For a brief moment, the wireframe fibres constructing the world were visible. But in the blink of an eye, they vanished, and the man found himself in a comfortably decorated, warmly-lit room with a short, dark-haired woman who looked to be in her early thirties.
She smiled at him. “Welcome back. It’s good to see you again. How have you been?”
He was a tall man, olive-skinned and with greying hair. She saw the tired look in his eyes, and was thankful for the fact that she could. Subtle details like that had to be accurately captured. It was crucial to be able to accurately read people’s emotional state, and a lot could be communicated by body language alone.
“Better,” he answered after a brief hesitation. “Not good, but better. The relaxation techniques you suggested have been helping.”
“You haven’t had any panic attacks recently?”
“No, thankfully. I came close a few times, but I was able to stop and center myself before they got that far.”
“That’s wonderful, you’ve made excellent progress.” She smiled again, warm and relaxed. “And how have your daily walks to the end of the street been going?”
“They’ve… been alright.” He paused. “For the most part.”
“Did something happen?”
He didn’t answer immediately. She looked at him, trying to portray an air of non-judgementalism, and she waited, letting the silence encourage him to speak.
“It’s still very difficult to leave my house alone,” he finally admitted. “It’s frightening, even with the encouragement of my wife. I managed it every day this week except Friday. On Friday, when I stepped outside, there was the beginning of a storm. There wasn’t much rain yet, but something about the blowing wind and the clouds just… made the whole situation worse. I couldn’t do it. I’m sorry.”
“That’s still excellent progress, you know. When I first saw you, you couldn’t leave your front door by yourself, even on sunny days. You should be proud of how far you’ve come since then.”
“I know, but I want to be able to deal with the world as it is. When I do the exercises here, with you, it’s a lot easier to deal with, because somewhere in the back of my mind I know that when I’m here I’m ultimately safe. Out there? In the world outside my home? It’s all real.”
“That’s the exact reason you’re here, though,” she answered. “Here, you can explore potentially frightening situations in a safe and controlled way, and it’ll help you prepare for when you have to face those situations in the real world.”
He nodded, but said nothing.
“If you had trouble with a rainstorm, would you be comfortable exploring that here?” she suggested. “It might help you the next time you have to deal with one back home.”
He thought about it for a moment. “That might be nice. After all, it’s the winter now, so we get rain a lot more often.”
“Shall we then?” she asked, as she got up with a smile and went to the back wall of the room.
She made a gesture, and the wall rippled and folded back, revealing a door where there was none before, sunlight streaming through its small window.
She stepped to the side of the door and looked at her patient. “Whenever you’re ready, we can go through.”
The man took a moment to steel himself, then stood up and slowly made his way to the door. He glanced at her.
“After you,” she said.
With a slight tremble in his hand, he turned the doorknob and slowly stepped through.
The door opened to a pristine version of his own front porch on a sunny summer afternoon. She followed behind him and they both stood for a moment under the shade of the porch’s roof, before she sat down on a lawn chair and motioned for him to take the bench in front of her.
He took his seat. “How are you feeling?” she asked.
“This is okay. I’m can mostly deal with this by now, especially here.”
“That’s great. Let me make a few preparations, and then I can give you the controls.”
She got up and walked to the front wall of the replica of his house they’d just emerged from. Touching her finger to the wall, she traced out a square with a circle in its centre.
The wall extruded a small box with a dial on it. She took it in her left hand, revealing a glowing gossamer fibre connecting the box to the wall. At the point where the fibre attached to the wall, she made a gesture with her right hand, as if mimicking falling rain. An illuminated symbol of a raincloud appeared on the wall. With a tap of her finger, the symbol shrank into a dot of light, and the dot travelled up the fibre into the box, where the raincloud symbol reappeared on its front side.
Finally, with a wave of her hand the fibre disappeared. She sat back down and showed the box to her patient.
“Notice how the dial is down to the left? That means it’s set for sunny weather,” she explained. “As you turn it clockwise, it’ll gradually get more overcast, and a little more windy.”
She pressed one of the glowing raincloud icons, and a translucent blue pane with a few sliders appeared above the box, connected to it by another gossamer fibre. Each slider had an icon: one showing raindrops, another with a set of swirled lines suggesting wind, and another with a lightning bolt. Touching the sliders lightly, she slid the rain and wind ones to slightly below the halfway point where they rested, and moved the lighting slider all the way to its minimum value.
“There,” she said. “The way I have it set up, at about a third of the way around, it’ll start to drizzle, with a bit of wind, and if you move it all the way up, it should be something just below what you likely had on Friday, with some moderate rain and wind.”
With a wave, she disconnected the fibre, and the pane vanished. She handed her patient the box. “Why don’t you try turning it up a small notch, whenever you feel comfortable?”
He started with his deep breathing exercises, trying to relax, and after about a minute, he carefully, gingerly, turned the dial up a tiny amount.
Immediately, the clouds in the sky became slightly larger, and the sun slightly darker.
The man took his hand off the dial and looked up at the sky. After another brief pause, he returned his attention to the dial, turning it up further.
The sky covered itself over with clouds, making the weather overcast, and the wind began to lightly blow.
Gradually, over the course of the next half hour, he reacquainted himself with the wind and the rain. They talked about how he was feeling, and by the time he got to the far right of the dial, he was feeling comfortable enough to take a walk to the end of the replica of his street, the two of them sheltered by a pair of raincoats they’d called into existence.
When they arrived back at his porch, the man was even smiling. “I know this isn’t real,” he said, “but it’s been a long time since I’ve been able to comfortably deal with anything close to this. From my bottom of my heart, thank you.”
“It’s all part of the job,” she humbly answered. “If anything, you should be thanking yourself for taking the initiative.”
“Do… do you think I could turn it up a little higher?” he asked. “I feel pretty good about all this.”
“Of course you can! All you have to do is increase the maximum limit. Just push the raincloud on any of the sides of the box.”
He did, and once again the pane with the sliders appeared between them.
“So, I just move this?” He reached out for the wind slider, grabbing onto it.
“Yes,” she answered. But she suddenly felt a twinge of alarm. “Wait”, she hurriedly said, “Before you—”
It was too late. The man moved the slider, and because the dial was already turned fully to the right, the wind immediately picked up. Startled, his hand twitched, accidentally bumping the slider to its maximum value.
Suddenly, they were in a hurricane.
He panicked. He dropped the box, scrambled from his bench, fighting against the wind to get a handle on the door. “Wait, hold on!” the woman yelled, scarcely hearing herself, as she tried to grasp for the box on the floor.
His shaking hands tried to turn the rain-slick doorknob, but failed. Screaming, seeing no other option, he made the gesture for an emergency disconnect, and vanished.
He awakened, heart racing, on his bed, the VirtuaSense connector still attached to the back of his head. He carefully disconnected it, and then, unable to hold the emotions back, began sobbing.
At his wife ran into the room to see what was wrong, across the country, his therapist was disconnecting herself.
In the simulation, she’d managed to grab the box and quell the storm just after he dropped out, and when she noticed he was gone, she dropped out herself. Returning to her room, she was back to her real self: older, taller, and with less easily-controlled body language than the way she’d presented herself to this patient.
This was one of the biggest disasters she’d ever had with a client. After over two months of successful exposure therapy, she’d now re-traumatized him. It would take even more time just to get him back to the same baseline, and that’s assuming he ever accepted using the VirtuaSense again.
She allowed herself a moment of anger. Why had that happened? Why hadn’t she warned him earlier to turn the dial down first? Why did she have to warn him? Why couldn’t the dial have just turned itself down?
Still steaming, she tried to put away both the VirtuaSense equipment and her anger. She needed to collect herself. She needed to hold herself responsible and apologize, and try to find some way to make sure he kept getting the care he needed, whether it was virtual or real, whether it was from her or someone else.
She approached her viewscreen and searched through her contacts for his name, hoping that the age-old combination of screen, camera, and microphone wouldn’t betray her.