Phoebe’s Traumatic Childhood Was Friends’ Darkest Plotline

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There’s an episode of the sitcom Friends during which Rachel asks Phoebe: “How have you never been on Oprah?” The question is posed as a joke, but it’s not far off base, considering Phoebe Buffay’s life was riddled with intense trauma. Although her disturbing life experiences were usually the butt of a joke seemingly added to the script for shock value, it doesn’t make them any less harrowing. Here are a few examples: Phoebe’s mother died by suicide from carbon monoxide poisoning. Her father abandoned her as a baby, and her stepdad went to prison (before his incarceration, he used to sell his blood to buy Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) food on her birthday). At the age of 14, she lived on the street. There was also a brief period where she resided in a “burnt out Buick LeSabre” — until she got hepatitis when a pimp spit in her mouth. She also used to mug people (including David Schwimmer’s Ross), and she mentions that she once stabbed a cop (but only because he stabbed her first). 
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All this is to say: Phoebe’s life was tragic, traumatic, and straight up psychologically devastating. And yet, she’s generally good natured and goes on to live a fairly normal adult life. But you have to wonder: If you plucked Phoebe up out of the popular sitcom’s coffee shop set, and plopped her down in the real world, would she be so well adjusted after living through all this? I posed that question to psychologist Dr. Gail Saltz, M.D., an associate professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine. 
How did Phoebe’s trauma effect her? 
Saltz points out that Friends was supposed to be light, funny, and engaging, so it would have been off-brand to address the impacts of Phoebe’s problems on her mental health. Of course, the show could have been more accurate about the way her issues might have shaped her life. “The sucicide of a parent is one of the more traumatic things someone could go through, and it would have serious ramifications,” Saltz says. “There would likely be lasting traumatic effects. They don’t portray her as struggling with anxiety or the genetically loaded possibilities of depression, so it’s not so realistic in that sense.” She also doesn’t make any significant mention of her seeing a therapist regularly — although there’s an episode in which she dates a psychologist
But the show also got some things right.
Throughout the show, Phoebe seems to have commitment, trust, and intimacy issues in her romantic relationships until she meets her husband-to-be Mike Hannigan (Paul Rudd) in season nine. It’s not a given that someone who had these experiences would have trouble in the love department, but Saltz explains that it makes sense that you’d have problems trusting your partner to stay. Especially after both parents displayed to Phoebe that people can disappear on you.
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“For a long part of the show, she seemingly has a lot of difficulty with dating,” Saltz says. “That could be because the suicide of parent can impact your ability to have trust and create long lasting intimacy with another person,” she explains.

Phoebe also displays signs of denial throughout the show. For example, there’s an episode in which she thinks her mother has come back to her in the form of a stray cat. This is a fairly natural way to process the kind of rocky life Phoebe had. “Some people’s reaction to trauma is to use a lot of extreme denial as a defense mechanism to stay engaged in their lives,” Saltz says. “Phoebe makes light of it or denies it or sees some good in it.” An example of her making good on her psychologically damaging encounters: She brings up her mother’s death to get Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) to give her the last blueberry muffin at the coffee house.
The fact that she mugged people also isn’t totally unthinkable when it comes to what she’s been through. “That someone might commit crimes after having had huge loss, trauma, and having to survive on the street? That’s believable, psychologically speaking,” Saltz says. “It’s a method of survival… after having so many horrific things befall you, you might develop some antisocial traits. For example: Breaking the rules and having no compunction about it. That wouldn't be shocking.” What is shocking is that after surviving all of this, Phoebe is so caring for her friends and animals. She’s a kind person, with a good heart — despite it all. 
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What would a therapist would tell Phoebe? 
I asked Saltz what she would prescribe for Phoebe if the quirky New Yorker was her patient. Saltz says she’d recommend psychodynamic psychotherapy, which focuses more on the patient’s relationship with her world than her relationship with the therapist. Saltz thinks Phoebe could use some help coming to terms with what’s happened to her. 
“It appears as though she hasn’t spent time processing the impact of these traumas on her life,’ Saltz says. “Instead, she’s kept it at arms’ length… The result of this is longing for a mother and fear of abandonment. And she may want to address the impact of that on being able to create new intimacies. It would be valuable for her to better understand and process and integrate it into her life.”
By integrating, Saltz basically means acknowledging what happened to her as part of her story, rather than just referencing it occasionally out of the blue as a joke. She says this would help Phoebe bond with new romantic interests. Phoebe has a tendency to bail from relationships when she gets scared. But if she integrated her trauma into her life, she might be able to say: I get scared, and this is why. Perhaps I should figure out why I’m feeling that way, communicate it, and reassess why I want to run away from my relationship with Gary the cop. 
Is Phoebe okay? 
Saltz says that Phoebe is a character who can handle a lot of heartache, and yet still be a kind human who you’d want to be friends with. “It’s amazing that she becomes this normal adult who hangs out with Rachel and sips coffee, when, as a teenager, she seemed to be this other human who was hanging out with pimps and mugging people,” Saltz says. “It’s funny because it’s outrageous.” 
And if funny and outrageous isn’t the best description of Phoebe, I don’t know what is. In the end, Phoebe's most defining quality was her resilience. Saltz compares her to a dandelion, who can still survive and blossom in harsh environments. 
And bloom she does. Ultimately, things turn out well for Phoebe, the way they usually do in sitcoms. She gets to marry Paul Rudd, for Pete’s sake. 
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