My Therapist, My Friend

Looking for tea and empathy? Why your therapist can't be your friend.

By Pamela Cytrynbaum, published March 1, 2001 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

A few years ago, I moved 2,000 miles from my beloved Chicago to a cozy university town in Oregon. (My husband got a great job. I've got a great husband. So we went.) Yes, Oregon is seductively green, but it rains endlessly—it's the Seasonal Affective Disorder capital of the universe. More important, there is nobody here to have tea and brownies with.

I spent the first six months here talking nonstop on the phone to the wonderful women friends I have known since I was 12. They're brilliant and witty, and they guarantee a bottomless cup of empathy. Who needs new friends? My mother's advice: "All you need is one new woman friend. Your life will bloom from there." My old friends offered their urgent blessing: "Go forth and find excellent new gals. There's room for us all." Then I met her—smart, funny, compassionate, a great listener. This is it, I thought. I can make it here if this woman and I can hang out. I just wish I didn't have to pay her. Therein lies my problem: What happens when your small town offers a limited number of cool new female-friend prospects, and your first round draft pick turns out to be your therapist? I had initially sought her help for my "adjustment disorder." I hated Oregon, hated my family for supporting the move and my new life with such optimistic cheer, hated that I had to quit my high-powered newspaper job—which I had hated. I just couldn't get my groove back.

The months tugged on. In therapy I'd cry. I'd rage. When I had the energy to pay attention, though, I noticed glimmers of change. Slowly I compiled a mosaic of tiny moments when I actually felt whole. My sense of humor grew back. There must be a geophysical term or theory that describes complete stillness, and then an enormous, molecule-altering movement so huge it changes everything—The Big Bang, maybe. I gave Deb a small gift for the holidays, and thanked her profusely in a card for helping me save my life. Maybe someday we could be friends, I wrote, when this is long past. That wish grew stronger a week later when I accepted an invitation from an acquaintance to attend a woman's book group. Ten minutes after I arrived I heard my therapist's sweet laugh at the front door. She smiled warmly at me.

There was an abundance of cool women, great talk and tea. My therapist recounted her mother's recent visit. She rolled her eyes and laughed. (She has a MOTHER?) Then she described a conversation with her young son, who sounded adorable and way too aware in that way shrink's kids sometimes are. Seeing her in a group with her actual friends just made me want to be one of them even more.

Of everyone I'd met here, she came the closest to the kind of woman I could imagine being real friends with, the kind you keep in touch with your whole life. Or maybe it was just the "she saved my mental life" thing. It's hard to disentangle the two. Maybe it's both. At my next appointment I told Deb that maybe I should quit therapy so we could be friends. I can't stay in therapy for 25 years, but friendships last that long. Wouldn't that be healthier? Deb laughed, said she was honored and flattered, but that her ethics, and probably my psyche, wouldn't allow that. The weight of the choice—a choice I hadn't realized I'd made—made me deeply sad. "You can't unring the bell," she said. "This work we're doing, it's very important. But if we had met under different circumstances, we very well may have been great friends. That's a loss." Maybe if we had met first as friends, I tried to tell myself, I wouldn't have gone into therapy and fought my way back so hard. And maybe every time we were talking over tea, I might have always silently wished that my good friend had been my shrink.