Mindlessly doodling on a notepad some years back, I suddenly noticed that there was a theme to my scribble. I was drawing boxes, a lot of them — big ones, little ones, 3-D versions, a few stacked, some blackened in.

“That’s weird,” I said out loud, and it was. Because in that moment I realized that this was the only doodle I had ever made. I had managed to go through half-a-lifetime drawing only this — boxes.

It bothered me. I dug out old journals written during my twenties and thirties, and there they were again … precise cubes crowding the margins of spiral notebooks, a parade of squares marching across loose pages of personal diaries. I was obsessed with variations on four corners … and I had never noticed.

I told myself not to worry, that everyone doodled nonsense. It was all just meaningless mental graffiti, anyway, and had no deeper significance.

But at the time, I was an advertising creative director and spent my days helping young designers and copywriters think “out of the box” … yet I was unable to draw myself out of one. That’s when I became convinced that a not-so-subtle message was leaking from the right side of my brain; an insistent communiqué from my subconscious that I was living a life of confinement and constraint — boxed in, as it were, creatively and emotionally.

My curiosity and concern about these ubiquitous polygons grew, and I wanted to know what they were telling me. But I did not relish the arduous work of examining their hidden contents. So I devised an alternate plan: since I had painted myself into a box, I would simply paint my way out. I would will myself to draw more expansive doodles.

I commenced with the reprogramming immediately, and in alignment with dreams of future publication, I decided to draw books, stacks of them — books with fat spines and unfurled pages, books with wings flying through the air, books everywhere. It took me almost three days to see what a person without a grid pattern etched into his frontal lobes would have recognized immediately — books are merely boxes in disguise.

With my innocent cubes quickly becoming ominous tinderboxes, I felt like the mythical Pandora, standing before my own box of psychic sorrows and brown-winged creatures. I could no longer avoid finding out what was in them … but I had my suspicions: a lightless core of childhood sadness, long-held fears about my mortality, a white-hot anger I tried to conceal, along with the relentless throb of repeated disappointments.

The problem, of course, with forcing these miseries into a lockbox is that they develop enormous power. They seep from the seams and shriek to be seen. They are not tame. They demand your attention with cudgels. Deny them and you renounce your fierce reality. You toss yourself away.

In the end, I needed help to pry open the lids of my boxes and peer inside. Studying their contents over many years, with the help of a patient therapist who is familiar with the journey into dusty corners, has been harder than I thought … and much slower. It is never fun. I’ll break the seal on one box, just to find that it contains yet another, this one more tightly closed. So many times I have had to fight the impulse to slam the box shut and walk away.

You often hear that the process of personal reclamation is like peeling away the layers of an onion. And it is useful to remember that onions have strong odors and bring tears. But now, whenever my familiar doodles appear, I recognize them as boxes of unfinished business that require my attention. I also take comfort in the end of the Pandora’s box story, the part few people remember.

After Pandora opens the lid, releasing monstrous evils and terrible miseries that fly through the world, she finds one more thing lying at the bottom of the box, something she didn’t expect: hope.

(A version of this essay originally appeared on The Good Men Project website.)

Writer. Satirist. Author. Cyclist. Visit me at

Writer. Satirist. Author. Cyclist. Visit me at