top of page

The Cabin

My mind has two very specific vulnerabilities that can derail me on even the best of days. The first is when I’m the only person who sees something. I can handle being a witness to almost anything as long as at least one person sees it too. If we share the moment, we can process it together and validate one another’s experiences and feelings. But if nobody else sees it I’m left alone in my echo chamber, trying desperately to understand a situation that was wholly unique to me. I can doubt my own experience, wonder if it was real, invalidate it. It sends me into a mental abyss. As a child, I was terrified to look down into the water alone, worried I might see something that nobody else did and drive myself crazy wondering what it was and whether it was even real.


My second vulnerability is not getting to see the end of something. My childhood and adolescence predate on-demand entertainment, and my parents had a maddening habit of buying me only the first volume of something. This allowed me to become invested in stories but forever wonder how they ended. Neon Genesis Evangelion. The X-Men animated series. A series of books whose name I can’t even remember about talking animals trapped in a shelter, trying desperately to be adopted. I know I could find the answers to all of these questions now, but that won’t fill in those childhood gaps. Younger me is forever left wonderful what happened to those characters I was attached to, that I related to. My mind doesn’t usually imagine happy endings to stories unless they’re proven to me. I’m not sure what it says about me that I was so cynical and pessimistic at such a young age, but it’s the truth.


This pair of vulnerabilities collided dramatically on a recent vacation, my first in 2 years. I took my wife and children to the cabin I used to stay at when I was young. Every summer between 1992 and 1997 my mom would take me and my two younger siblings to live there for about 6 weeks. My dad would come up as his schedule allowed. The cabin was fairly remote, only a tiny “town” (basically a convenience store and bait shop) and a few other cabins nearby. Occasionally we would have guests, and our “neighbors” had grandkids our age who would visit them sometimes, but the majority of the time it was just the four or five of us. We were each other’s entire world for those few weeks. I never felt as close to my family as I did during that brief period every year. At home, we all became wrapped in our own pursuits, which were very different from one person to the next. We were roommates, a group of people living parallel but separate lives. But not at the cabin. At the cabin, for a few weeks, we were a real family like the ones I saw on TV. Those few weeks between 1992 and 1997 add up to about half a year, yet I have more salient memories from that half a year of my childhood than the rest of it combined.




I stopped going to the cabin regularly in the summer of 1998. Something happened to me between 1997 and 1998 that despite being a published author and a clinical psychologist with tens of thousands of hours of therapy experience and thousands of psychological reports written, I still lack the words to properly explain. A new and unfamiliar feeling began growing inside of me, pushing out all of my other feelings. I had felt little temporary flickers of it before, but this was different. This time it took up residence inside me and refused to leave. This new feeling was more of a void, a vacuum of feeling. It felt like nothing. Emptiness. Pointlessness. Nihilism. Worthlessness. It grew larger every day. With the void, an urgency also grew. I needed to get this feeling out of me. I had to change my life so I didn’t feel this way anymore. Something was missing, and I knew I needed to find it. If I hadn’t found it yet, I assumed that I must not have been looking in the right places.


I looked for the solution everywhere I could think of. I looked for new friends. I looked for new partners. I looked for new experiences. I accumulated one painful and unsatisfactory experience after another, the void ever growing within me. Once a talkative and excited child, I barely spoke as a teen. Mostly I just stared out the window, searching desperately for something I couldn’t explain. Maybe it was in a different city. Maybe it was on a different planet. Maybe it was in a different era. But I couldn’t stop looking. It was all that mattered to me. School didn’t matter. Sleep didn’t matter. Food didn’t matter. Trying to fill the void was my everything. There wasn’t space for anything else.


At some point it stopped growing. I don’t know why, couldn’t tell you exactly when. I just know that, eventually, things stopped getting worse. They didn’t necessarily get better right away either. It was more of a stabilization of emptiness. I started to acclimate to it. Learned to live with it, function with it. As I started to resume something resembling a normal life, I had occasional victories that would shrink it every so slightly. Finishing college. Meeting my wife. Having children. Finding a career that I love. But it was never eradicated. It remained within me, taking up space, stealing from me. An invasive emotional species, a non-native intruder threatening to take over at any moment.


I still don’t know exactly how to explain what happened to me in 1997. I don’t know what started the process, but last week I finally understood why it’s still there despite everything I’ve done, what keeps it hanging on despite everything I’ve done to improve my life; it’s the distance from my childhood experiences and relationships. I can’t be alone with these memories. I can’t handle not knowing what happened to the people in them. Those are my vulnerabilities, and these moments are too big for me to carry alone, unresolved. They’re the only experiences from the first 25 years of my life that I genuinely miss. The rest could be forgotten for all I care, but I can’t lose the cabin. The isolation, the distance, and the ambiguity wrecked me. I spent much of last week in tears. I think something was guiding me to go back there this year. I needed to face this pain, needed to learn what it wanted to teach me.


I was hit with a barrage of memories last week. They felt more like flashbacks, except they were flashbacks of good memories. Good memories turned tragic because of the emotional and temporal distance. They were too long ago. I was too far away from the people I made them with. Everywhere we went was somewhere I had been 25 years ago. Each and every one brought me to tears. I remembered having $2 to spend on any toy I wanted at the mall 30 miles away, making sure to choose wisely because it needed to entertain me for weeks. I remembered exactly what I used to order at the little restaurant overlooking the lake, where we used to sit, what was on the walls, who waited on us, what my siblings ordered. I remembered everything I’d allowed to drift away, and each memory brought me to tears. Everywhere I looked, I saw ghosts. Traces of what used to be and how we used to feel. I could hear the laughter. I could feel the love. Everything that was here once, everything that’s never seen the same since 1997.




I shared how I was feeling on this trip with my wife, and she was incredibly supportive and understanding of the fact that her husband was spending their first vacation together in 2 years in emotional turmoil. I reached out to my parents and my siblings several times during my vacation. It turned out that I wasn’t alone in my feelings; not even close. To some extent, were all missing those times and that connection, and we had been for years even though none of us had said anything about it. We were all afraid that we were the only ones, that nobody else would understand our sorrow and that we would feel more alone for expressing it and not connecting than if we kept it to ourselves. I know it doesn’t always play out that way, and I feel very fortunate that it did.


Last week was a reminder to me. No matter how wonderful your life, no matter how strong your mind is, and no matter how practiced your coping mechanisms are, you will always have vulnerabilities. We all do. At no point in your journey on this earth will you be complete, unstoppable, or invulnerable. Our war is, to some degree, a never-ending one. But each individual battle is winnable, no matter how bleak it may appear. The key to victory is to know yourself intimately. Ask “why” when you find yourself crying or despairing, not with judgment but with genuine curiosity and empathy. Never punish yourself for having feelings or for struggling. Not once in my life have I regretted treating my thoughts and feelings with respect and dignity. If there’s a “secret” to how I turned my life around, that’s it. Last week could have triggered a dramatic fall, a relapse into the void, if I had kept it to myself, shamed myself, and invalidated myself. Instead, I did the opposite. I assumed they were legitimate, I assumed that they meant something, and I assumed that I wasn’t completely alone.


Please take your thoughts and feelings seriously no matter how unexpected or unusual they might be. If you find yourself sobbing uncontrollably on what you thought would be a dream vacation, dig deep and try to understand what you may need. Process it with people who you think might understand. Try not to have expectations for your emotions, because emotions aren’t completely predictable or controllable things. If you can truly be at your own side for this journey, I don’t think it’s possible to lose completely.

1,828 views4 comments

4 Comments


Shona Browne
Shona Browne
Dec 04, 2023

"The Cabin" is just excellent. It captures your interest, and is also therapeutic. Especially for those who, like myself, have lived with too strong a measure of self-doubt.

Like

Franek Speak
Franek Speak
Nov 29, 2023

I also came here after seeing "Why we sometimes shut down".

The video talks about something I already knew about but in such a way that I think I finally understand the issue and so - hopefully will be able to challenge it effectively.

Thanks a lot!

This post here is so intimate and so true... It seems to connect me to my childhood feelings and creates a need to understand more about them. That's quite unique for a blog post, I would rather expect that from a movie or... poetry. Yet, I have that just from your intimate insight that you shared with us. Thank you once again! Approaching your age myself I sometimes realise lately how far away…

Like

Shona Browne
Shona Browne
Oct 28, 2023

Trying to delete the one below the one that published but its not deleting.

Like

Shona Browne
Shona Browne
Oct 28, 2023

This is so helpful. I have just discovered you at a time when I am so stressed. Just found your video "Why we sometimes shut down" and watched it. I have had to deal with a bad situation and was beating up myself for not doing some lengthy things. I learned so much and then learned from this as well. Thank you so much. Do you have a private practice.

Like
bottom of page