We say that everyone has the right to think and do as they choose. Consequently, we are often reluctant to express anything that might set a boundary or limit on another person. Yet, it is well known that limiting someone’s unhealthy action or speech contributes to their potential well being, even if they don’t like it.
I first experienced this many years ago when I was managing a halfway house for recovering mental patients. My job was simply described: be real, and keep the House rules. House rules were three, including: each one takes a turn cooking supper for all 19 of us, on a 19 day rotation.
One morning I was in the living room when Maggie came down stairs, frowning, her hair disheveled and her step slow. She sat on the sofa and didn’t answer my “Good morning, Maggie.” This seemed out of character, so I stayed close to observe. Had she gone off her meds? But she wouldn’t talk.
After she sat there unmoving for almost two hours, I suddenly realized it was her turn to cook supper. Oh dear.
I reminded her of what was expected, indeed required of her that day. After many repetitions, she finally got up and dragged, furious, into the kitchen. Then came several hours of, “Maggie, get up and go to the refrigerator,” repeated until she did it, sighing out her angry resistance. Then “Open the freezer” until, groaning, she reached up and – well, you get the picture. It took hours to get those hot dogs and the accompanying salad ready to eat.
I felt awful. I had pushed, forced, insisted and threatened. How long would she stay angry? I couldn’t blame her at one level, and yet it was my responsibility to do exactly that.
Maggie completed her time in the House and left. A few months after that, she returned for a visit. She looked amazingly good. She had a job. She was polite and told me her social worker was praising her. She felt much better and her doctor had reduced her medication.
And then: “Remember that day you made me cook?”
“How could I forget that?” I answered. We laughed.
“Well, that’s the day I decided to get well,” she said.
“Because you would let me act sick.”
It may not always be so dramatic, but it can always be constructive.