So what is autism, exactly?

Essy Knopf autism spectrum disorder
Reading time: 8 minutes

What is autism spectrum disorder? To fully understand this phenomenon, we have to employ the medical model.

Big disclaimer: the medical model is far from perfect.

According to this model, there is something inherently wrong with autistics. Historically, this rationale has also been used to marginalize and oppress us.

For most people, the social model is preferable, as it argues that the issue lies not with neurodiversity, but with society’s failure to accommodate it

The social model aims to destigmatize autism, whereas the goal of the medical model is to diagnose and treat.

Pathologizing aside, getting an ASD diagnosis can open the door to disability-related legal protections, supports, and services. This is one example of how the medical model can be of use to those with autism, and their loved ones.

So, what is autism spectrum disorder?

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5 (DSM-5), autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurological developmental disability.

Autism is characterized by ongoing deficits in social communication and social interactions in a range of contexts. Other criteria for autism include “restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities”. 1 2

Autism symptoms manifest in the early development period and typically cause clinically significant impairment in key areas of functioning. 

To receive a diagnosis of ASD, these symptoms must not be better explained by the presence of intellectual disability or global developmental delay.

A diagnosis of ASD is typically accompanied by a severity measurement of “Level 1”, “2”, or “3”. Level 1 means the individual requires very support, Level 2 substantial support, and Level 3 very substantial support.

(Remember how I mentioned the medical model is pathologizing? An example of this is the DSM-5 terminology I just used, such as “disability”, “deficits”, “symptoms”, “impairments”, and “severity”.)

Autism often appears alongside other conditions, such as epilepsy, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, sleep problems, gastrointestinal symptoms, anxiety, and depression.

Who gets diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder?

Males are diagnosed with autism at three times the rate of females, but this doesn’t necessarily mean autism isn’t as common among females.3

One study found that autistic females as a population are better than males at hiding their autistic traits. This results in fewer diagnoses, later diagnoses in life, and misdiagnoses. 

It’s also been argued that autistic females may present autism in a way different from their male counterparts.4 And due to many measurements being male-centric, females may be overlooked by current diagnostic measurements.5

Additionally, autistics from racial minority groups are typically less likely to receive a diagnosis of ASD.6 Instead, they are more likely to receive other diagnoses such as ADHD and conduct and adjustment disorders.7

Many conclude that reflects medical disadvantages experienced by minority groups as a result of structural inequality.8 But it’s important to note that autism traits can also go overlooked or can be misinterpreted, depending on the sociocultural context. 9

Why are some people autistic and others not? 

There are no clear answers here, however, some studies point to a range of environmental risk factors and protective factors. 

These include advanced parental age, low birth weight,10 11 fetal exposure to the epilepsy medication valproate,12 intake of certain vitamins,13 maternal autoimmune disorders, environmental toxins, and breastfeeding.14

Links have been made between unique gut microbiota compositions and the development of autism. Other studies have indicated strong genetic influences, concluding that autism is highly inheritable.15 16 17

How does one get an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis?

To get an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis, you need to be screened by a trained professional. 

For children, there’s a range of tools. For example, the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers Revised, the Ages and Stages Questionnaire, and the Screening Tool for Autism in Toddlers and Young Children.18 19 20

For older adolescents and adults, the gold standard for autism diagnoses is the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS-2) module 4.21 Professionals typically use this tool alongside direct observations and taking patient history.

The Autism Diagnostic Interview-Revised (ADI-R) is another gold standard autism diagnostic tool that is suitable for both children and adults.22

Again, I want to point out here that these diagnostic tools may be gender-biased and thus more likely to detect male autistics than female autistics.

When seeking out a diagnosis, it is worth checking to see that the person doing the assessment is using the most current, research-backed screening measures.

If seeing a professional is not an option, adults can also use self-reporting tools such as the Social Responsiveness Scale, Second Edition: Adult form (SRS-2).23

Additional tools are available for assessing how autism is impacting one’s activities of daily living and quality of life.

How is autism spectrum disorder “treated”?

There is no biomedical treatment for autism spectrum disorder, however, psychotropic medications are available and often prescribed for those who are experiencing symptoms such as anxiety or depression.24 25 26

For autism specifically, there is a range of therapies, the most commonly used being Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA).27

ABA is designed to help autistic children with the development of social, communication, and expressive language skills.

The dominant strain of ABA has been heavily criticized by autism advocates for violating individual autonomy and even doing direct harm to clients.28

Critics have also pointed out that there are conflicts of interest among researchers who publish scientific literature in support of ABA as an autism intervention.29

Clearly, there is room for improvement when it comes to current ABA intervention. However, ABA is one of the few treatments that remain widely accessible. 

In many US states, health insurance providers are required to cover ABA-related expenses under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

One alternative to mainstream ABA is Naturalistic Developmental Behavioral Interventions (NDBI). NDBI is more child-directed and provides intrinsic rewards for learning and participating.30

Other available interventions support the development of core skills among autistic children, such as social communication.31

Additionally, programs exist for young adults, such as the Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills (PEERS®).32

For autistic young people and adults, psychotherapies such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy are recommended for those who experience comorbidities such as anxiety and depression.33 34

These are available in both individual and group formats.35

Wrap up

So there you have it, my brief introduction to autism spectrum disorder.

Again, I want to stress that much of the content I shared is presented using the medical model. 

But remember: viewing autism exclusively through this lens is not only limiting—it also fails to give consideration to some of the strengths of being neurodiverse.

Check this blog post to learn a little more about some of the benefits of being autistic.

Loving, stubborn, irreverent. To the aunty gone, but fondly remembered.

Mehrey Sanam Essy Knopf
Reading time: 7 minutes

If there was one word to describe my aunty, it was irreverent.

On the few occasions when Mehrey Sanam babysat for my parents, she would pull up at the lights, fix you with an intent look, and extend a hand across the transmission.

“Pull my finger,” went the command.

“No, aunty,” you would protest.

“Pull my finger,” she insisted.

Mehrey’s ability to fart on cue, and to belch with complete disregard for propriety, made her—at least to my child self—something of a wildcard. 

Mehrey Sanam Essy Knopf
Mehrey with her three boys, Soheil (left), and the twins Nabil and Cyrus (right).

It was an impression doubtless shared by others, and one Mehrey Sanam was happy to play up to. 

“Look at all these geriatrics,” she complaint during a family cruise trip, as if her 60-year-old self couldn’t have been more different to these silver-haired strangers enjoying their golden years.

“Mehrey T-sanam-i, they call me,” she cackled another time, referring to her fellow colleagues at the hospital where she worked. 

It was, Mehrey went on to explain, not a reference to her destructiveness, but her reputation as a human dynamo.

A long-time operating theater nurse, Mehrey moved with the vigor of a woman half her age, sporting a devil-may-care smirk and a kind of gallows humor infused with mischief.

My aunty’s personal charms didn’t stop there. Mehrey regularly treated her colleagues to traditional Iranian hospitality with an assortment of homecooked meals.

Mehrey Sanam Essy Knopf
At a Halloween celebration. Mehrey (left) was playing Wonder Woman. She was, in retrospect, a heroine in her own right.

While my aunty had a reputation for being generous to others, she was also never one to shy from the occasional self-indulgence either.

“$30,000?!” I cried, after learning the price of her new veneers.

“When I die they can take everything from me, but they won’t be able to take my teeth,” went Mehrey’s reply. She punctuated the joke with laughter, her lips curling back to expose the new pearly whites.

This kind of wry playfulness infused other aspects of aunty’s life. She named her first black-and-white cat Sylvester after the Looney Tunes character. When ever I asked where her pussycat was, she would break out in spontaneous song.

“What’s up pussycat? Whoa, whoa, whoa.” A line from a Tom Jones song, it turned out.

Sanam as it turned out was not Mehrey’s real last name, but a term of endearment used by one of her first boyfriends. A reference, my mother later told me, to one of Mehrey’s favorite Bollywood stars.

And while Mehrey herself had no interest being under the spotlight, she nevertheless had something of a movie star’s aura. 

Mehrey Sanam Essy Knopf
Mehrey (left), my dad Michael (center) and my mum Farideh (right) during a photo taken many years later.

Perhaps it was Mehrey’s vanity; the habitualness with which she would open her compact and touch up the mandatory coating of eyeliner, mascara, and bright red lipstick. 

It was an appearance my aunty refused to shed, even during trips to a local river. Her hair suspended above a visor cap, Mehrey would enter the shallows, careful breaststroke keeping her face suspended a few inches above the waterline. 

My siblings and I took delight in undermining our diminutive relative, splashing her with water or trying to dunk her when her back was turned.

Mehrey’s carefully made-up look did not change over the years. It cast her in my imagination as some bygone ‘50s star, fame forgotten, a personage whose name I could never remember. Lucille Ball, maybe. 

Once, when my teenage sister and I snickered over Mehrey’s decision to not wear a bra (“Baggy soobs!” we said in our not-so-secret reverse language), Mehrey’s mouth tightened into a line.

“I do NOT have saggy boobs,” she retorted. “The women at work tell me I have the body of a TWENTY-YEAR-OLD!” 

Mehrey Sanam Essy Knopf
Mehrey with her eldest son, Soheil.

Mehrey’s aura may have also had its roots in her unapologetic stubbornness. It was a quirk that evoked admiration, but also generated a cool distance that not even her wit or laughter could completely bridge.

Still, as a child, I knew Mehrey was a dependable gifter, certain always to bring my siblings and me each a Kinder Surprise upon her visit. It conferred upon Mehrey the status of an ally, a patron saint of toys, treats, and cash; an opponent of parental authority.

Who else after all brought the sampler box of chocolates, oozing strawberry and peppermint cream? Who refuted our parent’s stern disciplinarianism and allowed us to play video games all day long? 

Who did such unorthodox things as asking us to crack her spine by walking on her back? Who dared to break the anti-gambling rule of our religion by buying $2 scratch tickets?

Mehrey Sanam Essy Knopf
Mehrey helping Farideh prepare lunch at our home.

Mehrey was a rebel, existing as a raised middle finger to anyone who might try to tell her what to do. Goodnatured defiance sat poised behind her heavily lashed stare; a stare almost feline in its assessment.

Not even nature was immune. When stung by a horsefly, Mehrey would stun it with a deft slap, catch the bug, and rip off first one wing, then the other.

“That’ll teach it,” she said, with a hint of mean satisfaction.

Another time, Mehrey rolled down our car window and performed a racist imitation of an Asian driver who had cut my father off.

The course of Mehrey’s life served as further proof of this role. She had left everything she had loved and known to emigrate to Australia in pursuit of a better life. 

Mehrey had married and eventually separated from her husband, taking it upon herself to raise their three boys on her own, often working two jobs to keep the family afloat.

Mehrey Sanam Essy Knopf
Our loveable, high-spirited, sometimes difficult, aunty.

My aunty’s decision to take the name Sanam was not so much a f*** you to her husband or the institution of marriage, but a capstone upon the walls she’d built around her life. Stone by stone, Mehrey had assembled the image of herself as an independent, self-made woman.

It was an image not born of bitterness, but resilience. And it was—in many respects—well-earned. 

Over the course of Mehrey’s life, she owned several businesses, including a fabric store and ice cream counter. When these businesses failed, she turned her hand instead to leasing a lychee plantation and recruiting her three sons to pick fruit.

Mehrey proved a woman of many secret talents. She oversaw the design of her new home and planted gardens teeming with spiny custard apples, swollen melons, and speckled papaya.

My aunty host lavish gatherings at her home for members of the local Baha’i community. During devotionals, Mehrey would chant prayers in a voice that was melodic, heavy with the suggestion of some tragic loss. 

My aunty sang like a bereft lover, yet the woman we knew surely had never loved any man with such intensity as this

Mehrey Sanam Essy Knopf
Aunty tending her garden.

Mehrey’s performances would inevitably draw praise and requests. And this seemed to embarrass her in the same inexplicable way my mother’s birth name “Tahirih” (meaning “the pure”) did.

Suffice to say, Mehrey’s secret talents served a function. It was a kind of overcompensation, sometimes for challenging life circumstances, other times for the things Mehrey lacked and could not offer. 

My aunty was for example never much one for physical affection, and yet she didn’t hesitate to force vitamin supplements upon all of her family members. This was, I knew at the time, her way of demonstrating that she cared.

Mehrey’s entrepreneurial nature eventually led her to invest in a new side hustle: backyard botox. My mother disdained this new interest, warning her sister that practicing without a license would land her in hot water.

Mehrey of course waved away these doubts the same way she had always done. What use did they serve anyhow? Doubt had never done much to ensure my aunty’s and her family’s survival.

And Mehrey was a practicing surgical nurse with decades of experience working with complex cases, from car accidents to open-heart surgery. What more training did she really need?

Mehrey Sanam Essy Knopf
Mehrey at work.

To me, Mehrey’s new hustle was about as outrageous as the person herself. It was a logical conclusion for someone who so prided herself in appearance and bucking trends.

Unlike the $2 scratch tickets Mehrey so adored, however, the botox business did not pay off. When one patient had an adverse reaction to an injection, Mehrey was reported to medical authorities.

My aunty soon found herself embroiled in a lawsuit, costing her both her nurse’s license and—at least in her own mind—her dignity.

The shame of these circumstances took the fight out of my aunty. This once unflappable powerhouse became instead a frail, broken woman, bowed beneath the weight of shame.

Mehrey stopped eating and began doctor shopping for opioid painkillers. Aware of her declining health, I reached out to my aunty, begging her to come and stay with me.

Offering to buy her an airline ticket, I reminded Mehrey of everything she had done for me, of how precious her life was to all of us 

“Thank you, Ehsan,” she said. “You made me feel much better. You’re my favorite nephew.”

Mehrey Sanam Essy Knopf
My mother and Mehrey during their early days living together in Cairns, after immigrating from Iran.

The relief in Mehrey’s voice I knew was temporary. Her fierce determination—a determination that had carried her this far, through many a difficulty—was now leading her towards a terrible destination. 

Two weeks later, Mehrey was found comatose in her bed. Her brain functions were nil, the result of oxygen deprivation, linked to her growing reliance on opioids.

My family attended Mehrey’s hospital bedside, peering tearfully down at the shell of the woman we had once known.

The idea of touching her terrified me. I struggled to communicate my love to this bag of insensate flesh and bones that had betrayed Mehrey’s spirit by refusing to simply die, as I suspected she had wanted it to.

The decision was made to withdraw life support, and Mehrey passed not long after. A dread hush fell over our family, a hush that would last for many years to come. 

It was as if speaking my aunty’s name alone could conjure the unspeakable and unspoken; a story that had ended abruptly, without explanation, and with none of the ceremony deserving of a person and life as rich and triumphant as hers had been.

Mehrey Sanam Essy Knopf
Teenage me and aunty at the local pool.

In the years since I would walk back down the halls of memory to the days of monsoonal rainstorms. I would remember how Mehrey’s older sons—our cousins—would push us on boogie boards across the flooded field behind her home. 

I’d think of aunty’s requests to turn off the fan on hot days, on the account of her being, in my father’s words, a “coldblooded lizard”. Of how she fought off the python that smothered her beloved cat just with a broom.

Of how my sister and I walked among the rafters of an incomplete roof of her home and left a crack in the ceiling, a crack that rankled Mehrey to no end, but for which she nevertheless forgave us.

I laugh when I recall Mehrey’s chagrin over the fact she’d allowed relatives in Iran to persuade her to get eyebrow tattoos, only for them to turn green within a matter of months. 

And I shake my head at a tale that would later emerge of how a putupon mother had tied the leg of her eldest son to a tree and left him there, as punishment for some childhood misdeed.

Mehrey Sanam Essy Knopf
My aunty was kind and loved to provide for others.

Mehrey’s life served as a fierce testament to the strength of her personality, as a kind of rationale for the way she had chosen to live. But with my aunty now gone, who was there left to speak for her? 

Who, I wonder, would keep a candle lit for this beacon of strength—a beacon once so vital, so seemingly unquenchable?

My aunty was a character of many conflicting qualities. A lover of black humor. Purehearted, occasionally prideful, and inflexible in a way that was, more often than not, strangely endearing. 

Mehrey was an individualist who insisted on keeping her own counsel…and keeping at arms-length. A fighter who insisted on always having the last word.

I take strange comfort in the fact that, in the end, my aunty did. For beneath her headstone lies buried a pair of perfectly intact veneers, set in an eternal grin.

How losing my faith helped me discover ‘betterhood’

Essy Knopf belief faith betterhood
Reading time: 5 minutes

During my first independent trip abroad at age 21, I agreed to my mother’s request to make a stopover in the Baháʼí holy land in Haifa, Israel. 

I began my pilgrimage at the Shrine of Baháʼu’lláh, on the outskirts of the Acre.

Emerging from a sherut—a minivan taxi—I was ushered along the pebbled path, past rows of cypresses, towards a stately mansion with an air of quiet repose.

The path ended at an elegantly carved oak door, a view I had glimpsed countless times in the front page of prayer books bearing the irreverent scrawls of my three-year-old self.

But once I was within the Shrine and kneeling on the carpeted floor, I found myself desperately trying to conjure a flame of faith.

Here I was, at the symbolic center of the Baháʼí Faith; the point of devotion towards which all Baháʼí’s turned during prayer. 

The Shrine was the final resting place of the prophet Baha’u’llah, who had been tortured, imprisoned, banished, and betrayed in the name of his Faith.

What right did I have then to feel as I did, like a gourd carved clean of its meat and left to fester in the sun?

Just who was I to squander this chance to connect with the Transcendent on His home turf?

Yet for all my knowledge of the spiritual ocean that surrounded me, for all its lapping at the walls of anger around my heart, I was not yet willing to surrender them. 

For I had built these defenses, brick by painful brick, against the cruel vagaries of life. They had served as sole protection against the frightening, unpredictable world beyond.

And yet they had also kept me in a kind of half-life, an open-eyed slumber from which I now struggled to wake.

Essy Knopf faith
The Shrine of the Bab in Haifa, Israel.

Losing my faith

From a young age, I was stricken by a profound sense of grief. It was as if both my parents, who were alive and well, had died.

Their assurances of love seemed only that—a kind of parental lip service I feared may not be true.

The closeness and understanding I craved I knew could never be possible. For a vast unnamable gulf stood between us, a gulf born of misattunement and intergenerational trauma.

The belief in my own inherent unlovability was the first of many unexplainable secrets I carried with me into my adulthood.

Then there was the fact that I forever felt like the odd one out. School classrooms were a sensory overload prison. A background hum of social anxiety pervaded each day.

My need to escape drove me away from people and into rumination. I took up residence inside inner worlds of data collection and categorization. 

Unsurprisingly, the resulting isolation made me easy pickings for the schoolyard birds of prey.

It would not be until after my 26th birthday that I’d receive an explanation, in the form of a diagnosis with Asperger syndrome. The upheaval this would bring, however, was still many years away.

The third secret involved a brother who in my teen years came to rule our home with his fists, baldfaced lies, and crocodile tears.

When my brother “disappeared” first my CD player, then my pet parrot, my parents did not so much as speak. For what could be said to appease this neverending rage that drove my sibling-turned-stranger to break windows and blacken eyes?

After too many years of handling a searing lump of coal with kid gloves, my parents bandaged their hands and retreated into silence.

My family, once as solid and seemingly invulnerable as an iceberg, ruptured, individual pieces carried slowly away by the currents of unresolved tensions.

We drifted, until at last, one final conflict forced us completely apart. At age 17, I came out as gay to my parents.

Mom and dad’s response was curiously devoid of emotions, but their fear and resulting anger were all too clear.

It was a burden I could not—would not carry. I packed my bags and left, fleeing into solitary adulthood, into the false comforts of workaholism.

For a decade, I made film after film and wrote novel after novel. I collected degrees, notching my belt until there were more holes than leather. 

I wandered through a kind of phantom existence, forever evading the seemingly unspeakable facets of my past, secretly resenting my Maker for His apparent role in predestination.

Soon, however, everything I had fought so hard to keep buried resurfaced. The three secrets I had been born in silence took physical shape as anxiety, depression, and a digestive ailment I would later discover was irritable bowel syndrome.

Essy Knopf faith
Carefully tended gardens on the slopes of Mount Carmel in Haifa.

A ‘world of illusion’

The Baháʼí writings tell us that we live in a “world of illusion”, a “mirage rising over the sands”.

Baháʼí leader ‘Abdu’l-Bahá advises us to abandon our attachment to this world, warning that “the repose it proffereth only weariness and sorrow”. 

The Baháʼí writings explain that calamities and afflictions—whether of our own creation or the will of the Almighty—are a crucible for spiritual refinement.

Our difficult experiences, we are counseled, only offer proof of the necessity of spurring the mortal world; remind us to focus our energies instead on service to humanity, and preparation for a spiritual afterlife.

But to the walking wounded, promises “of blissful joy, of heavenly delight”, of an exalted station in some “celestial Paradise” are only that: words.

Heaven emerges from the Baháʼí writings only as a half-sketched marvel in the far margins of human comprehension; insubstantial balm for very real pain. 

Any surprises then that my ego rebelled against the writings, rejecting the idea that I should find contentment in God’s apparent will; in treading the “path of resignation”.

And yet I what was my ego, except a result of the mortal condition—a condition without which my suffering as well simply would not exist.

The turning point

For a decade, I found myself theologically adrift, tethered to the Baháʼí Faith by the thinnest cord of belief, yet clinging to it all the same.

Then at age 30, the grief crescendoed and I found myself at a crossroads. I could remain where I was and be crushed by the tangled accrual of trauma, or I could begin cutting myself free.

I chose the latter, undertaking therapy, exploring books on spirituality and self-betterment, and committing to daily meditation.

Frozen emotions thawed. Long-suppressed grief flowed. And an informal truce was struck, the cold war between religious obligation and bitter experience drawing to a quiet close.

I found myself once more seeking solace in the Baháʼí writings, reciting prayers that were always met with silence. 

And yet…there was always a kind of answer to be found in the immediate calm that followed; in the finding of unexpected composure.

Essy Knopf faith
Centre for the Study of the Sacred Texts in Haifa, Israel.

From faith to ‘betterhood’

My return to the arena of life was not as a man garbed in the armor of blind faith. 

For as a compassionate being, I could not help but continue to question the suffering that defines the human condition. 

Still, as one who has suffered and saw survived, I no longer saw the words of prophets and other luminaries as simply indifferent and tone-deaf. 

Rather, they carry a certain charge. They offer consolation. Like swatches of color in a monochrome world, they offer a vision of “betterhood”.

Betterhood inspires hope. It propels us towards a higher calling. Betterhood is what I credit for leading me to advocate for others, through documentary filmmaking and the social work profession.

Today, the million dissenting voices of doubt remain as present as ever. The dialogue between the instinct to resist and the desire to surrender to some higher power continues.

But it is a dialogue that needs not end. To question is fundamentally human. And it is the necessary preface to true belief.

How 2020 became the year of the introvert

Essy Knopf introvert COVID-19
Reading time: 4 minutes

One day, we may look back on 2020 as one of great turmoil—but also a moment in history in which the humble introvert came into his own.

Initially, it may be difficult to look past the frightening headlines: massive bushfires in Australia, a global COVID-19 pandemic, and Black Lives Matter protests, to name just a few.

Yes—coronavirus has cost many their livelihoods…and even their lives. But in the West, as countries were locked down and stay-at-home orders were issued, the wheels of a “Quiet revolution”—to use the term coined by author Susan Cain—were turning.

While countless extroverts bemoaned the lockdowns and the loss of freedom, some introverts viewed social isolation as not deprivation, but rather as an opportunity for quality time activities and peaceful reflection.

An introvert living in an extrovert world

In her celebrated book on introversion, Quiet, Cain notes that Western cultures tend to favor the Extrovert Ideal:

“the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight. The archetypal extrovert prefers action to contemplation, risk-taking to heed-taking, certainty to doubt. He favors quick decisions, even at the risk of being wrong. She works well in teams and socializes in groups.”

The extrovert for this reason is held in hallowed regard, in favor of the many quiet and invaluable achievements introverts have made to society.

Consequently, when we introverts are measured against the Extrovert Ideal, we are often found to be lacking:

“Introversion—along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness—is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology. Introverts living under the Extrovert Ideal are like women in a man’s world, discounted because of a trait that goes to the core of who they are. Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality style, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform.” (Cain, 2012)

Growing up in societies that celebrate the Extrovert Ideal and mislabel anyone who doesn’t subscribe to that Ideal as “antisocial” has left many of us with feelings of inferiority.

Despite the fact our brains are wired differently from birth, the introvert’s preference for contemplating life instead of diving headlong into it often earns us dismissal.

The ‘Quiet revolution’ is here

Under scrutiny, introverts have been long forced to conceal and overcompensate for their unique natures. 

Then, almost overnight, the coronavirus pandemic made social isolation the new norm, one infinitely more comfortable to the introvert. 

Those privileged enough to hold onto their jobs and allowed to work from home were granted a reprieve from open-plan offices and thus sensory and small talk bombardment.

Suddenly, we were allowed to attend Zoom meetings from the comfort of our bedrooms—often while wearing pajama bottoms, no less.

As someone myself who is on the autism spectrum and has sensory sensitivities, Zoom has become a cherished substitute for face-to-face interaction.

(And let’s not forget other fringe benefits for the socially anxious, such as having acquaintances’ names listed below video feeds, in the event we forget).

For introverts, remote working seems like a no-brainer evolution of our current, counterproductive workplace culture. We have, after all, known for a while now the many benefits of remote working—benefits that are by no means restricted to the introvert.

The rise in remote working has put a pause on the much-loathed commute. Where before we introverts may have felt forced to spend a lot of our downtime recuperating from these various stresses, we can now apply ourselves to our activities and interests with renewed energy.

Meanwhile, social lives that might have once entailed exposure to overstimulating circumstances have also been placed on hiatus. 

Introverts can now pick how and when they engage, measuring out social interactions in thimble-sized doses, over the phone, instant messages, or at a socially distanced hangout.

essy knopf introverts susan cain quiet

Extroverts living in an introvert’s world

Separated from the social contexts in which they have long excelled, many extroverts have understandably floundered.

Those who previously maintained their sense of self—and in turn their personal wellbeing—through social interactions have been forced to adopt a more solitary lifestyle.

The struggle of this transition is most visible in the endless parades of newfound skills on social media, the most prominent example being baking.

This phenomenon I believe is less an act of social performance than proof of the extrovert’s continued existence. It speaks as much to an existing sense of isolation that predated coronavirus (and which was accelerated by the rise of social media) as it does the degree to which that isolation has since grown.

But extroverts alone are not suffering from the side effects of our new lockdown culture.

Coronavirus has triggered a pandemic of a different kind altogether. Anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation are reaching new highs.

One survey has even indicated that introverts have been suffering more as a result of the quarantine, though the reasons are not yet clear.

Being social creatures, it is safe to say that our collective need for companionship is arguably greater than ever. 

Introverts’ inherent tendency towards solitary activities must thus be tempered, lest our circumstances lead to a complete lapse in social interaction.

Toward an ‘Introvert Ideal’

The coronavirus pandemic has seen some promising steps taken toward a different status quo, one that is, in many regards, shaped towards the introvert’s need for less stimulation.

It’s not yet clear how much of this new introvert-friendly normal will endure, post-coronavirus.

The Extrovert Ideal won’t renounce its place on the pedestal any time soon. And yet if the pandemic has proved anything, it’s that we introverts are not in fact operating from a place of lack. 

Rather, we have unique strengths that have served us well in a time of great isolation and uncertainty.

There will come a time when an Introvert Ideal will receive its due. Until then, may the Quiet revolution continue. 

To find out if you’re an introvert, check out this quick quiz devised by Quiet author Susan Cain.

Can’t sleep? Here are some surefire steps to treat insomnia

Essy Knopf treating insomnia
Reading time: 7 minutes

As a teenager, I was anxious, isolated, and afflicted with insomnia.

Most days I spent indoors, indulging in geek interest escapism. Sometimes I would craft elaborate fantasy and science fiction stories. Other times I would voraciously consume books, movies, and video games.

Refuge could also be found, of all places, in hammering out essays at the computer. (That such projects could bring order to my otherwise unpredictable school and home life probably speaks to the systematizing nature of my autistic brain.)

The downside of my constant computer use was that relaxing became difficult. A day spent glued to my screen would inevitably leave my mind restless, my sleep broken. 

Still, I continued to return to my computer, until what had begun as escapism gradually turned into workaholism.

Developing insomnia

Without friends, family, and a community to ground me, my self-worth became proportional to my productivity. There was always more to do, one more task needing completion. 

Trapped in a vicious circle of feeling isolated, I sought reprieve in workaholism, which in turn only exacerbated my loneliness. 

Living with constant internal pressure was motivating and could even be affirming. Just look at how productive I was being! So what if my peers at school bullied me – just look at these shiny achievements, these notches in my academic belt!

Caught on a treadmill of what I would later recognize as grandiosity, and terrified of the fall that would follow the moment I stepped off it, I became mired in anxiety and depression.

But rather than slowing down, I ramped up my commitments. At the height of my workaholism, I found myself juggling a full-time job, a feature documentary, a web series, a novel, and organizing two research trips abroad. 

Getting to, and staying, asleep by this point had become an elaborate, multi-staged ritual, beginning with a double dose of Benadryl, followed by an hourlong walk around the neighborhood while I waited for it to take effect.

Sometimes I would end up at a 24-hour gym, working the elliptical until the fatigue hit me…unaware that all this activity was probably only making my objective all the more difficult.

When I got home, I’d pull my blackout curtains, slip on an eye mask, put in my earplugs, fit a pair of headphones, cue a soothing audio track, and lie down on a makeshift bed on the floor.

This, of all places, was the only place I was guaranteed to nod off, for reasons I still don’t understand. After many a tossing, turning and blanket adjustment, I’d doze off, only to wake a short while later.

Climbing into my real bed, I’d return to sleep, to rise the following morning, still tired but wired, ready to chip away at my ever-growing workload.

Some nights, however, I would doze off, only to be woken by a hypnic jerk, a kind of whole-body twitch typically preceded by the sensation of falling.

Again and again, I would doze off, only to be jerked wide awake. The steady background hum of anxiety would be cranked up into a shrill roar, putting sleep still further out of reach.

The journey towards recovery

Self-generated projects until this point had been the main source of meaning in my life, and yet they were as much a palliative as they were problematic.

The comparative ease with which others were able to accomplish sleeping – a basic bodily function – told me that something in my case had gone awry. Believing there was no recourse, however, I kept up my unwieldy sleep routine for years

My mother’s staunch opposition to any form of dependency made prescription medication seem like a false option. Sure, I was already relying on Benadryl, but then again antihistamines weren’t habit-forming drugs.

And even supposing I could scrape together enough money to get a proper diagnosis, I would have to contend first with the fear that the professional I saw might dismiss my problem outright.

The situation reached a tipping point one night while I was doing my regular insomnia shuffle around the neighborhood, I became caught in a rainstorm. 

Any sensible person would have run home, or at the very least ducked under the cover of a tree. But to return home before the Benadryl took effect would mean yet another sleepless night. So I pushed on.

The wind picked up, turning the rain horizontal. Next thing, it was inverting my umbrella, leaving me exposed to the elements.

After about half an hour of this, I surrendered and trudged home, sloughing off my dripping clothes and climbing into bed.

When sleep did not come, I grew increasingly anxious. The anxiety snowballed into hypnic jerks, which in turn fueled the anxiety.

The night stretched on, each hour punctuated by an anxious glance at my phone screen to check the time. Heavy with the dread of facing a new day unrested, I lay there, waiting for my morning alarm.

Come the following night, I still couldn’t sleep, and my insomnia ballooned into a record 50-hour spell that only ended with a no-refill script for Valium.

The doctor I saw granted me this small mercy on the condition I see a sleep specialist. The specialist in turn requested I visit a sleep clinic. 

Two weeks later, I packed my bags like someone preparing for a red-eye flight and drove through the dead of the night to the evening ghost town of a local business district.

Strolling through a deserted highrise lobby I was overtaken by the peculiar feeling I was participating in some secretive, perhaps even illicit activity.  

The elevator opened to the clinic’s front desk, where I was greeted by a man in scrubs who directed me to a sleeping cubicle.

After having changed into my pajamas, I stretched out on the bed as countless electrodes were attached to my head and chest until I resembled some primitive robot trailing electrical cables and hydraulic tubes.

Just how exactly did these people expect me to get to sleep? 

The thought of it alone caused my anxiety to surface. Palming a pill, I settled into bed and waited for the heavy embrace of drug-induced sleep.

Seven hours later, I woke to the nurse removing electrodes. Hollow-eyed, I dressed then shuffled like a zombie from the room.

Treating insomnia

“So far as I can see,” the sleep specialist said, poring over my results, “you have a perfectly normal sleep cycle.”

I frowned my disagreement.

“So why am I struggling to fall asleep?” I pressed. 

Alas, the specialist had no answer for me. Instead, he suggested an alternate treatment for my anxiety, something known as biofeedback

A round of treatment would cost something in the range of five thousand dollars – an expense my insurance company was unwilling to subsidize.

With my wallet still smarting from the cost of other, unrelated illnesses, I turned to my final recourse: pharmacological treatment.

Explaining my long-standing problem to my psychiatrist, I caught myself making excuses.

“I don’t want to rely on drugs,” I said, “but this problem has gotten way out of control.”

“Well, it sounds like you’ve tried everything else,” my psychiatrist replied. “Don’t you think you deserve some relief?”

“Maybe,” I thought, feeling nevertheless that I had, in some unexplainable way, compromised my integrity.

With there being no one-size-fits-all medication for anxiety, I would now have to navigate a gauntlet of medications.

The most popular option was selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Think Lexapro, Prozac, and Zoloft.  

Mainstream SSRIs however come with certain unpleasant side effects. After a couple of doses, my libido took a total nosedive.

The next recommendation was an antipsychotic medication that left me foggy-brained. One morning, while still under its spell, I pulled out into traffic, miscalculated my timing, and was almost hit by another car. 

Fearing I might not be so lucky next time, I switched to a combination of antidepressants and antianxiety drugs. Thirty minutes after taking my first dose, I fell into a deep sleep.

When I woke eight hours later, it was to the discovery that the insomnia problem I had been battling for more than 15 years was, more or less, gone.

No more frazzled nerves, poor concentration, and feeling dead on my feet. As for the constant companion that was my anxiety? His hands had now been prized from the steering well and his butt relegated to the backseat. 

Before, sitting down for 15 minutes to meditate had been an exercise in self-torture, my thoughts flinging themselves in every which way in a bid to escape any semblance of control. 

With the current chemical cocktail, however, I was suddenly able to achieve some degree of focus.

essy knopf treating insomnia

Insomnia is a modern epidemic

Sure, these pulls could put a cap on my anxiety and insomnia – but they couldn’t completely suppress it. 

In moments of stress and overcommitment, my mood disorder would flare up again, offering proof that if I wanted to truly get better, I would need to take a more holistic tack. 

This in short would involve psychotherapy, undertaking a regular meditation practice, and making daily relaxation time a priority.

It also meant addressing ongoing insomnia triggers, such as an overreliance on digital devices, and workaholism as a coping mechanism for social isolation.

My challenges as I quickly realized were not exclusive to me. Smartphone dependency and “the cult of busy” as we all know are almost universal features of modern life in the West

Some critics have even called our times an “age of distraction”, with obsessive work and device exposure creating conditions ripe for mental illness. 

Even when faced with the physical and psychological manifestations of our stress, we often try to ignore them – much to our detriment.

Finding a solution that works for you

If there’s anything my journey to overcome insomnia has taught me, it’s that we can’t ignore our problems or rely on Band-Aid fixes. 

Those of us who are looking to kick our sleep woes to the curb can find some relief by adopting one or more of the following changes:

Restricting device usage: Use the wellness feature on your Apple or Android devices (sometimes referred to as “night light”). This reduces the amount of blue light emitted around set times. This light can have the effect of keeping your brain in “awake” mode. It’s also worth turning on your phone’s do-not-disturb mode and enforcing a no-device usage rule around bedtime

Practice good sleep hygiene: Create ideal conditions for sleeping. Go to bed and get up at a regular time. Ensure your bedroom is quiet, dark, relaxing, and comfortable. As an addendum to the first point, try to remove electronic devices from your sleeping space. Employ blue-light-free bulbs. Avoid large meals, caffeine, and alcohol before rest. Use your bedroom exclusively for sleeping. More tips here.

Exercise regularly: Keep physically active during the day. Dispel depression, anxiety, and restlessness with a daily gym routine or aerobics workout.

Consider psychotherapy: Therapy can provide a safe outlet for pent-up emotional tension, which can in turn affect your ability to sleep. Therapy can also support your efforts to develop coping strategies.

Stop overworking yourself: Identify an eight-hour daily working window. Use hacks to enhance your productivity. Exercise self-discipline to stop work spilling over into “you” time. 

Make relaxation a priority: You can’t be productive if you’re feeling depleted. Replenish your inner reserves every day with fun and enriching activities. Catch up on your favorite TV show, take your dog to the park, or try a new recipe. Consider doing meditation, breathing exercises, or yoga to help you unwind. Adopt what Jon Kabat-Zinn calls a “non-striving” attitude.

Consider natural remedies: While Benadryl can assist with occasional insomnia, natural treatments like melatonin, valerian root, magnesium supplements, lavender, and passionflower extract may prove equally effective.

Explore additional help: Attend a sleep clinic. Explore alternate therapy options. Seek the guidance of a psychiatrist. Investigate prescription medication.

How to avoid becoming a gay dating app sociopath

Essy Knopf dating app sociopath
Reading time: 6 minutes

Much of the small talk that happens on gay dating apps is, in my experience, a preface to a request. 

“What you up to?” someone may ask, and behind this seemingly polite question, invisible gears are turning.

Maybe this stranger will hear my response and respond authentically, or maybe they will continue with the subterfuge of trying to gauge whether I’m willing and able to sustain a fantasy – or fulfill a desire.

This is very much in keeping with the commodified, gamified nature of online dating, where chat apps involve little more than a mutual cranking of slot machine handles.

For someone who is seeking to build connections, these obvious attempts at assessing sexual eligibility can quickly become soul-sapping.

So the last time someone asked “What you up to?”, it was hardly any surprise that I responded with, “Getting a frontal lobotomy”.

I was in my own way trying to shake my chat partner out of automaticity, but all I got in return was the acronym “lol”. 

Clank, went the invisible gears, and within seconds, my chat partner was proceeding with his script. 

“Cool. You looking?”

Some people may describe this kind of attention as affirming. Personally? I just can’t shake the feeling that I’m being treated less as a human being, than as a prospective reward.

Apps are basically Skinner boxes

Previously I compared gay dating apps to Skinner boxes. For those of you who don’t know, Skinner boxes are small glass cages used by experimenters to teach animals how to perform certain actions, like hitting a lever.

These boxes reinforce desired behavior by dispensing a reward such as food, or punishment in the form of a shock from an electrified floor grid.

Andreas1/Wikimedia Commons

Skinner boxes are a perfect analogy for gay dating apps. The difference here is that messages, or more specifically, the attention they represent serves as the reward while being ignored is a form of punishment or negative reinforcement.

As app users, we maximize reward and minimize punishment using strategic and even deceptive self-presentation and engagement. We tailor profiles and our behavior in ways that will gain and sustain attention, even if they aren’t necessarily authentic

We may boast about our preferences or prowess while using erotic photos as bait for our chat partners.

Some of us may go so far as to create fake profiles or message someone exclusively with the aim of receiving a response. 

Messaging purely for attention, however, may be the first signs we’re developing a process addiction. Here’s why.

Why gay dating apps are addictive

At one point during his studies, the inventor of the Skinner box – American scientist B.F. Skinner – modified his boxes to dispense food pellets according to a random number of lever presses. 

His pigeon test subjects, rather than being deterred by the unpredictability of the exercise, quickly learned to press the lever at random, even when no pellet was immediately forthcoming. 

What Skinner realized was that this very same unpredictability had created a tension of expectations, which was released the moment the pigeon received their reward.

Skinner credits this tension-reward loop, also present in slot machines, as being the main driver behind addiction.

We can see that loop widely incorporated today in video games, social media, and even dating apps.

Consider the unpredictable nature of “rewards” on Grindr, Scruff, or Tinder: users log on and off at random, and the rate of replies can vary completely, sometimes even within the span of a single conversation.

Meeting someone off the app may begin as a tantalizing fantasy, but it’s one that ultimately can’t compete with the dopamine-seeking reward-loop offered by the back-and-forth of instant messaging.

The result is an experience that could be broadly described as ineffective, at least where it comes to generating face-to-face interactions.

Of course, if you were to canvas a group of gay men at random, I’m not sure a consensus would ever be reached on what constitutes an “effective” dating app chat session. 

After all, everyone’s definition of a reward will vary from interaction to interaction, day to day, sometimes minute to minute. Yes, humans are a fickle bunch. 

How addiction creates dating app sociopaths

Dating apps don’t help, in that, they all seem designed to facilitate any variety of interactions. Some may use the app with the intent to meet, while others are simply looking for a distraction or the thrill of erotic chat or photo exchanges. 

Suppose we come to the apps with a specific goal in mind. Gamification in many cases will nudge us towards abandoning specificity, towards being open to any and all interactions, if only for the momentary gratification they promise.

Our sole purpose thus becomes the maintenance of the tension-reward loop.

Sustained use will lead many users towards a nebulous middle ground, simultaneously craving all of the above, yet never finding true satisfaction. And yet we keep coming back. Why?

Notably, Skinner found that pigeons in his experiments continued to peck a lever even once their appetite had been sated. His conclusion: the action of cranking a lever had in and of itself become “fun”. 

You can see the same behavior among users. Like edgy, risk-averse stockbrokers bidding in an incredibly volatile market, we hedge our bets, messaging indiscriminately just to see who will bite.

After firing off scores of messages to multiple chat partners, we wait for the replies to trickle in. 

Too much tension and frustration – not enough replies, significant delays, or “inferior” rewards – and our sense of enjoyment will diminish. 

Our only recourse then is to either adjust our expectations or spread our net more widely in order to maintain the loop. 

Profile grids and swipe stacks will come to resemble an ever-shifting buffet in what feels like a perpetual famine. 

Prolonged use of gay dating apps thus sees other users reduced to mere units in a digital meat market characterized by extreme scarcity. An environment in which the dating app sociopath flourishes.

essy knopf gay dating apps sociopaths

What is a dating app sociopath?

In the 10+ years in which I’ve used gay dating sites and apps, I’ve often caught myself logging in just to see who had messaged, less interested in the content of the communication than the sheer fact of its existence. 

It became clear to me that so long as I was caught up in tension-reward loop – in the split-second objectification, relational multitasking, devaluation, and dismissal that seems baked into digital modes of interaction – I could hardly expect to form healthy relationships with other gay men.

How, when I was treating chat partners as mere levers to be pulled for personal gratification?

The single-mindedness with which we perform this action, according to researcher Simon Baron-Cohen, is the antithesis of empathy:

“Single-minded” attention means we are thinking only about our own mind, our current thoughts or perceptions. “Double-minded” attention means we are keeping in mind someone else’s mind at the very same time… When empathy is switched off, we think only about our own interests. When empathy is switched on, we focus on other people’s interests too. 

It is in the absence of such empathy that we adopt sociopathic behavior. And just like the sociopath, many of us – consumed by our process addiction – will go to extreme lengths in the pursuit of satisfaction.

Consider these traits, as laid out in the seminal work on sociopathy, The Mask of Sanity

  • superficial charm
  • absence of anxiety or guilt
  • undependability, dishonesty, egocentricity
  • complete inability to form lasting intimate relationships 
  • failure to learn from punishment
  • absence of emotion
  • lack of insight into the impact of our behavior
  • failure to plan ahead

For those of you who have or continue to use gay dating apps, I ask you this: have you not experienced or dabbled yourself in superficial charm and unpredictability?

Or worse still: deceit, manipulation, and outright nastiness?

The system is hopelessly broken

Chances are you’re alone. Tragically, the addictive qualities of gay dating apps have created an environment where sociopathic behavior is now the status quo.

Strangers will issue demands and unsolicited erotic photos, interrogating our sexual preferences before blocking us at random.

While these tendencies are not specific to gay men, app-based reward loops positively reinforce these behaviors while failing to offer real accountability. 

The result is an endless chain of victimization in which bad behavior is normalized and internalized and we all unwittingly find ourselves either in the company of or becoming, gay dating app sociopaths.

It’s no secret that gay dating apps aren’t designed to foster genuine, heartfelt connection, or for that matter to enforce personal accountability.

Their goal, rather, is to gamify interactions with the goal of sustaining use, indefinitely. But in so doing, they train us to associate self-worth with constant affirmation

In our pursuit of that affirmation, we will find ourselves pulling out all stops to feed it, even if it means completely disregarding and discarding others along the way.

The system may be broken, but it remains profitable for app makers, so there is little motivation for change. But as individual users, we can and must hold ourselves to a higher standard of personal conduct.

We can do this by:

  • Exercising self-awareness: curbing usage motivated only by the desire to get a “fix”. 
  • Empathizing, rather than objectifying: treating people with kindness, consideration and courtesy. Being honest and upfront with our intentions and not stringing people along when we aren’t interested in them. 
  • Voting with our feet: registering our protest by quitting and pursuing more wholesome forms of interaction, offline.

Takeaways

  • Gay dating apps employ a reward loop to keep us addicted.
  • Addiction leads to single-mindedness and a temporary loss of empathy.
  • In its absence, we may behave in antisocial ways.
  • Be self-aware and empathic. Be accountable for your own behavior.

Anxious Seeks Canine – Part 1: ‘I am sending you’

Essy Knopf anxious seeks canine
Reading time: 9 minutes

This is a story about how I almost died. Almost. Well not exactly. But I COULD have died. I could die anytime, as a matter of fact. Is that a lump I feel in my armpit?”

Anxious Seeks Canine is a memoir blog series about a gay man living with Asperger’s, mental illness, and the relationships that may very well be fueling it. Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of all featured individuals. Except for the dog. Here’s part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, and 18. Subscribe for more posts.


I

“I think we have good energy.” I stared at Derrick, trying not to laugh. 

“You realize horses cost a lot of money, right?”  

“A few thousand dollars, at most,” Derrick replied.

“Really,” I said. “And where would you keep it?” Our tiny apartment was hardly big enough for two people and a dog as it was.

“At the stables,” Derrick said. “See, I think it would be a great investment. I could rent it out to other riders. Before long the costs would cover themselves. I’d even be able to turn a profit.”

I was on the verge of disputing the claim when the pointlessness of it all struck me.

Derrick was mercurial when it came to life decisions. This I figured was him trying to persuade himself as much as me. 

And sure enough, when Derrick returned from his riding lessons a week later, he was under a cloud.

“Bitch,” he muttered. I gave him a look. “The trainer,” Derrick added. “She quoted $12,000 for the horse. Can you believe it? Then she had the nerve to ask for a commission.”

I knew better than to rub vinegar into my boyfriend’s wounds. But still, I had to ask the question.

“So…are you still going to buy a horse?”

“I’m not giving her a damn cent!” Derrick said, storming into his room.

Reality had dealt his modest dream a death blow. But by the next day, his mood had changed.

“Good news,” he said, bouncing through the door. “I’m going to buy a motorcycle.”

“You’re- What?” I replied.

“I sat on one today,” Derrick explained. “It was so cool. Look.” He showed me a photo.

“But you don’t even know how to ride,” I pointed out. Derrick scowled.

“I’d learn,” he said.

Still, I couldn’t muster enthusiasm for this latest obsession. Last time it had been a trip to Coachella. And the time before that, an overwater bungalow in Tahiti. Derrick was quietly treading the waters of a mid-life crisis.

I made myself a bowl of cereal. Derrick’s expression got all furtive.

“So… How’s your therapy going?”

It was a fishing expedition – I was sure of it. I tried to keep my tone neutral.

“Pretty well so far.”

“Have you told her about us?” I hesitated.

“No, not yet. See, she’s Christian,” I said. “I’m worried she’ll pass judgment. You know, about us.”

“You should really tell her,” Derrick insisted. As if doing this might somehow help crystallize our relationship.

Right now, Dr. Kukosian was impartial. Trying to keep your private life private while stretched out on a therapist’s couch might sound like a losing battle, but the last thing I wanted to do was incite her prejudices. 

Defending one’s “lifestyle choices” was not a task I particularly looked forward to, especially when it might result in me being more or less kicked out of therapy. 

The therapist pickings were slim. Los Angeles was a city ripe with dysfunction, with not enough sympathetic ears to go around.

Though if I was being honest with myself, Dr. Kukosian’s religion was an excuse, and Derrick had good cause to be worried.

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
This picture captures my initial joy and optimism during the first few weeks of my relationship with Derrick.

II

Dr. Kukosian’s office was on the ninth floor of a high-rise at the heart of Glendale. This floor, I eventually learned, had been rented to a private Christian college. The doctor’s counseling room – more of a booth, really – occupied a far corner.

Dr. Kukosian sat in an armchair, clad in a cardigan, capris, and an unfaltering smile, listening patiently as I ran through the week’s events.

Fifteen minutes into the session, I ran out of things to talk about. Dr. Kukosian’s encouraging smile loomed before me.

Her non-directive therapy style had left me with a chronic fear of silence. Broaching the subject of Derrick was no longer a choice, but a necessity. It was time to let the homo out of the bag. 

I opened by mentioning that I had a partner. Then I casually slipped in a masculine pronoun, carefully watching Dr. Kukosian’s face for a reaction. Nothing. 

“So you moved in with him after only two months of dating?” she asked. Her lack of disapproval was anticlimatic…disappointing, even.

“Well, my lease was up at my old place,” I said. “He had a spare room. The rent was cheaper. I wanted to save money.”

Here I was, trying to justify my decision, less worried about being condemned for being gay than I was for being, well, reckless.

“Seems like that happened very quickly,” Dr. Kukosian observed. 

“Anyway, it’s just temporary,” I said, hearing a criticism where there wasn’t one. Dr. Kukosian processed this with a sagely nod.

“And how are things between the two of you?”

I considered how best to respond.

“Well, he has an anxiety problem,” I began.

My therapist would have to be deaf not to hear the irony of this. I was here, after all, because my own anxiety had recently migrated to my face, leading to weeklong bouts of jaw clenching.

“Derrick’s a workaholic,” I continued. “He’s often go-go-go all day, night, and weekend. We don’t have any time together. He forgets all our couple’s appointments and blames me for not reminding him. I’ve basically become his maid and dog-minder.” 

“And how does that make you feel?” Dr. Kukosian asked, perhaps sensing my exasperation.

“Like I’m a…a fixture in his household,” I said, grappling for a metaphor. “Like a lamp or a chair. Like my needs don’t matter. The dog isn’t mine. She shouldn’t be my responsibility.”

That, however, wasn’t the worst of it. I’d known from the beginning that Derrick had anger management problems.

Early on in the relationship, he’d mocked my taste in music during a car ride. I’d mimed slapping him and an instant later his fist connected with my face. 

It had not been deliberate, but rather a knee-jerk (or should I say elbow-jerk?) reaction. Still, it had made me cry, and in an unexpected show of contrition, Derrick had pulled over and gotten down on his knees to apologize. 

A few days later, on the return drive from a visit to see his family in Sacramento, Derrick had woken from a nap to hear me telling his dog, who was misbehaving at the time, that she was “out of control”.

“Maybe you’re the one out of control!” he shouted, before turning over and promptly falling back asleep.  

At first, I was bemused. But the outbursts had continued, eroding my sense of security.

Another time, we were driving through his friend’s neighborhood while he was in the car. I made what I believed was an inoffensive observation, noting that the houses around us looked “rather squat”.

Perhaps Derrick thought I was, by extension, insulting his friend’s home, because his reaction had been to snap at me.

“Just shut up, okay?”

And when Derrick wasn’t taking his frustrations out on me, he was usually humblebragging.

As a manager at a tech startup, Derrick had crossed paths with more than a few industry luminaries. But after weeks of namedropping, I’d taken to joking about Derrick’s claims to fame.

“Elon Musk and I are totes besties,” I’d once exaggerated. “You don’t believe me? I’ve got his father’s number on my phone. Look, see? Wes Musk. We’re on great terms.”

Derrick retaliated by threatening to kick me out of his apartment. 

Derrick was in his 40s, so my expectations had admittedly been skewed towards him possessing a certain degree of maturity. Skewed, if not faulty.

Over the course of months, Derrick had gone from charm offensive to lashing out at random, until finally, I’d withdrawn into my room, taking with me all my goodwill.

Our lives from then on had been parallel, occasionally crossing but never connecting. When my attempts to bridge the divide had been ignored and even scorned, parting ways had seemed the inevitable conclusion.

“It sounds like a very stressful situation for you,” Dr. Kukosian said. “Maybe for the sake of your relationship it would be best if you just moved out?” 

Later, after the session, as I stood at the university urinal relieving myself, I noticed a poster taped to the wall.

“I am sending you,” it read. It was a quote, attributed to none other than Jesus Christ.

Sending me where, I wondered? And more importantly, why? 

I considered the Korean characters beneath the quote. Supposing this wasn’t just a mistranslation, the phrase could have once made sense, in some other time and place. It was also equally possible it never had, and never would.

All the same, I decided to take it as a sign. Jesus or no, I was going to leave Derrick.


III

The following day, Derrick asked if I would be willing to volunteer my services as a personal assistant at his startup.

The business was short-staffed, and given Derrick had helped me with picking out my first car, I figured I owed him the favor.

But shortly after I arrived, I witnessed Derrick ball out another manager in front of several other employees.

Over lunch, I hinted to Derrick that I was worried about the possible fallout.

“Perhaps it would be better next time if you just walk away?” I suggested. Derrick glowered.

“Well, maybe next time I just won’t ask for your help,” he replied.

I studied my lunch. For the better part of the morning, I had been running around doing errands on Derrick’s behalf. Was this his idea of gratitude?

That night, Derrick missed yet another couple’s dinner, returning home hours later to find me practicing yoga. Trying to look as defiant as I possibly could from my position on the floor, I announced I was moving out.

“Okay,” Derrick said. Uncertainty flickered across his face, hardened into something else entirely.

“I don’t have any hard plans yet,” I said, trying to soften the blow, “but I have started looking around.”

I braced myself. Having laid the groundwork, I figured now was as good a time as any to pull the trigger.

“I was thinking,” I began, “it might be best if we both took some time out from the relationship.” 

The subtext being forever – not that I was going to spell that out. Right now, Derrick was a powder keg I had no intention of lighting.

Derrick leaned back on his heels.

“I think that’s a good idea,” he said.

“… You do?”

“I’m pretty busy right now with work,” he said, playing it cool. “And you want more than I can give you.”

Was that a jeer I heard in his voice? If Derrick was hoping I would rise to the accusation, he was going to be sorely disappointed.

“Are you sure you’re okay with it?” I pressed.

“Fine,” Derrick insisted. His refusal to meet my eyes told me he’d suspected this was coming. 

And really, how could he have not? I’d told Derrick on multiple occasions how his behavior was driving me away. His response had been to label me “too sensitive”, or worse still, ignore me completely.

Fearing my short credit history and lack of savings would hinder me in my search for a new apartment, I’d dragged my heels. But then my mental health had taken a turn, and moving out had become a matter of survival.

Over the next week, Derrick wavered between anger and brittle formality, staying away from the apartment. I began to walk on eggshells, fearing that if I wasn’t careful, Derrick might try to evict me on the spot.

A friend heard I was looking for a place and asked if I might want to take over his lease. The studio proved tiny, but it had recently been renovated, with exposed brickwork and a kitchen sink the size of a drydock. Cute, serviceable, and – most importantly – available right now.

In less than 24 hours I’d signed the lease, packed my belongings, and booked a moving truck. 

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
I suspect Derrick thought I was bluffing, that sooner or later I was going to “come to my senses”.

IV

Moving day rolled around and I received a text message from Derrick, stating in precise detail the condition in which he wanted my room left. 

“Make sure when you move out to vacuum,” he wrote. “I want you to clean all the dust off the skirting boards.”

This, from a man whose idea of cleanliness involved letting his dog defecate in the house while the Rumba was on.

All week conflict had been brewing. And soon it would explode.

At 9.30 pm, I made my final trip back to the house to collect some potted plants. While collecting the last one, I spotted movement through the open front door.

After a day’s absence, Derrick had returned home. His earlier silence over text told me he was itching for a fight. 

I leaned over the threshold and dropped the keys on the TV stand. 

“Here’s your keys!” I called, turning to leave. Derrick poked his head out of the bathroom.

“Wait a second,” he said, drying his hands and hurrying over. “I want to talk to you.”

“Really – I have to go,” I replied. My friends were waiting outside in the car, and we were long overdue for dinner.

“That’s fine,” Derrick blurted, using a word I’d come to associate with its exact opposite. Then he launched his opening salvo: “You need to stop talking shit about me.”

I stared, deadpan. Derrick forced a smirk.

“It’s actually kind of sad, the fact you need to go around talking about other people behind their backs.”

Yes, I had complained to a mutual friend about Derrick’s emotional abuse. So far as I was concerned, I could shout my story from the rooftop if I wanted to.

Suffice to say, Derrick didn’t really want an apology. He wanted a scene. But I was not going to give him one.

“Bye,” I said. And off I went, bounding down the front steps. Derrick rushed out onto the landing after me.

“Good luck with your writing career!” he screamed. “I hear it’s going really well so far!”

It was a knife twist out of some soap opera playbook. 

Giddy with the ridiculousness of it all, I launched myself into the waiting car. 

“What happened?” my friends wanted to know.

I looked back at the security gate to Derrick’s apartment complex. Any second now I expected him to burst into view, a spurned lover set on shrill revenge. The idea left me torn between laughter and mortification.

“Just drive!” I said. “Quickly!”

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
My new studio apartment.

The next day I received a text message from Derrick, written in the frosty prose of a job rejection letter. I was hereby notified he would be invoicing me for all outstanding bills. Derrick also demanded I remove myself from our shared auto insurance plan. 

“Well ahead of you there, buddy,” I wanted to reply. Derrick was so out-of-touch he hadn’t even noticed when I’d cut the tie two weeks prior.

If I’m being honest, the relationship had been a slow-motion train wreck.

It was not the first, and as circumstances would soon prove, it would not be the last.


Anxious Seeks Canine continues with Part 2: ‘Too soon bro’.

Anxious Seeks Canine – Part 2: ‘Too soon bro!’

Essy Knopf anxious seeks canine
Reading time: 7 minutes

Anxious Seeks Canine is a memoir blog series about a gay man living with Asperger’s, mental illness, and the relationships that may very well be fueling it. Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of all featured individuals. Except for the dog. Here’s part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, and 18. Subscribe for more posts.


I

My tendency to plunge headlong into things often created problems that could easily have been avoided. My relationship with Derrick was just another case in point.

“It’s the anxiety,” Dr. Kukosian said at our next session. “Anxious people move too fast.”

A politer version perhaps of “fools rush in”. But was there anything I could do to fix it? 

“My patients who have overcome their anxiety continue to face this problem for the rest of their lives,” Dr. Kukosian explained. I stared at the ceiling.

“You’re saying I’m stuck with it?” She nodded slowly. 

I eyed a canvas print of an oil painting on the wall behind her. It depicted a scene of biblical rapture. What right did these apostles have, being so happy?

“So… What should I do?” I said, feeling more than a little helpless.

“Every time you feel yourself rushing into something, slow down,” Dr. Kukosian said.

Slow down? I only had one speed, and as far as I could see, the gear stick was broken. But if the Derrick experience had taught me anything, it was that I shouldn’t jump into another relationship ever again.

My new resolve lasted a total of four months.

One day, while scrubbing myself in the shower, I caught myself talking to my dead dog. By talking I mean babbling, something between doggolingo and baby speak.

“Oh Deedeesco, bwye you so kyute?” I said in a singsong voice. “I bwanna sqbuish dat. Gib cuddle?”

To the casual listener, it would have sounded like I was suffering from pathological echolalia. But it all made perfect sense to me.

Soon I was babbling while dressing and cooking dinner. I stopped strangers in the street.

“Can I pet your dog?” I’d ask, my hand already halfway to their pet’s mane.

“Oo… You iz berry sbweet, isn’t you?” I’d coo to the dog. “Oy loik dat.”

The owner would force a smile, but their body language would be practically screaming: “Could you just please get AWAY from my dog?”

Before long I was staying up nights, scanning pet adoption websites. 

Many of the ads read like personals, some adopting a pitiful, pleading tone.

“Marisol is a sweet, affectionate pit bull cross. Her previous owners were, unfortunately, unable to keep up with her energetic nature.”

Other ads bordered on insolent.

“Must have a large yard. No small children. Adoption possible after two weeks of successful fostering.”

Some came with detailed questionnaires or requests that struck me as a tad over-the-top.

“In the event your dog became ill, how much would you be willing to spend for treatment? $500? $1000? $3000.”

“Record a video tour of your home to give a sense of where the dog would be living.”

Most hotels didn’t even offer a video tour, and yet here was a pet adoption agency demanding a visual guarantee you could offer their homeless dog a picture perfect abode.

I winnowed my options and made a few calls. The first on my list was a scruffy, adorable-looking Chow by the name of Thompson. 

“That dog is not available for adoption,” the lady at the pound told me.

“Well, why not?”

“He has aggression issues,” she said. “He’s only available for adoption to specialist shelters.”

“So why list him at all then?” I asked, genuinely puzzled. The woman hung up on me.

Moving my way down the list, I fired off emails. My selection criteria, as it turned out, were entirely superficial, cuteness prevailing over practicality. 

One response arrived. Yes, Sandra the low-slung black mutt with tender eyes was still available. I sent an email back, expressing my interest in meeting her.

“Unfortunately you cannot meet her until after you have adopted her,” went the reply.

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
If I’m being honest about myself, my tendency to plunge headlong into things almost always resulted in disaster.

Say what? The lister confessed then that Sandra actually lived in South Korea.

Only once I had forked over the adoption fee would the agency fly Sandra out to Los Angeles to begin her new life with me.

It was potentially the canine equivalent of a catfish – a dogfish – and a risk I was not willing to take.

A few days later, a shelter contacted me about a tan Jindo called Ki.

“Ki’s foster Miska has offered to come by and talk you through the ins and outs of Jindo ownership,” the email read. “Miska will bring Ki along for you to meet. Please do not touch Ki during the meeting, as Jindos are generally wary of strangers.”

I crammed information about the dog breed in preparation for the meeting.

There were a few warning signs. Jindos for example were wary of strangers. But as had been the case with Derrick, I chose to focus only on the positives.

Wow! Jindos were a breed known for their bravery and their loyalty towards a single person – traits largely absent in the people I dated. What was not to like?

That afternoon Miska arrived with Ki in tow. 

“First thing you should know,” Miska began, sitting on the edge of my desk, “is Jindos kill.”

“Er,” I blurted.

“They have a high prey drive,” Miska explained. “Ki kills something about once a week.” 

“How-” I began, and stopped.

“Just last week we were walking and he suddenly pulled free,” Miska went on, oblivious of the effect her words were having. “Next thing, I see him tossing a rat into the air.” She mimed, laughing in what I hoped was chagrin. “Then he broke its back.”

My eyes went to the dog perched on the windowsill, staring intently at something I couldn’t see. Prey.

“He’s killed pigeons before, and a few stray cats,” Miska added. My eyes returned to her.

“How do you know they were stray?”

“They didn’t have collars,” Miska said, as Ki came over to study me. I dry-swallowed.

“Otherwise Ki is just lovely,” Miska said, as if this would negate everything that had come before. “He’s so protective. As a woman I can walk him anywhere at night.” She stared down at her foster pet. “I’m going to really miss him.”

“I bet,” I said dubiously. Doubts piled on. “So the shelter told me Ki would need more than an hour of walking every day?”

“At least,” Miska said.

“But Ki wouldn’t like it if my friends touched her, right?”

“Definitely not,” she said. “Sometimes if I touch her while she’s lying down, she growls at me.”

And there it was: the soft hiss of escaping air. The balloon of my Jindo aspirations had been pricked and was rapidly deflating. 

Maybe Miska was trying to be funny. Maybe she’d overstated her case. But truth be told, any murderous tendencies were for me an immediate dealbreaker.

My reservations expressed, I thanked Miska for her time and saw her and Ki out.

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
The dog I would ultimately adopt would prove to be a husky-corgi called Cash. 

II

Days later, I got a callback for an ivory-haired husky-corgi called Cash. 

There had been a lot of interest in Cash, the adoption agent informed me. Given how cute he was, it was any surprise he was such a hot ticket. But, the agent told me, I was still welcome to come by and meet him tomorrow.

Nursing the beginnings of a cold, I drove to the adoption center in Eastside Los Angeles. As I walked through the door, I spotted Cash sitting beneath a chair, a red bandana twined about his neck.

He peered up at me, bushy tail wagging, and I was smitten. To hell with all the other contenders – this dog was going to be mine.

I sat down beside his current owner Anja, a silver-haired woman with a voice as soft and sweet as cotton candy. As Anja gently patted Cash, she explained she’d only recently adopted him, but that he hadn’t been the right fit for her household.

“He kept jumping all over my other dog, who’s pretty old,” she said. “Once he scratched her in the eye. I had to take her to the vet for treatment.”

The excitable fur ball between her knees strained to the end of his lead, sniffing the gap beneath a door.

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
My first glimpse of Cash. I was smitten.

I made kissing noises to get Cash’s attention and he trotted over to lick my hand. Next thing I was squishing my face into his. This was my attempt at affection – and probably the textbook definition of the worst way to introduce yourself to a dog.

Cash gave a Husky growl of protest.

“I’ve never heard him make that noise before,” Anja said, fascinated.

The adoption agent came over to ask how things were going.

“I want him to adopt Cash,” Anja said. “Can he take him today?” 

The face squishing trick, it seemed, had worked. Anja had sensed our special, instantaneous bond; had recognized that there would be no greater owner than I.

The agent frowned.

“There are still a few families who would like to meet Cash first,” she said. Anja insisted. A gentle tug of war ensued, until, finally, the agent caved.

An hour later I strolled out of the agency, Cash’s leash in one hand and a box of dog supplies in the other. 

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
Cash following his arrival at my apartment.

III

Getting my newly adopted child into the car proved something of an ordeal. The instant Cash realized what was happening, he flailed, bracing his paws against the frame of the door, like a cartoon character resisting a lifetime of imprisonment.

It took two of us to get him inside. Cash immediately settled on the floor, unmoving and unresponsive.

I searched for “dog relaxation music” on YouTube then connected my phone to the car’s audio system. Soft, languorous synths oozed from the speakers.

These were the kind of sounds you’d expect to hear in a crystal shop…and probably the closest thing to musical waterboarding. Whether Cash enjoyed it, I couldn’t tell, huddled as he was beneath my chair.

When we got home, I carried my new pet over to the bath and ran some warm water, rubbing strawberry-scented shampoo into his fur. 

Cash struggled with a desperation born of certain hydrophobia. I drew the shower curtain to prevent him from leaping out, and when that didn’t work, blocked the path of escape with my body.

Afterwards I dried him and he sat, staring at me with doleful eyes as I ran a brush through his tangles. The adoption was beginning to hit home.

But so was my cold. My throat in the last few hours had grown raw, and my nose was watering.

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
Cash lost about half his body weight after I brushed him. He had that much hair.

Binning a fist-sized wad of hair, I flung the brush away and sat, exhausted, on my bed. An uncomfortable pressure built inside my sinuses, giving way to pain.

“Cash?” Cash wandered over. I sat him on the edge of the bed, buried my face in his fur, and proceeded to cry.

Cash was having none of it. His eyes bulged. “Too soon bro!” they seemed to say.

He leapt down, vanishing into the kitchen. 

I lay back, trying to repress a sneeze and failing. Lying on my back, with my face parallel with the ceiling, this had the unfortunate effect of simulating rain.

There came a noise, like someone trying to squeeze ketchup from a bottle, and levered myself up. That was when I spotted Cash squatting, in preparation to defecate.

“No, Cash! No!” 

Diarrhea spattered the tiles. Completing the motion, Cash stepped backwards, directly into the puddle.

“Cash stop- No! STOP STOP STOP STOP!”

At the sound of his name, Cash trotted back over to the bed, leaving a trail of muddy pawprints.

His pale, arctic-fox face peered up at me. Wary, expectant. My tear-stained face stared back.

Here we were: two sick, miserable beings in need of love and comfort. It was, if anything, a promising beginning.


Anxious Seeks Canine continues with Part 3: ‘You’re weird’.

Anxious Seeks Canine – Part 3: ‘You’re weird’

Essy Knopf anxious seeks canine
Reading time: 6 minutes

Anxious Seeks Canine is a memoir blog series about a gay man living with Asperger’s, mental illness, and the relationships that may very well be fueling it. Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of all featured individuals. Except for the dog. Here’s part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, and 18. Subscribe for more posts.


I

“Why do you want to date me?” The question hung in the air for a few awkward seconds. Derrick scrambled to find an answer.

“… Because I like you,” he said, his face devoid of emotion.

“And why do you like me?” I was like the four-year-old who’d just discovered the word “why”. Once I started, I absolutely refused to stop.

“You’re weird,” Derrick replied. “I like that.” As good a reason as any to be with someone, I suppose?

What Derrick had failed to articulate, however, was that I was there – and that was enough.

Whether we were actually compatible was a question to which Derrick was not interested in devoting his attention. And I accepted this. Broken, complicated ol’ me. Probably didn’t deserve any better.

You see, when I met Derrick, I was recovering from the worst illness of my life. Since my teen years, I had struggled with an undiagnosed gut disorder. 

For a decade, I had believed my symptoms – gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, eczema, fatigue, severe mood swings – to be the result of gluten intolerance. After removing gluten from my diet, these symptoms improved but didn’t resolve completely. 

Gradually I removed other possible offenders like dairy, with varying degrees of success.

After years of on-and-off illness, I made an appointment at a leading allergy clinic. Every single test came up negative. 

At one specialist’s suggestion, I adopted a diet eliminating naturally-occurring food chemicals: salicylates, aminos, and glutamates, which can be found in anything from fruits, to cheese, chocolate, and sauces.

While these chemicals can cause reactions in some people, they didn’t appear to be a source of bother to me. Next I trialed going off animal products altogether…only for the symptoms to intensify. 

A large red rash appeared on my back, and neither anti-fungal or cortisone creams could persuade it to go away. My gut became permanently distended, prone to swelling every time I ate.

With my health in shambles, I had no choice but to cut back completely on dating.


II

WebMD told me I was probably suffering from a condition called irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

IBS was a somatic condition linked to anxiety and depression, and given my predisposition to the latter, this made me an ideal candidate. Notwithstanding the fact that feeling like I was in the third trimester of pregnancy wasn’t depressing in its own right…

A doctor confirmed the diagnosis and suggested I undergo a test for a secondary condition called small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO).

The results confirmed that I had indeed had well and truly become a human incubator for single-celled organisms. At last, I had an explanation for my symptoms.

Where IBS could be treated with ongoing dietary restrictions, SIBO required antibiotics. A couple of weeks of treatment reduced my gut to its normal size, only for new symptoms to emerge: chronic fatigue, followed by dizzy spells.

After petitioning my doctor for help and receiving a handful of taciturn emails, I flew to Australia to stay with my folks while trying to figure out what the hell was happening.

A helpful country town doctor put me through a battery of new tests. Receiving the results was like opening a grab bag, only to find a cluster bomb.

IBS and SIBO had left my gut ravaged, and in their wake some kind of parasite had set up shop, requiring yet another course of antibiotics.

On top of this, I was suffering from a Vitamin D deficiency, on account of all the sunlight I was not getting from lying in my sickbed.

But the kicker was that the cause of my chronic fatigue was something altogether unrelated: infectious mononucleosis – the so-called “kissing disease”.

Turns out I hadn’t been wrong to stop dating, only that I probably should’ve done it sooner. In my ailing condition, I had sought comfort in the wrong person, and he had given me a case of mono. It had been a teen rite of passage, a decade too late.

I swung very suddenly from a state of chronic fatigue to one of chronic embarrassment.

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
The mono let me bedridden for weeks on end.

III

Still only partially recovered from my illness, I returned to Los Angeles. To say the experience had left a dent in my spirit was something of an understatement. 

Look people – I almost died. Almost. Well not exactly. But I COULD have died. I could die anytime, as a matter of fact. Is that a lump I feel in my armpit? 

Being so sick had only heightened my existing anxiety, leaving me overwhelmed. It might’ve helped if I’d had friends or family around to care for me in LA, but I was a newcomer to the city.

Any surprise then that I warmed so quickly to Derrick. From the very beginning, he lavished attention on me, taking me out to dinner at least twice a week. 

He was solicitous about my health, swearing I could always count on him for help. It was the kind of care I’d secretly longed for.

Other people fantasize about filthy rich dreamboats, but not I. What I wanted was a nurturing parental figure who doubled as a part-time chef. Realistic, I know. 

But Derrick couldn’t have been any less equipped to provide that, given he himself wanted to be parented. By the three-month mark, suspicion had set in.

Derrick had a mantra he liked to repeat, usually every day, sometimes at three-minute intervals: “I’m tired”. I’m not entirely sure what he wanted to accomplish by telling me this.

Around this time, Derrick also shifted from charm offensive to preoccupied and avoidant. We went from eating out every second night to not eating together at all.

While I could make do without bribery by takeout, a complete lack of companionship was pushing it.

At first, I tried sympathy. When Derick continued to complain about being tired however, I changed tactics. I bought a shirt with the phrase printed on it and gifted it to him, “so he wouldn’t have to keep telling me”.

Derrick was so offended he threw the shirt into the bottom of his closet. There it remained, until I, tiring of my boyfriend’s tiredness, dug it out and wore it myself.

They say there are five stages of grief. When I broke up with Derrick, I discovered a sixth: absurdity.

In the week after, I’d broached the subject, and Derrick had airily declared he was “done with this relationship”. “This relationship” being the one from which he’d quickly become absent anyway.

With that, he had stalked from the room, only to reappear moments later to ask if I would mind his dog over the weekend. When pressed for an explanation, he said he was going away on a road trip to Vegas – and I was not invited.

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
Anxiety had a way of keeping me stuck in situations that were ultimately detrimental to my wellbeing. This is me during a research trip to Turkey, for one in a string of projects I was juggling at the time.

IV

To his credit, Derrick made a few tangential attempts to ingratiate himself after the breakup. Once, he dangled the possibility of ex-sex. Another occasion, he coyly asked if he could wear my hat…because he “liked it”. 

Once I even caught him spritzing himself with my cologne, as if he were trying to savor my soon-to-be lost odor. It was almost too painful to watch.

Having weathered Derrick’s outbursts, forgiven his shortcomings, and soothed his insecurities, I’d been forced to overlook my own needs, until at last my reserves of empathy had finally run dry. 

Soon I began drawing lines in the hardwood. When I caught Derrick trying to smuggle yet another bland mid-century credenza into our apartment, I responded simply with: “No”. 

Derrick hadn’t allowed me to bring my own furniture into his home, telling in me in uncertain terms that it looked “cheap”. To diss my taste in furniture was one thing, but furnishing his apartment without my input? Unforgivable.

When Derrick insisted on keeping his latest acquisition, I wrapped a clawhammer in newspaper and placed it atop the credenza.

I’m not entirely sure if I’d “nailed” the Godfather reference, but the next day, the credenza was gone. Still, the little battles waged on.

Derrick had a habit of burning California white sage in the house in the place of air freshener. The smell had a rancid quality which he seemed to favor over that of his dog’s various messes. 

It was an odor that happened to leave me with blinding headaches, such that I was forced to keep the door to my room closed. During the Vegas trip, I started throwing out every bundle of the stuff I could find.

The day before Derrick returned, while doing his laundry for what felt like the fiftieth time, two twenty dollar notes fell out of Derrick’s jeans pocket. I didn’t hesitate, pocketing it as compensation for all the thankless janitorial duties that had been fobbed onto me. 

This moment turned out to be the last high point in our steadily declining relationship.

Did I linger to savor it? No. What I did instead was divide our Q-tip supply into two neat piles, stuff my share into a zip-lock, and departed his life as fast as humanly possible.


Anxious Seeks Canine continues with Part 4: ‘See cash? Like this’.

Anxious Seeks Canine – Part 4: ‘See Cash? Like this’

Essy Knopf anxious seeks canine
Reading time: 7 minutes

Anxious Seeks Canine is a memoir blog series about a gay man living with Asperger’s, mental illness, and the relationships that may very well be fueling it. Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of all featured individuals. Except for the dog. Here’s part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, and 18. Subscribe for more posts.


I

With Derrick gone, I fumbled towards the appearance of equilibrium. 

My employer agreed to put me on part-time hours so I could focus on a few side projects. Superficially, conditions changed, and yet the very same thing that had first propelled me towards Derrick did not.

Not a desire to be cared for as such, but rather, the inability to look after my own wellbeing. I was still a devout workaholic, cooking up responsibility after responsibility for myself.

For weeks on end, I would work around the clock, rarely taking breaks for socializing, leisure activities, and exercise. I’d eat at my desk, and when there wasn’t even time for that, I’d skip meals entirely.

Adopting a dog was my attempt to embrace a more well-rounded, enriching life. It would, so I told myself, be opening the door to the company and peace of mind I’d long denied myself.

And there was also the fact that I did, and always had, loved dogs, so much so in fact that I often preferred their company over that of other human beings.

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
Cash wasn’t just a pretty face. He represented new resolutions.

Cash arrived at my home in what I believed to be a lull in life commitments, but what was in truth a franticness of my own making.

While trying to meet multiple writing deadlines, I was also finalizing the release of my first feature documentary. Cash’s adoption added yet another stressor to the equation.

When you tell people you want to get a pet, some may try to caution you: “It’s not going to be easy.”

“Well,” I’d thought, “point me to a single thing in life that is easy.”

The absence of fine print disarms you. Yet I, ever the responsible pet owner, had vowed to be as informed as I possibly could with the help of my trusty friend, Google.

The forum posts I read warned the first few days would be rocky. A bit of tummy upset, a possibility of separation anxiety. But Google alone could not have possibly prepared me for what was to come. 

The first week, I was woken every day at 7 am to the frantic sound of nails against fabric. This was the sound of Cash trying to escape his foldable dog crate. 

The walls shook and bulged in what looked like a cartoon punch-up. Cash’s shrill machine-gun barks suggested he was enduring some heinous form of torture, rather than mere separation by canvas.

No sooner had I managed to work the zip open an inch than he was launching himself out like a fur cannonball.

The crate was meant to serve in principle as his “den” – a place of rest and familiarity. But to Cash, it was the equivalent of an iron maiden. 

To me, it was a sea wall holding back waves of diarrhea.

Cash, I had been told, was housebroken. Yet the stress of the adoption – and his recent surrender by not one, but as I later learned, three owners – had thrown all of his training out of whack.

Having a dog and being mildly OCD were two things that did not mix well. Still, if being occasionally triggered was the only cost of a cute dog’s company, it was one I was willing to pay.

But after climbing out of bed in the middle of the night and stepping into a foul-smelling puddle, I’d decided it was time to try containing the issue.

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
The first few weeks were as trying for Cash as they were for me.

II

I had entered dog ownership knowing there might be complications. But I had also gone into it expecting an emotional support pet…only to find myself becoming a dog life support system.

Years prior, I’d witnessed the antics of a friend’s equally needy dog and vowed I’d never adopt an animal like that. And here I was new with a puppy who nudged me the second I stopped patting him.

My expectations may have been unrealistic, following as they did the high bar set by our household dogs.

The first, Kimi, slept beside my crib when I was a baby. The instant I awoke crying, he would go into my parent’s room and wake my mother.

On weekend picnic trips with my family to a local river, I’d push Kimi into the water, cling to his tail, and wait for him to tow me to the far side like a dutiful rescue dog. Never mind he was half the size of his lookalike Lassie.

I mean, what was not to love?

As for his successor, Rumi, he had been a gentle, refined creature who could only be stirred to a state of excitement by my mother’s return from work.

Early on, I learned he could be duped by a single phrase: “Mummy’s home!” Within seconds, his gullible bottom would be waggling.

Rumi’s worst offense was howling when left alone. Compared to Cash’s daily hysteria, Rumi’s crooning was a deeply moving show of love and loyalty.

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
Kimi was tireless in his love of my family.

Notwithstanding the fact Cash was lacking the same degree of charm as my previous dogs, his “accidents” would have been forgivable had he been actually capable of going potty outside.

The closest thing to “outside” Cash had ever known it seemed was a suburban yard, with none of the distractions and threats of a street frequented by people and other pets. 

Each outing thus proved fraught. The sight of people, other animals, or babies sleeping in their strollers would often spark bouts of temporary madness.

Cash would growl at anything that moved, bark at every approaching figure, lunge at other dogs. Having never been lead-trained, he would pull me down stairs, into walls and car doors with careless abandon, leaving me with an assortment of cuts and scrapes.

When we finally did get to a grassy verge that served as a toilet for the neighborhood dogs, Cash would just stand there. Sometimes he might pace, other times he would sniff the leavings of his predecessors. But he would not, for reasons I could not fathom relieve himself.

After twenty minutes of exasperated waiting, I’d take him back up to the apartment. Before long, however, Cash would be at the door, crying to be let out. Up and down the stairs we would go, over and over again, with nary a bowel or bladder movement. 

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
Rumi was Kimi’s equally adorable successor.

I wondered if I was being subjected to some kind of canine mind game. But then I would look into Cash’s gentle eyes, and my exasperation would soften into pity.


III

One day, upon returning from my seventh lap to the grassy patch, I found my own bladder was full. As I stood at the toilet relieving myself, Cash entered the bathroom, hunkered down on the bathmat, and urinated in tandem. 

Cutting myself off mid-stream, I turned and gave him a look heavy with disapproval.

Cash for his part stared up at me in what appeared to be guilt…or perhaps blame. I’d made him wait, after all, inflicting my unreasonable expectations upon him.

This? This was payback.

The stair-climbing routine began to grind on my nerves. I was facing down multiple deadlines, and to make matters worse, I was still ill.

Over the past few days, I’d coughed so hard I was pretty certain I could now see my abs. It was a first, but one I wish I had only achieved by virtue of exercise, rather than repeated attempts to lose a lung.

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
Caught in the act!

The combined stress sent me into a downward spiral of dog shaming.

“Pee or do not pee!” I caught myself screaming at Cash. “There is no try!”

My wisdom, however, fell on deaf ears.

Once more, I turned to the forums for help. One post suggested I could fix Cash’s problem by collecting a sample of Cash’s urine and using it to “mark” the desired spot. 

Ever the dutiful parent, I squeezed the contents of a puppy training pad into a jar. I took Cash downstairs, dribbled the pee onto a patch of brown, stunted grass and told Cash to go potty.

Cash didn’t so much as look at me. Instead, he sniffed at a passing homeless woman, pushing a trolley laden with garbage bags at the far end of the block.

“Cash! Go potty.”

Still he ignored me. 

Growing up, I’d seen parents accompany their toddlers into toilets. The idea of guiding anyone through such a process had revolted me. Helping someone perform a basic biological function? No thank you.

But what choice was left to me now? The situation called for desperate measures.

Checking to see the coast was clear, I lowered the front of my pants and urinated. Not a full stream mind you – just a few discreet squirts.

“See Cash? Like this.”

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
Cash, in one of his frisky, post-bath moods.

Cash looked at the pee puddle, then his attention returned to the homeless woman.

I had just publicly exposed myself – all for the sake of my dog. But if I was expecting gratitude, I certainly wasn’t going to get it.


IV

It was some days before Cash mastered outdoor peeing. Around this time the fount of diarrhea dried up, and now he was suffering from the exact opposite problem. 

My relief was swiftly replaced by concern. So, back to the online forums I went.

One post suggested I give Cash some pureed pumpkin to help move things along. What it mostly did was earn me some serious canine side-eye.

Cash’s symptoms were, as it turned out, psychosomatic. He was a very anxious dog, and his anxiety prevailed long after most dogs would have otherwise “settled in”. 

Losing sight of me sparked for my pet what sounded like an existential crisis, every departure and arrival greeted with a furious storm of barks. 

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
As for closing the bathroom door, that was not happening – not on my dog’s watch.

A dog training website told me I should ignore Cash until he calmed down. Yet my snubs only made him double down with the protesting.

Another site suggested I desensitize Cash to all the familiar cues of my leaving. I began jingling my keys at random intervals. I’d go through the motions of putting on my clothes and shoes before sitting back down at my computer.

Each time, Cash would leap up as if he’d just heard an air raid siren. If I dared move, he would stick to me like a piece of Velcro. If I closed the door on him, he would bark incessantly. It was like having the world’s clingiest boyfriend.

One morning, tired of my dog’s bottomless need, I decided to try sneaking away. As I quietly prepared to head out for work, I paused to listen. Cash seemed to be still sound asleep in his crate. 

Finishing dressing, I crept over to the door, unlocking it. Carrying my shoes out into the hallway, I eased the door closed. 

It was two inches from the jamb when a sneeze came on. I tried to hold it in, but the effect was like trying to swallow a sneeze: all the air went out my nostrils.

Snot geysered, dribbling only my chin.

And just like that, my cover had been blown. The apartment rang with a series of high-pitched yelps. 

Scrape-scrape-scrape went Cash’s nails against the canvas as the crate bounced in place. 

Sighing, I closed the door and walked away.


Anxious Seeks Canine continues with Part 5: ‘Doesn’t like cuddles’.