June 17, 2005 08:00 AM

It was fear that drove Jennifer Wilbanks to become the runaway bride, the Georgia woman tells Katie Couric in a series of interviews to run on NBC next week.

“Overwhelmed” at the prospect of facing 500 guests and a new husband, “It really became a life-or-death decision for me. … So I got on my bus,” said Wilbanks, according to transcripts of the Q&A made available to New York’s Daily News. (Portions of the interview will be previewed on next Tuesday and Wednesday’s Today show, with the full feature to air Tuesday on Dateline.)

“Were there other alternatives?” ponders the 32-year-old Wilbanks, who has sold her story to a book publisher for $500,000. “Sure there were. But that’s all I knew at that moment.”

That moment was on April 27, with her disappearance prompting a nationwide search. Two days later she was found in New Mexico, after she called authorities with a bogus but detailed story of an abduction. The FBI eventually broke through the lies.

“I was very ashamed,” Wilbanks reportedly admits to Couric. “And felt so guilty for the people that I have hurt. And how, you know, how this has affected many people’s lives. But at the same time, it’s the best mistake I ever made. It allowed me to realize that I desperately needed help. And it humbled me enough to ask for that help.”

Wilbanks entered an inpatient treatment program shortly after her return to Georgia, her family’s church spokesman said at the time.

As for the moment when she had to face her parents and fiancé John Mason after her flight, she says: “I just hugged them all and cried and cried and cried. But that’s all I can do, was just hug ’em. And then I had to turn away because I was so shameful and … humiliated, and felt so horrible. And just so guilt-ridden that I couldn’t show my face to them. So, I shut down.”

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