Anxious Seeks Canine – Part 9: ‘A short-term solution’

Essy Knopf anxious seeks canine
Reading time: 8 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.


I

My trips to the dog park with Cash had been anything but relaxing. But if I was going to get the downtime I craved, I would need to ease up on the helicoptering and splash out on self-care.

Cash, I decided, should be given the freedom to roam and deal with problems of his own making. Meanwhile, I’d stretch out on a deck chair, crack a book spine, and disappear behind its cover.

It was just like our family’s trips to the local swimming pool many summers past, only now I was taking on the role of the harried parent, and Cash that of the harassing child.

Left to his own devices, my dog would wander the length of the park, stirring up turmoil wherever he went.

While I quickly learned to tune out the disapproving mutterings of other dog parents, the moment my dog struck up a serious ruckus, my instincts would kick in.

Jumping to my feet, I’d clap to get Cash’s attention, calling him back. This was my compromise, and while I wanted to believe my apologetic smiles appeased other dog owners, not all were forgiving.

The moment a spat erupted, you could always expect more than a few people to come running.

“No hurting, no hurting!” I heard one man cry, in a tone that suggested the very idea itself was hurtful.

Owners would sweep their pets into their arms, comforting or scolding, some seemingly more damaged by conflict than their pets. Not me. My approach was now staunchly of the hands-off sort. 

One morning, a man entered the enclosure, strutting about in gym shorts and a string tank top.

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
Cash became the dog park’s de facto tyrant.

All sculpted pecs and bulging quads, Brawny Man maintained a brooding silence. His air was less “strong, silent type” than offended masculinity.

His dog couldn’t have struck a greater contrast. The white Samoyed was a ball of fur that padded daintily to and fro, tail swishing languidly behind her, hugging the enclosure fence like a courtesan trying to keep her distance from the unwashed masses. 

If the Samoyed saw herself as a courtesan, Cash saw her as cattle. He ran barking towards the other dog, never mind the fact he was half her size. 

The Samoyed could have stood her ground. Instead, she bolted, as if before the advance of a marauding brute.

“Cash!” I called, thumbing the vibrate button on the training collar’s remote. “Come here!”

Cash raced back towards me, leaving the Samoyed cowering in one corner.

“I’m so sorry,” I stammered, turning to Brawny Man.

“Seriously man,” he replied. “Really?” As if my little troublemaker had ruined his day.

Brawny Man approached the Samoyed, patting her. His movements seemed somehow stilted, like that of someone wiping his hand on a tea towel. 

Then Brawny Man stood tall, brooding over charge for a few minutes, then stormed out of the enclosure, the Samoyed sashaying after him.

I fell to wondering what the other man must be feeling. Sympathy for his traumatized child? Anger towards me, for giving Cash free reign to play a harmless game of chase?

Chasing, barking, picking fights were, at least to me, standard playground behavior. Sometimes it culminated in harmless little scraps, an exchange of yelping and biting, but rarely anything serious.

People with Aspergers – Aspies, as we like to call ourselves – are often accused of not having empathy. I tend to think it’s more a question of selectivity. We have a habit of “systematizing”; squaring things away into tidy little boxes, employing logic before emotion.

This same tendency to compartmentalize led me to believe that if no one was physically hurt, these clashes between my dog and his various playmates could be ruled as character-building.

As for the possibility those involved might be psychologically damaged – bah! 

When the shoe was on the other foot and it was Cash being terrorized for a change, my position remained unchanged. I dare say I even felt satisfaction.

Cash was, after all, getting his just desserts.


II

But after a handful of such clashes, Cash’s hostility towards other dogs escalated.

The instant he spotted another dog headed towards us, the lead would go taut in my grasp and I would overbalance, stumbling as Cash scrabbled headlong towards his target.

The first times this happened, I made the mistake of trying to pick Cash up, carrying him directly past his often inoffensive offender.

Maybe if Cash could be soothed – reassured that the other dog didn’t pose any danger – he would relax. 

“It’s okay, Cash,” I cooed one time, stroking his fur. “You’re safe- Ouch!”

Cash was flailing now, and clawing me in the process. 

From then onward, whenever I spotted another dog, I’d do a complete 180, coaxing Cash away like a parent trying to avert a toddler tantrum.

Cash would bark, throwing a few sullen looks over his shoulder, and reluctantly follow. As there were more than a few dog owners in our building – never mind our neighborhood – it was impossible to perform a complete circuit of our block without encountering one of them.

Thinking that I might be able to curb Cash’s violent reaction with positive reinforcement, I packed a pouch with dog treats and led Cash towards a yard housing his chief opponent: a spotted mutt.

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
Cash I am sad to report did not hike up here. His Royal Highness insisted on being driven.

To say that I did not share Cash’s hostility towards this particular creature would have been a lie. This mutt’s only purpose in life, it seemed, was bum-rushing pedestrians. In my case, he had triggered more than a few panic attacks.

“Okay, Cash,” I said, as we stopped a ten or so feet from the yard, “we’re going to try something new. Sit.” Cash sat, and I handed him a treat, petting him. “Good boy.”

At the sound of our voices, the spotted mutt slunk into view, glaring at us through the chain-link fence. Then he let loose a fusillade of barks.

Cash immediately returned fire, jerking me forward as he rushed to attack. 

“Uh-uh Cash. Stop it. Sit. Sit!”

In a matter of seconds, my dog had gone from calm to fury. Now with the enemy in his sights, and was no backing down. Cash would not stop until the mutt had been torn to pieces, crushed into meal, incinerated.

“Cash! Stop. Be quiet!” I tried distracting Cash with a dog treat. It was no use. My attempt at training was doomed to failure.

I dragged Cash past the spotted mutt, and he leapt snarled at the fence.

Exasperation turned to anger. Wrenching Cash away, I smacked him once, twice, three times on the snout. 

“No! Bad dog!”

Cash continued to struggle so I grabbed him, alpha rolled him onto his back and held him there. Clearly my dog had forgotten who the boss was, so it was high time I reminded him. 

He struggled like a man on fire, nipping at my hand.

“Not stop me,” went his growls. “Will fight. Will fight!”

A passing car slowed, the driver leaning heavily on the horn. A window rolled down and a face appeared.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” it screamed.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” I screamed back, frozen in the act of what looked like a strangling.

Trying to save face, I angled my body so that it seemed I might have actually been trying to shield Cash against the spotted dog.

Maybe my ruse worked, because the driver muttered, rolled up his window and sped away. 

All the while, Cash was writhing in my grasp. Thanks to him, I had been caught performing the equivalent of a public smacking session. 

Faced with Cash’s growing unruliness, I recognized that what the circumstances called for were a hell a lot of a patience. But wrestling with my own anxiety as it was, this was a quality I was sorely lacking. 

It was high time that I sought an expert opinion.


III

I sat in the examination room, reading the news on my phone, trying to ignore Cash as he whined and paced.

He’d heard the barks emanating from another part of the clinic, and this apparently had sent him into search-and-destroy mode.

After a few minutes’ wait, a sparrow-sized woman in a lab coat entered, introducing herself with an accent I pegged as Czech.

“So I see here Cash is struggling with anxiety,” Dr. Stransky said, looking down at the appointment form I’d completed a few minutes earlier.

“As you can probably see,” went my reply.

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
Cash was an anxious mess during our visit to the veterinarian.

I called Cash over and hauled him up on my lap.

“It’s okay Cash. You’re safe.”

But he only slid off and resumed his post by the door, whimpering like a kid sentry awaiting the arrival of enemy combatants.

“I’ve been trying everything to calm him down,” I continued, “and nothing seems to be working. I was wondering…is medication an option?”

Dr. Stransky clicked her tongue.

“Medication is only a short-term solution,” she said.

“But Cash has a serious problem,” I replied. “He makes a huge fuss the minute I leave the apartment without him.” The vet stared at me.

“Look,” I almost said, “I’m not suggesting putting him in a permanent drug fugue. I just want the option.”

“Have you tried puppy training school?” Dr. Stransky asked finally. I flushed.

“I can’t afford that.”

When once asked by a pre-adoption questionnaire how much I would be willing to shell out on medical expenses for my dog, I had written $3000. 

Never mind $3000 was almost twice the amount I had in my bank account at any given time. Sure, I’d been bluffing, but I was confident my dog would never have any serious problems. Everything was going to be A-okay. How wrong I had been.

“What you really need,” Dr. Stransky continued, “is help from a dog behaviorist.”

“How much is that going to cost?” I asked, not caring how miserly I probably sounded.

The vet produced a pamphlet for a nearby pet hospital. I scanned the price list. A basic two-hour behaviorist consultation came in at a steep $600. 

“Jesus,” I whispered. 

Six…hundred…dollars. That kind of cash I wouldn’t even think of spend on myself, let alone taking my pet to see a canine shrink.

Sure, to some owners, $600 may seem like peanuts for peace of mind, but I struggled to justify it. If this woman thought I was going to start a second job Ubering in order to stop my dog breaking down the front door, she was sorely mistaken.

Dr. Stransky hummed.

“I know,” she said, “it’s expensive. But I’ve heard great things about this center.”

Determined not to let my vet visit go to waste, I changed tack.

“If Cash continues like this,” I said, “I’m worried I won’t be able to keep him.” The vet was implacable.

“I’ll give you a limited script,” Dr. Stransky said. “But like I said, you can’t rely on drugs alone to treat Cash.”

What she seemed to be suggesting, at least to my paranoid self, was that I was looking for a quick-fix solution. 

And so what if I was? Pills had dulled the screaming tirades of my own mind to a tolerable background buzz; had restored me from a shuffling caffeine-infused insomnia zombie to a vigorous, seven-hours-minimum-a-night self. 

And pills alone were what was keeping me sitting in my chair at the veterinarian’s office, conveying a composure I certainly didn’t feel.

Yet by Dr. Stransky’s tone, I knew nothing I said or did was going to change her mind. So I grumbled agreement, took the script, and left.

Out in the car, I looked over the prescription and saw it was for the exact same medication I was using to treat my own anxiety. 

It was yet another uncanny parallel between Cash and me; one I suppose I should have found it amusing. 

Yet my trip to the vet had done little to allay my concerns. If anything, it had brought into focus the yawning gap between Cash’s needs, and my ability to meet them.


Anxious Seeks Canine continues with Part 10: ‘Annul anarchy’.

Anxious Seeks Canine – Part 10: ‘Annul anarchy’

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.


I

“Um, excuse me…” I looked up from my book. A woman I didn’t recognize was standing over me. “Your dog…”

Somewhere behind her, an overly ambitious Cash was trying to mount a rather large Airedale Terrier.

“Oh God, I’m so sorry,” I said, clapping to get his attention. “Cash!”

Cash continued thrusting away at the Terrier’s hindquarters. Only when I rushed towards the scene of the unfolding crime did he stand down.

It didn’t take long however before Cash was circling the Airedale Terrier, in readiness for yet another attempt.

“That’s it!” I snapped. Plucking up Cash, I hauled him over to the enclosure fence – my version of corner time.

Cash’s collar gripped tight in one fist, I muttered in his ear.

“If you keep this up, I’m not going to bring you here anymore. Do you understand?”

By Cash’s wriggling it was clear that he did not. My dog was as restless and unrepentant as ever. 

Knowing what I did about his antisocial tendencies, bringing him back to the park had been the real mistake.

But what kind of owner would I have been if I had left Cash stuck indoors for hours, while I lounged outside in the sunshine? 

Cash wasn’t the kind of dog who would sit contentedly with you on the picnic mat. The few times we had tried, he had whined and tried wriggling away from me. 

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
Hikes with Cash sometimes were a joy, but only so long as it wasn’t too hot, and there were no other dogs around for him to pick a fight with.

Dog parks were the only off-lead enclosures that I knew of in central Los Angeles. And given Cash’s tendency to battle-charge each and every dog he saw, letting him roam free anywhere else would be to provoke misfortune.

Here at least, the worst thing I would have to face was the hostility of other owners. The judgment seemed to come off them like heat shimmer above boiling asphalt.

Rather than crumple before the steely stares of my peers, however, I rebounded with defiance. This wasn’t a playgroup for toddlers, and no amount of browbeating was going to make me exclude my dog from the rough-and-tumble to which he was entitled.

Okay, yes – Cash’s behavior was, to put it mildly, annoying. But so far as I could see, his offenses paled in comparison to those of some peers. 

The kinds who, for example, jumped up onto tables and stepped all over my laptop while I was smashing out important emails.

“No,” I’d say, pushing them away. “Tables are not for dogs. Tables are for humans.” 

It was a declaration almost always punctuated with a glare, directed at their phone-preoccupied owners. Never mind I spent most of my own visit staring at a screen – couldn’t these people see I was trying to work here?! 

If the dog park was the stage upon which the dramas of human existence played out in a miniature, abbreviated form, then the sheltered tables where owners sat was an arena for the psyche.

Here, anxiety brewed and fears emerged; shame was inflicted and justifications employed; neuroses fledged and inferiority complexes given vent.

We troubled owners were bound by a code of mutual policing, a code led by volunteer welfare warriors, a character which the park never seemed short of.

On one occasion, I saw a grizzled man in grease-smeared mechanics’ overalls wandering the park, approaching people to ask if they were the owner of an emaciated greyhound.

“He looks borderline starved,” the Welfare Warrior complained. I watched the greyhound lope excitedly after another dog.

“He seems pretty happy to me,” went my response.

Of course, the man only went on with his moral census-taking, determined to hold someone to account.


II

He was, of course, in good company. Whenever I wasn’t doing work, you could almost certainly catch me scrutinizing other owners.

There was the young Korean couple who pent two hours doting on and documenting their crucifix-wearing Golden Retriever with their camera phones. 

Grimacing, I watched as the wife cupped her hands while her husband filled the improvised dog bowl with bottle spring water, in an apparent snub of the communal water bowl just a few feet away.

Watching them, I was struck by an impression of adoring parents, following their toddler’s first steps.

The impression was completed when the dog squatted to do her business, and the owners produced a toilet roll and wiped their pet’s underparts.

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
For the record, I had no part in Cash’s choice of awkward sleeping position. He was perfectly capable of looking ridiculous on his own.

There was also the woman in activewear who glided over to the table where I was working, plopping a bag full of dog waste beside me.

At first, I didn’t notice. It was not until I caught a whiff of the bag’s contents and looked up that I realized what had happened. 

A casual scan of the park revealed Activewear Lady standing on the far side, in the shade, chatting obliviously with another owner.

It took a full forty-five minutes – yes, I counted – before the woman returned to retrieve her bag.

“Sorry about that!” she said.

“No problem,” I lied. The belated acknowledgement wasn’t enough. What I wanted was an explanation. “I just assumed you were keeping it for a stool test.”

“Oh, no,” Activewear Lady rushed to say. “Every time we come to the park, my dog poops twice, three times. So I try to conserve plastic, you know?”

She hefted her doggy bag holder demonstratively.

I raised an eyebrow. How had this woman managed to monitor her dog’s bowel movements and yet fail to notice the numerous bins and pooper scoopers strewn about the park?

Cataloguing my fellow owners, I would be remiss in not mentioning the parent of a perpetually happy Labrador who spent her entire visit to the park mesmerized by shadows.

It was not until the third occasion of our meeting that I worked up the courage to approach the man with tattooed sleeves and ask him about his dog’s fixation.

“Oh that,” Tattooed Sleeves said, laughing in what sounded like dry amusement. “She’s a shelter dog. Her last owner left her on her own for long periods.”

“Poor thing,” I tutted.

“So now she thinks shadows are people,” Tattooed Sleeves concluded.

My gaze returned to the Labrador, who had not only failed to register the other dogs frolicing around her, but had spent the past 20 minutes watching shadows, tail wagging a merry greeting.

“And that doesn’t worry you.” It was both a statement and a question. 

“The vet says it’s just her way of coping,” Tattooed Sleeves said. He shrugged. “She seems to enjoy it.”

With all this dysfunction around us, I certainly felt Cash and I were among equals. Yet visiting the dog park was about as socially trying for my pet as it was for me.

Most visits I shied from talking to other owners, handicapped as I was by my sense of being an imposter. While I might have had a pet, I was by no means a good owner.

A good owner, after all, was a person of certain insight, skill, and wherewithal – qualities I certainly admired, but did not have.

And then there was the fact that while I might love Cash…I didn’t quite like him. 

These facts I feared were an open secret. To everyone who saw me, I was that guy: the neglectful novice who didn’t care to train his rowdy dog.

The sense of deficiency extended as much to me, as to Cash. I might tell him he was a “good dog”, and yet part of me wondered, “But is he? Really?”

But Cash was, in this sense, an heir to a legacy of my own self-doubt.

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
Being a dog parent had triggered a history of shame issues.

III

From pre-K on, I’d known with painful certainty that I wasn’t like the other kids.

At six, I began memorizing the Latin names of dinosaurs. My interest progressed to Lego, then insects, gemstones, coins, stamps, Pokémon cards, and words.

Yes, words. As a grown adult, I’d open my childhood keepsake box to find ratty little lists of them.

There were other things, such as sensory sensitivities. Underwear that seemed to intentionally – no, sadistically – rub my privates. My family, loudly chewing their dinner. 

The intense discomfort of being tickled, so intense I’d once felt compelled to scream “Rape!” in order to fully convey my sense of violation.

In some areas of academia, like reading, I’d excel, while in others, I’d struggle, nearly flunking basic arithmetic in my second year.

Writing with a pencil felt like doing needlepoint with a mop. My distinctions didn’t end there. There was also the fact I had to ask the teacher’s help tying my shoelaces a full year after everyone else had stopped.

My tendency to take everything literally made idiomatic language a nightmare. The first time I heard Britney Spears’ “Hit Me Baby One More Time”, I thought it was an invitation to spousal abuse.

Words were often mispronounced. Hyperbole became hyper-bole; mortgage, mort-gage; crocheting, crotch-eting. 

At 11, I’d passed the porno section of our local video store and caught myself reading the confusing titles aloud. One featured a woman exposing her backside, and carried the title “A-nnul Anarchy”.

Annul anarchy. To banish chaos. It was a concept my inner control freak immediately warmed to.

Despite all my best intentions, I’d stumble into socially inappropriate behavior. On one occasion, while obsessively collecting phone numbers, I asked a high school teacher if I could add hers to my new electronic organizer. That went down about as well as you can imagine.

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
People called me “Nature Boy”. It was a title I was nevertheless proud of.

The act of collecting in and of itself both thrilled, and calmed; conveyed a sense of living in a safe, ordered universe.

Requests like these ran in tandem with disastrous, often ill-timed comments. Once, thinking I was being funny, I complimented a stranger on his nice, strong stream – while he was standing at the urinal. 

Raised eyebrows, polite smiles, and dismissals quickly taught me to reign it in. Those times I couldn’t compensate for my shortcomings, I simply withdrew. 

But my desire to blurt, to offer unsolicited opinions and stream-of-consciousness admissions was irresistible. Inevitably I’d catch myself flinging matches at wooden bridges – or gaping at the resulting inferno.

One time, I questioned a work colleague’s decision to sell milk chocolate – of all unhealthy foods! – to fund her friend’s bowel cancer treatment. It was, as I insinuated, “completely illogical”.

Like the classic Star Trek character, Spock, or his spiritual successor the android Data, I just didn’t get human beings – and they didn’t get me. 

In the face of constant misunderstandings, my pride rebelled. The problem wasn’t me, but these ignoramuses

How was it that I was always cast as the villain, when I was only being my authentic, good-intentioned self?

For all I might have tried to defy the accusations, I still shouldered a vague sense of guilt. Guilt in turn fuelled questions.

Was I indeed somehow inferior; inherently unlikeable? Did my difference leave me destined for solitude?

It wasn’t until the age of 26 that I received a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism.

The diagnosis drew back the curtains of confusion; let me at last bathe in the light of clarity. Here, at last, was the source of all my challenges – and an explanation for how I could finally overcome them.

Yet, years later, some of the darkness remained. It loomed beneath me, an acid bath of shame as I walked a careful tightrope of dog parenthood.


Anxious Seeks Canine continues with Part 11: ‘This again?’.

Anxious Seeks Canine – Part 11: ‘This again?’

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.


I

“Inhale, one, two, three, four. Exhale, one, two, three, four. Hold, one, two, three, four.”

Eyes closed, I sat at my work cubicle, counting my breaths, trying desperately to ward off the sudden upwelling of anxiety. 

Still, my jaw muscles refused to unclench.

“Come on already,” I grumbled.

Teeth ground against teeth in open defiance, my jaws set now like the levers of a nutcracker.

Up came a hand, striking first one side of the face, then the other. Smack-smack!

This attempt to jolt me back into the present, into total mastery of my rebellious body, only had the effect of making my ears ring.

“Who did you think you are, ignoring me?” I silently seethed.

“Without me, you’re nothing – NOTHING! You hear?”

Months after my breakup with Derrick, the pervasive sense of stress lingered. When I complained to Dr. Kukosian, she prescribed a simple regimen of journaling and deep breathing.

“Alright,” I’d thought. “No harm in trying.” 

But when I finally sat down to listen to a guided meditation, I was interrupted by a snide little voice.

“HEY,” it said. “You don’t really believe in this crap, do you?”

“Go away,” I said through a grimace.

“HEY. HEY. HEY,” the little voice continued. “Excuse me. Excuuuuuuuuse me.”

“Cut it out.”

“Mind over matter might work for some people, but not you. You wanna know why?”

“I’m not listening-” 

A violent stream of random images and memories followed, fracturing my attention in a million different directions.

Had I defrosted the chicken breast? What was I going to make for dinner tomorrow? Did I email so-and-so? Why hadn’t I written down this great premise for a film?

Session after meditation session, I would brave these mental interruptions. The more I tried to ignore my underlying anxiety, the more it would go underground.

My breath would catch, my stomach tense up. Over and over again, I’d fight for toeholds of focus.

“This anxiety problem you have? You can’t fix it,” the internal voice gloated. “You’re too far gone now. So you can just forget about all this mindfulness woo-woo. Douse the incense, throw away your sandalwood beads and just book yourself a place in the mental hospital already.”

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
Cash during a group hike with friends.

II

Journaling didn’t lighten the load, and breathing only seemed to make things worse. Dr. Kukosian’s only response to my complaints was to advise me to keep going.

“That’s it?” I wondered. “That’s all you’re going to give me? My brain is a burning six-story building, and you’re going to give me a fire blanket?”

“Uh, okay,” I replied. “If you think that’s going to help?”

Dr. Kukosian smiled and nodded. Her reticence seemed to suggest what she could not: that I had been shirking my treatment protocol. 

Sure – I wasn’t taking time out for myself daily, and I was still struggling to fit 15-minute daily meditation routines into my schedule.

The little voice had told me none of it was going to work anyway, so what did it matter? And frankly, between the voice and the woman with a dissertation on mood disorders, I was going to always listen to the natural authority…which obviously wasn’t her.

Dr. Kukosian, I told myself, was choosing to be a mindfulness Nazi. Either that, or it was me choosing comfortable dysfunction. 

Whatever the case, we were drifting out of sync. Every demand for insight and advice was more often than not met with a redirection.

This whole non-directive therapy style suggested to me that she wasn’t inflicted by the same sense of urgency as I was; didn’t care for the speedy solution I craved. In short, I was finding our sessions a total bore.

To be fair, Dr. Kukosian probably felt the same way, given the fact I was forcing her to field the same tired old complaints. 

“What do you mean it doesn’t work?” I could almost hear her thinking. “Of course it works. You’re just not trying hard enough.”

Banging on about journaling and deep breathing and meditation could very well have just been my therapist’s way of stonewalling me until I had no choice but to quit treatment. 

After Dr. Kukosian rescheduled our next appointment, then canceled the day of, my paranoia deepened. Were these the first signs of an inevitable breakup?

Out of nowhere, Dr. Kukosian suddenly texted to explain that she had two practices and had decided, apparently on a whim, to only attend one of them.

If I wanted to continue seeing her, I would now have to travel 45 minutes to the second location. But with me madly dashing to fulfil multiple screenplay competition and fellowship deadlines, this wasn’t going to be possible.

When I told Dr. Kukosian as much, she offered a compromise: we could try holding our next session over a video conferencing system.

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
Cash was weird about affection. He wanted it, and yet he didn’t want it. One thing he seemed to enjoy was sitting on my lap while I was working.

III

The first 15 minutes of our next session I spent trying to access therapy web portal, only for the connection to repeatedly drop out. 

Finally, my therapist suggested we chat over the phone…when the video connection inexplicably returned. 

Conscious of time already wasted troubleshooting, I quickly brought Dr. Kukosian up to speed.

“Right now I can barely take Cash out of the apartment,” I explained. “He hates other dogs, hates anything that moves, really. It sets off his anxiety, which then sets off mine… Nice little chain reaction we’ve got going on there.”

The pixelated blob on my screen that passed for Dr. Kukosian’s face nodded. 

“I see,” Dr. Kukosian said. Something about her response seemed…distant. 

Maybe I was just being paranoid, but it felt like the warmth Dr. Kukosian had emanated in her office was gone, replaced by a veneer of polite interest. Then again, trying to interpret body language over a shaky video link was a shot in the dark.

Onwards I went with my litany of gripes about dog parenthood, persevering every time the video cut out in the hopes that at least some of what I said was getting through.

Five minutes into one despair-tinged rant, what I had taken for professional silence on Dr. Kukosian’s part was revealed to in fact be a dead line. The sudden “Hello?” from Dr. Kukosian cast a pall of humiliated silence over my one-person pity party.

“I’m so sorry,” Dr Kukosian said. “You got cut off. Would you mind starting again from the top?”

“The top being…”

“About five minutes ago,” Dr. Kukosian replied.

“Okay.” Then, sighing, I began the frustrating task of summarizing my ever-growing sense of frustration.

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
Cash’s usual method of persuasion: a wink and a smile.

IV

At one point Dr. Kukosian asked me to rate my anxiety on a scale of one to 10. My response was “nine”.

“These technical issues aren’t exactly helping,” I almost said, but stopped myself.

This wasn’t exactly Dr. Kukosian’s fault. Then again, it was she who had decided to abandon her old office – and me with it. At least, that was how the cynical little voice told it.

“And have you been doing your meditation and breathing exercises?” she asked.

“Oh sure,” I said. “When I can.” 

It was a bluff, I wanted to believe, and not an outright lie. Because as far as exercises in futility went, there was probably none worse than actively deceiving a paid confidante…

Given my flexible relationship with the truth, I suppose I couldn’t fault Dr. Kukosian for trying to slink away to her second practice.

Again she stressed the importance of building a meditation practice. Handing a platitude to a drowning man, however, isn’t much of an improvement over handing him a millstone.

So when an email appeared in my inbox, my attention drifted.

“Must. Reply,” my jittery brain told me. I quietly tapped out a two-word response. The two-word response soon became a multi-paragraph epistle. 

Yes, I was still listening, I told myself. Multitasking was, after all, my middle name – and probably one of the reasons I was an anxious mess to begin with, come to think of it…

Dr. Kukosian stopped short, humming in what sounded like annoyance.

“What is that noise?” she asked.

“Sorry, sorry,” I said. “I was just…writing down notes…about what you were saying.”

Red-faced, I pushed my keyboard away. But my eye remained on my email client, my fingers itching to hit the send button.

Dr. Kukosian resumed her monologue on the benefits of meditation, her words drifting into my field of concentration and quickly out again. 

This again?” I thought. “I could be positively psychotic and this woman would be shepherding me out into the garden to sit on a cushion among the pine cones, all the while stroking her goddamn Tibetan singing bowl-” 

Again the video dropped out. I waited, only for the video conferencing system to crash entirely.

My breath hissed through my teeth, one long expulsion. A release. All this time, our therepeutic relationship had been one the decline. Now, at last, Dr. Kukosian and I’s figurative disconnection had become literal

Staring at the error message in my browser window, I reassured myself that surely I could salvage something from this exchange. Even if that something was the understanding that Dr. Kukosian and were, for all intents and purposes, finished.

I tapped out an apology in the chat window, suggesting that we end the session there, while thanking my therapist for her time.

Then I cracked my knuckles, flipped over to my email client, and hit “send”.


Anxious Seeks Canine continues with Part 12: ‘Sorry not sorry’.

Anxious Seeks Canine – Part 12: ‘Sorry not sorry’

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.


I

Recent sessions with my therapist Dr. Kukosian had been spent discussing my difficulties with Cash. But if I believed my dog alone was the cause of my ongoing stress, I was certainly fooling myself.

My workaholic lifestyle remained unchanged, my brain locked into helping me fight my way out of a struggle town that was probably more imaginary than real. 

Finally, some weeks after my feature film’s disappointing premiere screening, the first sign of the recognition I had been chasing arrived.

A national Australian broadcaster emailed asking to purchase my film and broadcast it as part of a human interest television program about modern faith, ethics, and values.

This was a development that called for celebration. And yet I felt more glad than I did festive. After five years of relentless self-imposed work, I just wanted to put the project behind me. 

Still, if ever there was a time for a break, this was it. However tight my purse strings might be, there was no guarantee that the payday my film’s sale promised would return any time soon. 

So I called a friend I had made years earlier during a visit to San Francisco, Varinder, who agreed we were both overdue for some time away.

We booked a three-day hiking trip, staying at an Airbnb cottage in Three Rivers, just outside of Sequoia National Park.

While park rules meant Cash wouldn’t be able to join us on our hikes, he could at the very least stay in the cottage. My reasoning was that the time spent in the presence of nature would soothe his frazzled nerves, but when we at last departed, it was amid uproar.

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
A view from the riverbank near the cottage.

For the first 30 minutes of the drive to Three Rivers, Cash yelped nonstop, straining wildly against his seatbelt. This behavior had become customary every time I took my dog out, Cash having associated car trips with visits to the dog park…and ensuing duels to the death. 

As if this wasn’t enough, 30 minutes into the trip, he got carsick and painted the floor with soggy chunks of dog kibble.

I pulled over, hit the hazard lights and got out of the car. Opening the door to the backseat, I found my dog crouched awkwardly on the ground, whining in pain.

Cash had, in his frenzy, twisted a seat belt around one leg. With a sigh, I unbuckled Cash and unwound the belt.

Mopping up his mess, my thoughts took a turn. In bringing Cash along, was I only guaranteeing a continuation of the ongoing drama?


II

But not long after I resumed driving, some internal alarm system deactivated, and Cash settled down on the seat, head resting on his paws.

Upon our arrival at our cottage in Three Rivers, I unclipped Cash’s belt harness and he hopped out of the car. Within seconds he had bolted, hurrying off to explore the lush garden. 

Any kind of separations had usually been accompanied by fireworks. But not this time. A good sign, I decided, and perhaps the first of many.

After Varinder and I had settled in, we followed Cash down to a nearby river, the banks thick with silt from recent floods.

As I settled into the deck chair, Cash rocketed from sight.

“… Cash?” I called. His response came in the form of a joyous bark.

Turning in my chair, I saw him ten feet behind, digging a hole. 

“What are you up to, you little mischief maker?”

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
Haz paws. Will dig.

Cash looked up and barked again, in what seemed like invitation to admire his handiwork.

“This,” I thought, “was the dog I signed up for.”

After a restful night, lulled to sleep by the hushed babble of the river, I awoke to find my dog waiting by the door, eager to resume adventuring. 

Scrubbing my eyes, I thrust the door open, letting in crisp morning air. Cash padded off to frolic in the dew-jeweled grass, not the least bit concerned by the fact I wasn’t following.

Later, picking my way among rocks and pools of water, Cash reappeared, dipping one tentative paw into the water.

He faltered, perhaps in anticipation of immediate drowning. Barks of protest followed.

“Don’t…leave me…behind…daddy!”

“Cash, you’re being ridiculous,” I said. 

“Iz danger,” went his reply. “Haz scared.”

“Come on, you’ll be fine.”

After some pacing, Cash surrendered his fears and followed.

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
Staring into the sun. Generally not a good idea. But at least he was getting his feet wet for a change!

Progress. Yet with each step forward, Cash seemed to take another backward.

When the time arrived for Varinder and I to depart on our first hike, Cash resisted going into his crate, barking with the vehemence of a child sorely betrayed.

Still, what were the alternatives? During his worst spells of anxiety, Cash had chewed his way through a pillowcase, a book and a TV remote.

Who knew what acts of vandalism he might wreak if left to his own devices in a stranger’s home?

Allowed to roam free on the property, my cityslicker dog would likely have gotten lost or picked a losing battle with a snake or coyote. Without me around to yank Cash’s ungrateful behind to safety, the risk was certain. 

Still, as Varinder and I departed, Cash’s cries ringing in our ears, I couldn’t help but feel a trace of guilt.

Our first hike of the day led us past lush gorges and a deafening waterfall. After, Varinder and I took a road up to the park’s summit, then a path threading through fern-skirted sequoia groves, leading to a sweeping viewpoint of the valley below.

If life had meant to prescribe any antidote to my woes, it could not have picked a more sublime treatment. 

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
Moro Rock in the Sequoia National Park.

III

That afternoon when we returned to the cottage, it was in a state of blissful depletion.

Cash reacted to our return by furiously scrabbling at his crate door and barking accusations. When I let him out, he threw himself at me, an explosive release of tension, before speeding out the door to do his business. 

Wanting to cling to my state of relaxation, to nurse the warm glow of a day well-spent, I  stretched out on my bed with a book. 

Minutes later Cash returned, leaping onto the bed and planting himself squarely atop my legs, like a sandbag intent on keeping a marquee from blowing away.

Some might have considered this a cute display of devotion. If I had been content measuring Cash’s love in body weight, this might not have posed a problem. As it was, however, he was crushing my shins.

“Get off, Cash,” I said. My glare went ignored. So instead I tried dislodging him, without much success. 

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
Sequoias after the rain.

When it came to sitting on my bed, Cash usually didn’t like to get too close, preferring instead if you had to stretch in order to pet him. Try to drag Cash within touching distance and he would only squirm away. 

“Stay there and don’t move,” he seemed to be saying. “And if you want to snuggle, no. Sorry not sorry.” 

Yet if strangers came anywhere near me, he would always find some way to get between us. It was a possessiveness that suggested Cash wasn’t my dog, but that I was rather his human. 

The remainder of our mini-vacation Varinder and I spent in a reverie of hiking, reading, and drinking tea by the river, while Cash entertained himself with sniffing, digging and thrashing about in the bushes. 

When it finally came time to leave, my regret was twofold. I didn’t feel quite ready to leave the bubble of tranquility that was Three Rivers. It was as if a piece of the mental attic clutter I lived with had dislodged, making room for something that wasn’t work or worry. 

Yet much of that clutter remained. What I needed therefore was not a few days, but a few months to empty the junk and air out the space; to be in a place where downtime didn’t feel like yet another commitment atop an already impossibly high stack. 

Where sitting down meditation hadn’t thus far worked for me, walking through the quiet sequoia forests had.

Instead of sitting in place, in a fast-eroding island of calm amid the hungry seas of daily demands, I had found peace in simply getting from here to there. Instead of trying to manipulate my unruly thoughts, I had embraced their release.

Dr. Kukosian had been right in urging me to try and change my living circumstances. She had also been right in insisting I give my mind the opportunity to heal. 

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
Cash asking my permission to go exploring on his own.

But normal stratagems hadn’t sufficed. And if my time away from Los Angeles had taught me anything, it was that any solution would have to be hand-tooled and of my own careful devising.

To see Cash filled with such ebullience during our stay had suggested that perhaps his case was no different. Over a few days, he had been transformed – if only temporarily – into one which, under more ideal conditions, he might have otherwise become.

There was a possibility, therefore, that if I scratched the surface of our difficult existence hard enough, I’d find something like balance waiting just beneath.


Anxious Seeks Canine continues with Part 13: ‘Casu?’.

Anxious Seeks Canine – Part 13: ‘Casu?’

Essy Knopf anxious seeks canine
Reading time: 8 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.


I

My lack of success in managing Cash’s anxiety problem had left me in something of a rut. But my trip to Sequoia National Park left me buoyed by new resolutions. 

While I might not be able to give Cash acres of riverfront to roam, I could give him more opportunities to bond with me.

The first obstacle was my dog’s apparent disinterest in training, or anything approaching play. I started by introducing a daily regimen of training exercises.

Cash proved a quick study, mastering tricks like leaping over my hand, rolling over, spinning on the spot, “kissing” and “hugging”, in a matter of weeks.

Though I should point out that even these small victories were prefaced by resistance. 

“Come on Cash, play dead,” I’d tell him. Cash would bark a feisty reply.

“No, no, no, I won’t!” he seemed to say.

While my dog could obey very basic instructions, where it came to any display of canine submission, he was, at the very least, disdainful.

After my requests to “fetch” incited only a sullen stare, I tried roughhousing with Cash instead. Very quickly he and I developed a repertoire of seemingly sadistic exercises, in which I would fake-choke Cash, hog-tie his paws with my hands and tickle his “armpits”. 

Cash willingly played the role of hapless victim, lying on his back, teeth bared, tongue lolling to one side as Gremlin-like gargles boiled up from his throat. 

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
Cash begging for attention.

With Cash’s encouragement, this routine became an everyday ritual, my dog often running over to the drawer where the gloves were stored and barking until I took them out. 

His request having been received, he would jump up onto the bed in readiness for a fresh round of “pretend murder”.

“Really, Cash,” I said. “Is this the kind of relationship you want to have?” To which my dog would respond with an affirmative bark.

And to be perfectly honest, it was an arrangement that worked perfectly for me. Even pretending to wring Cash’s neck offered some measure of catharsis.

“See? Look what you made me do,” I’d tell him, as he growled and flailed, and I inwardly cringed.

Given at least one neighbor had a clear view into my studio, I suppose I should have known better than to leave the curtains wide open. 

What must they have thought, I wondered, watching me play-slamming Cash onto the bed, then hauling him into the air as if he were a toy and I the claw machine? 

To the casual observer, it would have certainly appeared that I was abusing my dog. A casual acquaintance even once suggested as much.

“Oh come on,” I said skeptically. “He could run away at any time.” 

Instead all Cash did was lie there, nibbling my fingers every time I reached to tickle him. Couldn’t they see? Cash was practically egging me on.

Discipline training, combined with these “quality time” activities, renewed our bond, and little by little Cash became less stubborn and more open to listening. 

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
Cash, after I fitted him with an anxiety vest.

II

Still, the line between supporting my dog and accidentally reinforcing his anxiety remained a blurry one.

While working at my desk, Cash would sometimes plant his front paws on my chair to request my attention. When I tried to pick him up, he practically leaped into my lap. 

This was a strange turn of events. My dog was actively seeking closeness, and not of the taking charge, possessive sort, as he had done in Three Rivers. One point to our relationship.

Then I noticed that letting Cash sit on my lap triggered whining episodes the minute I put him down. One point to the separation anxiety.

A casual survey of dog-calming devices led me to try CBD oil. Administering a dose with an eyedropper, I stood back and waited for the oil to take effect.

But even in increased dosages, the oil produced no more reaction than a scornful licking of the chops.

The second option was a body-hugging anxiety vest. The vest left Cash rigid and vacant-eyed. When he began silent panting, I put him on the bed beside me. Cash laid his head against my leg, leaving a slick of drool at the point of contact.

The vest’s sedative lasted for a couple of hours, but even a few days later, walking out of my apartment to collect a parcel, Cash seemed one step removed from his usual nervous peak. 

The shirt was designed for only occasional use, and while it’s possible leaving it on him undermined its effectiveness, I figured there was no harm in testing its benefits for a few weeks. 

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
Cash showing off his Southern belle charm.

Confident in my ability as dog reformer par excellence, I decided that the time had at last come for Cash to make his official debut. 

The occasion: the local dog park’s official Halloween pageant.

Cash fidgeted as I squeezed him into the costume I had purchased on Amazon: a 60s-inspired polka dot dress. When I was done, I stepped back to admire my handiwork.

It was, in my humble opinion, a great choice of outfit, if not a laudably progressive take on gender norms.

Of course, there were a few drawbacks to my chosen “costume”. Cash’s hair didn’t exactly lend itself to a beehive hairdo. So instead I opted to attach a couple of tiny bows to Cash’s head instead.

Stepping back to admire my handiwork, I saw Cash looking at me with the long silent groan of a dog who knows he has become his human’s plaything.

In advance of the pageant, I ran through the usual obedience training exercises. Cash performed each trick with little protest. Now, instead of five barks when asked to “play dead”, he barked only once.

“Good boy!” I cried, then got down on one knee. “Hug?” 

Cash planted both paws on my shoulders, just as I had taught him.

“Kissy?” I prompted. Cash licked my ear. Not quite my cheek, but good enough. Knowing some extraordinary encouragement was in order, I squealed.

“Very good, Cash! Great work!” Cash leaped down, responding at once to my enthusiasm by play-nipping my leg.

We had by all appearances reached a milestone in our relationship. By how Cash bounced around in delight, he surely knew it too.

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
Not a fan.

III

The day of Cash’s debut rolled around. For the occasion, I donned a shirt embossed with the words “I drooly love you”, then brushed out all the tangles in Cash’s hair and fitted him with his dress.

“Look at you,” I said. “You’re the very picture of cuteness, Cash!”

Cash padded awkwardly around. The dress was a tight fit, but it was too late now to order a replacement. We would just have to make do.

Shuttling my prize dog to the now-packed park, I unclipped the leash. Cash went bounding off, as I fought my way to the sign-in desk. 

“I’d like to enter my dog in the contest,” I said. I meant to come off as serious and focused, but in hindsight I may have come off a tad militant.

“Just complete this form,” said a woman in a billowy dress and sun hat, handing me a clipboard. 

Under “entrant”, I wrote in my usually sloppy script “Cash”. Under “costume” I wrote, simply, “1960s girl”. 

A storm of barking erupted nearby. Turning, I caught sight of my dog mounting a shih tzu wearing a bumblebee outfit. Cash’s vigorous attempts at dominance – incongruous, given his current look – only had the effect of pulling off the other dog’s outfit.

Horrified, I abandoned the clipboard and rushed over to tear my dog away from his victim. 

“I’m so sorry,” I said to the shih tzu’s owners, employing my usual dog park refrain. I led Cash over to a quiet corner and bent down, meeting his gaze.

“That’s enough,” I said. “No more acting up. You’ve been handed a golden opportunity, Cash. Today is your big chance to show people what an awesome dog you are. If you keep-”

I stopped. Cash’s gaze had turned towards a dog cavorting a few strides away. 

“Cash. Cash? Hellooo. I’m talking to you.” Producing a treat, I waved it before his nose. That got his attention.

I let him have part of the treat, then tried running him through the usual battery of tricks. After sitting and “shaking hands”, however, Cash dashed off to pick a fight with a black-and-white Pointer.

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
I was lucky to even get this photo. Cash could barely sit still.

Acting out. That’s what this was. Cash was testing boundaries in public, knowing that so long as I was under scrutiny, he could escape punishment. The impudence of my dog!

I dragged him kicking and yapping away from the Pointer, the latest opponent in a seemingly endless roster of dogs-that-had-to-be-fought-because-they-were-too-big.

The pageant kicked off and names were called, owners leading their costumed pooches up to the impromptu stage – really an apron of concrete beside a sheltered table.

Nervous now, I counted down to the moment of Cash’s official appearance, anticipating the coos of admiration and laughter at my adorable dog’s antics.

“Casu?” the M.C. finally called, squinting at my entry form. “Ca… Casu?”

“Cash,” I called sourly. Yes, my handwriting could be sloppy, but to fumble my child’s grand entrance like this was catastrophic

Leading Cash up to the front of the apron, I deadpanned the M.C, a woman wearing tasselled boots and a pair of floppy doggy ears, the end of her nose daubed with black face paint.

“And so what is Cash appearing as today?” she asked, extending a microphone.

“A 60s girl,” I said. The M.C. squinted at the form.

“So Cash knows a few special tricks?” 

Sensing out moment was at hand, I called Cash to get his attention.

“Roll over. Go on, boy.”

To my complete mortification, Cash ignored me. He only had eyes for the various dogs gathered around the makeshift stage.

Call it stage fright, call it performance anxiety, but Cash – as I now belatedly realized – was overwhelmed

If a visit to the usually sparsely populated park was usually enough to set him off, being crammed haunch-to-haunch into an enclosure with upwards of thirty dogs had sent him over the edge.

IV

Knowing that I had but only moments in which to salvage the situation, I held up a treat. Cash immediately honed in on it, drawn by some secret law of canine magnetism.

“Sit,” I instructed.

For a moment, Cash forgot the other dogs. His awareness narrowed to a single point: the piece of jerky dangling from the end of my fingers.

Cash sat, and before I could so much as praise him he lunged, scoffing the piece of dried meat down in one go. There was a delirious quality to the movement, as of an addict snatching at his next fix. 

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
One of Cash’s “competitors” at the pageant.

“Okay,” I thought. “Don’t panic.”

Holding up another piece of jerky, I called “Down”. Driven to the point of distraction, Cash again ignored me, making a pass at the treat.

“Spin,” I said, trying for another trick.. “Spin. Spin!”

What Cash was meant to do was twirl in place. What he did instead was offer a halfhearted twist, following my treat-hand as if I were clutching the dog equivalent of catnip. 

The initially enthusiastic crowd grew still in sympathetic embarrassment. Who here, after all, hadn’t had their fur baby misbehave in public? 

If Cash’s performance was a ship, it was now listing dangerously. Determined to put things back on course, I threw all my weight into turning the wheel.

Holding out one arm for Cash to use as a hurdle, I called: “Over!”

Rather than leaping, Cash craned his neck toward the jerky, pursuing it this way and that, until I had no chance but to let him have the treat. 

The M.C. cleared her throat awkwardly.

“Thank you, Cash,” she said, cueing applause, and I knew then that the show was over.

Our carefully choreographed display of canine talent had failed, and any chance of winning the acclaim of the other dog owners snatched from our – no, my – grasp. 

Like any stage mom so cruelly slighted, I stormed from the limelight into the backstage of humiliation. Of all the times Cash could have disobeyed me, why had it been now

We lingered at the site of our spectacular defeat until the winners were announced. Cash’s name was conspicuously absent.

Gathering my dignity, I retreated to the car. The delirious quality that had possessed my dog went almost immediately into retreat.

No longer did Cash seem deaf to my commands; no longer did his eyes dart to and fro, captivated by the first sign of movement.

The pageant evidently had put too much of a strain upon my pup’s meager faculties. His ill-fated debut it seemed had been a tad too premature. Still, there was next year.

Then again, in a year’s time, Cash’s youthful charm may very well have faded. And even supposing it hadn’t, what was to stop my child from staging a second act of on-stage rebellion?

No. Cash, I resolved, offered the kind of spectacle that would ever be fit for public consumption.

Cheeks burning, I buckled him into the backseat and drove away.


Anxious Seeks Canine continues with Part 14: ‘Hypochondriac’.

Anxious Seeks Canine – Part 14: ‘Hypochondriac’

Essy Knopf anxious seeks canine
Reading time: 8 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.


I

Was it strange that I staked so much on a Halloween dog pageant? Yes. Ridiculous, even? Certainly. Still, knowing this, I couldn’t shake the feeling that victory had been snatched from my grasp. 

Upon returning home, I slumped into a chair, dropping a bag of sample goodies I’d collected from a pageant vendor beside me.

Cash sniffed at the bag. Muttering, I pulled out the treat packet.

“Fine,” I said, scattering pieces onto the floor. “You win.”

Something glinted at the bottom of the bag. Yanking out the Oscar-style participation trophy I’d been handed upon pageant signup, I glowered at its faux-gold finish and the seams where the front and back segments connected.

Cash got a trophy, and what did I get? Nothing. Where was the recognition of the strides I’d made in orchestrating Cash’s makeover? It was just plain unfair.

Having polished off the treats, Cash now looked up at me, expectant.

“Haz more?”

“You know,” I began, “maybe other people are taken in by your puppy charm. But let’s be clear: I know you just for what you are. Now take that dress off.”

Not understanding, Cash planted his paws on my knee.

“More please.”

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
“Haz drool.” Taken at the dog café, shortly before Cash jerked to the end of his leash and toppled the glass, shattering it.

Flinging the trophy away, I lifted Cash’s paws over his head and yanked off the garment. Then I strapped on his anxiety vest and left him to stare placidly at the wall.

My disappointment aside, Cash’s behavior at the dog pageant was yet another example of the steep difficulty gradient I faced as his owner. 

Further trips to the dog park were now ruled out. But long after we had stopped going, Cash would continue to yip during car rides. 

The noise was so shrill, so earsplitting, I half-wondered if my dog might be standing on an electrified grid. Fear, excitement, or a mixture of both – I was never quite sure what emotions prompted Cash’s meltdowns, and with my diploma in dog interpretation still pending, I was at a loss.

Anxiety pervaded almost every other activity. Cash refused orders to stay out of the kitchen while I was cooking. A greedy little opportunist, he would pounce the instant a potato peel hit the floor, only to be plagued by intestinal strife the following day.

Putting him behind a baby gate only sparked whining, as Cash grappled with the horrifying reality of me not being within immediate view.

Looking at our common afflictions, you might be inclined to believe that cosmic gears were grinding away, ensuring that the stars aligned to bring us together. 

For who better was there then I to understand my poor dog’s stress, his IBS, his ever-growing needs? 

And yet somehow, I knew the cosmos had made a critical error in its calculations. 


II

If you’ve had a troubled childhood, there’s a chance that becoming yourself a parent can bring a lot of those experiences bubbling back up.

Latent feelings of unworthiness are evoked, and old defences deployed. I was like a swimmer, battered by waves of self-criticism, buoyed only by water wings of self-justification.

When faced by Cash’s neediness and my seeming inability to address it, I simply told myself that I was “doing the best I could”. 

“I always made sure you had clothes on your back,” went my own mother’s exonerations. “There was always food on the table. You never went hungry.”

And what more could any growing child possibly require? What’s that you say? Patience? Compassion?

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
On one of our many hikes. Cash seemed to temporarily forget he was hydrophobic and took a refreshing dip in a creek.

My parents after all lived not in a world of wishy-washy feelings, but hard necessity. When I was 16, I complained to them of symptoms stemming from my then-undiagnosed IBS.

My mother made multiple appointments to see doctors and specialists. But when the food allergy tests came up negative, she and my father threw up their hands in defeat.

“You’re just being a hypochondriac,” went their refrain. It may as well have become my middle name, for the number of times it was used.

Only a decade later would I recognize my folk’s evasion for what it was. My asking for help, the revealing of my vulnerability, had been a request for them to in turn be vulnerable. 

Saddled with worries of their own, mom and dad had sidestepped the implicit request for recognition, falling back instead on invalidation.

Not feeling heard, or at worst, feeling actively ignored, taught me to bury my problems, a classic stratagem for the aspiring neurotic.

Now I was in possession of a child of my own, a creature who depended utterly upon me for my help. A dog who would not – could not – leave the parental home in search of healing, as I had done.

I had tried in my own way to remedy the situation, but now I felt like I had reached capacity; that the empathy well was running dry. 

How had I let it get to this point? Why, like the proverbial frog in boiling water, had I not sought escape sooner?

Trying to avert a descent down the convenient corkscrew of self-blame, followed by excuses, and still more blame, I took Cash for a walk.

Cash paused to pee on a clump of grass and was walking away when he yelped. 

Noticing he was limping, I bent down to study Cash’s trembling paw. He yelped again, struggling to escape my hold.

These were the cries, surely, of a dog being beaten with a plank of wood. The sound drew looks from pedestrians and drivers alike.

A pickup queuing at the traffic lights drew to one side.

“Everything okay?” came a vice. I looked up to see a man leaning over the driver’s side window. “Did he step in glass?”

“I’m not sure,” I replied.

“Need any help?” 

There were homeless people collapsed on the sidewalk, possibly unconscious, possibly dead, and yet no one stopped to check on them. Yet here was a perfect stranger, rushing to the aid of a dog with a sore paw.

“It’s all good,” I told the pickup driver. “Thank you, though.”

Probing the area between Cash’s toes, I discovered a single blade of dry grass. Within moments of its extraction, my dog was walking as if nothing at all had just happened.

A grunt of dismissal escaped me.

“Hypochondriac.”

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
For all his annoying traits, Cash was photogenic and certainly knew how to strike a pose.

III

The drama, however, was far from over. On the way back to the apartment, we stopped at a small park fronting directly on a busy road. 

Wanting to give Cash the freedom to explore, I unclipped his leash and stood ready to catch his collar, should he decide to suddenly bolt.

The fact I had anticipated such behavior from him should have been warning enough. While sniffing a bush, Cash’s ears went up and he turned, facing the road. In an instant was off, dashing past me and into traffic.

“Cash!” I screamed, staggering to the edge of the curb. But it was too late. He was already halfway across the road. “Go on, get hit then! See if I pay your vet bills.”

Part of me was already rationalizing it. If Cash died, wasn’t that technically natural selection in action?

“Bad!” I thought, slapping a mental wrist. These were thoughts entirely unworthy of a good dog owner. 

My resignation softened into relief when Cash arrived unscathed on the far side of the road. Relief that he wasn’t injured, but also relief that I felt relief in the first place. Apparently, I still had a conscience.

Of course, I would have felt bad if he died. And yet…even with Cash alive, I somehow always felt bad. Guilty; like my best efforts were never good enough. 

At last, I caught sight of Cash’s target: a short-set woman walking her two terriers. Cash immediately set himself to mounting one of them.

As I stepped out onto the road to follow, I knew then that maybe I was right; that what my dog required was something I was entirely incapable of providing.


IV

Dr. Kukosian’s decision to close her Koreatown practice had essentially been the nail in the coffin of our relationship.

But feeling in need of a therapist’s guidance more than ever, I decided to spend the following morning shrink-shopping. 

After a raft of calls spent trying to nail down a candidate who was both available and willing to take my insurance, I managed to book a single appointment with a therapist in Westwood.

Dr. Ihekweme’s practice was nestled in the corner of a third-floor high-rise, decorated in the Art Deco style, with brass fixtures and columns clad in imitation green marble.

He greeted me at the door to his single-room office with a luminous smile and a bouncy baritone.

Above Dr. Ihekweme’s desk hung an oil print of a duck pond hedged with bulrushes. A bland, if not welcome, change from Dr. Kukosian’s Christian iconography.

“So, how are you?” Dr. Ihekweme said, as I settled onto a couch. My reply was almost automatic.

“Well, thank you.”

“Really?” Dr. Ihekweme replied. “So why then did you ask to see me?”

Recognizing the puckish glimmer behind his spectacles, I broke into a smile. 

“Well, I’m struggling with a few issues right now,” I said, and stopped. Dr. Ihekweme nodded encouragingly.

As this was our first meeting, I contented myself with a background sketch of my situation with Cash. Soon, however, words were gushing from me in a torrent, as I ping-ponged from present-day anxiety to ancient grievance.

It wasn’t enough that I was telling my therapist that my anxiety was monopolizing my life. Rather, I felt that the best way to convey what I was feeling would be to figuratively vomit it all over his lap.

“You’re giving me good information here,” Dr. Ihekweme said, when I had finally stopped to take a breath.

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
For a period I tried using an extendable lead. Baaaaad idea. Cash was constantly getting tangled, and even when the lead was at its maximum length, he still somehow managed to jerk me along behind him.

Was that a trace of surprise I heard in his voice? Surprise that I was able to pinpoint my problems so quickly and astutely? Or surprise that I was treating my own struggles in such an offhand manner? 

I was relating my life to Dr. Ihekweme in bullet points; treating the relationship as if it were mere relay between telegraph operators, clipped sentences and all.

“So,” Dr. Ihekweme said, visibly struggling to digest everything my words. “You said you decided to go part-time at work a year ago?”

“Yeah,” I replied. “The idea was to take a break, so I could transition careers.”

“From what you’re telling me,” Dr. Ihekweme began, “it doesn’t sound like you’ve been having much of a break. In fact, it sounds like you are juggling quite a lot.”

“I guess so,” I replied. “I just… I just don’t know how to exist outside a state of preoccupation.”

Dr. Ihekweme adjusted his collar.

“And how long has it been like this?” he asked. The answer rose almost automatically to my lips.

“Fifteen years.” Dr. Ihekweme’s eyes widened. “It started when I was a teen. My family kinda went to pieces. I was being bullied at school. My way of coping was by working.”

“So all these extra commitments you have taken on,” Dr. Ihekweme continued, “they have become a burden for you.” I nodded. “Plus, you have your dog to think about, also.” 

“Right,” I agreed. “I mean, I knew when I got Cash that he would require time and energy. Like any pet. But these days I feel like all I do is put out his fires. I’m feeling…” I searched, “…smothered. And guilty for feeling smothered.”

“Could we go back for a moment to what you said about your family?” Dr. Ihekweme said. I sighed. 

It was a request I should have seen coming. While speeding through my carousel of thumbnail sketches about my life, my therapist had been noting critical facts.

The details I provided, I imagined, were the stuff of which clinical breakthroughs are made. And yet in my previous sessions, during which I’d discussed such experiences at length, no such breakthrough had come knocking.

Still, Dr. Ihekweme had extended an invitation, and an RSVP was due. I would have to venture into the place from which I long shied; the abode of ancient demons; my wellspring of grief, and loss.

The very same wellspring that had ultimately given rise to my neurosis.


Anxious Seeks Canine continues with Part 15: ‘If only’.

Anxious Seeks Canine – Part 15: ‘If only’

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.


I

During my teen years, our home was transformed into a warzone rocked by sibling violence, theft, and drug use.

The one-two punch of my brother’s unruly behavior and growing financial pressures drove my dad into a state of sullen depression. 

Left to wrangle three unruly children, my mother had no choice but to assume the role of disciplinarian.

Did child-me wallow in victimhood? Or rather, did he meet her change of tack head-on?

You betcha.

When my mom withheld my allowance over some petty offense – failing to clean the house on her schedule, I believe it was – I waited ‘til her back was turned, then opened her purse, counted out the exact sum I was owed, and went on my merry way.

When I answered back, she struck me with a wooden spoon. Emboldened by the injustice of it all, I snatched this improvised weapon from her grasp, snapped it cleanly over one knee, and fled into the garden.

“Just you wait,” my mother called from the verandah. “When your father gets home…”

But when my dad’s car finally pulled into the drive, no punishment was forthcoming. The incident appeared to have been forgotten. Either that or my mother’s anger had dissipated, like the thunder that rattled our windows during Far North Queensland’s rainy season.

Later, during our weekly trip to the video rental store, I found a film about a girl so discontent with her upbringing that she resolves to return her mom to the “parent store”.

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
Happier times.

The film follows Little Miss Discontent’s adventures seeking a suitable replacement. Each candidate however turns out to be an extreme embodiment of some negative trait. 

While our hero might initially warm to one would-be replacement, sooner or later she would discover the woman was either a strict taskmaster, too emotionally needy or a neglectful deadbeat. 

Then all bets would be off, and the girl would go marching back to the store, dragging the latest unsuccessful candidate behind her. 

After more than a few of these sobering experiences, Little Miss Discontent accepted she was wrong for disposing of her biological mother and welcomed her home.

The filmmakers probably thought their viewers would reach the same conclusions as the protagonist had: that our parents, however imperfect, ultimately have our best interests at heart.

Perhaps they hoped we would understand that our folks are saddled with the difficult duty of striking a compromise between keeping us happy, and keeping our worst impulses in check.

What the producers did not count on, however, were people like me actually taking a liking to one of the film’s replacement moms: a young, New Age-type who could be persuaded into doing just about anything.

When summoned to the table for dinner, Little Miss Discontent complained about having to eat her broccoli.

Rather than rebuking her daughter, New Age Mom merely beamed.

“Well that’s perfectly fine with me,” went the reply.

The following morning, the girl advised New Age Mom that she would not be going to school.

New Age Mom was well within her rights to correct her daughter, yet all Little Miss Discontent received instead was a jolly stamp of approval.

As I saw it, New Age Mom represented the high-water mark of parenting. The perfect embodiment of unconditional love…and not the shirker of parental responsibility she actually was. 

Comparing my mother’s behavior to New Age Mom’s, I was frankly appalled. Being the perfect child I was, her treatment of me up to this point was a complete affront to reason.

When our next battle inevitably erupted, I brought out the heavy artillery.

“I don’t want you for a mother anymore!” I howled. “You’re mean and always angry. I wish there was a real parent store so I could trade you in.”

My mother’s only reaction was to sigh. 

“If only,” she said. As if being forced to stand in a storefront display would have been a blessed reprieve.

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
When it came to family photos, my parents insisted on rigorously combing our hair, tucking in our shirts, and hitching our pants well past the navel. I was not a fan.

II

Reading this story now, I couldn’t blame you for thinking my childhood problems were just a hair shy of trite. 

Any audience member hearing this account on This Is Your Life I imagine would felt shortchanged. My story of struggle is entirely lacking in twists, significant transformations, and a redemptive finish.

Yet my mother’s put-uponness, when taken to the extreme, felt like a form of emotional neglect.

Pleas for protection from my brother for example went largely ignored. My being gay was treated as a “choice”, if not an expression of mental illness.

These subjects would become the later focus of my therapy, but right now, sitting in Dr. Ihekweme’s office on our first session together, I could only give him the CliffNotes version.

Leaning back in his chair, my therapist took stock. Whatever others might have made of my catalog of woes, Dr. Ihekweme seemed to find it all rather interesting.

“So,” I began, after a moment’s silence. “What do you think?”

“What do I think?” Dr. Ihekweme replied.

“As in, do you think…is there any hope for me?” Dr. Ihekweme laughed, in the gentle, disarming fashion that I would learn was his habit.

“This definitely sounds like something we can address,” he replied. “But maybe I should first tell you a little bit about how I work.”

“Okay…”

“I don’t believe in keeping people in therapy indefinitely,” Dr. Ihekweme continued. “Only as long as it takes for them to feel better. I want people to leave my office feeling able to overcome their challenges.”

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
Home was, at least during my early years, a place of safety, comfort and happiness.

Well, this was interesting. Most therapists I’d dealt with so far hadn’t seemed as solution-minded as Dr. Ihekweme. Rather than actively structuring our sessions, they had insisted merely on listening, nodding, and responding.

All the while, the panicked part of my brain – wanting to ensure my time spent on the therapist’s couch was time well-spent – had been seeking something more solid, direct, and proactive. Maybe I had at last found it.

“But I want you to know it may take time,” Dr. Ihekweme said.

“How long?” I prompted.

“Six months, maybe.” 

Six months? I wasn’t exactly expecting an overnight transformation, but surely there was some more efficient way to address my problems?

“Do you think you’ll be able to stick with therapy for that long?” Dr. Ihekweme said, after a moment.

“I guess?” I offered.


III

If I was a trauma victim, then my time on the couch was an E.R. intervention, and Dr. Ihekweme the nurse, triaging me with talk therapy.

Once he felt my trust had been earned, Dr. Ihekweme seeded our exchanges with insights and observations, delivered sometimes with a cheeky wink.

From out of our many conversations emerged a growing awareness about how Cash’s presence was triggering my latent shame issues.

During one trip to a dog cafe, he chewed his leash and raced out into the street. As I ran, panic-stricken after him, I was forced to concede – with great relief and no small amount of embarrassment – that my pooch was indeed averse to other canines. 

But in a dog-friendly city like Los Angeles, avoiding other pooches would be a difficult task.

Still, he needed exercise. Not being much of a runner, I decided to bring Cash along on my weekly hikes. Even assuming I was willing to ignore his barking fits en route to hiking spots, Cash still fell to mounting or fighting any dog he came across. 

Worse still, he refused to walk at the group’s pace. Once, while navigating a particularly narrow stretch of trail, Cash tried to overtake me, and in the process almost sent me plunging into the void. 

Corgis are bred for herding, and while that isn’t to say they can’t adjust to domestic life, I became convinced that maybe part of Cash’s problem was that he was being deprived of the opportunity to fulfill his cattle-chasing urges.

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
Cash seemed to enjoy hikes, but only because it meant *he* got to decide the pace. Meaning I almost always was forced to scamper after him.

I might not have access to a farm, but even a house with a yard would have been better than my tiny studio. Given enough room to run, Cash might have been able to safely expend all his anxious energy.

Another fact I fell to considering was that Cash may simply have become his highly strung self by way of neglect or misfortune. There was also the possibility that maybe his condition was simply the result of a bad genetic dice roll.

According to one of Cash’s previous owners, he hadn’t played well with their other dogs. Neighbors had complained over Cash’s incessant barking whenever he was left on his own. 

The fact Cash had apparently been the last of his littermates to be adopted may have indicated his uneasy temperament from the start. Doubtless, Cash’s other owners – four in total, over eight months – had grappled with the same issues as me.

The experience I knew must have been traumatic for him, and so giving Cash up hadn’t ever seemed an option. One way or another, I was just going to have to stop my handwringing and make this work.

And yet for all my best, but imperfect, efforts to help Cash – for all the difficulties ignored and compensations made – I didn’t see his condition changing in the near future.

During one session,  Dr. Ihekweme replied to my concerns with a suggestion that caught me completely off guard. 

“What?” was all I could say. The words were so radical, they barely registered.

“Maybe,” he repeated carefully, “this is a relationship you need to let go of.”

Was my therapist really saying what I think he was saying? That I should surrender my dog?

Admittedly, it was an idea I had secretly toyed with since my first days as Cash’s owner. But for someone as driven and defined by achievement as me, to give Cash up represented not only the ultimate cruelty – but a crippling defeat. 

“I can’t,” I replied, finally.

Dr. Ihekweme looked thoughtful. 

“Are you sure?”


Anxious Seeks Canine continues with Part 16: ‘Such good care’.

Anxious Seeks Canine – Part 16: ‘Such good care’

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.


I

While my therapist Dr. Ihekweme didn’t immediately broach the subject of putting Cash up for adoption again, the idea lingered, and with it the promise of release.

Where once before I had fantasized about giving up my mother, I now caught myself contemplating letting go of my fur baby.

Maybe there was another dog out there, I told myself, a dog better suited to my temperament and lifestyle. Older, possibly more settled. 

But truth be told, these thoughts were just an escape hatch from the canine ownership equivalent of postpartum depression.

The neurochemical alchemy that normally made for a happy relationship had somehow gone awry.

All that remained now was my grudging sense of responsibility to soothe Cash’s separation anxiety – a responsibility I seemed to fail the minute I left my dog’s cone of vision.

Seeking temporary distraction in new extracurricular pursuits, I undertook Spanish classes. Having picked up the invaluable phrase, “Mi perro es muy dramatico”, and little else, I dropped out, enrolling instead in improv classes.

Following a lifetime of avoiding sports, I shed my athletic performance anxiety and joined an LGBTQI-friendly dodgeball league. 

Emboldened by these attempts at extroversion, I even began hosting regular weekend hikes and game parties.

Between work, Cash, and my ongoing commitments, it wasn’t long before I began to feel rather strung out. True to form, I was leaning into workaholism and achievement.

“Your stress levels have definitely spiked in the last few weeks,” Dr. Ihekweme noted during one session.

“I’m overcommitted,” I told him, “but I can’t stop myself. If I stop these activities, my self-worth…it’d just collapse.”

Knowing you’re behind the wheel is one thing. But recognizing you have the power to avert an oncoming vehicle was proving quite another.

“I encouraged you to start forming new habits,” Dr. Ihekweme said, “but maybe it’s time to – how do you say…” Dr. Ihekweme fumbled for the right idiom. “Maybe it’s time you ‘pumped the brakes’?”

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
Cash had already been abandoned four times. The idea of giving him up just killed me.

Part of me desperately wanted to follow my therapist’s suggestion, while the other insisted on plowing blindly forward. 

There were after all things I wanted to do, a certain kind of person I wanted to be, and time was a-wastin’. Justifications, of course, for a pattern of behavior that had helped keep my covert depression at bay. 

Yet the pain I had never truly owned as my own – had kept on indefinite layaway – remained, waiting to come home.

Sooner or later, something would have to give. And it was not, as it turned out, my packed schedule, but my knee.

II

If you know anything about me, you’ll know that I am not a particularly athletic person. Sure, I’ll go for a run around the block or take half a day off to hike, but that’s about as strenuous as my exercise regimen ever gets.

Nor am I a particularly outstanding team player. If given a choice between, say, board games with strangers, or locking away in my room with a good book, the book almost always wins out.

Loathe as I am to admit it, my autistic need for control and routines has earned me the unofficial qualification of “Captain Killjoy”.

After a lifetime of being singled out in Red Rover, I came to view dodgeball as a long-awaited chance to defy my “easy pickings” status.

A natural deficit in what the experts call proprioception – a sense of one’s body in space – has meant I can be rather uncoordinated. Yet on the courts, I ducked, pivoted, and leaped with the best of them.

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
Cash during one of his semi-regular trims. While I was a fan of his fur, he didn’t seem all that much of a fan of summer temperatures.

Try though I might though, my body didn’t maneuver itself in the ways it was supposed to. My core muscles failed to engage, leading me to twist and bend at odd angles.

More often than not, throwing a ball strained my shoulder and threatening to dislocate it. But emboldened by small successes, I kept at it.

During one particularly heated game, I raced over to recover a ball and saw a player in the opposing team preparing to snipe me from afar. 

Halfway into a squat, I tried to throw myself away from the projected trajectory of the ball. That was when I felt something disconnect in my right knee. 

The leg gave out, leaving me sprawled on the court, frantically signaling for a time out.

After friends helped me off the court, I limped in the wings of the adjacent stage, working the joint. The whole area had become big twinge of pain.

Just a temporary dislocation, I told myself. In a few weeks, I’d be more than good.

Another player in this situation might have headed home to rest and elevate the injury. Instead, I stuffed a knee sock with instant ice packs and hobbled straight back out to court.

But over the coming weeks, my knee joint wobbled with increasing frequency. This was no mere dislocation, but something far worse.

MRI scans revealed I had torn the ACL, a ligament, as well as the surrounding meniscus cartilage.

A knee specialist recommended I undergo surgery. The downsides were a huge medical bill and somewhat limited mobility for the next 12 months. The alternative was no more dodgeball, and a risk of early-onset arthritis. 

Walking out of the specialist’s office, I felt my eyes well with hot, angry tears. I was going to be left temporarily handicapped.

A state my catastrophic thoughts treated as surely worse than death.

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
I elevated and iced my knee, but this only provided temporary relief.

III

The terror of becoming disabled stemmed from a rather practical consideration: there was no one I could rely upon to help me.

This at least was what I told myself – a convenient cover for the fact I simply didn’t know how to ask for help.

Asking someone to take Cash out for his daily walks would, under normal conditions, have been inconvenient. But given his infamous anxiety and aggression issues, no one in their right mind would want to assume temporary custody of my dog.

My pet aside, being bedridden for days and homebound for weeks meant I’d have to finally slow down. Without the refuge of overachiever mania, I would be faced once more with the demons that had surfaced during my earlier illness.

When I explained my concerns to Dr. Ihekweme, he took a moment to respond.

“So you can’t ask anyone else to take care of Cash,” he began. “What are your other options?”

I stared. Was my therapist baiting me? He knew just as I did that my options were, at this point, singular

But having myself suffered abandonment by others because of my disability and my struggles with anxiety, could I really inflict the same upon another? 

“Putting Cash up for adoption…that would crush him,” I said. The sirens of shame were blaring in my ears.

“So what is the alternative?” Dr. Ihekweme reiterated.

Even supposing I found some temporary workaround post-surgery, lately I had had to give up on taking Cash outdoors. What he needed most right now was rehabilitation, something I had proven sorely incapable of providing.

“It seems this situation is a huge source of fear and concern for you,” Dr. Ihekweme added. I stopped short of replying.

“You don’t need to do anything right away,” he counseled. “But just think about it.”

And on the drive home, I did. To fob my pet off to someone else would, in my imagination, be taking “the easy way” out. But keeping Cash right now hardly seemed fair, either.

For months I’d felt like I was trapped in a deadlock: resentful of my responsibilities, but guilt-ridden about the idea of letting Cash go. 

With my knee in its current condition, the time had finally come for decisive action. 

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
I didn’t want to give up Cash, but circumstances were now forcing my hand.

IV

In the initial days after Cash’s adoption, he would yank incessantly on the lead when we walked to the point of choking himself. 

If I had expected my dog to walk placidly at my side, he would instead bolt in fits and spurts, jarring my arm. 

Compromise had taken the form of an extendable lead. In principle, it should have given Cash free reign to wander where he chose. In practice, it had meant my dog regularly tangled himself on lamp posts and fire hydrants.

One time, he wound himself around a tree, and when I tried to untwine the lead, Cash continued to walk around it, undermining my efforts.

My dog’s attempt to keep me in sight only had the effect of leaving him even more tangled. 

The situation might have been comedic, had I not been so exasperated. It was only later that I saw how perfectly it encapsulated our troubled dynamic.

Almost a year to the day of Cash’s adoption, I reached out to his most recent owner, Anja. We’d connected on Facebook, Anja occasionally commenting on photos of Cash, thanking me for taking “such good care” of him. 

“Right,” the inner critic had sneered. “How little she knows.”

Like any responsible owner, I imagine she’d felt some measure of guilt about the decision. Guilt, but also relief.

When I mentioned to Anja that I was looking to rehome Cash, she revealed that her other dog had recently died. His absence, she said, had left a hole in her life.

A Cash-sized hole, I asked?

Anja indicated that as circumstances had changed, she would indeed be willing to take Cash back.

My heart stuttered. For the past two hours, I had been drafting and redrafting an adoption advertisement for Cash…and failing to make a convincing pitch.

“Insanely cute but high-maintenance,” my descriptions had more or less run. “Does not play well with other dogs. Refuses to be left alone for any period of time. Will not walk on a lead. Hazard ahead.”

Here, at last, as an out. Cash had previously lived with Anja, so there was an element of familiarity. A re-adoption seemed a far kinder fate than dumping my dog upon some unsuspecting stranger.

Anja’s offer hovered on my computer screen, unacknowledged, for an hour a two. Finally, I screwed up my courage and did the unthinkable. I said “yes”.


Anxious Seeks Canine continues with Part 17: ‘How do you stop?’.

Anxious Seeks Canine – Part 17: ‘How do you stop?’

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.


I

A date had been set: in one week’s time, I would be handing Cash back to his previous owner.

Perhaps the responsible thing would have been to return him to the adoption agency which had entrusted him into my care. But to do so would have required multiple rounds of meet-and-greets with potential owners in Los Angeles’ eastside.

It would mean, in essence, physically fronting up to the fact that I had more or less failed my dog.

But with freedom now in my sights, I found myself abandoning all attempts at “managing” Cash and his many aversions.

Of course, this is not to say I didn’t make more than a few last-ditch attempts at salvaging our relationship.

The first involved doubling our discipline training time; the second saw me holding back Cash’s food until set times each day. The idea here being both would bring him into line.

Perhaps sensing my withdrawal – the release of almost a year’s worth of tension – Cash grew somewhat uncertain, and perhaps a smidge more obedient.

At the suggestion of a friend, I purchased a no-pull lead. The moment I fitted it around Cash’s muzzle, the transfer of power was more or less complete.

Suddenly, I was no longer a slave to my dog’s impulses. Cash walked where I wanted, and moreover, at my pace. 

But this change, however welcome, was not enough to tip the balance. My mind had already been made up. 

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
This was a gaze that carried very heavy expectations.

Where before I had held off on employing anti-anxiety medication, come the morning of Cash’s readoption, I didn’t waver.

Squishing a fragment of the pill into a spoon of peanut butter, I offered to Cash. He devoured the snack with relish, smacking his chops.

Half an hour later, he was in a daze, climbing calmly into the backseat of my car. Rather than strangling himself with the belt, as was his habit, my dog instead sat silent and unmoving through the entire car drive.

The site of my and Anja’s meeting was to be a park in Pasadena. After parking and feeding the meter, I walked to the agreed spot, dragging Cash –barking and lunging at squirrels all the while – behind me.

Onwards I marched, staunch in the understanding this was the last time I’d witness such melodramatics.


II

Anja’s silvery head of hair signaled her presence at a nearby park bench.

Seeing me, she gave a smile and wave, and we exchanged a hug.

“So just so you know, Cash is super anxious,” I said as I sat, pulling my still struggling dog up onto my lap.

“I can see that,” Anja laughed.

“He doesn’t really like other animals,” I explained. “And he can get pretty aggressive around other dogs.”

“That won’t be much of a problem,” Anja assured me. “He’s going to be spending most of his time at home, or in the yard.”

“Great,” I said. “He’s got a lot of energy, so the more you can play with him, the better.”

“I’m retired, so I’ll have plenty of time.”

“Also, it’ll help if you read this.” I handed Anja a three-page guide I had prepared a day earlier.

It covered everything from Cash’s training regimen to his feeding habits, containing an exhaustive list of “don’ts”, from the cautionary (“dog parks will send him ballistic”), to the seemingly contradictory (“letting Cash sit on your lap only makes his anxiety worse”), to the gruesome (“expect diarrhea”).

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
My dog might have hated water, but he certainly loved the dog-friendly beach. That cute little smidge of sand on his nose is enough to melt even my cold, cold heart.

“This is quite a lot,” Anja said, looking over the printout.

“I know,” I apologized. “Cash himself is quite a lot.”

Anja absorbed this with a magnanimous nod. Then came the subject that I knew I must broach, one I sensed might draw a negative response.

“Once he’s settled in,” I began, “would you be okay with me coming to visit him? Just to see how he’s doing.”

“Of course!” Anja beamed. Perhaps seeing the pain in my expression, she added: “As far as I’m concerned, you’ll always be his daddy.”

My guilt thus appeased, I proposed transforming Cash’s bed and various other belongings to her trunk.

Afterward, I got Cash secured in the backseat, bending down to offer a farewell.

“Okay, Cash,” I said. “I’m leaving now. Like, forever.”

Cash didn’t seem altogether that interested in this bombshell revelation; didn’t so much as look me in the eye. When the sense of impending loss did not hit me, I kissed him on the forehead and shut the door.

Only then did Cash sit up, peering at me through the glass in what I guessed was his first inkling of abandonment.

Clutching Anja’s reassurances to me, I drove home in silence. I’d been dreading this whole event for weeks, and now, at last, it was over. 

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
Very much in his element during a visit to a Malibu preserve.

III

The moment I got through the door to my apartment, I began to bawl, great gusty sobs drawn up from the pit of my being.

Suddenly no longer able to repress my emotions I had been keeping at bay for weeks, months, and years, I let them run unchecked. 

The loss of childhood pets, schoolyard bullying, the breakdown of my family – all of the suffering and grief I’d never felt safe feeling, let alone expressing, was now given vent.

Engulfed, I crawled into bed, pulled up the covers, and wailed into my pillow. Then came questions to an apparently merciless god, questions that would surely have done my angsty teen self proud. 

Why?” I cried. “Why do I always lose everything I love? Why must I suffer like this? I’m begging you, just tell me. Please.”

From out of my sobs came the realization that I had indeed loved Cash; had loved him in the only broken way I’d known how to. Long after these animal noises had dissipated, that realization remained, an abiding truth.

For all the hardships, it was hard to dismiss the little brilliant moments in between, bonding over tricks, sharing hikes, a road trip to Three Rivers. 

In these moments, Cash and I had both been at our happiest. Where he had felt safety and a sense of purpose, I had felt relief and pride in the progress we’d made together.

Part of me wanted to silver-lining the ultimate outcome. Cash had now been granted the benefit of a new beginning, and I the chance to focus on the career change to which I’d been pinning all my hopes.

But without a dog to tend to, I found myself relinquishing busyness as a state of existence. Depression hit like an eighteen-wheeler, and I went down, reduced to a quivering, helpless mess.

When I was finally able to pull myself together, days later, I was walking in a slow, crooked way, my body right-angled as if it were trying to shrink from invisible blows.

Seeing the signal fires of my distress, my therapist summoned me to an emergency session.

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
Despite how uncomfortable this might look, this appears to have been Cash’s preferred sleeping posture.

IV

“How do you stop?” I asked from where I sat on Dr. Ihekweme’s couch, a blanket draped over my knees.

How, indeed, when for years your idea of survival was little more than blind forward momentum? 

Dr. Ihekweme’s eyes seemed to turn inward as he considered my question. After a moment, they resumed focus. 

“Tea?” came the gentle offer. I nodded.

Dr. Ihekweme fixed me a mug of vanilla rooibos, chewing all the while over my inquiry.

“It seems,” he said, handing me the mug, “that there is another question behind the question.”

Eerie, this intuiting of my thoughts. Dr. Ihekweme perched on the arm of his chair.

“Your way of surviving, your workaholism, has failed you,” he noted. “You are at a crossroads now. You want to know what the alternatives are.”

He was right. Over the course of our therapy, I had pushed Dr. Ihekweme for diagnoses and treatments, and he’d held off. 

His duty, as he saw it, was to be a soft landing for painful feelings.

What my therapist wanted was to wean me off dysfunction; to gently coax me into surrendering black-and-white thinking and self-fulfilling prophecies; to teach me to accept life’s many ambiguities.

For all my recognition of the suffering I had experienced, I hadn’t quite been ready to process it all. Clear answers and tangible solutions were demanded, when what the situation really called for was mental breathing room.

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
A silent but adorable plea for attention.

But with Cash gone, and me beholden to another sort of black-eyed dog entirely, I could at least see the futility of quick-fix solutions. And yet…

“I just need this depression to be over,” I said.

“The depression is just a symptom,” Dr. Ihekweme reminded me. “It is the same with your anxiety.”

“I don’t want to spend the rest of my life running,” I clarified.

“You want peace of mind,” my therapist added, and I knew what he was going to say next.

“… You’re going to tell me I need to meditate, aren’t you?”

A smile touched the doctor’s lips. My complaints about mindfulness weren’t exactly unknown to him.

“Well,” he began, “as you said yourself, that didn’t work for you before.”

But now?


Anxious Seeks Canine continues with Part 18: ‘It’s not his fault’.

Anxious Seeks Canine – Part 18: ‘It’s not his fault’

Essy Knopf anxious seeks canine
Reading time: 8 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.


I

“I guess I am wondering,” Dr. Ihekweme began, “if you were biting off more than you could chew?”

My head dipped in a grudging nod.

The first time I had tried meditation, I’d sat for a whole 45 minutes, ramrod straight…but wriggling all the same.

“It seemed pretty reasonable at the time,” I bleated.

“Maybe,” Dr. Ihekweme began, “you could try 15 or 20 instead? Just to start with.”

“Don’t you understand?” I wanted to cry. “That would be conceding defeat!”

My perfectionism after all refused to settle for anything short of, well, perfect.

My phone buzzed on the sofa cushion beside me. Glancing down, I saw a photo appear of Cash on some leafy path, mid-walk. He looked, dare I say, happy.

“Sorry,” I said, brandishing the phone for my therapist’s benefit. “It’s Cash’s new owner.”

“Everything okay?” Dr. Ihekweme asked.

“I think so,” I offered.

One week on from his re-adoption, Cash’s old/new owner Anja had reassured me that he was settling in just fine. To believe otherwise, of course, meant prodding a hornet’s nest of dormant guilt.

“I guess you’re right,” I eventually signed. “Forty-five minutes is kind of extreme.”

“Have you thought about doing a guided session?”

“Audio tracks almost always put me to sleep.” Dr. Ihekweme mulled over this, then got up to fish around in his desk drawer.

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
Lord Doofus.

“Normally I would not do this,” he said, “but in your case, I would like to make a recommendation.”

My therapist brought out a bundle of papers.

“I want you to try this meditation course,” he said, peeling off a pamphlet and offering it to me. “It’s subscription-based, you pay once and they’ll send you a new lesson in the mail every week for a year.”

For the first time since starting treatment, I found myself questioning Dr. Ihekweme’s judgment. The most guided meditations required were an attentional sliver…and yet still I struggled.

And now my therapist was suggesting I take an entire course?

Fending off incredulity, I studied the pamphlet, bracing myself for the spoiled-milk whiff of a pyramid scheme.

“This course will help you build a meditation practice step by step,” Dr. Ihekweme explained. “You choose the pace.”

“You’ve done it already? The course, I mean.”

“I’ve been following these classes for years,” Dr. Ihekweme confessed.

“And do they work?” He grinned at bluntness of my question.

“Do they work? Well, let’s just days that some days I wake up in a state of joy and gratitude.”

A state of joy and gratitude? It was almost enough to make me dry-retch.

But given I was handing cash over to my therapist week in and week out, the very least I could do was take a recommendation.

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
We look super relaxed in this photo. In reality, I was holding Cash in place to stop him from running over to fight every passing dog.

II

The pamphlet remained tucked in my jacket pocket, temporarily forgotten, for some days afterward. 

When I dug it out again, it was less out of a sense of obligation than out of growing desperation.

Even with Cash gone, my stress levels remained as high as ever. Whatever I had been doing so far to manage it, it clearly was not working.

Suspending my skepticism, I paid a nominal fee and signed up for a year’s worth of lessons. 

A few weeks later I clawed back my commitments and peeled open a newly arrived booklet. What I found inside were refreshingly simple instructions, couched in beautiful anecdotes and symbolism.

When the second packet arrived in the mail a short while later, I devoured its contents in under an hour.

By the third lesson, I’d gone from eye-rolling cynic to Kool-Aid zealot, from 15-minute daily meditation sessions to 30-minute sessions three times a day.

The depression receded, replaced first by a vague sense of wellbeing, then instances of boundless optimism. 

With Dr. Ihekweme’s guidance, I found myself more and more able to achieve a birds-eye view of my own suffering.

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
“Haz pat please?”

The inner critic who had presided, despot-like, over my life, was now being shown the door. And as his hold on me loosened, so too did mine on the metastasizing perfectionism and workaholism that had long propped up my self-worth.

This is not to imply, of course, that either completely went away. Rather, they lingered like Cash’s carpet stains: unsightly – but valuable – reminders.

Left unchecked, mental illness had twined its creepers around my thoughts, thrusting its roots into the bedrock of my personhood. 

But where I had once lived in terror that I might not ever be able to extricate myself, I was slowly accepting that, one way or another, I was going to be okay

The deciding factor of okayness, being – of all things – my willingness to accept its possibility; to let the vessel of my being calmly ride the peaks and troughs of life’s uncertain seas.

For years I had shambled through life, dragging shame and despair in my wake like a ball and chain.

Yet in learning to offer myself the acknowledgment, the affirmation, the acceptance I had been denied, I was suddenly able to shuck the toxic, constricting narratives of my past like an outgrown skin.


III

But smooth sailing was no more a guarantee for me than it was for Cash. About a month after his rehoming, Anja called in a state of exasperation.

“He’s just too needy,” she said. “He’s constantly underfoot. He refuses to be separated from me. And he barks at every visitor!”

“You’re telling me,” I wanted to say, but I held my tongue.

“I know it’s not his fault,” Anja continued, “but I can’t help but feel angry at him.”

Anja’s litany of complaints mirrored my own, and yet I was still surprised. Surely her prior experience with Cash surely should have told her what she was in for.

Even with all her years’ experience as a dog owner, Anja had not felt prepared for the stifling possessiveness that had followed Cash’s re-adoption.

“… Do you know anyone who might want him?” she asked.

And there it was. My decision to rehome Cash had ended in disaster.

Where before I had suggested visiting Anja to see Cash, I found myself now putting these plans on hold. Seeing me again could create false expectations.

Offering to temporarily house Cash until a suitable replacement owner had been located thus was out of the question.

The best option available now was to do what I had previously refused to: return Cash to the adoption agency.

Days after Anja dropped him off, I got a call from an employee.

“We just want to know why you didn’t return Cash to us directly,” she said, her voice a few degrees south of zero.

The woman clearly didn’t understand what I did: that the return window had long since closed.

Crude as this analogy might seem, having refused to return Cash while he was still within some imaginary warranty period, what right had I do so now?

Still, I humored the inquiry, even offering to send the woman my three-page guide. Radio silence followed, all my emails to the agency about Cash’s wellbeing going unanswered. 

The hammer of judgment, it seemed, had fallen, and I charged in absentia with dereliction of duty. 

And so what. Only I knew the lengths to which I had gone. No explanation was demanded, nor needed.

The best I could hope for now was that my erstwhile pet was this much closer to finding his forever home.

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
Cash, post-trim, and me, post-bath.

IV

The day I’d adopted Cash, the agency had given me a framed photograph of the two of us posing in front of their office.

The photographer had captured me holding a somewhat confused-looking Cash in a half-hug, less an act of spontaneous affection than an attempt to stop him running away.

At the time, I saw this photo as a promise of future happiness. Only later would I recognize it as an ultimate representation of the anxiety that tainted our relationship.

Up until the day I’d surrendered Cash, that photo had rested on my mantelpiece. Unable to deal with the feelings it evoked, I had packed it and every other reminder of our time together away.

Half a year later, post-knee-surgery, I found myself digging under my bed and rediscovering the box of forbidden mementos: a dirty leash, a gnawed chew toy, a polka dot dress.

And I found myself wondering, did Cash still remember me? Did he think of me with sadness, as I often did him? Or with joy?

As with my ex Derrick before, I had found myself grieving the relationship well before the official end date. My rocky passage through denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance might have been avoided completely, had I found a surefire treatment for Cash’s anxiety.

Shoulda coulda woulda. The grief resurged then, but it was not bottomless, nor as complicated by doubt as I had expected.

Sometimes when entering a room, I had found my dog sprawled on his back, feet in the air, the very picture of a poisoning victim. 

My first thought would be a tongue-in-cheek: “Finally, the little nuisance is dead”. But of course, he would just be sleeping, as he often did, contorted like some figure in a Picasso painting.

Later I would look back at photos of him in these various positions and laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. Then I would miss him; miss how he would jut his snout out from beneath the desk, peering up at me in a silent request to “sit on daddy, please”.

What I did not miss, however, was the incessant barking, the separation anxiety, and the clashes with other dogs. Remembering these traits was like having someone hold smelling salts to my nose. 

In a hot second, I’d go from the dreamy recollection to bolt upright and sober. Off came the rose-tinted spectacles, and down the heel of practicality, sending little pieces of nostalgia-glass flying.

As time went by, I found myself swinging less and less between these poles, settling instead on a comfortable in-between.

It was quite possible, I realized, to both miss something and be relieved by its absence. Entertaining both feelings did not necessarily mean I had to be engulfed – or condemned – by them.

Parting ways with Cash at the time had not been a bad decision. In fact, it had seemed the only decision. 

Too caught up in my own dysfunction, I had been in no position to address Cash’s own. As time went by, it had become apparent that the question was not how I was failing him, but rather how I was failing myself.

When I removed the box from under my bed, I discovered two other things that I had, until now, forgotten about entirely.

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
Cash takes Santa Barbara.

The first was a whiteboard, caked with dust, carpet fluff, and dog hair.

On it was scrawled a list of dreams and goals, most of which had been either scraped or wiped off during its passage out of Derrick’s storage shed.

Of the few items that remained, one stood out: “Relax and give yourself time to just ‘be’.”

For a year-and-a-half, I had aspired to a happier, more wholesome life. Instead, I’d found distraction, endured loss, and sought release. 

Now, I had returned to that same aspiration, the whiteboard sitting before me posing an open challenge.

But there was the second item besides the whiteboard still to consider: Cash’s anxiety vest.

What had motivated me to first buy it was evidence that the deep pressure such vests provided could soothe anxious canines. The same principle had also applied to humans.

But buying Cash his vest, it had never occurred to me that all along I might have been equally served by wearing one.

Opening a browser tab, I hootfooted it over to Amazon, and minutes later had a human-sized compression vest on order.

The similarities that first drew Cash and I together may have ultimately forced us apart. But they also brought into focus the irony of my intentions: namely, that the help I’d tried to give my dog was ultimately the help I myself had most needed.


This post concludes Anxious Seeks Canine.