Writer and broadcaster

“I have a phobia about going home in the holidays.” Published in The Guardian

Dear Annalisa

I am a long-time student and have developed a phobia about going home for the summer holidays. Each summer when I visit, there seems to be some crisis, and I find my single mother often relies on me to play a large part in solving it. These problems are usually related to my horrible father who occasionally enters our lives to cause havoc, siblings who are out of control, and our constant money woes.

I am about to graduate and would like to live at home to save money before moving into my own flat, but my phobia may make this impossible. I realise it has become absurd as I visited last weekend and spent the whole time terrified that our house would collapse and I would die under the rubble. I needed to be outside to avoid panicking.

I don’t want to hurt my mother by never visiting or living at home when I need to, as she has a lot to deal with alone and is an essentially good person in a bad place. She is not practical, so I often feel I need to sort out all the problems at home when I come back. I am scared, however, of having to deal with constant crises when I live with her – crises that I often believe are of her own making, and which make me feel slightly bitter as a result of the burden they put on me.

Anonymous, via email

I am not surprised you don’t want to go home. I felt suffocated just reading your letter. The fear of dying under the rubble was particularly illuminating, a physical manifestation of your emotional state.

I spoke to family therapist Dr Ramón Karamat Ali of the Association for Family Therapy and Systemic Practice (aft.org.uk). We both think there is a lot going on: your siblings and their lack of cooperation, your “horrible father” who seems to enter your lives without warning, causing “havoc”. Karamat Ali thinks you have an overwhelming sense of responsibility, which can be crushing. He wonders if your mother has any “mental health difficulties due to the past (and present) situation. We know that constant money worries can cause a tremendous amount of stress and this can affect people’s emotional wellbeing [and how they interact with people].”

He also wonders if you are moving away from your family in terms of expectations. Put crudely, you seem to have “bettered yourself” (and good for you) and perhaps home isn’t really a place you recognise any more?

Have you ever talked about it with your mum? I know you might throw your hands up, but I’m amazed at how little families communicate, or even think to. Karamat Ali says: “Sometimes parents can surprise their children (even grown-up ones) by understanding their plight. It happens in family life that interactions in relationships take on a pattern over time. So you and your mother have developed this dance, where every time your mother has a crisis, she brings you (the child) in to sort it out, and every time the child returns home, a crisis is created.” Not because you create them but because your mother feels she can have a crisis with you around.

So what can you do? Well, Karamat Ali thinks it is a paradox that although you had a real fear of the house collapsing, you went outside leaving your family inside (this is not said in judgment). He suggests you write down your feelings when you are not at the height of panic, to separate out the “blob” of the fear into components. How do you feel, what do you fear? What sets off the panic? What is happening when you do feel in control? He also suggests taking a piece of paper and drawing a line down the middle: one side is for fears and worries you understand, the other side for those you don’t.

The other thing to remember is that, going back to live at home after being away for any length of time is hard. You have grown up, you have changed, what you once found beguiling is now annoying. This happens even in the most harmonious families. I also wonder if guilt (at having moved away) is somehow making you accept “your lot” when you go home (“to make up for this”). Is your mother really as helpless as you make out? Why aren’t your siblings helping? And while you should be kind to your mum, it is OK to say no to sorting out some things – have you ever tried it?

You are going back for relatively short times, so you haven’t got a chance to make the place yours again. You may decide not to return home but, if you do move back in for a while, it may not be as bad as you think. The fact that you are there more may stabilise things so that you are not having these real peaks of panic. You can also set some ground rules – and I think you will.


First published in The Guardian Family section on 26th July 2013.