Just six months ago, Patricia Quig couldn't shop in a grocery store. Just being there gave her panic attacks.
"It was just too much," she told Early Show national correspondent Tracy Smith. "It was too much people, too much noise, too much stimulation. I just felt too exposed, I guess. It makes you feel very confined ... because you see the world out there and you want to go, but you can't."
Quig has suffered from agoraphobia (the fear of public places), depression and anxiety since middle school. In her adult life, she couldn't hold down a job and spent most of her time at home. Medication and therapy only helped so much.
She says her life got "very, very" dark. "I'm not willing to say how dark, but very."
Shortly before her 40th birthday, Quig heard about "Second Life,", which describes itself as an "online, 3D virtual world imagined and created entirely by its residents."
In Second Life, Smith explains, your alter ego, called an "avatar," can be and do anything.
Quig's avatar, Baji, started doing things in second life she wouldn't consider doing in real life.
"You can go and be with a group of people and discover that it's not the worst thing in the world," she says, "and that you don't feel strange doing it, and enjoy it. And once you've learned that it's an enjoyable experience, you're not scared of it anymore."
Facing her fears over and over again in Second Life freed Quig from her real-life phobias, Smith says.
Asked about people who would consider Second Life "crazy," feeling it's a virtual world, so how can it be helpful?, Quig quickly responded, "Yeah but if it works, it works. Ask any therapist."
Psychologist Craig Kerley called Second Life "a great practice ground," adding, "One of the beautiful things about Second Life is that, if you get yourself in a situation you feel uncomfortable with, you just hit the power switch, and you've disappeared."
Kerley's brick-and-mortar practice is outside Atlanta, but he also treats patients inside Second Life, through his avatar, also named Craig. He charges a very real $100 per session. He also runs free support groups on issues such as social anxiety.
"People, when they're in Second Life, they feel a little bit protected," Kerley says, "because you don't exactly know who they are, you can't look at them, so they often feel more open and are able to get right down to the business of working, usually within the first session."
The anonymity can be risky, too, Smith points out. Anyone can claim to be a therapist in Second Life.
"The way I like to look at it is, if someone is not going to seek out therapy, the potential consequences are more severe than perhaps working with someone who you've never met," Kerley says.
Quig worked with a counselor in Second Life and, says Smith, it may have saved her life.
Today, she's less anxious, and has no problem leaving her home.
Before discovering Second Life, Quig says, she would never have been able to leave home and come to New York to speak with Smith.
"That would have never happened," Quig told Smith. "I mean, all my friends and family, and all the people I know in Second Life are saying, 'Whoa, I can't believe you did that!' "
How could she?
"Because," Quig replied, "I'm Baji. I'm not just Patty anymore. I'm Baji."
Though Baji may just be a virtual extension of Quig, loving Baji has helped Quig love herself, Smith observes.
Now, when she goes to the grocery store, "Nothing" happens, Quig says. "I just feel like a different person. I just feel much more centered and stronger in who I am. I know who I am and I'm comfortable with it. And if someone isn't comfortable with it, than, oh, well!"
Quig has also found a career in Second Life. She leads guided meditation for groups of avatars, and even has a meditation CD available on iTunes.
Copyright 2008 CBS. All rights reserved.