It may be that the only people who truly understand the fear of water are those who have it.
“I used to hold my breath in the shower,” Debbie Darby said.
Jerry Wainhouse has lived his whole life without getting in water deeper than his knees.
“I never ever swam in my 67 years, but part of my bucket list is to snorkel,” Wainhouse said. “I had a lot of apprehension about the water — and I joined the Navy.”
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Wainhouse, Darby and dozens of others in Pierce County and on the Olympic Peninsula have been overcoming their water phobias at their local YMCAs, and they owe their thanks to two Silverdale Y employees.
“Lynette Duncan and I were talking one day about adult swim classes,” Melissa Pulliam said. “I learned to swim as an adult, and had always had that fear. With adult swim classes, people would register but not show up.
“We had this light-bulb moment.”
What if they offered a class that had more class time than pool time?
“There is an awakening when you tackle fear, and not just the fear of water,” Pulliam said. “We came up with ‘Float Beyond Fear,’ a class that was about overcoming the fear of water, not teaching you how to swim.”
The first class was in Silverdale in 2012.
“It was what I’d call ‘emotionally investigative,’ not skill based,” Pullman said. “You can’t learn skills if you’re afraid.”
The class was kept small — 10 students, at first. The results were immediate.
“One of our students, Barb, had never been able to float, was afraid of the water,” Pulliam said. “In week four or five, she floated. She was screaming with joy — ‘I could do that for hours!’
“Now, she comes in just to float in the pool.”
Local YMCA branches heard about the program, and in January 2013, representatives of nearly every Y in Pierce County — from Gig Harbor to Puyallup — came to Silverdale for training.
Float Beyond Fear is now offered by most YMCA chapters. One of them is the Gig Harbor branch.
“We offer an eight-week course, two hours a week,” instructor Lori Lee said. “Each class is limited to eight people and has two instructors. We might be in the classroom for 90 minutes, in the pool for 15.”
Wainhouse remembers going to Lincoln High School and experiencing “swimming” in physical education class.
“We had pools and all had to dive in and I failed miserably,” he said. “If you couldn’t do something, they just moved you to the side. There was no instruction.”
Almost 50 years later, he joined the YMCA and saw the float class offered.
“What they talked about in the classroom was other kinds of fears, not just of water, and how they stack up like bricks around your life,” Wainhouse said. “They helped us explore that.”
And the first time in the pool?
“I wasn’t relaxed and used the beach area of the pool,” Wainhouse said.
“I was lying in water so shallow my head was touching bottom. Slowly, you crawl your way to a deeper spot, which I did.”
Darby is taking the class because her husband scuba dives and she’d like to try that eventually. Floating in the water was a huge first step.
“I want to be comfortable in water, because we live on the water now,” Darby said. “I can tell a difference already. I’m a lot calmer in the water. Floating is very relaxing. I’m proud of myself for taking the class.”
The idea has attracted the attention of the national YMCA, which has asked Pulliam questions about it — ironic, since the first thing she did in the beginning was investigate whether the YMCA had such a class.
“We couldn’t find one through the YMCA,” Pulliam said. “Several private organizations do similar things, including one group in Seattle. But it’s an in-patient-like program that costs several thousand dollars.
“We thought: Free.”
Float Beyond Fear is free to YMCA members. If you’re not a member, there’s a fee for the eight weeks you’ll be using the Y.
“As an adult, I went to join a swim class at a local school, and was old enough to be the grandfather of every other student,” Wainhouse said. “This course has opened a door for me. What have you got to lose?”