Thirty-Nine

Phobias are defined in psychology as an unreasonable fear of something. It’s not like being terrified of bees because you’re allergic and don’t carry an Epi-Pen with you everywhere (hint: You actually can’t).

No, it’s something where your level of fear goes well beyond the norm, and not necessarily because of what you’re afraid of, but of just how afraid you are of a thing.

Being afraid of going outside (agoraphobia) can make sense in some contexts, but not to the point where you absolutely refuse to leave the house, for example.

Well, for a while, my big phobia was turning 39-years-old, and there’s a reason why.

You see, I don’t come from a large family.

I’m an only child. My mother had one brother who was just 12 years older than me. While my father had two sisters and a brother who were both much older than he, they all lived in other places. I rarely saw my cousins on his side of the family.

With Mom’s family, it was more pronounced. They lived in another state and we saw each other even more rarely.

Because of that, what family I have was even more special to me. Especially my mom’s brother, Bill.

Again, he was just 12 years older. That’s a sibling age gap, not an uncle-nephew age gap. As such, we were closer than most uncles and nephews. He’s the one who took me to see Star Wars for the first time, one of my fondest memories of childhood.

I was crushed when he died at age 39.

Now, I’m not going to pretend Bill didn’t do a lot of it to himself. He’d become a semi-functional alcoholic and, when coupled with his diabetes, it created a recipe for disaster.

I still remember the day he died like it was yesterday. It was burned into my mind like a branding iron.

The thing is, he wasn’t the only member of the family to die at 39. My grandfather and uncles were convinced they’d all die at 39. Well, maybe my Uncle Harry wasn’t worried about that, but he died on Iwo Jima, so it didn’t much matter for him.

They’d been scared because their father died when he was 39.

My grandfather lived past that age, but died when he’d been married for 39 years.

The number 39 kept playing in the family history, like a bad record that just wouldn’t come off the record player.

Somehow, I became convinced I was going to die at 39. I spent the years leading up to being 39 just existing. Why try and live when you know it’s all going to come to an abrupt end?

Then I turned 39. I was in Atlanta, attending DragonCon with my best friend and her husband. It was impromptu, to say the least, and I had a blast, It was a great way to take my mind off of the fear.

But it didn’t go away.

All that year, I was depressed and feeling dread at every turn.

Then, a year later, I turned 40.

That’s the year people seem to like tease people about their age. Growing up, that was the marker for officially being old. I was ready for jokes. I was ready for the ribbing. I didn’t care.

I didn’t care because I’d survived.

Now, I tend to live a lot more than I did before I hit 40. I’m healthier (down 45 pounds this year, for example). I’m making my living doing things I love. I’ve written a number of novels and even a non-fiction book. I’ve accomplished a lot of great things, and most of them had happened after I survived being 39.

By and large, I don’t mock people with phobias. It’s a real fear and I get it. I had one.

But I can’t help but also feel pity for those folks, too. How much life are they missing out on because they’re so afraid of whatever it is? Maybe it’s not much, but if it is, then that’s a shame.

Then I think about how much life I missed out on waiting to die. What would my life be like if I’d accomplished all of this a few years earlier?

I don’t spend much time on those thoughts, though, because they don’t do any good. You can only deal with now. The past is great for lessons, but it’s like a book someone else wrote, you can’t change anything that happens.

But you can fix now.

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