Anxious Seeks Canine – Part 5: ‘Doesn’t like cuddles’

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

After weeks of preparation, I released my first feature documentary, marking the occasion with a free screening at a local community theater.

It should have been an occasion to celebrate, yet my mood at that point was far from celebratory.

Juggling work, my side projects, and Cash had left me drained. Then I’d gone and added organizing venue hire, promotion, and catering into the mix. 

There was only so much time in the day, and so I’d been forced to cut down on my sleep. My immune system crumpled, and within days came down with yet another cold.

When it came time to stand in the wet, open-roofed lobby of the theater and greet attendees, I was in the height of my illness, complete with a croaky voice, stuffy nose, and fits of sneezing.

At my back stood a promotions board, covered with faded photos, dogeared flyers for elementary school productions, and posters celebrating a one-woman show by a Jewish comedian titled “I’m Just Yidding”. 

Within stood what might have passed for a wood-paneled rumpus room that hadn’t been renovated since the 60s. Even with the lights turned on, it was dim, grotto-like. The chairs were fuzzy plaid, the color of mulch, and the projector was about as bright as my phone screen. 

Backstage, I’d found an antique computer for controlling the lights. It came equipped with a monitor so antique it displayed one color only: acid green.

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
Before the big sure.

It wasn’t much, certainly – but it was the best I could afford on my budget. Having not yet sold the film, I was paying for the entire launch party out of my own pocket. In true anything-for-art fashion, I was spending money that I should have been saving for replacing threadbare socks.

The film was warmly received, even getting a few laughs. Yet afterwards, sitting in my car, I couldn’t help but feel dejected.

Of the 70 people who had RSVPed, only 10 had shown up, most of which had been friends of friends. Then again, a documentary about disability wasn’t exactly anyone’s idea of a perfect Friday night date movie. 

And, much as I’d like to have believed otherwise, I wasn’t a big name filmmaker with a loyal following.

Expecting moviegoers to brave the late Winter rains may have been a touch unrealistic, free tickets or no. Heck, I shouldn’t have been braving it myself – not in my current state.

The minute I got home, I planned to turn off the lights and collapse into bed. But then again, there was Cash to consider.

He’d probably need a walk, a toilet break, and oodles of attention. My days of bachelor-style living were, as of a few weeks ago, firmly behind me.

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
I was saddled with a dog who was literally clingy.

Sliding the keys into my car’s ignition, I turned on the heater and pulled my coat up over my head. Up one arm it went, then the other.

The coat snagged on my elbows and I lifted my arms still higher, wriggling as I tried to draw the fabric free. Then something very bad happened.

When I was a teenager, I’d discovered the ability to contort my arms into unusual positions. A good party trick – but one with a clear disadvantage.

Hypermobile joints, as they’re known, were are by weak, undeveloped muscles. As a result, sufferers can find themselves prone to accidental dislocations. 

I’d throw a ball and next thing my shoulder would be out and I would be screaming, charging into walls in an attempt to relocate it.

This weakness only grew when I didn’t exercise…just as I’d failed to do the past few weeks.

Given this painful history, I should’ve known better than to try pulling my coat over my head. And yet there I was, roaring in pain as it dislocated.

With my hands trapped over my head, I tried to wave down my friends – standing on the sidewalk a few cars away – a movement that only translated into a lackluster shimmy. 

With my window up, no one could hear my cries, and opening the door was out of the question.

I rolled my shoulder one way, then the other, hoping against hope it would reset itself. To the casual onlooker, it probably looked like I was wrestling with some invisible demon.

After what felt like forever, there was a meaty clunk, and my arm popped back into the socket.

Flinging off the coat, I sagged back against my seat, breathing raggedly, in a daze of pain.

This, surely, was what rock bottom must feel like.


III

Boy was I kidding myself. 

What I took to be the encore of my previous cold proved to be the flu. Within hours I was hit by total exhaustion, weakness, and fever. I had pushed my body to its limit, and now, like a rubber band, it was snapping back.

The next week I spent in bed, mostly sleeping. Twice a day I took Cash downstairs to do his business, an exercise which in my current state was incredibly taxing.

Perhaps aware of my condition, Cash sat patiently on the end of my bed, nose to bottlebrush tail, waiting.

By day five, however, cabin fever had set in and my dog started nibbling my toes. When that didn’t work, he seized my foot and dragged it to the edge of the bed, in a deliberate plea to be taken out.

A friend agreed to take Cash out for a walk, and while they were gone, I fell to brooding.

The only reason I was so sick was that I’d neglected my own needs. And not just my needs – Cash’s as well. I was a bad owner and not cut out for this responsibility.

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
After Cash violently resisted being placed in his crate, I allowed him to sleep in my storage closet instead.

The barrage of self-doubt rose to fever pitch. I had failed Cash, would continue to fail him, just as I failed everything and everyone else.

The adoption had been a mistake, and Cash would be better off without me.

What I did then was something every rational, emotionally balanced person would have done: I conducted a SWOT analysis of my dog.

Under “strengths” I wrote: “He’s an acceptable size for most apartments”. “Very cute”. In the “weaknesses” column I added: “He’s anxious and needy. I don’t know how to give him what he wants”. “He doesn’t like cuddles”. 

This last point in my opinion represented a very serious breach of the Domesticated Canine Obligation Act of 15,000 B.C. If a dog wasn’t helping me hunt or guard my livestock, he sure as hell should be justifying his presence with a little reciprocal affection, at the very least.

But when I tried to touch Cash, he pulled away. When I tried sitting him next to me, he would flee, shying from closeness as if he too suffered an autism-related aversion to touch. 

Indeed, if Cash was my child with autism, then I was the struggling mother, and this was a tearjerker Oscar-bait film.

There would be a scene in which I tried holding my child, only to be rebuffed. Ever stoic, I would invent new ways of trying to get close to him.

Again and again, I would be thwarted, until finally, my spirit battered, I would retreat to my room to wail and beat the wall with the flat of my hand, overcome with pain and frustration.

In reality, however, I refused to surrender so easily, instead forcing my way into Cash’s affections. 

Every day, I would trap him against the bed with my body, kissing him repeatedly on the muzzle. Cash would flail, growling to be let free. 

While I’m not certain he appreciated my efforts, I knew that as his dutiful parent, they must be made all the same.

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
My first dog Kimi, playing the dutiful rescue dog.

Despite Cash’s many contractual breaches, I decided to list his companionship as an opportunity. This I weighed against the potential benefits he might enjoy in the care of a more giving, more responsible owner.

For “threats”, I listed: “Too many ongoing commitments. Can’t give Cash my full attention”, and “He eats s—”.

The latter was not a joke. Cash had developed a habit of snapping up other dog’s stools during our walks, which meant I had to keep a close vigil every time we went out.

It also meant I’d been forced to temporarily suspend my daily kissing ritual. This probably wasn’t my dog’s end goal in eating s—.

Chances were, he was actually suffering some kind of nutritional deficiency. It was not in any case a trait I had found endearing.

When my friend returned from his walk with Cash an hour later, my sense of guilt intensified. When in the last three weeks since I’d adopted him, had I given my dog this much attention?

After my friend left, Cash trotted over to the walk-in closet and sat in his doggie bed, a recent substitute for his loathed crate, complete with a baby gate. 

The function of this gate was to prevent Cash from sneaking into the kitchen and stealing food scraps when I was cooking. On top of being anxious, Cash like me had a very sensitive stomach. 

I think Kimi may have set an unrealistically high bar.

Anything other than Cash’s regular dried dog food was enough to induce the runs. Without the gate, my carpet didn’t stand a chance.

This of course hadn’t stopped my dog from leaping over the gate at the peak of his separation anxiety. What it had done nevertheless was provide me with a temporary barricade for my dog’s incessant neediness. Not the total respite I was secretly craving, but enough for now.

As Cash drifted off to sleep, I decided this compromise was surely more proof I was a terrible owner; that my dog indeed deserved better.

Dragging myself over to my computer, I chipped away at the mound of work I had amassed during my week of illness, fielding email inquiries and paying bills.

My work was interrupted a short while later by a yelp from the closet. Cash appeared, rushing over to lean against my leg.

At first, I thought he hurt himself; brushed up against some sharp object in the closet. When a search of his sleeping space turned up nothing, I concluded that he must have just been a bad dream.

Muttering reassurances, I patted my dog, and he snuggled against me, his eyes full of gratitude. 

However much I might see myself as inadequate, this was not a view my dog appeared to hold.

My eyes returned to the incomplete SWOT analysis, considering. Then I turned it over and climbed back into bed.


Anxious Seeks Canine continues with Part 6: ‘This is MY diva moment’.

Anxious Seeks Canine – Part 6: ‘This is MY diva moment!’

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

The guinea pig nibbled contentedly away on a lettuce leaf. A pool of urine spread out from beneath her, leaving the newspaper lining of her hutch soaked.

“Now I want you to focus on that memory,” my therapist Dr. Kukosian said. 

As far as exercises in healing went, this was to, put it mildly, a strange one.

Settling back on the couch, I closed my eyes. I tried. I really did. Then other thoughts started to intrude.

I recalled how my pet had given birth in that same filthy hutch. How I’d returned home to find Nightblack, named so for her lustrous ebony fur, and her newborn pup, the-soon-to-be-christened “Princess”. 

The two of them were munching on a lump of raw meat, resting amid droppings. Only later would I find out what exactky this was: the placenta.

What still strikes me as an indescribable act of self-cannibalism, was apparently not all that unusual where mammals are concerned.

Yet the fact my mind had chosen this memory in particular I knew was my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder at play. As was, as per usual, trying to one-up itself with grotesquery.

One day, I might be in the midst of a breathing exercise, striving for clarity and peace, and I’d suddenly see an animal defecating.

For this reason, starting a meditation practice had proven next to impossible.

“Why don’t we talk about the attack?” Dr. Kukosian suggested.

Studying her faux oil painting once more, I pretended it was a meditation focus prop and not the estate donation to a thrift store that it surely was.

“Well, it started when I went out into the backyard,” I began. “I saw the neighbor Lillian’s Doberman. She was standing with her head in the guinea pig hutch.”

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
To say I was obsessed with my guinea pigs would be something of an understatement.

I related to Dr. Kukosian how I’d raced, screaming, to confront the dog. How it had bolted, carrying off my beloved Nightblack to the rodent equivalent of the pearly gates.

How I’d cried, utterly helpless, and turned to see my mother watching from the kitchen window, frowning slightly, but otherwise unmoved.

I told Dr. Kukosian of the sense of betrayal I’d felt when she hadn’t so much as acknowledged my grief. The fact of the matter was my mom probably hadn’t known how to acknowledge it, courtesy of her own hard-knock upbringing.

Yet that crying six-year-old had stayed with me, living in a sort of emotional time-capsule – until this very moment. And now Dr. Kukosian was asking me to let him loose.

My gaze fell to the coffee table between us, to the plastic orchid, and the pink box of tissues. I determined then and there that I would not, under any circumstances, cry; that I would hold out for something more traumatic than the death of a rodent, at the very least.

“That must’ve been very hard for you,” Dr. Kukosian said. “Having to deal with that sorrow on your own. And your mother – ignoring you in your time of need.”

My resolve went suddenly flaccid. I teared up.

A guinea pig. I was crying over a goddamn guinea pig, an animal had shrieked every time I had touched her. I had written my pet poems of adoration, sung love songs to her, and Nightblack’s only response had been to poop on my lap.

Of all the confessions I had made to Dr. Kukosian, my one-sided friendship with this creature was perhaps the one that embarrassed me most.

You really had to hand it to this woman. During our first session I’d laid out the sum of my dysfunction in offhanded bullet-point, and she’d received it all with the same standard-issue therapist’s frown.

“Just FYI, there are some things you should know about me,” I’d said. “I was really ill earlier this year. I have this chronic health condition called IBS. I also have Asperger’s syndrome. I suffer from anxiety and depression.”

After a pause, I’d added: “Plus I’m a little OCD. And by the way, most of my childhood friends were animals who reciprocated my love by biting me, running away, and dying.”

Dr. Kukosian could have scoffed. But to her credit, she didn’t. 

Instead, she just listened, listened so much in fact I started to want her to get impatient, to pass judgment – to give me anything other than the same gentle impassivity.


II

In my defense, I didn’t choose dysfunction – it chose me.

My response had been to run. From my problems, from my disintegrating family, from the “friends” who rejected me because of my autism, from my own vulnerability, until the running became the new norm.

And so I had lived a kind of half-life, devoid of feelings I chose to keep bottled up.

My needs it seemed weren’t viewed as a priority to anyone other than myself, and so I’d tried burying them. When others told me directly or by implication that I was worthless, I began treating myself as such. 

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
The death of Nightblack broke my heart. I think this was her daughter, Princess.

In the race to try and find a solid sense of personhood, I pinned my identity to a somewhat Protestant philosophy: salvation through a strict work ethic.

As a teen, I applied myself to my goals with fervor, writing novel after novel, studying so hard I graduated at the top of five classes.

Surely sooner or later the scales would balance, and recognition and happiness would replace pain and suffering.

For years afterward, I denied myself care, rest, holidays, and the company of friends and family, spending all my money on advancing my career.

Yet no matter my successes, the goalposts always seemed to be shifting, and the validation and peace of mind I so sought increasingly out of reach. There was always a new novel to write, a new short film to edit, a new degree to complete.

My workaholic lifestyle was, at first, a refuge. A way of distracting myself from the absence of emotional support in my life. Eventually, it became my prison, and my hypercritical inner bully, my keeper.

“You’re incompetent,” the internal dialogue would go. “A failure. A walking disaster. You’re physically inept and everyone can see it. Your disability makes you an insufferable person to be around.” 

This was a sort of defense mechanism, born of past hardships. Existing solely for my protection; to keep me small, stunted, yet “safe”.

For years I’d acted on this bully’s advice. Thus empowered, the bully whittled away my confidence, telling me what I would never be enough. And so the bar kept on rising.

Shutting off that little voice was like trying to correct embroidery. Not impossible, but difficult, requiring a lot of unpicking.

For a long time, I took his words as the undisputed truth. Why question something that had more or less ensured my survival? 

If I tried dismantling the bully’s arguments, my whole life could come crashing down. But in failing to conquer my anxiety and depression, I had allowed it to conquer me. I was trapped, in pain, with no one to hear or help. 

My shoulder dislocating in the car was, I later realized, the perfect metaphor for this situation. The fact I’d crashed so hard after the premiere of my first feature documentary was no coincidence.

After a week spent in my bed, barely eating, I emerge one pant size smaller and fighting the deepest of despairs.

It’s one thing to recognize you have a problem, and another to figure out how to fix it. So here I was, back at therapy, talking about my guinea pig.

Reaching for the pink tissue box, I paused. There appeared to be some serious gender color-coding going on here. Pink is for girls, and only girls cry, and all that.

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
A part of me knew I was struggling, and yet I was too frightened, too confused to ask for help.

Being forced to use this box therefore could only be some underhanded attack on my masculinity. Was the therapist even aware of the symbolic game she was playing with me? 

Dr. Kukosian smiled, then glanced at her watch. Her attitude was perfectly polite, but at the end of the day, her empathy was strictly professional.

She didn’t really care about my turmoil. No one ever did, least of all me. And maybe that was half the problem.

“So. Shall we pick this up next week?” Dr. Kukosian said.

“Fine,” I replied. And snatching a handful of tissues, I went out. 


III

I like to consider myself a pragmatic person, squeezing life’s bumper crop of lemons into lemonade. So, driving home after my session, I decided my current crisis was going to be an opportunity.

I would not let myself continue to be shackled to the past. I would move forward with my life; become a new, happier person.

But then the emotions came crashing back in. That freaking guinea pig. How dare she let herself die.

Had the treacherous creature spared me a single thought before being brutally shaken to death?

Big, blinding tears flowed, and all I could think about was getting off the road before I ran into another car. Swerving to the curb, I hit the hazard lights and wailed into the crook of my arm. 

The sound that came out of me was almost primal – the kind your body reserves for moments of true grief. Was that what this was?

When I finally got home, I laid down on the floor, wallowing.

Talking about depression, most people think it’s an experience that exists exclusively in your head. But right then and there, my entire body felt depressed. 

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
Cash became a welcome, if persistent, distraction from my workaholic lifestyle.

And then there was the sense of helplessness that came with it – the certainty that I never had and never would be happy.

It was like someone had just detonated charges along a dam wall and the whole thing was collapsing before a flood of pain. The best I could do was just lie there in the fetal position and wait for the waters to recede.

While I might have wanted to stay there for hours, mourning one pet, there remained the question of the one still living, nagging for my attention.

No sooner had I laid down then Cash had started nudging me.

“Give attention,” his eyes seemed to plead. When I didn’t respond, he nudged me again. “Now? Now? Now?”

Such extravagant displays of emotion as the one I was currently making was, evidently, no longer practical. I had a dog, and he wanted – no, needed – my attention. 

“I’m sorry, Cash,” I croaked. “Not right now.”

Cash’s wet nose brushed my face. Did I not understand his urgency? Why not? 

Changing tactics, Cash thrust his snout into my undefended ear. I covered my face with my arms and Cash growled, trying to paw them away.

“Damn it, Cash. This is my diva moment!” 

For so long, I’d failed to listen to my own needs, and now I’d gone one step further, taking charge of another’s.

But if I was going to get better, this would have to change. It was high time I indulged in a little radical selfishness.


Anxious Seeks Canine continues with Part 7: ‘Kooft!’.

Anxious Seeks Canine – Part 7: ‘Kooft!’

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

When I finally managed to scrape myself up off the floor and kick my flu, the resolution to splash out in the self-care department had fallen by the wayside. 

To my credit, however, I threw myself with renewed effort into my role as do-it-yourself dog dad.

Reasoning that Cash’s anxiety must be the result of excessive energy, I decided to take Cash out for three brisk walks a day.

But at the first sight of other dogs, this “excessive energy” quickly transformed into aggression.

Cash would run barking towards his new foe so suddenly the leash would whip past my leg, leaving me with rope-burn.

“He’s so cute!” the other dog’s owner would tell me, as I was yanked toward them with a strength belying Cash’s size.

It was a refrain I came to hear every time I took my dog out in public. Cafes, parks, hiking trails – wherever we went, strangers were sure to gush their approval.

“Sure,” I’d say through gritted teeth. Cute, and utterly uncontrollable. They weren’t, of course, living with the daily chaos. 

Where was the ideal pet I had envisaged, the one who walked placidly at my side? The dog who greeted other dogs with tail wags? Who looked at me with unconditional acceptance, rather than unconditional need

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
Me collapsing on the floor usually was an excuse for Cash to collapse on me.

Was the canine comforter who remained at my side in times of stress, who welcomed my use of his fur as a tear-sponge, just an improbable dream?

The warning signs had been evident at the dog adoption center, and yet I’d chosen to interpret Cash’s hyperreactivity as excitement. He was clearly overjoyed by our instant connection, and looking forward to his new life in my “forever home”. 

And yet everything and nothing it seemed had warranted the divided attention of my soon-to-be-pet: a car door slamming out in the parking lot; a dog yapping behind a closed door; the coming-and-goings of staff members. 

Due diligence had been exercised…due diligence being simply asking Cash’s then-owner Anya if there were any behaviors I should look out for or special needs that might require my attention.

Anja had had nothing to say on that account, and her silence had lulled me into a false sense of certainty.


II

It’s quite possible that in the single month in which Cash had been in Anja’s care, she hadn’t seen the side I was already too familiar with. She’d lived a quiet suburban life, one involving a yard, and as such, hadn’t felt the need to walk Cash.

By the time I realized my pet probably had a behavioral disorder, the ownership transfer documents had long since been signed and processed. 

My initial concerns had initially been put down to cold feet. 

“He’s fine,” I told myself. “I’ve totally got this.”

Cash was my responsibility now, his anxiety a problem we would have to overcome together. With blind pluckiness, I’d pushed on, stocking my apartment with all the amenities a puppy could possibly need: stuffed animals, chew toys, and dog treats.

Surely this abundance of gifts would be enough to cure any dog’s anxiety.

Cash took an immediate interest in the toy giraffe. He spent the next few days pulling out stitches, tearing the toy limb from limb, and strewing its stuffing across the apartment. 

“Okay,” I’d thought. “Don’t panic. He’s just a puppy. Puppies do this kind of thing all the time.”

But the speed with which Cash dismantled first this toy, and then several others, suggested otherwise.

Still, if Cash had been destabilized by the adoption, then getting him back on course was merely a question of granting still more loving attention.

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
Unlike the other dogs, Cash spent more time in the shade than on the actual hiking trail.

Treats were offered, only for Cash to sniff disdainfully at them and turn away. This canine caviar apparently wasn’t cutting.

So I tried bringing him along on outings. During hikes, Cash would refuse to walk with me, insisting on darting from shade patch to shade patch, shying from sunlight.

He’d spend the entire trip like this, lapping greedily at every brackish pool of water we might happen to come across, in spite of all my shouts that he was going to catch dysentery.

As the summer heat intensified, I figured that what Cash needed was a respite from the unnecessary insulation of his long hair.

But when I sat him down to cut his fur, Cash ran yelping away from my trimmers, vanishing beneath the bed.


III

A stretch of chain-link offered a glimpse of a small dog park enclosure, a barren patch of dirt that was empty save for a couple of sheltered picnic tables.

Cash’s aversion to hiking and his resistance to having his hair cut meant now that forays into the local dog park were now our only alternative.

The small dog enclosure seemed the natural choice over the larger enclosure, as Cash tended to pick fights with larger dogs.

I entered a knot of nerves, less worried for Cash than for what he might do to the multitude of Teacup Terriers that awaited us. Legal compensation and vet bills weren’t exactly something I’d budgeted for.

As Cash padded over to meet a pug, I braced myself, watching for the first trace of hostility. Cash stared at the pug, who waggled a tail. Cash for his part offered no response, his expression one of apparent bemusement.

His would-be playmate quickly lost interest, racing off to join another group of dogs.

Leash still clutched tightly in one hand, I let Cash lead me over to the next candidate: a blue and tan Dachshund. 

A round of rear-sniffing ensued. This time I tried to be more optimistic. This interaction, I told myself, could very well crystallize into a friendship, one with the power to transform Cash from an antsy wallflower to a fun-loving socialite.

Cash’s attention however were met with a growl of warning.

He crouched in an invitation to play. The Dachshund didn’t respond. Oblivious, Cash leaped on his would-be playmate, almost bowling him over.

The Dachshund rounded on Cash, peppering him with barks. Cash shrunk back, uncomprehending, then made as if to jump a second time.  

Seeing disaster on the horizon and swiftly approaching, I hoisted a spray bottle. My dog blinked daintily against the squirt of water and backed away. From whence had come this noxious blast? 

Cash shot me a dubious look and was soon eying his next candidate. The leash went around and around my fist, drawing tight as I pulled my dog closer, guarding against the possibility of conflict.

Maybe my jitteriness was palpable, for a stocky park matriarch wandered over.

“Can I ask why you’re keeping your dog on a leash?” she asked.

“Because I don’t know what Cash will do if I take it off,” I said. The woman placed a reassuring hand on my shoulder.

“He’ll be fine,” she said. “What’s the worst that could happen?”

My gaze went to the curmudgeon of chihuahua at the matriarch’s heels. One tiny leg was in a cast. One accidental push from Cash and the chihuahua would surely be finished.

I drew Cash even closer.

“Just give it a try,” the matriarch suggested. “And if it doesn’t work out, you can go back to the leash.”

Yet this woman had the air of a seasoned professional. Surely, she knew what she was talking about.

“Okay,” I said, snapping off Cash’s leash.

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
I know what you’re thinking. “What a sweet-looking dog!” But appearances, as the old adage goes, can indeed be deceiving.

IV

Against all my expectations, tragedy did not follow, though Cash soon proved wanting in the etiquette department. Sticking his nose in unwelcome areas, he would pursue terrified Maltese and Pomeranians until they turned and snapped in his face. 

My dog appeared entirely ignorant of his powers of intimidation, let alone how they were affecting his beady-eyed counterparts. 

He didn’t send the normal tail-wagging “friend” signals that came effortlessly to other pooches; rather, his preferred method of interaction involved sidling up to his playmates and butt-sniffing them with the efficiency of a parking enforcement officer checking a meter.

The sniffing usually escalated into mounting, which left me mortified. It was as if I were extension guilty for these shows of sexual dominance.

The worst part of it was that Cash went after the most vulnerable dogs: the dopey ones that didn’t know how to resist, or was too small to extricate themselves from his hold.

Their shrill barks drew looks from other owners, frown lines offer sketches of unspoken criticism. What was I thinking, bringing an unsocialized – scratch that, sexually aggressive – dog into the enclosure?

As someone with Asperger’s syndrome, I know the perils of being socially impaired. Trying to not accidentally alienate my friends with Aspergerian bluntness remained a daily battle. Yet for all my awkwardness, you didn’t see me trying to mount other people. 

Each time Cash tried the maneuver, he’d cop a spray of water, wince, and within seconds be right back to it. I resorted to calling, clapping, shouting, until finally, my dog restricted himself to just sniffing.

Somehow he still managed to unnerve the other dog. After they had hurried away, Cash would wander back to me wearing a look of incomprehension. 

“Has done wrong?” 

And I would look back at him, honestly wondering what he wanted me to do.

My exasperation was, without a doubt, unfair – if somewhat inherited.

As kids, my siblings and I would sometimes ask my mother: “What’s for dinner?” A fairly innocuous question. At least, that was what we thought at the time.

Kooft!” my mom would reply, using the Farsi word for poison. What she had really meant to say was: “Don’t bother me, work it out yourself”.

Each time, I’d opt to receive my mother’s curse as a stale joke, meanwhile promising never to model this kind of behavior to my own children.

Yet now that the shoe was on the other foot, and it was my dog approaching me for help, I was at something of a loss.

The fact I was already getting exasperated with my dog spoke less to faults on his behalf than on me.

The impatience I felt towards him was the byproduct of depleted inner stores. Maybe the solution, therefore, was self-replenishment.

But before self-replenishment could occur, I would first have to do something I so often refused to. I would have to indulge in a little radical selfishness.


Anxious Seeks Canine continues with Part 8: ‘Why not bite?’.

© Ehsan Knopf. Any views or opinions represented in this blog are personal and belong solely to the blog owner and do not represent those of people, institutions or organizations that the owner may or may not be associated with in professional or personal capacity, unless explicitly stated. All content found on the TheThoughtfulGay.com website and affiliated social media accounts were created for informational purposes only and should not be treated as a substitute for the advice of qualified medical or mental health professionals. Always follow the advice of your designated provider.

Anxious Seeks Canine – Part 8: ‘Why not bite?’

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

Our visit to the small dog enclosure proved brief. No matter how many dogs snarled at Cash, he didn’t seem to get the message, but instead kept on with the pushy behavior, ruffling fur wherever he went.

After an ancient, hairless creature that might have once been a Yorkshire Terrier screeched at Cash, I hurried out of the enclosure, my cheeks burning, Cash trailing behind me.

One way or another, however, I was determined to see my dog socialized. Not eventually, but today.

Despite my exasperation, I persevered. Reattaching Cash’s leash, I hustled him to an adjoining enclosure more than three times the size of the first.

Here, I told myself, Cash stood less of a chance of dwarfing his peers and thus intimidating them. 

A Labrador bounded over keen to meet the newcomer.

“Go on Cash,” I said, snapping off the lead. “Go say ‘hello’.”

Cash padded forward, sniffed delicately at the Labrador’s behind, barked once, then raced back to my side.

His gaze rose to meet mine, in what I took to be entreaty.

“What?” I said. “What’s the problem?”

Our visit to the dog park was meant to be a fun break – for the both of us. Cash was supposed to play with total abandon while I caught up on some much-needed leisure reading. 

Instead, I was being asked to reassure with my presence, to hover like a helicopter parent. Where in the previous enclosure, the somewhat oversized Cash frightened away potential playmates.

Now, without the advantage of size, he had promptly reverted to the ol’ Velcro dog routine.

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
Cash during a chance meeting with a full-breed husky and a Pomeranian-Husky.

Perhaps Cash merely didn’t know how to play. Elementary as such an ability seemed, it was a line of inquiry warranted further exploration.

To this effect, I dropped into a play crouch. Cash mimicked me. I waited a moment, my eyes locked with his, then shot away.

“See,” I said, as Cash scampered after me. “You do know how to – Hey! What the hell?”

Cash had just tried biting my ankles. He zipped past, circling back. Again he looked at me, no doubt attempting some form of telepathic communication.

“Why not bite?” I could almost hear him thinking. “Is fun.”

Fun, but a tactic bound to alienate. This was something that would definitely have to be worked on.  

“Come on,” heaving a sigh. I led him over to meet a German Shepherd. 

“Hey buddy!” I called. Ears raised, tongue lolling, the dog turned to look at me. “Cash, be friendly.”

When Cash, who was cowering behind me, did not budge, I added: “He’s not going to hurt you. Go on already.”

Raising my voice didn’t seem to help matters. Perhaps a more competent owner – A kind soul with deep reserves of patience, an empty schedule, and money to throw at a trainer – would have known what to do.

This was what Cash likely needed, but right now, all he had was me, with my worryingly low bank account balance, homespun advice gleaned from internet forums and less than stellar parenting techniques.

Puppy training school? He could just forget about it. But tough love? That was something his stingy daddy had in spades

It was time I put my formidable skills to practice.

“Alright Cash,” I said, shooing my pet forward. “You’re on your own now. Start paddling.”


II

Ignoring the German Shepherd, Cash did a cursory circuit of the nearest canine social circle, before returning to my side. 

On I went with the shooing, until at last my dog ventured out on his own. It was possible I was forcing my child to run before he could walk, for very quickly Cash went from ignoring other dog’s friendly advances to snarling.

“Okay, crazy,” the other dogs’ expressions seem to say. And off they would trot to play with someone else.

Mustering his courage, Cash resumed his previous mounting routine, sizing up potential victims before swooping in. 

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
There were times when Cash seemed to get on okay with other dogs, but these were few and far between.

“Hey!” I shouted as I pulled cash off a Beagle. “Cut that out.”

Cash went off in a huff, laying claim to a water bowl currently in use by a Husky. 

“Mine! Mine! Mine!” he barked, before diving in to claim it for himself. When a bull terrier tried to join him, Cash resumed the barking.

“That’s enough,” I snapped. “Leave them alone.”

When my attempts to summon Cash to my side went ignored, I grabbed him by the collar, chaperoning him away. 

Not long after, Cash took an interest in an Australian sheepdog, crouching and barking. There was none of the usual tail wagging one might have expected; rather, he had all the focused intensity of a schoolyard bully.

The sheepdog didn’t respond; merely threw Cash a cursory look and wandered away.

Clearly, Cash’s tactics weren’t doing him any favors.

When he wasn’t being bossy, he would sit on the sidelines, forever awaiting the chance to insert himself; a chance that never seemed to come.

In my dog’s hesitation, I saw my seven-year-old self, standing at the edge of a sandpit, while the other kids – engrossed in their own play – ignored me. Me, the oddball who talked to insects. The nature boy who longed for friendship; a thing whose mechanics eluded me well into adulthood.

And while I’d long stopped communicating with six-legged creatures, the insecurity that I would never truly understand others, nor they understand me, had remained.

But my fate was not one Cash need share, a belief that was renewed in the few instances when both he and the other dog play bowed and burst into a game of chase.

It didn’t take long however for the same worrying behavior I’d witnessed earlier – the heel nipping – surfaced again. It was a habit that elicited annoyance, and even yelps, bringing the pursuit to a swift close.

“That’s, like, a cattle dog thing,” one dog owner advised me, as she motioned her brown labradoodle to sit.

Googling “Husky-Corgi” on my phone revealed she was right. Cash’s tendency to drag me as if I were some kind of human sled down I’d attributed to Cash’s Husky side.

But the barking and heel-biting – that likely had its origins in his other Corgihalf. Corgis were bred to herd cattle, and this, I reasoned, was why Cash tried to strong-arm every Great Dane he came across.

Maybe their cattle-like size was sparking my dog’s latent herding instinct?

If my awkwardness was the result of my being on the autism spectrum, then Cash was equally the product of his genes. No squirt from a spray bottle, therefore, was going to salvage a nature as deeply ingrained as his. 

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
Back from a run to the water bowl.

III

Still, I wasn’t going to let any child of mine was going to terrorize others – not on my watch. I knew, after all, that it was only a matter of time before one of Cash’s victims turned on him. And it didn’t take long.

During a later visit to the large enclosure, Cash tried to mount a mutt three separate times. By the third time, the mutt had had it and turned on Cash. 

Before I knew what was happening, the two were snapping at one other, then Cash was on his back, squirming like an overturned turtle, as his opponent loomed over him.

Somehow I managed to drag my dog away, scolding him. But if Cash was meant to learn something by my admonishment, he certainly didn’t. 

The incident repeated just moments later with a second dog. Fed up, I clipped Cash’s leash to his collar and marched him back to the car.

If anything was going to change, new measures would need to be taken.

When I was back home at my desk, I ordered a training collar equipped with a beep and vibrate feature. Remote controller in hand, I would now be able to catch Cash out the very instant he acted up. 

But on a return visit to the dog park, Cash simply ignore the beeping and thrumming of the collar.

Next I tried dialing the shock down to the lowest setting, then zapped myself. The sensation, wasn’t technically painful, but it was alarming enough to get Cash’s attention. 

Yet once I fitted the collar, it became apparent that the collar’s prongs barely penetrated Cash’s thick fur. The few occasions it did, Cash seemed to associate the resulting shock not with my disapproving “No!”, but rather with the dogs he was harassing.

Wariness swung into open hostility. Like clockwork, Cash would approach another dog, forgetting to wag his tail and going rigid with tension. 

The other dog would either walk away or growl. In the latter case, Cash would growl back, and I would quickly intervene. If we were lucky, the conflict would end there.

Upon further reflection, Cash didn’t seem so much to be an antagonist by nature as someone with a severe Napoleon complex. He responded to his own fears by overcompensating, charging headlong into confrontations, and body-slamming fences. 

Certainly, one could admire his persistence in the face of all this rejection and hostility, a quality I associated with my own survival. And yet, now that it wasn’t me in the spotlight, I could admit how that very same quality was driving potential allies away.  

People told me I could be stubborn. Obviously they hadn’t met Cash, who was by far my superior in that regard.

And for all my efforts to corral and correct, nothing seemed to take. 

My dog, I decided, was the cosmos testing my mettle – and finding it sorely lacking. Not knowing how to do better, I redoubled my efforts. But trying to coerce Cash into becoming something he was decidedly not – namely, an obedient, well-adjusted dog – was, as I would later realize, an effort bound to fail.


Anxious Seeks Canine continues with Part 9: ‘A short-term solution’.

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 shimmering 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 types 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 acknowledgment 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?

Cataloging 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 frolicking 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 25 that I received a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome, a so-called “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’.