Last year at this time, Arlynn Presser made a New Year’s resolution that nearly scared her to death.
The 51-year- old romance novelist and mother of two resolved to travel around the world to meet all 324 of her Facebook friends.
It would have been a daunting mission for anyone, but even more so for Presser: Her white-knuckled fear of leaving her Wilmette, Ill., home was intense enough to trigger debilitating panic attacks. She had battled agoraphobia — a type of anxiety disorder that can be triggered by open spaces, leaving home, crowds or other uncontrolled situations — since she was a teenager. First, she’d experience sweating and shortness of breath, and then severe pressure in her chest that felt like a heart attack.
”I’m not even sure what sets me off. The first anxiety attack was in a thunderstorm in a grocery store. I had another one in a bookstore. Your world gets smaller and smaller, because the places that become off-limits grows,” Presser said. ” At one point I was having trouble getting out of my bedroom.”
On her blog, she put it this way:
“I’m scared of travel. I’m scared of flying. I’m scared of just about anything outside my door. I probably use Facebook to keep in touch with my friends in a way that may be good or might just give me a false sense of intimacy. … I will meet every one of my facebook friends this year, and I figure I’m going to be surprised. A lot.”
She was. Three hundred and sixty-four days later, Presser had visited 292 friends and traveled to 11 countries. With her 23-year-old son, Joseph, she flew to Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, Mumbai, Rome, Austria, Germany and England. Her journey also took her throughout the United States and Mexico. She would still get panic attacks, but her son helped her work though them.
“All of Kuala Lumpur was a blur,” Presser said. “We flew in, and there was a big thunderstorm and I flipped out. Luckily we couldn’t communicate with anyone, so it sort of passed before we could communicate that I was in distress.”
Presser had tried therapy and medication in the past, but nothing seemed to ease her fear.
”I didn’t go to my son’s high school or college graduation, and I never went to his college to visit,” Presser said. But on her Facebook-fueled odyssey, Presser finally got a friend to take her to her son’s alma mater. ”She took me on a tour of Boston University two years after he graduated. It was amazing. It was the parent’s weekend I never had.”
The year-long journey cost about $30,000, but Presser said it was worth every penny. “I need a little time to sort of process it, but I do feel like I have more of my life back.”
Presser is no longer a prisoner trapped in her home. She was out for a walk in an Illinois Forest Preserve when we reached her by phone for this interview. Presser said she still got panic attacks but finds herself better able to work through them.
“I think that therapy teaches you to rely on your therapist. Drugs teach you to rely on drugs. This taught me to rely on my friends and myself. ”
There is also power in peer pressure. Had she not made her resolution public on Facebook, Presser said she would not have had the support and encouragement of friends who held her accountable.
“I think that’s the real important thing about resolutions. If you say publicly to all of your friends, ‘This is what I’m going to do,’ there is this energy and you have to follow through.”
Presser has not made any resolutions this year but said she would likely spend her time trying to help others who battle the same type of paralyzing fear.
“I’m learning there are a lot of us,” she said, “I want to learn how to help people who have reached out to say, ‘I’m just like you.’”