Dilemmas: I'm scared to go on holiday

Mona's booked to go to India, but though she happily travelled the world in her twenties, she's developing a phobia about going away, worrying both before and during her holidays. She doesn't want to cancel the trip, but how can she overcome these fears?
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The Independent Culture
VIRGINIA'S ADVICE

A sure sign of leaving your twenties, is starting to pack days before a holiday, making lists, and arriving at the station a good half- an-hour in advance. But why? Is it because when you're young the prospect of contracting Aids abroad with a dirty foreign hospital needle, getting kidnapped or getting food-poisoning, seem ludicrously unlikely? And anyway, who cares? Death or disablement just never seem to be on the cards. The young feel they are invulnerable.

But with more experience of the real pitfalls in life, and anxiety about your own health, your mind can go haywire. The unfamiliar can become more, not less, frightening.

Then there's leaving home. When you're a student, you probably haven't really got a home to leave. You may have a room in your parents' home, or a rented room at university, but you haven't spent years and years building a cosy little nest for yourself. Once you've got your own place, with all your own things and your own smells and your own treasures, it's much harder to leave home. You get increasingly like an old barnacle, and when it comes to going away it's like prising a moss-covered mollusc from a cave wall. I spend half my time on holiday worrying myself sick that the house will have burnt down when I return. Or that it will be swarming with burglars. Or will be stripped bare, with nothing left but the rotting bodies of my son and my cat, stabbed through the hearts with an ornamental sword.

One way Mona can set her mind at rest about her home is to employ a home- sitter, either one from an agency, or a trustworthy person who lives in a room the size of a biscuit tin and who'd appreciate a bit more space. The cats would be fed, the plants watered, the burglars kept away by lights and activity. Mona could even ring nightly to check that everything was OK.

Another way Mona could panic less would be to cancel her planned holiday and book a package to India instead. Oh, groan, groan, how dreadfully unadventurous, horribly safe, I can hear Mona sigh, but better than a holiday ruined by anxiety. The good thing about packages is that they enable you to get to know places in safety, and then, if you want to return the following year on your own, you feel far less frightened.

And packages can be used. You needn't join the herd every day. You can do your own thing. But you do know that at the end of the day there's a comfortable hotel and sympathetic people who, were you to get thoroughly squished by an elephant on the way to the Red Fort, would care for you and see that you were sent back home safely.

No, this is not encouraging the spirit of adventure, I know. But the spirit of adventure, when soured by acute anxiety, is like experiencing the first day of school again and again and again. It's impossible properly to absorb new sights if your head is gripped by an iron band of panic. It's impossible to sleep. It's impossible to enjoy yourself.

By trying to be as adventurous as she was in her twenties, Mona may be like a man with thinning hair who is trying to cultivate the Melvyn Bragg look. But she should also remember that by taking a few unadventurous holidays and desensitising herself, she may be able slowly to regain her confidence about going away. Then, who knows? Tomorrow, the world?

READERS' SUGGESTIONS

The trick is to keep busy

I work in Europe and the Middle East as a tour director for travel companies, and used to be petrified the day or two before my visitors arrived at the airport. I could not sleep or relax properly.

The solution for me was to keep myself so busy that I didn't have time to worry or think of the trip beforehand, then, when it arrived, it was too late to go back! Irrational fears are simply the anticipation of newness (not always welcome). But something new can be welcome; if you never go, you will never know.

CHRISTIAN BARKEI

Durham

Pack up your troubles...

I too struggle with many fears before I travel (which I do, a lot). Have I left the iron on/the door unlocked (I often have to go home to check)? Worst of all, will my children somehow die while I'm away?

But don't let fears stop you from going to India (I took my whole family there recently and it was wonderful). The trick is to imagine you are firmly packing your fears into a small box that goes into your suitcase - so your fears are acknowledged and with you - but safely contained.

On your day of departure, keep swigging on the Rescue Remedy and/or whisky - but for heavens sake go!

BRIGID MCCONVILLE

Bridgwater, Somerset

Listen to your fears

"To be an intrepid traveller" is perhaps a thing of your youth. When older you need meaning, too, for your travels. Mona's symptoms should be given attention. They may be telling her that a visit to India is, at present, "not on".

Perhaps there are matters closer to home which she knows, secretly, ought to be attended to instead. India may just be an escape. Travel agents, airlines, the whole industry, encourage us to go here, there and everywhere. They are not concerned about finding "a meaning" in travel - they just want our money!

MICHAEL GUYER

Next Week's Dilemma

Dear Virginia,

My baby cries all the time and is only comforted when he's suckling at the breast. I want to give him a dummy but my mother-in-law says it will make his teeth stick out and my husband, a designer, objects because he says they look so awful. I've recently read, too, that they're not healthy. But recently I bought one secretly and gave it to my baby, and he calmed down at once. Half my friends are keen on dummies, and half of them object. What should I do?

Yours sincerely, Sheila

Anyone who has advice quoted will be sent a bouquet from Send letters and dilemmas to Virginia Ironside, `The Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, fax 0171-293 2182; e-mail dilemmas@ independent.co. uk, giving a postal address for the bouquet

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