For Paula, the biggest issue with being a socially anxious genius was that recognition was a double-edged sword. She wanted people to notice her mental prowess. She wanted them to praise her accomplishments. The thing was, people noticing her usually led to discomfort, if not outright panic--and forget being able to accept praise without the insidious feeling that it was all a cruel joke.
This last month, in particular, had been torturous. While her faculty mentor assured her everything was ready for her thesis defense, the idea that her entire academic career was riding on one presentation was a weight almost too great to bear. She kept going over it, looking for weak points that would be exploited to dismiss her without further consideration.
It was a dread that had only reinforced by her reality. Even though she was turning thirty in a couple of days, many who met her for the first time mistook her for a high school-aged girl. That disparity in appearance made getting noticed in a discipline already hostile to women an even greater challenge.
Maybe if she had more presence, she could find the confidence to quiet her fears. Maybe if she was bigger, she could fight for space better. She was willing to try anything. So when her therapist suggested hypnotism to help her, she agreed. If nothing happened, no big deal and if it did… well, what did she have to lose?
As she listened to the soft, confident, melodic voice of Dr. Shikami, Paula's wandering mind fixed on her therapist. The older woman had an otherworldly beauty and poise about her. Paula was sure that Dr. Shikami never felt socially awkward and that she could accept praise with grace. The idea remained as her therapist led her deeper and deeper into relaxation.
“How do you feel?” Dr. Shikami's voice echoed from all directions.
“Relaxed.” She replied, her own voice sounding hollow.
“Know that you are safe," her therapist assured her. "No harm can come to you here.”
“Okay, so, let's do some visualization. I want you to think about... a wall. A wall with your fears written on it.”
Bricks rose up before her, then on either side as well. Doubt on her left. Fear the right. Approval was ahead of her, and behind her, there was a wall with rejection written on it. The box was wide enough she could put out her arms and not touch either side at the same time. That said, it felt like being in public. Surrounded on all sides, she could swear the walls were moving towards her.
"What can break through walls?" Dr. Shikami asked.
“Think of a hammer then," Dr. Shikami suggested. "A hammer with courage and confidence engraved in its head.”
Paula held out her hand and a two-handed maul materialized in her grasp. She was pulled forward by its weight and had to grip the smooth wooden handle with both hands to even lift it.
“Use this to strike at your fears. Strike and strike and strike, until you can no longer lift your arms.”
Not sure where to start, Paula hit the wall with Doubt carved all over it. Again and again, she hit it, until the dust gave way to blood to flesh to bone. Caught up in the rush, she roared as she kicked through the wall and stepped out of the box. No longer able to hold up the hammer, it turned to glittering powder as it slipped from her fingers.
When she took another step, the other walls of the box returned. Fear was before her now, with acceptance and rejection to the left and right. She took another step and the far wall retreated. It seemed 'fear' was afraid of her now.
Paula strode toward the brick with a swagger she had never felt before. Each step carried her further, each footfall was a little heavier. She looked down at herself and was shocked.
“I look like one of those fitness supermodels,” she said as her hands traced the outline of her abdominal muscles. “Wow, being taller feels way better than I expected. I have so much… confidence all of a sudden.”
As her mind grappled with the implication, she could Dr. Shikami calling her, bidding her to continue. Resisting the urge to keep walking towards 'fear', she pictured the double-edged sword she was cursed with and it came into being before her. 'Intellect' was etched into one half, 'Anxiety' the other.
Summoning the hammer again caused her to shrink her down to her previous size, but as she was sure everything would work out. She lit a fire with her passion and heated the weapon until it glowed. When she brought her courage down on her intellect and anxiety she felt a vibration run through her very being. If she could reshape this hunk of metal into something she could wield, maybe she would change with it. Maybe she would have a life she could only dream of having. She would have a boyfriend--no, two! She would have a best friend who was as smart as she was. They would be so in sync that people would assume they were a couple.
Excited at the prospect of reforging her biggest flaws into strengths, Paula began to hammer with abandon. Each up-swing made her feel more powerful, more like the hammer was part of her. Each strike on the steel made her feel smarter, more focused. Up and down. Swoosh and clang! Stronger. Smarter. She worked the blade until she felt the job was done, her stature growing with each rise and fall of her maul.
Finally, she held the hot metal aloft and admired her work. Not wanting to become like those who ridiculed her, she quenched the blade in oil born of compassion. The steel hissed as it hit the liquid and steam filled the box around her.
Just as she brandished the burnished, glimmering saber, hands grabbed her shoulders and she snapped awake. Blinking, she looked down into the dark eyes of her beautiful therapist and could almost feel a sense of pride welling up in them. Whatever she had done, Dr. Shikami approved.
“Same time next week?” she asked Paula while returning to her chair.
"Sure," Paula said, getting to her feet. The top of her head, once several feet from the ceiling, was now only inches from the tile. Something about that seemed odd, but she could not say what. She had always been just shy of seven feet tall, right? Not like she would have grown two feet in an hour. That would be impossible. That she was now also built like the Amazon she had become in her mind went unnoticed as she had a sudden epiphany about the issue she had been stuck on for weeks. It was so simple, how had she missed it before? In a hurry to get back to the lab and tell Alhana, her partner, she thanked Dr. Shikami for the session and ducked through the doorway.
Paula was brimming with energy now, to the point that her skin tingled like it was raining on her. She did not bother waiting for the bus like she had that morning but walked the twenty blocks to the University instead. Not that such a decision was odd, she always jogged to work in the morning after all. She texted Alhana the whole way, trying to explain her revelation to her bestie.
On campus, she was invigorated by the crowd. It was so nice to see everyone! Whether she knew them or not, people seemed to recognize her. It still did not occur to her that she now had to squeeze through every doorway because her mind was otherwise occupied. She was busy working on her TED talk a couple of months now. She was trying to reduce her thesis defense to a fifteen-minute presentation and wanted to get done ahead of her date with the twins tonight. That she had two hunky boyfriends was a given, a big girl like her had big needs after all and, together, the brothers satisfied almost all of them.
The only place they fell short was that they had a hard time grasping her work no matter how much she tried to explain it to them. She had Alhana for that anyway. Paula's intellectual equal, her best friend since undergrad completed her in a way no one else could. There was some tension between them, sure, a few regrets, but they had both striven to be professional. Maybe, once both of their theses was approved, they could go have a drink and see where things went. Maybe she could discuss her feelings with Dr. Shikami? She seemed like she could empathize with Paula's situation. Until then, she would have to settle for only having the perfect mental partner and a pair of studs. Life was so difficult being an extroverted genius.