I sat in a reclining chair as Debbie asked me to close my eyes and imagine walking down stairs toward a beautiful, peaceful scene. Each step I descended drew me deeper down and made me more relaxed. When she asked me to open my eyes, I couldn't. Maybe I could—I wasn't sure—but I was sure I didn't want to. When I couldn't count backward from 100 past 97, I was under. It felt like being all cozy in bed the moment before you drift off to sleep.
Debbie had coached me ahead of time about responding to the questions she would ask me. I was to answer quickly, the first thing that came into my mind. It didn't matter if it was true or not. I was to say the first words or memory I thought of. Half the time I didn't know if I was making things up.
"Where are you?" Debbie barked, "inside or out?"
"How old are you?"
"Who is with you?"
"My father. He just pushed me off his lap, and I'm crying. I think he had an erection."
"Can you forgive him for that?"
"No. He thought it was my fault."
"Can you understand how frightened his erection made him feel?"
"Can you see that it wasn't your fault and that he was just frightened, that in his heart he didn't mean to hurt or reject you? Can you talk to him and tell him how you feel?"
In six hours we dealt with my mother, father, child, money, fiction writing, feeling stupid, a girlfriend I was having a problem with, my grandson to be. Shyness was never mentioned until I was about to leave. She asked if I felt that I would still be shy. I thought I might not, but that shyness had been a habit for a very long time. "Habits," Debbie said, "are easy to break once you've done this work."
That evening a friend threw me a cocktail party, inviting all the people I knew in Toronto and a few neighbors, more than 20 people in all. Normally, I would be filled with anxiety, thinking that small talk slays me, I will have nothing to say, people will think me boring, I'll want to leave in a few minutes and will be stuck for a few hours.
At one point, I sat on a bench in the garden between a woman and man who began talking about a person I didn't know. I had nothing to say, no entry into the conversation. I wondered if I should try to change the subject or if I should get up and talk to someone else. Then I realized I was quite comfortable on the bench and happy just to sit there. Nothing was required of me; I was fine. In that moment, I realized I really might not be shy anymore. I was no more skilled socially, but suddenly I didn't care.
Right after that I returned to New York. Walking in Brooklyn one day, I caught myself casting my eyes to the ground when I passed a man on the street. I decided not to do that anymore. Then I decided to smile at everyone I passed. I was now middle-aged and my smiles were not likely to be misconstrued as come-ons. People smiled back. It felt pretty good. It felt great. I wasn't smiling to be liked or to elicit a smile in return. I smiled as a gift. I spread a little joy. It hadn't been my intention, but it was the effect. And that's when I discovered something profound about shyness: It's a little self-involved. How can you ever think about the other person if you're so busy worrying about yourself?
I decided to knock it off. The hypnotism session was more than two years ago, and I have actually enjoyed social gatherings since. A few days after I came back home, I went to a dance and made a date to meet a man at a chocolate factory. The chocolate was deep, dark, and delicious. The man turned out to have a Mexican girlfriend.
Even conquering shyness didn't make life perfect, but it has made it more interesting, and now when I feel like being a wet blanket, I know it's my choice.