Friend, or What?


The phone would ring and I’d hear that deep bass voice say, “He-e-e-llo, Annie,” and I would settle in for a good chat.  We would talk about everything under and over the sun.  We would share stories of our history and argue about the conclusions of our old age.  We were both sixty-five and it was a joy to talk with someone who remembered the same things I did—and remembered them in the same way.

I had asked him to be my therapist and he said I couldn’t afford him but we could be friends and so we talked on that basis—sort of.  In the beginning, he would push me.  “Ann-i-i-i-e-e . . .”  I had to tell him everything.  I would say that I didn’t want to talk about X, Y or Z, or I’d rather not respond to some question, and he wouldn’t accept it.  A friend would have; a friend would respect boundaries.

He didn’t.  He was a therapist.  He viewed it as an obstacle to therapy, not a boundary set by a friend.  Obstacles are to be overcome and he worked hard to break down all my defenses.  He would cajole and beguile.  He would use patience or firm, insistent questioning.  He made it clear that until I told him how I really felt, there would be no conversation about anything else.   And in the end, it felt so good, you know?

To have a best friend, a friend you trusted with your innermost feelings . . . that was a blessed relief.  There was so much pain in my life—damaged by psychiatry, abandoned by my family, impoverished by the inability to work, homebound and often bedridden by illness, ignored by my church, alone, alone, alone—and now I had this wonderful, faithful friend.

He was smart and funny, kind and understanding, and he believed in me.  He thought I was wonderful, courageous, brilliant, generous and wise; he told me so.  I was an incredibly good person in unbelievably bad circumstances, and he was there for me.  When I was hospitalized, he was there, on the phone.  When I had bad medical appointments, he went with me by phone.  When I needed a rehab center, he made phone calls.  He was a Care Manager; that’s what he did.

If he’d been a carpenter, he would have built me a deck.  If he’d been an editor, he would have gotten me published.  He was a therapist, so he helped me emotionally.  Don’t we all share our professional expertise with our friends?  Then why did I, sometimes, get angry and accuse this friend of treating me like a patient?  Many months went by before I understood what I meant:  he was acting like a therapist, not a friend—wasn’t he?  He wasn’t self-revealing.

He would call me on Monday morning and ask about my weekend.  I’d tell him where I went, what I did, who I talked to, and how I felt about it all.  I would ask about his weekend—friends do, don’t they?—and he would reply, “Chores around the house,” and change the subject.  We were not to talk about him; we were to talk about me.  Isn’t “me” everybody’s favorite subject?   And wasn’t he totally other-directed?

He didn’t want money or sex or power or fame:  he just wanted to help other people.  He was an amazing man and I was entranced by him.  I loved him and he loved me.  He told me so; this splendid, wonderful man told me he loved me—until the lawsuit.

We spent hours every week on the phone with each other, sometimes talking several times a day, then the phone calls stopped.  He neither called nor accepted my calls for one long, dark week.  When we finally spoke again, he told me that he was being sued.  He wouldn’t tell me why, but he was devastated.  His ex-patient-friend was suing him.  He felt hurt and betrayed, and I could not comfort or reassure him.  He—who was so positive, so upbeat, so optimistic—said he was going to lose his license and his livelihood.  What did he know that he wasn’t telling me?

But he stopped telling me he loved me.  I didn’t make the connection, then, between the lawsuit and the I-love-you’s.  By then, I was totally confused about our relationship.  He said we were friends, but wouldn’t let me call him at home.  He said we weren’t lovers, but he told me he loved me.  He said he wasn’t my therapist, but all our conversations took place while he was in his professional office.

I stopped trying to make sense of him and just accepted him.  If talking about me made him happier than talking about him, then okay, we’d talk about me.  What woman has ever understood a man?  I’d ask him how I could help and he would reply, “Just be yourself.”  What the heck did that mean?  So I would babble on, not knowing anything—not knowing who he really was, not knowing what our relationship really was, not knowing what the boundaries really were.

He was my friend and I accepted him as he was.  That’s what friends do, don’t they?  And he was my friend.

Wasn’t he?

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About annecwoodlen

I am a tenth generation American, descended from a family that has been working a farm that was deeded to us by William Penn. The country has changed around us but we have held true. I stand in my grandmother’s kitchen, look down the valley to her brother’s farm and see my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Hannah standing on the porch. She is holding the baby, surrounded by four other children, and saying goodbye to her husband and oldest son who are going off to fight in the Revolutionary War. The war is twenty miles away and her husband will die fighting. We are not the Daughters of the American Revolution; we were its mothers. My father, Milton C. Woodlen, got his doctorate from Temple University in the 1940’s when—in his words—“a doctorate still meant something.” He became an education professor at West Chester State Teachers College, where my mother, Elizabeth Hope Copeland, had graduated. My mother raised four girls and one boy, of which I am the middle child. My parents are deceased and my siblings are estranged. My fiancé, Robert H. Dobrow, was a fighter pilot in the Marine Corps. In 1974, his plane crashed, his parachute did not open, and we buried him in a cemetery on Long Island. I could say a great deal about him, or nothing; there is no middle ground. I have loved other men; Bob was my soul mate. The single greatest determinate of who I am and what my life has been is that I inherited my father’s gene for bipolar disorder, type II. Associated with all bipolar disorders is executive dysfunction, a learning disability that interferes with the ability to sort and organize. Despite an I.Q. of 139, I failed twelve subjects and got expelled from high school and prep school. I attended Syracuse University and Onondaga Community College and got an associate’s degree after twenty-five years. I am nothing if not tenacious. Gifted with intelligence, constrained by disability, and compromised by depression, my employment was limited to entry level jobs. Being female in the 1960’s meant that I did office work—billing at the university library, calling out telegrams at Western Union, and filing papers at a law firm. During one decade, I worked at about a hundred different places as a temporary secretary. I worked for hospitals, banks, manufacturers and others, including the county government. I quit the District Attorney’s Office to manage a gas station; it was more honest work. After Bob’s death, I started taking antidepressants. Following doctor’s orders, I took them every day for twenty-six years. During that time, I attempted%2
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11 Responses to Friend, or What?

  1. Don says:

    To Cathi Carol get a clue. Words mean things . I love you means I love you, I won’t hurt you and you are important, I heard it for over 30 years and it was a lie he is not devestated only caught. And by the way he admitted it to me. Don

  2. Don says:

    The man said he loved me too, and then tried to destroy me , my wife and my family . The truth is all I ask. I take no joy in seeking justice and I doubt that I will ever heal. I wish that he can hurt no other people and that is my only goal. Don

  3. Cathi Carol says:

    I hope this helps:

    Take it from a psychologist: When your famous friend/therapist said “You can’t afford me” and then called you when he could, that meant he was giving you free therapy. That is why he didn’t want to talk about himself, but you. Because of the way you got to know him you may not have fully understood that. He should have been more up front about that.

    His “I love you’s” were what a friend says to a friend, yes, but also what an informal (which this was) therapist might say to a patient whom they want to feel better and get better – I love you is appreciation and healing. People need to hear I love you, and warm-hearted people are willing to say it often to people whom they care about.

    He took a chance being so kind because that sort of thing can be misunderstood – that may be why he got sued. He should have been more honest about what he was offering you.

    So don’t take his behavior toward you personally. Try to understand it for what it was. He liked you enough to offer free therapy to you. He wanted to help you with what he could do for you. He gave to you of his time and empathy. He obviously felt kindly toward you. But you barely knew each other, and his behavior toward you was mainly as a therapist. Substitute that relationship in your mind for what you thought it was, and that may heal you to the point where you can appreciate what he tried to do for you.

    What happened to him – being sued, facing losing his livelihood – that is a huge, huge deal. My God. Try to feel empathy toward him rather than whining that he is not as “there” for you as he used to be! Try to be a friend to him, too.

      • Cathi Carol says:

        I’ve been worried about you, Anne, for several weeks, and it occurred to me yesterday afternoon, long after I wrote my comment, that this behavior isn’t normal for you. You’ve been sounding not yourself. New medication, change of dose, sugar low, thyroid low? I hope you see a doctor.

        It was strange to read your complaints, in public, about someone who tried so hard to help you and to give to you who had to withdraw to tend to his own life. Real friends do that sometimes. Even paid therapists do that sometimes. It wasn’t clear why this upset and confused you. Not knowing who he is, I can only go by what you write.

        Your friend got really terrible news and was in shock. He wasn’t in a frame of mind, I’m sure, to call everyone he knew to tell them the bad news – especially people not in his own family. Maybe he was afraid you would hurt him, too. And you did, with your post.

        And now to find a negative post about me?

        I tried to help you and got kicked in the teeth, just like your “friend”? It was a mistake for me to care about you, to like you, just like your “friend”?

        I don’t know what your damage is, here. Unfollow. Uncare.

      • annecwoodlen says:

        Cathi, you and I have exchanged about half a dozen messages in our lifetime. We have never met. We have never spoken. We are not friends. We are strangers who have exchanged a few notes. You have no idea what my normal baseline behavior is. You have presumed to understand the motives of a person (my “friend”) who has never written or spoken to you either. Your understanding of what it means to be a friend is frighteningly superficial. How can you know so little about other people and yet presume to comment with such detail about their lives?

      • annecwoodlen says:

        And your message does not contain a single word about your claim to speak as a psychologist when you are not one.

  4. He was your friend for sure. But… It sounds like you were his obsession. For whatever he may have been gaining out of it. Even if it was completely altruistic, a pure form of good, a man just wanting to help – it still wasn’t friendship. Friendship has equality, give and take. Sometimes more of one but always equalling out in the end.

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