of the elements we use in the treatment of any phobia.
I spent every afternoon in the shallow end of my school’s swimming pool while everyone else played water polo. First principle: In order to overcome a phobia, the affected person has to spend time publicly trying to do things that everyone else can do effortlessly. Phobics are easily embarrassed, but recovery requires that others find out about their phobias.
I was told to stand in the shallow water near the edge of the pool and fall towards the edge where I caught myself. I did this seemingly pointless exercise over and over again. After a half–hour, I called out to the swimming coach, who was walking by, and asked him what I should do next.
“Just do what I tell you to do,” he said, vaguely annoyed.
I spent the rest of the hour falling forward against the wall of the pool.
The next day I did the same thing. I thought the coach had forgotten about me. Finally, when there was a few minutes left in the session, he asked me to take a step back and jump a little to the edge of the pool. That was what I did all the next day. Each day, I went a few inches further from the edge of the pool, until, finally, I had to jump to get to the edge. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but I was beginning to relax in the water. Second principle: Practicing to overcome a phobia takes time, sometimes a lot of time. And repetition. Every once in a while, when the jumps had become pretty long, I missed the edge of the pool, and my hand went into the water, taking something like a stroke. My face went under the water, and I had to squeeze the water out of my eyes when I came out. I wondered how all those water polo players at the other end of the pool could go in and out of the pool without having to rub the water out of their eyes. But it wasn’t awful. Third principle: The things phobics are afraid of are not so awful when they do happen. There is a “well, then…” that comes after the “what if…?” What if my face goes in the water? Well, then, I stand up and wipe the water from my eyes.
In another week, I was skimming across the surface of the water, as I took bigger jumps. Not long after, I was doing a dog-paddle. Then I started to paddle my way into the deep water, making sure I was within grabbing distance of the edge of the pool. Sometimes, I felt more nervous than at other times. Fourth principle: You can judge progress by what you can do, not how you feel. If you are not panicky, but you are not doing something a little more difficult than what you did yesterday, you are not getting better. If you are nervous or panicky all the time, but you are going further and further into the phobic situation, you are getting better. Sometime later, I had to confront swimming from one part of the pool to the opposite side, away from all support. I got stuck there for a few days until one of the players on the polo team offered to swim nearby. Fifth principle: Phobics run into “stuck points” from time to time. Using an aide or a helper makes all the difference.
And so, I learned how to swim, but not with my face in the water. That had to wait until swimming goggles came along. Now, I swim most days. I like it. Sixth principle: Sometimes the very things phobics are afraid of give them the most satisfaction when they are no longer afraid. I remember a woman, for instance, who was afraid of the ski lift. She became a down-hill racer. I know a number of people who once were afraid of driving, but who now drive whenever they feel under stress, or for any other reason.
P.S. Someone interested in the consequences, comic and otherwise, of growing up with a parent who thinks you are capable of any feat except crossing the street safely by yourself, might want to look at my novel Superpowers.