Observation Room

(or If These Walls Could Talk…)

I wish I had the foresight to start my own photo profile of therapy offices.  But I had no idea on the day I first stepped into a therapist’s office, more than 14 years ago, that it would merely be the first in a long string of such offices.  Sometimes the actual therapy office plays just as an important role as the therapist.  Sometimes it is a treasure-trove of clues, sometimes it is a complete blank slate.  But whatever state it is, it is part of the therapy, and a part of each assessment I’ve made of potential therapists.  Sometimes it’s a conscious reaction to the environment, other times perhaps completely unconscious.  This is what I’ve noticed.

Location, location, location

In general, it seems that therapists gravitate to either the ground floor or the very top floor of a building.  In my experience this is especially true for therapists who are in private practice.  The only ones I’ve encountered with offices on a floor somewhere in the middle are part of some group practice or a training institute.  It seems to me that the ground floor is a more sensible choice for this type of work, but yet the majority seems to prefer the penthouse view.


With a group practice, you can just walk right in, but solo-practioners are all safely hidden behind closed, locked doors.  Usually there is a buzzer that announces your arrival and opens the front door to the suite of offices.  One therapist I saw had a keypad with a code that you could use to let yourself in.  I’ve written before about how much I hate the buzzer setup, but what I’ve since learned is that not all buzzers are created equal.  Some are very quiet and discreet, so much so that you might not even notice them.  Not all are so jarring as to make you jump out of your skin.  I think one thing that I like most about N (my potential new therapist, although I can’t bring myself to call her that yet) is that either she just doesn’t have many clients, or she staggers them in a way that you never have a session that ends with a buzzer.  I’ve yet to see anyone else in her office, which leads me to…

Wait here

Before you even get to the consultation room, you usually first have to pass through a waiting room.  I think I’ve seen it all – from well-appointed waiting rooms with a receptionist, to the tiniest of spaces with no more than a chair or two.  And I’ve learned that the state of the waiting room is no indication of what you will find behind that closed door.  Some of the nicest offices I’ve been in have had the shabbiest of waiting rooms.

Often the waiting room connects a suite of offices, but there are also therapists who practice out of what I can only describe as converted apartments.  These offices are usually in actual apartment buildings and you can almost imagine how the space was once used for dwelling rather than just therapy.  These offices are often appointed with full bathrooms and decorative doors and intricate moldings.

For those back in the suite, the bathroom often poses a dilemma.  Most suites do not have a private bathroom, so you are forced to first fetch a key to unlock the bathroom shared by everyone on that floor.  This setup drives me crazy, especially if you have to keep buzzing to get back into the suite.  At one therapist’s office, the keys to the women’s rooms were always missing or constantly in use, so you had to impatiently wait outside until someone emerged to let you in.  We always seemed to get started late because I couldn’t get into the bathroom!

The presence of a receptionist also creates an interesting dynamic.  My first therapist had a receptionist and this was very convenient for me because it meant I could avoid ever talking about money with her, and if I was mad, I could just leave without scheduling my next appointment.

Please come in

When I think about the offices that I’ve sat in, the first thing that usually comes to mind is color: white, brown, red, green, orange.  The white offices were barren and impersonal, with no personal effects displayed.  One of these was even in a “wellness” space that looked ever-so appealing on the website, but felt almost clinical in person.  One orange office was also devoid of personality, but still somehow managed to convey a warmth.  The red office was dominated by this ombré rug and I found myself forever scanning the lines of color, up and down the office.  I actually notice rugs a lot, especially as I probably spend more time looking down than at the actual therapist (some people stare at the therapist’s shoes, for me, it turns out to be the rug).  If there is an intricate design, perhaps floral or geometric shapes, I will trace the details over and over again with my eyes, scanning for patterns or incongruities.  Maybe it helps me think, maybe it helps me avoid thinking.

One office, in one of those converted apartment buildings, was akin to being in your grandmother’s sitting room, complete with well-worn floral décor and a big comfy chair.  I actually liked the space a lot but couldn’t stand the therapist.

N’s office couldn’t be more different from my ex(?)-therapist’s office (I can’t bring myself to acknowledge that finality either).  N’s office is dark and cave-like, which at first kind of terrified me, but now I kind of like.  I’m in a dark place right now, and hunkering down into a dark cave feels somehow comforting.  Her office is filled with books, more books than I’ve ever seen packed into one office.  Other offices have had shelves filled with books, but nothing compared to her collection.

My ex(?)-therapist’s office was a lovely little corner of the world.  It was this unique triangle-shaped room, cozy, and over-flowing with personal effects.  Even so, I always noticed if anything ever changed.  Being on the top floor, it would catch the most beautiful light, no matter the time of day.  Depending on my appointment, I might get the morning light or the mid-day light or the late-afternoon light.  And depending on the time of year, it might start to get dark mid-session and we would watch the light fade until eventually succumbing and turning on a lamp, the artificial light never as satisfying as the natural.  Even the rain would feel comforting, tapping against the delicate windows.  It was comfortable, safe, secure.  It felt like home.  I miss that space, nearly as much as I miss her.

Take a seat

Usually there is a couch, but not always.  Sometimes there’s an arm chair, sometimes there’s both and you have your choice of seat.  But usually it’s just a couch.

Therapists would be wise to check the condition of their couches and chairs from time-to-time.  Droopy couches are the worst.  If I’m entering a therapist’s office for the first time, I’m probably already feeling low as it is, and sinking into an unsupportive piece of furniture somehow feels further degrading.

Usually the therapist sits across from you, but again not always.  I’ve had a few sit at a desk or small table, which can be awkward.  One had such a large office and sat so far away from me I felt like I had to scream to be heard, and that we had to repeat ourselves, the sound getting lost in the vacuum of space between us.

N’s chair is in a kind of strange position, and since she is more psycho-analytically inclined, I think the whole setup is meant to encourage the client to lie down.  But that’s way out of my comfort zone right now.  And I haven’t finished analyzing the pattern of her rug yet.

Time’s up

So there you have it, a veritable tour of offices around the city, each office as unique as the therapist inside.

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