Anxious Seeks Canine – Part 15: ‘If only’

Essy Knopf anxious seeks canine
Reading time: 6 minutes

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


I

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

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

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

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

You betcha.

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

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

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

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

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

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
Happier times.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My mother’s only reaction was to sigh. 

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

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

II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Okay…”

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

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

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

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

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

“How long?” I prompted.

“Six months, maybe.” 

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

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

“I guess?” I offered.


III

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can’t,” I replied, finally.

Dr. Ihekweme looked thoughtful. 

“Are you sure?”


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

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

Essy Knopf anxious seeks canine
Reading time: 7 minutes

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


I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Cash-sized hole, I asked?

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Essy Knopf anxious seeks canine
Reading time: 6 minutes

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


I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


II

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

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

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

“I can see that,” Anja laughed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But now?


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

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

Essy Knopf anxious seeks canine
Reading time: 8 minutes

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


I

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

My head dipped in a grudging nod.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Everything okay?” Dr. Ihekweme asked.

“I think so,” I offered.

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

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

“Have you thought about doing a guided session?”

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

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
Lord Doofus.

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

My therapist brought out a bundle of papers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


III

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

anxious seeks canine the thoughtful gay
Cash takes Santa Barbara.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


This post concludes Anxious Seeks Canine.

How judgmentalism is ruining gay dating

Essy Knopf gay dating
Reading time: 6 minutes

Gay dating is riddled with pitfalls, but perhaps the most significant is the rampant judgmentalism we face – and inflict – upon one another.

The irony is that we approach dating expecting chemistry while treating each other in ways that make it almost impossible.

The catch-22 is that unless we feel safe unless we can let our guards down, we’re going to resist being vulnerable. And without vulnerability, there is no chemistry.

Judgment and gay dating

I met Bryce* one evening over boba tea. Bryce was a guitarist from the UK who had come to Los Angeles with big hopes of breaking into the music industry.

As we exchanged details about our lives, Bryce made a number of flattering remarks about my appearance, flashing flirtatious grins, while indicating he genuinely wanted to get to know me.

As our conversation rolled on, Bryce asked me about my family and we somehow got onto the subject of trust.

“I like to give everyone the benefit of the doubt,” Bryce said.

“That’s great,” I replied. “I used to be the same.”

Bryce looked at me, expectant. I smiled, explaining I had firsthand experience dealing with a relative who was a pathological liar and that this had left me somewhat wary.

Almost immediately the warmth left Bryce’s expression. I excused myself to use the restroom, and when I returned he asked to call it a night. 

Out in the car park, I offered Bryce a polite farewell hug.

“Oh, we’re going to hug, are we?” he sneered, then walked away.

I got into my car, confused. Had my comment had been mistimed? Had I overshared?

Even so, I couldn’t shake the feeling that no time would ever have been appropriate for such an admission.

For in opening up to Bryce, I had breached an unspoken code by which many gay men live: never expose your vulnerabilities.

Gay dating and expecting perfection

Being born gay almost always guarantees an inheritance of trauma or invalidation. Having been bullied and marginalized for our differences, in particular our emotional expressivity, we learn early on to hide these, lest others brand us “feminine”.

Some of us do this by constructing a perfect exterior, or by hiding behind keen wit, brand name wardrobes, gym-fit physiques, or career success. In many cases, this is the mark of insecurity, born of an unrelenting inner critic.

Deprived of self-compassion, we, in turn, become incapable of mustering empathy for others. When a romantic interest tries to be vulnerable with us, to let their imperfections hang out, there is a strong possibility we will treat this as an infraction.

Uncomfortable with the demands this vulnerability makes of our own, we – like Bryce – reach not for understanding, but dismissal. 

Thus, having ourselves been rejected for being our authentic selves, we come to reject others for what we perceive as their weaknesses or flaws.

I believe it’s for this reason that many of us choose hookups over dating. We’re even more likely to avoid connections if we have in the past put ourselves out there, only to be shut down.

Hookups furthermore validate. They offer us instant gratification while sparing us the emotional risks typically associated with relationships.

In her book Daring Greatly, Brené Brown notes that we commonly associate vulnerability with “dark emotions”. But so long as we remain terrified of recognizing, acknowledging, and discussing such emotions, they continue to exert significant control over all aspects of our lives.

Imperfection is a given

Most gay men will suffer some form of trauma and a degree of neuroticism by virtue of what we have lived through. Psychology Today defines neuroticism as “a tendency toward anxiety, depression, self-doubt, and other negative feelings”. 

Unfortunately, the popular doctrine of masculinity asks that we hide our anguish and struggles. Those who fail to do so are mocked and rejected. Social conditioning has more or less made emotional concealment a condition for acceptance as males.

But our wounds and imperfections are a fact of human existence, ones that will sooner or later be revealed in the course of dating.

While I believe this act of revealing should be treated as a generous gift and met with compassion and understanding, many of us resort instead to the scorn and rejection we ourselves have suffered.

When we do this, we don’t just perpetuate a cycle of harm – we render gay dating an exercise in futility,

Until we have learned to be comfortable with our wounds and to reintegrate that emotional part of our identity we have split off as a matter of acceptance and survival, we will not treat vulnerability with the honor it deserves.

And so the meaningful relationships we all ultimately desire will continue to elude us.

Use discernment, not judgment

When dating, judgment may serve as a valuable defense mechanism, allowing us to screen out people who may pose a threat to our interests.

The gay dating world is, after all, rife with people who are irresponsible in their actions, inconsistent in motive, and generally lacking self-awareness. 

This is especially true on gay dating apps, which cannot enforce personal accountability. People we’ve been engaging in a heartfelt chat with can, for example, decide to reject, ghost, or block us, often without an apparent cause or explanation.

It’s no wonder then our reaction is to always be protecting ourselves, yet there is a difference between preemptively attaching negative labels to someone and genuinely trying to understand and relate to them

To this end, first dates should be treated as much as an exercise in rapport-building as one in information gathering. We should work to learn about our date’s habits and character; to build a holistic assessment in the place of making a snap judgment.

Chemistry is important, certainly, but true chemistry is a slow-burn phenomenon that can only flourish under conditions of emotional safety. So we must first create a gay dating environment in which it can flourish.

We do this by choosing discernment over judgment.

essy knopf gay dating judgmentalism

Discernment in practice

Judgment is a process of assigning values and drawing conclusions, while discernment is a process of perceiving facts and making informed inferences

As a discerning dater, your job is to be on the lookout for discrepancies, causes for concern, differences, and dealbreakers.

Your date for example may tell you they find you very attractive. They may insist they are looking to date. But they may also label themselves a workaholic.

You will notice here a disparity between a stated desire and practiced action, one that seems to suggest this person may not really want to date. Dating, after all, would require that they be willing to shift gears; to consider putting people before things

Workaholics by definition neglect their own needs. They are therefore unlikely to have the mental bandwidth to accommodate another person’s needs. 

When a date defines themselves as a workaholic, they may be intentionally or unintentionally “Mirandizing” you. That is, they are reading you your rights as a romantic candidate, telling you what to expect. Namely, that their job will always come first. 

This kind of distancing behavior is often indicative of an avoidant attachment style, which does not bode well for most people seeking romantic fulfillment. 

If we probe a little deeper, workaholicism for many gay men is an expression of covert depression, masquerading as grandiosity. There is a possibility this person may have some challenges they need to work through.

Unless your date is taking proactive steps to help themselves, to be in a relationship with them may require that you be willing to accept – if not enable – their avoidance. 

By making observations about the facts presented here, I have practiced discernment.

But discernment also tells me that while my date has admitted to being a workaholic, this is a clue, not a conclusion. 

Keep on gathering intel

Red flags may leave you with reservations, but it is imperative to keep an open mind, while also looking for data that may contradict or confirm the evidence at hand.

In the situation above, you may subsequently learn your date was joking about being a workaholic, or that they are in fact willing, ready, and able to break the habit.

With positive discoveries like this, we may feel tempted to abandon our assessment. Still, information gathering is a process that cannot – and should not – be rushed when gay dating, lest we miss evidence of future problems.

After all, when meeting other gay men we tend to put our best foot forward – at least initially. Over time, our true nature seeps out through the chinks in our armor. Such glimpses of our true selves are often the most telling.

One of the perils of expediting assessment while dating is that we may overlook this true self. Or we may never even get the chance because we’ve already ruled that person out, thus missing out on the opportunity to connect with a possible kindred spirit.

For this reason, we must strive to recognize the commonality in our stories and to offer one another the compassion we are all seeking – and rightfully deserve.

Takeaways

  • Dysfunction and imperfection are universal.
  • By dismissing a date, we may be perpetuating harm we ourselves have suffered.
  • True chemistry only happens when we feel safe.
  • When we judge, we create a hostile environment that undermines vulnerability.
  • The alternative is to practice discernment, compassion, and empathy.

* Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of all individuals discussed in this article.

Four instances when gay men are justified in cutting a date short

Essy Knopf gay men dating
Reading time: 6 minutes

I like to think that if two gay men are willing and able, they can overlook their differences and find common ground. There are some instances, however, when such open-mindedness comes with mixed results.

So when Hayrik* approached me over a dating app asking to meet me for a hike and I saw he harbored political views diametrically opposed to mine, I decided nevertheless to try and bridge the divide. 

But when Hayrik showed up 30 minutes late for our date, with neither apology nor explanation and looking at least 40 pounds heavier than he did in his photos, I knew something was off. 

I considered confronting him about this but told myself that to do so would be rude. But as we set off on our hike, Hayrik’s dog in tow, doubt began to gnaw at me.

Some minutes later, the dog stopped to relieve himself. To my dismay, his owner made no attempt to pick up after him. 

When pressed, Hayrik complained that he’d forgotten to bring a bag. Offering a shrug and a lopsided smile, he said: “I’m just a bad dog owner”. 

I considered whether or not to cut the date short. If I turned on my heel and left, I had no way of knowing how Hayrik might react. Fear of conflict forced me to bite my tongue. 

Hayrik made some small talk, slowly steering the conversation towards politics. When I made our differences of opinion known, he responded with a gleeful aside, attacking my beliefs. 

By this point, we were at the hike’s halfway mark, so excusing myself now seemed almost pointless. What was I going to do? Overtake Hayrik and storm back to my car?

I tried to change the subject, only for Hayrik to drop an incendiary comment, the kind you might expect from a troll sowing chaos in an online comments thread. 

I fell silent, and sensing I’d quit the game, my date quickly ran out of steam. An awkward silence prevailed.

What to look for when dating other gay men

In choosing not to end the date prematurely, in choosing to save face, I’d been forced to tolerate Hayrik’s behavior, thereby inadvertently endorsing it. 

Had I identified some guideposts for what I expected when dating gay men – and also what constituted a violation of these expectations – in advance, the situation might’ve turned out quite differently. 

But what are reasonable guideposts, and when is it appropriate to quit a date?

1. Discrepancies

I didn’t believe that the disparity between Hayrik’s physical appearance and his photos was cause enough to end our interaction then and there. Yet the disparity was one he was surely aware of. 

Dating profiles are the personal equivalent of marketing materials. It’s in our interest to put our best foot forward, so we all “curate” our personal presentation to some lesser or greater degree. There is however a clear difference between selective presentation and active deception.

Gay men who for example list themselves as being one age on their profile, when in reality they are at least 10 years older, are another example of this. 

No matter how youthful someone might look, such behavior points to a fundamental lack of trustworthiness. And without trust, there is no basis for a relationship.

2. Causes for concern

Unmanaged Mental Health Issues: As someone who has battled anxiety and depression, do I advocate intolerance of such people? Definitely not. The keyword here is “unmanaged”. 

If this person is not actively seeking or receiving help for their problems, trying to establish a romantic relationship with this person may put you in an untenable position. 

You may find for example that in trying to help, you become a codependent “fixer” who prevents your partner from taking charge of their situation. Or you may find yourself forced to keep the other person at arm’s length as a matter of self-preservation. This is not fair for either party. 

Addiction: Unless gay men are seeking help for an addiction, whether it is substance- or process-related, the concerns are very similar to those outlined above. For most addicts, their habit will almost always come first, and often at a significant cost to their personal relationships. 

Even if you feel you are equipped with the knowledge, skills, and tolerance required to deal with an addiction problem, you still run the risk of becoming an enabler or being dragged into their habit.

Personality Disorders: When left untreated, personality disorders can wreak devastation not only on the lives of gay men but on those in their immediate vicinity.

A full list of diagnostic criteria is beyond the scope of this article, but here are some telltale signs you could be dealing with someone with a personality disorder:

  • Ongoing emotional instability
  • Chronic temper problems
  • Excessive self-involvement 
  • Excessive neediness
  • Callous disregard for your feelings or wellbeing
  • Deceptive, manipulative, exploitative or destructive behavior

Again, I am not attempting to dissuade you from dating someone with a personality disorder, but rather flagging the possibility that, should you decide to go down that path, there may be some rough terrain ahead.

3. Irreconcilable differences

There are differing tastes in music, and then there are incompatible value systems

Had there been some value overlap between Hayrik’s political views and my own, things might have gone okay. As it stood, there was not. Our value systems were incompatible.

Even the most casual behaviors can be telling in this regard. Watch, for example, how your date addresses the restaurant server. Is he polite? Patronizing, or cutting without cause? 

How does he behave when he encounters an aggressive driver? Does he laugh it off? Or does he fly into a rage, vowing retribution? 

If you’re a person who values treating others with kindness and courtesy no matter the circumstances, a person who acts this way does not share your values

essy knopf gay men dating

4. Dealbreakers

These are myriad and often subjective. You may not be justified in ending dates when these arise, however they should give you pause. Here are some telling examples.

Aggression: Everyone has their triggers, but gay men with a hair-trigger are people you should definitely steer clear of.

Meanspiritedness: If someone intentionally attacks or puts you down on the first date, don’t stick it out. That said, this person could be having a bad day. If it happens once, be on alert. If it happens twice, be on your way. Leaving sends a clear message that you have personal boundaries and are willing to protect them. 

Disrespect: This can take many forms. Personally, I consider a lack of punctuality on a first date a form of disrespect. Of course, your date could have gotten stuck in a traffic jam, an accident, or can’t find parking and forgot or was unable to communicate. You can offer some leeway here.

But if it happens more than once, there is a good chance this person is lacking basic consideration for others.

When Hayrik, for example, failed to clean up after his dog, he wasn’t just shirking personal responsibility. He was signaling a lack of basic respect for other people. 

Complainers and bad-mouthers: Complaining, blame-mongering, and backbiting should set off internal alarms. Why? Because it often speaks to serious self-esteem problems. Ask yourself if this is a trait you’re willing to stomach in the long term. Chances are it isn’t.

Immaturity/Game playing: Personal interactions shouldn’t be treated like a game. Hayrik’s attempt to lure me into an unwinnable political debate spoke to an immature desire to prove his intellectual superiority – and not a desire to connect as equals. Without such equality, any kind of healthy relationship will be impossible.

Your mileage may vary

This article is not meant to be treated as a definitive list, but rather as a jumping-off point for identifying your personal limits. The message is: know your deal-breakers, and know that you have the right to walk once one has been identified.

If revelations are made mid-date that bring to light fundamental incompatibilities, you have grounds to end the interaction. There are perfectly polite ways of doing this. 

One I swear by is setting a timer on my phone and only feeding my parking meter for that period of time. This gives me a legitimate reason to get up and leave, no charade required.

How long should you set your timer? For a first date, one hour is more than adequate. When the alarm goes off, explain you have another commitment you need to get to. Thank the person for their time, pay for your bill, and leave.

This tactic can also be useful for those instances when you haven’t identified any dealbreakers but the interaction leaves something wanting. 

Sometimes the repartee is listless, the other person is nervous to the point of paralysis, or they may say something that rubs you the wrong way. If the interest – and effort – is mutual, these challenges can be overcome. 

Takeaways

  • Keep an eye out for discrepancies, causes for concern and irreconcilable differences.
  • Know your dealbreakers and what you’re willing to tolerate.
  • Have an exit strategy in place, should the date go south.

* Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of all individuals discussed in this article.

Five reasons gay men should consider doing therapy

Essy Knopf gay men therapy
Reading time: 9 minutes

It’s not uncommon to meet fellow gay men suffering from anxiety and depression. It’s also not unusual that they are either unaware, in denial, or unwilling to recognize these challenges, or to take the steps necessary to address them.

Some years ago, I had a falling out with my flatmates. At the time I was directing a major shoot at film school and was under immense pressure. Amid my mad scramble to find a new apartment, I decided to meet Samson*, a gay man in his 20s who worked as an IT consultant. 

Having exchanged niceties, Samson quickly got down to brass tacks, advising me he wanted a flatmate willing to hang tea towels and stack dishwashers in a specific fashion.

As someone known for my somewhat OCD tendencies – I for example never allowed people to sit on my bed while wearing their “outside clothes” – I could to some degree relate. 

But Samson seemed to take things one step further. A health fanatic devoted to all-natural products, he told me I wouldn’t be allowed to clean with bleach, on the account he might be exposed to its fumes.

Despite my reservations, I took the room. But from that first meeting onward, the stipulations piled up. One minute I was using too much fridge space, the next I was filling the kettle with “excess” water and wasting energy.

Samson even took to switching off the oven when he believed I was using it too long.

While he managed to bend some of his rules for me, I couldn’t shake the feeling that my presence in Samson’s home was not welcome. I could tell that while he wanted to save on rent, but also wanted to live alone. 

Worse still, whenever we happened to cross paths, Samson would complain. First, it was about his cutthroat colleagues at work. A week later it was the ex who seemed incapable of empathy, and the friends who failed to understand Samson’s very specific health choices. 

Samson told me he was against eating hydrogenated oils, on account of them being carcinogenic. For him, discovering that a meal contained even a trace of such was enough to ruin an entire night out.

Listening to Samson, I felt torn. Some of his complaints were understandable, and yet I knew I was being used as a sounding board for his discontent.

I tried to bring empathy and some perspective to the issues Samson raised, and yet nothing I said or did made any difference. Samson was trapped in a cycle of negative thinking, focused only on assigning blame to others.

So long as he continued to see the apparent failures of others as a reflection of their respect for him – and by implication Samson’s worth as a person – this would likely continue.

Samson’s paradigm was clearly at fault here, but I became convinced that it was serving double duty as a smokescreen for Samson’s inability to manage his own distress. 

By pretending it was not there, he would never have to confront it. Yet this unwillingness to accept and recognize his covert depression was precisely what was keeping him stuck. Rather than practicing introspection, Samson searched for scapegoats. 

Once or twice I broached the subject of seeing a therapist. Each time, Samson produced a readymade excuse.

The few therapists Samson had approached would not take his health insurance. The nature of Samson’s job meant he was often on the road with short notice, making it difficult for him to plan therapy sessions in advance.

Then there was the question of trust: Samson didn’t want to open up to just anyone

These were legitimate friction points, ones faced by many gay men looking to undertake therapy. But they were also excuses. As per the old maxim, if you really want to do something, you’ll find a way.

1. Gay men often suffer from depression

An inability or unwillingness to acknowledge one’s own mental health struggles is usually a product of self-denial; of alienation from one’s own authentic feelings.

Like a majority of men, we as gay men often suffer interpersonal prejudice and discrimination over our identities. These minority stresses can leave us stricken with shame while placing us at greater risk of depression, anxiety, and suicide.

That risk is exacerbated by the fact that males are socially programmed to go at it alone. Masculinity is popularly coded as being self-reliant, an idea more widely echoed in our culture’s embrace of rugged individualism, i.e. the “I don’t need help from anyone” mentality (see my earlier article on embracing your authentic gay identity).

Gay men tend to be more emotionally expressive than their straight counterparts. Gender-atypical tendencies like this often lead to us being singled out and persecuted. Any wonder then we should be especially challenged when it comes to asking for help.

But forcing ourselves to repress our emotions and to cut ourselves off from the help of others leaves us prone to covert depression. This depression is often the reason many of us should seek help…and yet it can also serve as a major source of resistance.

Depression sufferers know all too well how we can become trapped in the stasis field of negative thoughts and “automatic”, self-perpetuating cognitive distortions.

In his book Feeling Good, David D. Burns notes that these distortions lead in turn to procrastination and “do-nothingism”. That is, we found ourselves restrained by the very same inertia we are seeking to escape. 

Thus the depressive, lacking the motivation to change, surrenders to the comforting familiarity of their unhappiness.

Another reason it is difficult to take action is that covert depression operates as a kind of background presence that evades easy detection, or may be put down to just a passing “mood”.

Similarly, anxiety – depression’s fraternal sibling – may also be dismissed as an inevitable feature of modern life. It may even be regarded as a helpful crutch that gives the sufferer a motivational edge; a willingness to go the extra mile that is recognized and rewarded by employers.

2. We may have attachment difficulties

Caregivers play a crucial role not just in early development but our future wellbeing. They comfort us during times of distress, fostering a sense of security through healthy attachment. That attachment serves as a template for future relationships, shaping whether we are able to form close bonds with others. 

Attachment also provides children with an internal working model of self-worth. It defines whether we see the world as a safe or nurturing place, or one full of pain, uncertainty, and anguish. It provides the primary reference point for our lived experience

Ruptured attachment is the result of either active trauma, which typically involves a boundary violation such as physical or sexual abuse, or passive trauma, which involves some form of physical or emotional lack, such as neglect. Ruptured attachment can occur at any point during childhood or teenagehood.

Gay men experience both active and passive trauma when a parent rejects, neglects or attacks them over their sexuality, an experience which is all too common.

During early attachment, trauma is preverbal, making our suffering literally beyond words. As such, it can be difficult to “re-cognize” the experience and come to grips with its effect on us as adults.

Without the help of a trained practitioner, we will continue to live unknowingly in the shadow of our trauma, afflicted with mental health conditions like depression.

3. We may be unable to self-soothe

Ruptured attachment results in an inability to self-soothe. When our caregivers fail to properly “attune” to us and provide the correct behavioral modeling, we fail to develop this vital skill. 

Self-soothing means being able to realize we are hurting, to give ourselves the comfort we need, and to seek it from others when we can’t

Without self-soothing, we may find ourselves prone to “fight, flight, or freeze” in times of stress. 

That is, we engage in one of three coping strategies: coming out guns blazing, running from danger, or shutting down. We don’t seek the support we so desperately need, leaving us beholden to depression and anxiety.

In an attempt to pacify our troubled minds and hearts, we may turn to the Band-Aid fixes of grandiosity or process addictions.

4. Gay men are debilitated by shame

For gay men, depression is often compounded by longstanding shame. The distinction between guilt and shame, as pointed out by Brené Brown, is that guilt involves believing “I did something bad”, while shame involves assigning a permanent negative quality to yourself, like “I am bad”.

We come by shame firstly through socialization. Society teaches us our sexuality is abnormal, perverse, and even morally wrong. When this view is adopted by our caregivers, it may not necessarily lead to outright rejection, but rather words or deeds that are invalidating.

Invalidations, no matter how small they may seem, can inflict profound psychic wounds, Alice Miller says. If the only people in the world duty-bound to love you unconditionally mock or belittle you because of your sexuality, you may come to believe you are inherently unlovable.

The child with a devastating belief in his own unworthiness is likely to carry it into adulthood. If left unaddressed, this belief can leave us relationally impaired, resulting in an insecure attachment style.

Attached authors Amir Levine and Rachel Heller estimate about half of the adult population suffer from insecure attachment styles. In the case of gay men, this figure may arguably be even higher.

essy knopf gay men therapy

How a therapist can help gay men

Therapy is one way we can identify the impact ruptured attachment or invalidation has had upon us. It offers avenues for reconnecting with aspects of ourselves we may have become alienated from as a result of parental and social rejection and invalidation. 

And it is through this connection that we develop self-awareness, what Daniel Goleman calls “emotional intelligence”, and thus the ability to self-soothe.

A relationship with a therapist ideally is reparative. They model the unconditional acceptance of an ideal caregiver, creating an accepting space in which clients can vent to thoughts and feelings they have been forced to repress, often as a matter of survival. 

A good therapist uses compassion and insight to help their patients reintegrate alienated parts of the self. Through their guidance, gay men can come to terms with the loss and anguish they have suffered.

Therapy requires that we go to places we have been avoiding. After a lifetime spent mastering the art of emotional concealment, gay men undergoing therapy are asked to forgo their craft and expose their wounds and weak spots.

Embracing vulnerability in this fashion allows us to ultimately regain our long-lost ability to be emotionally authentic.

As Buddhist Pema Chödrön points out:

Without realizing it we continually shield ourselves from this pain because it scares us. We put up protective walls made of opinions, prejudices, and strategies, barriers that are built on a deep fear of being hurt… Finding the courage to go to the places that scare us cannot happen without compassionate inquiry into the workings of ego… Either we question our beliefs – or we don’t. Either we accept our fixed versions of reality – or we begin to challenge them. 

Choosing a therapist

Making the decision to undergo therapy sometimes feels like half the struggle. Then you have to deal with the deadly triad: money, scheduling, and what Samson called trust, but which I like to think of as compatibility

You can’t put a price on your mental wellbeing, so don’t let the cost alone thwart your efforts. If you don’t have a mental health care-inclusive health care plan, consider finding a therapist who offers sliding scale fees. If you need to take time out during working hours, negotiate with your manager or HR department.

When choosing a therapist, we all need assurance that we are in safe hands. We are, after all, seeking the unconditional acceptance we were once denied. Our chosen confidant, therefore, needs to show they will honor this responsibility. 

Bessel van der Kolk suggests three criteria by which you can gauge this: comfort, curiosity, and collaboration. To that list, I would also add proactivity and accountability:

  • Comfort: Do you feel comfortable and safe in the presence of this therapist? Do they seem comfortable with you? In the words of van der Kolk: “Someone who is stern, judgmental, agitated, or harsh is likely to leave you feeling scared, abandoned, and humiliated, and that won’t help you resolve your traumatic stress”.
  • Curiosity: Does the therapist seem interested in you as a person? Or do they see you as just another patient to be handed a rote list of advice and instructions? Do they actually listen to you? Are they comfortable sitting with your distress? Or do they immediately leap into diagnosis and prescription?
  • Collaboration: Is the therapist demonstrating a genuine desire to work with you, to explore your issues in-depth and to formulate a treatment plan?
  • Proactivity: Some therapists tend to take a nondirective role. As a result, you may feel you have to overcompensate. Sessions may become endless talk marathons, broken only by you prompting your therapist for participation. There is great value in a sympathetic ear, and venting is definitely part of the process. But given for example depression’s tendency to keep us trapped in automatic thoughts, we are never going to make the necessary shifts in our thinking without the help of someone willing to interrupt, redirect and even challenge, where necessary.
  • Accountability: Does your therapist honor their appointments with you? Do they cancel or reschedule on short notice? A therapist who is unpredictable or inconsistent can’t provide you with the security and caregiver-like “containment” you need. This also works in reverse. Do they help keep you accountable? Set tasks and homework? Without proper follow through on your behalf, your recovery may be hindered.

Remember: you are not locked into any therapist relationship. Treat the first session and those that follow like you would a date. You may be seeking immediate relief, but your objective should be to assess compatibility. 

In the end, there is no use building a relationship with someone who isn’t capable of giving you the support you need. Be willing to shop around until you find the right fit. And if it isn’t working, be prepared to move on. 

As with any endeavor, you will face setbacks. Sometimes these setbacks may simply come down to lack of motivation. If this is the case, break the task of finding a therapist into baby steps and try to complete one step a day.

The act of unlearning maladaptive behaviors and patterns can take months, if not years. Your recovery ultimately comes down to your being patient with the journey, flexible in your approach, and perhaps most importantly, remaining committed to your wellbeing.

Creating a new self unburdened by the injustices of your past first requires that you choose to break with the old.

“When I let go of what I am,” says Chinese philosopher Laozi, “I become what I might be”.

For advice on finding a therapist, check out this handy post by the American Psychological Association.

Takeaways

  • Acknowledge you may have depression.
  • Consider how your attachment history and feelings of shame might be playing a role.
  • Fight motivational inertia! Take it one baby step at a time.
  • Stay committed. You're in this for the long haul.

* Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of all individuals discussed in this article.

How gay dating apps have sparked a vulnerability crisis

Essy Knopf gay dating apps
Reading time: 5 minutes

My first real contact with the gay community was not through gay dating apps, but one of their predecessors: the website Gaydar. 

Aged 17, I had just left the family home and moved to a new city where I knew no one. Being not yet of legal age, I was unable to attend gay nightclubs, so Gaydar swiftly became my exclusive means of contact with other gay men. 

Similar to the Scruff of today, Gaydar allowed users to set up a profile along with a private gallery. 

Occasionally I’d get a notification that another had unlocked theirs for me. I’d brace myself, dreading what the invitation must inevitably hold.

And sure enough, the moment I clicked through, I’d receive a barrage of “anatomical exam” photos. For many people I’ve talked to, nude photo swaps are more mundane than titillating. 

Gay dating apps demand that we market ourselves as a commodity, as an ingredient in a fantasy that can then be mentally reconfigured at will.

When we are presented as just another face or torso in a sea of countless others, we have to take any chance we can to stand out. 

If you subscribe to that logic, “showing the goods” is a necessary requirement for a “sale”. I have always questioned however whether this is a tactic that results in face-to-face encounters. 

In-person interactions it seems have become an increasingly pallid substitute for the heightened reality of app-based instant gratification.

Exchanging sexual messages and photos with multiple dating app suitors is undeniably fun, especially given it carries none of the effort or consequences of real-life – and double the reward. 

These apps by design promote self-objectification and the validation that inevitably follows. They encourage us to respond to others not merely in order to maintain a conversation, but for the inherent reward of receiving a reply

That reply by implication is an acknowledgment of our romantic or sexual appeal. The positive neural feedback we receive when someone messages or sends us photos reinforces the desire to be objectified, which in turn keeps us coming back for more. 

But if we are not mindful, we can develop a single-minded focus on “winning”, leading in some cases to a gay dating app process addiction. 

In such cases, the process of dating becomes entirely divorced from its proclaimed purpose: to facilitate real-life relationships.

Gay dating apps demand we sacrifice vulnerability

Gay dating apps discourage exclusivity and encourage the fielding of multiple suitors. It’s a juggling act that necessitates efficiency. With so many options on hand, selecting a romantic or sexual partner must inevitably become a game of elimination. 

We screen people, dishing out and receiving rejection over and over again. In order to protect our egos, we give up making genuine approaches.

Instead of being present with the person, we’re speaking with, we slip into safe automaticity: talk round and round in talk circles, replace sentences with monosyllables, prompt people for information we have demanded from countless others before them. 

We list requirements and apply filters as if our tastes will maximize our gains and shield us not against failed connection, but an apparently far greater loss: suboptimal pleasure.

In effect, we trade connection for selection, and authenticity for subterfuge. In order to shield our feelings against the possibility of being hurt, we often disengage them entirely. 

essy knopf gay dating apps nude photos

Why you should say no to nudes

We play it cool, we play it sexy, but we don’t play our complicated, nuanced selves. Why? Because of the inherent limitations of instant messaging, the high levels of scrutiny to which it subjects us, and the wide latitude for misunderstanding.

Our conversations consequently become the rapid informational relay of stockbrokers. Stuck in the emotional deep freeze of gay dating apps, we fall to assessing, objectifying, categorizing and rejecting, arranging and manipulating people as if they were chess pieces, rather than living and breathing beings. 

We devalue both our humanness and that of others, and vulnerability dies a quiet death.

The irony is that to be naked is, in a very real, physical sense, to be vulnerable. Exchanging nude photos asks us to put ourselves on display for summary judgment by strangers

It forces us to be mercenary in our attitudes towards our chat partners, and cavalier about exposing ourselves in a way we normally reserve for intimate occasions. 

Arguably one of our primary needs as human beings is to connect with others. To connect, we need to be vulnerable. By sending nude photos, we are denying ourselves that right. 

In most cases, my app-based interactions have died in the water the moment I refused to exchange nude photos. To me, others’ demands were reductive and objectifying. 

It seemed to be that complying meant becoming yet another item on the app buffet menu. It also rewarded what I saw as unconscious, addictive “lever-pulling” behavior, the kind of thing you would expect of a rat trapped in a Skinner box

I am sad to report that after such refusals, my chat partners almost always chose not to meet me “sight unseen”. Instead, they continued to linger online, hedging their bets and scoping out all the available options. 

Many I suspect never intended to “choose” in the first place, preferring instead to forestall meeting anyone, often for the reasons I’ve already mentioned. Consider the example of the much-maligned “pic collector”, who lurks on the app for the sole gratification of collecting sexual photos.

gay dating apps

Be valued – on your terms

Gay dating apps only add to the pressure we face as gay men to conform to a certain ideal image of masculinity, which is often used as the basis for how we are assessed and treated by our romantic or sexual partners. 

But this oft-celebrated ideal – perfect cheekbones, chiseled jaws, and an athletic, muscular build – is problematic on several fronts.

First of all, this image is for, at least for a majority of gay men, simply unattainable. 

Even those of us blessed with good genes would still be required to invest a significant effort and time into crafting a picture-perfect physique. This is effort and time that most of us are unwilling, or unable, to spare.

Secondly, I believe this image is part and parcel of a toxic cultural perception of masculinity. Namely one in which men are unemotional, self-reliant ubermensch, impervious to any harm.

Beyond popular representations by TV and movie stars, such men do not, and never have, existed.

Thirdly, subscribing to this ideal asks that we divorce ourselves from our inner emotional selves – the same selves for which we crave acceptance.

It follows that the more we try to displace this need in favor of objectifying ourselves on gay dating apps, the more unhappy we are likely to feel. 

With such pressures, it’s no surprise that we are living in the midst of a slow-churning mental health epidemic. Gay men are more than twice as likely as their heterosexual counterparts to suffer from a mental health condition. They are also at a higher risk than the general population for suicide. 

For this reason, it’s crucial we avoid activities that are likely to put our sense of well-being in harm’s way. Choosing not to expose our naked selves to total strangers before meeting them is not an act of defiance. It’s an act of self-preservation.

Nudity should be an earned privilege that should occur in an atmosphere of mutual respect, not summary judgment. 

By refusing to send nude photos, we are reclaiming the right to be valued – on our own terms.

Takeaways

  • Gay dating apps keep us trapped in a never-ending cycle of trying to maximize gains.
  • The positive reinforcement they offer may lead to a cycle of automatic behavior.
  • This cycle may cause us to lose touch with vulnerability and our desire to connect.
  • Nude photo exchanges allows strangers to hold our bodies up against some unattainable ideal.
  • By not swapping nude photos, we are safeguarding our mental health.

Why ‘eulogy values’ are crucial to our happiness as gay men

Essy Knopf gay men
Reading time: 6 minutes

For most gay men, the journey from chronic insecurity to enduring wellbeing is fraught. It can be likened to fording a swift river under the cover of darkness, without the benefit of a boat or boatman.

Not only must we fight the currents of the past, but we must also somehow manage to keep our heads above the water in the present.

Without light to guide us, we risk losing sight of the far shore. Without a strong inner resolve, we may surrender and be swept downstream. 

Our suffering is often like mud on the river’s banks, so deep and compounded that we risk becoming mired in it before we’ve even reached the water.

In such times, we may be overwhelmed by the temptation to give in to our sense of powerlessness. Accepting that we may have no agency, that change is impossible, leads us to abandon our goals. 

We as gay men often settle for a life of contrary desires and actions, pursuing cheap thrill encounters in favor of purposeful deeds and meaningful connections. But such internal contradictions promise no peace. 

Rather, they are likely to only deepen our suffering.

Gay men and impulsive living

When I was in my early 20s and making my first forays into the gay “scene”, I met a man called Jeran.

Jeran was a gentle soul torn by insecurity. Having been abandoned by his father at an early age and bullied at school, he’d moved from the suburbs, seeking shelter in an inner-city gay village.

Despite always being surrounded by other gay men and having a mother who overcompensated to the point of celebrating her son’s birthday with him at a gay club of his choice, Jeran continued to suffer from self-loathing and impulsivity.

I knew Jeran desperately wanted a partner. But rather than attending venues and events geared towards dating, he spent his evenings compulsively cruising hookup sites and nightclubs.

Jeran was more of an acquaintance than a friend, so I was surprised when I received a call from him early one morning some months after our initial meeting.

Thinking it must be an emergency, I answered. Jeran apologized for waking me up then breathlessly launched into an account of his latest hookup. 

It quickly became clear to me that Jeran had confused a sexual encounter for a romantic one. When he explained the man he had met had recently split with his wife of some years, leaving his two children in her care, I hesitated.

But for Jeran, the fact the man had admitted this much could only ever be proof of his sincere intentions.

The following day, Jeran called again, seeking my enthusiastic endorsement, while disclosing intimate details that I had no interest in hearing.

By the third call, I finally told him that I needed him to reign it in. To my astonishment, Jeran replied by suggesting I might be jealous and dangled the consolation prize of a threeway

Given I had never expressed sexual interest in Jeran, this left me feeling deeply uncomfortable. I made an excuse and got off the call. 

About a week later, my phone buzzed. When I picked up, it was not Jeran this time, but his mother, pleading with me to go and check on him.

Jeran’s suitor, she explained, had stopped returning his calls, and her son was now in hysterics and threatening suicide. Concerned, I went over to Jeran’s studio to talk him through the situation. 

A stolid, red-eyed Jeran greeted me at the door. I tried to broach the subject of the breakup, but he deflected.

After a friend arrived to offer support, Jeran—without so much as a word of explanation—opened his laptop and proceeded to watch hardcore porn.

It was as if someone had set the faucet to full blast then switched it off just as suddenly.

Jeran’s denial of the relationship trauma he had just experienced was so complete he refused to take the necessary downtime to process his painful loss and, within a day or so, was back to cruising sex sites.

Over the next few years, I continued to see Jeran online, promoting drug use and branding himself as “semi-masc”—an apparent disavowal of his proud identification as camp.

Part of me wanted to reach out to him. Yet I knew that his entrenched sense of shame would prevent us from ever having the kind of authentic, nurturing conversation I knew he longed for.

Finding your anchor

Jeran’s suffering epitomizes that of many gay men who spend their lives yoyoing between highs and lows, refusing to acknowledge emotions and forever scrambling to find the next fix.

But in becoming preoccupied with the pursuit, we grow ever detached from our core values—values that should serve as a comforting source of stability, whatever the circumstance. 

Journalist David Brooks laments this universal challenge in his book The Road to Character:

Years pass and the deepest parts of yourself go unexplored and unstructured. You are busy, but you have a vague anxiety that your life has not achieved its ultimate meaning and significance. You live with an unconscious boredom, not really loving, not really attached to the moral purposes that give life its worth. You lack the internal criteria to make unshakable commitments. You never develop inner constancy, the integrity that can withstand popular disapproval or a serious blow. 

Without the grounding influence of a firm value system, those of us suffering the anguish of unsuccessful relationships or the pain of alienation from our authentic identity as gay men may turn to the validation promised by grandiosity, or the quick-fix relief of addictive substances or behaviors.

The problems we face in such circumstances are undoubtedly profound. There are no easy solutions, but if we are to ever find them, we must first be willing to put a moratorium on external distraction.

Only then can we achieve a much-needed internal reckoning.

gay men eulogy values

1. Write a mission statement

Instead of trying to find solace in our ever-changing physical reality, we can turn to the inner world of principles.

By actively engaging with our value system, we generate positive change. To quote Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny”.

How do we identify our principles? We can start by asking questions like:

  • What’s most important to me? 
  • What values do I believe in practicing daily? 
  • What am I most willing to fight for? 
  • What is my definition of a healthy, content, balanced life? 
  • What nourishes my body, mind, and spirit?

Look at your answers, making sure to distinguish between what Brooks calls “resumé values” and “eulogy values”.

Resumé values are values concerned exclusively with material success, the kind that sounds great on your resumé.

Eulogy values, on the other hand, are tied to your character. These are the traits loved ones might celebrate at your funeral.

Once you have identified your eulogy values, frame them as statements about how you intend to live your life, and why.

List these principles on a one-page document. Close your statement with a pledge of commitment and sign the bottom.

Congratulations! You now have a mission statement. 

Now print out copies of this statement and tape them in places where you’ll be reminded on a daily basis of the code by which you have chosen to live your new life.

2. Set some S.M.A.R.T. goals

S.M.A.R.T. stands for five categories: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. This goal tracking system helps break objectives into easily understood and trackable metrics.

Begin by brainstorming some goals in service of your newly articulated principles. Then download a S.M.A.R.T. goal planning spreadsheet and organize them into the five categories listed above.

For example, if healthy eating is a value you’ve identified, you can consider meal planning each week and preparing some home-cooked meals.

If you’ve listed community service as a goal, you can set aside time to volunteer for some nonprofits in your local community whose services you feel are valuable.

If you’ve decided you want to live a more mindful existence, consider implementing a 15-minute daily meditation practice.

In order to help you stick with your new resolutions, you may want to set reminders on your phone or program a habit-tracking app. Make sure to regularly check back on your progress at the times you’ve designated under the “T” section of your goal planner. 

The act of setting these goals alone will affirm your self-worth. And when you follow through with them, you are taking intentional steps towards creating a lifestyle defined not by the desire to escape but to embrace.

3. Be kind to yourself

Our society is addicted to the notion of instant “Cinderella-style” transformations. Transformation, however, runs on its own clock.

For this reason, you must be both patient and kind to yourself. Many gay men have a tendency towards achievement and perfectionism.

If this sounds like you, ensure your goal-setting and fulfillment does not become yet another behavior characterized by compulsivity.

Instead, practice listening to your feelings and needs. Cut yourself slack when needed. Treat this as an opportunity as much for growth as for self-compassion. 

Remember that you are tending a garden that will, in time, bear fruit. Conscientiousness and persistence are key.

The alternative is neglect, and we know very well the costs of this: the overgrown patches where snakes lurk, the flowers choked by weeds, the gnarled trees with their spoiled fruit. 

Craft a bold vision—one guaranteed to bring wellbeing and security, then carefully cultivate it.

“He who has a why to live,” says German philosopher Nietzsche, “can bear almost any how”.

Takeaways

  • Write a mission statement identifying the values that are most important to you.
  • Set goals in service of these values.
  • Break your new goals down into action steps using the S.M.A.R.T. system.
  • Pace yourself, and remember to practice self-compassion.

How to keep mentally well during the coronavirus pandemic

Essy Knopf coronavirus pandemic
Reading time: 5 minutes

The coronavirus pandemic reached new and chilling heights shortly after I arrived in Australia to visit family.

Friends and the media had told me to expect the worst – sprawling supermarket queues, panic buying, fights over toilet paper – but upon my return to Los Angeles, I found calm and order. 

Lockdown had brought a range of unexpected benefits, the reduced traffic being one of them. There were the smog-free skies also, and the appearance of new public works projects.

But after a few days of self-imposed quarantine, my initially positive attitude began to fade.

I normally work from home and tend to mix up my daily routine with a range of physical and social activities. Twice a week I’ll go for a run down at the local park, explore a new hiking trail, or catch up with a friend.

Social distancing however now made these impractical, if not impossible.

As my motivation ebbed, I began sleeping in and stopped exercising. And gradually my mood took a turn for the worse.

Connect with loved ones

With many public areas now closed and regions under coronavirus pandemic lockdown, a collective retreat indoors has resulted in social isolation seemingly overnight. 

But the coronavirus crisis is not one that must be endured in solitude. For this reason, we should reach out to family members and friends. Chances are they’ll be equally grateful for our conversation and company.

If texting, calling, instant messaging, social media, or online multiplayer gaming aren’t doing it for you, consider throwing a virtual party over Zoom or Google Chat.

You can even screen-share a party game collection like Jack Box.

Manage your mental health

Modern hyperconnectivity right now cuts both ways. It means we can communicate with a tap of the thumb, but it also means we are bombarded around the clock with the latest coronavirus-related development.

The unprecedented nature of the global pandemic and the changes it has already wrought is likely to leave even the hardiest among us shaken. 

Left to ruminate on these extraordinary circumstances, our minds will naturally tend towards anxious and depressive thinking. 

“What if I catch coronavirus?” we wonder. “What do I do if shortages continue?” “Am I going to lose my job?” “Will things ever go back to being normal?”

The coronavirus pandemic, however, is an unprecedented development for which no individual can possibly be fully prepared. 

A more proactive approach involves striving to be aware of, and responsible for, our own mental wellbeing. We can do this by taking the following steps.

essy knopf coronavirus pandemic mental wellbeing

Keep exercising

Exercise improves the brain’s resilience to stress while combating anxiety and depression

If you don’t have a treadmill, exercise bike, or weights bench at home, don’t despair. The sun may be setting on TV aerobics, but intrepid YouTubers have already stepped in to fill the workout void.

There are countless free-to-view exercise channels and subscription-based apps offering access to exercise classes.

If high-energy aerobics or low-intensity Pilates isn’t your thing, you can always take a brisk walk, jog or run around the neighborhood.

Sunlight is a primary source of Vitamin D and getting your daily dose will help guard against depression.

Whatever you choose, set a schedule and stick to it. With most of us now homebound, establishing an exercise habit is more crucial to our well-being than ever.

Try yoga and meditation

Yoga and meditation are the kinds of practices most of us find ourselves putting off indefinitely. 

“Not today,” we say. “Tomorrow.” But when tomorrow rolls around, we become caught up again in the other distractions of daily life and continue to postpone indefinitely.

With productivity in Western society often treated as the only measure of success, slowing down – especially for the grandiose among us – is often equated to personal failure.

The coronavirus pandemic has placed a moratorium upon many activities, suspending out memberships with the cult of busy

Having more time than ever on our hands, combined with the stressors of a global pandemic, can result in a perfect storm for catastrophizing.

Meditation and yoga offer guaranteed relief from this kind of thinking. Not only do they support mental wellbeing – they strengthen our capacity for withstanding the travails of life and allow us to “cognitively reframe” life situations.

Those keen to explore meditation, yoga, and mindfulness can find a handy list of resources at the bottom of this article.

Practice gratitude

Gratitude is a form of emotional intelligence that doesn’t merely shift our thinking towards optimistic thinking. Rather, it counters what scientists call “hedonic adaptation” – our tendency to take things for granted – while improving mental fortitude.

A daily gratitude practice may involve something as simple as writing down five things that you’re grateful for, or free-flow writing for a period of time or specific length (e.g. five minutes or three pages). 

A phone call with a friend, a nice cup of coffee, enjoying perfect health – anything and everything goes. 

Practicing gratitude may feel difficult or “fake” at first, but remember you are learning to use a mental muscle. And like all muscles, gratitude atrophies from disuse, so maintaining the habit is crucial.

As The Upward Spiral author Alex Korb reminds us:

You can’t always find something to be grateful for, but just because you can’t find it doesn’t mean it’s useless to look. It’s not finding gratitude that matters most; it’s remembering to look in the first place… With gratitude, it is often the searching, the looking, the fishing for gratitude that activates the circuitry. You can’t control what you see, but you can control what you’re looking for.

essy knopf coronavirus crisis tips anxiety coping

Remember to laugh

If there is an antidote to the pervasive atmosphere of grim paranoia the coronavirus pandemic has brought, it’s humor. 

All the more reason to indulge in a golden oldie sitcom, browse YouTube’s many funny vid compilations, sample top joke tweets, catch up on a comedic podcast, or dust off a copy of your favorite comedian’s memoir.

For more ideas, check out these suggestions by blogger Marelisa Fabrega.

Enrich your life

A coronavirus lockdown is as much an opportunity to safeguard your wellbeing as it is a chance to enrich yourself.

That self-help book you were always planning to get to? Now’s the time. The environmental documentary your friend recommended? Well, what are you waiting for?

The new career path you wanted to explore? You’ve got no excuse now. 

Time to get cracking.

Takeaways

  • The coronavirus pandemic has changed the pace of daily living – embrace it.
  • Treat this as a chance to bond with those not-so-near but still dear.
  • Maintain mental health with exercise, yoga, meditation, gratitude, and laughter.
  • Now is the time to pursue the interests and activities you’ve been putting off.

Resources for the coronavirus pandemic