Can’t vs. Can not

So, for those of you who don’t know, I’m an intern at a drug rehab center. Basically, my job is to follow whatever unfortunate therapist got stuck with me for the day, sit in on their group and therapy sessions, take notes, give out breathalyzers, and basically just do whatever else the shrink doesn’t want to do (oh, the joys of free college aged labor).

The therapist I found myself with today does this thing where he’ll think out loud. Sometimes he’s talking to me, sometimes (coughmostlycough) it’s to himself. Which ever the case it was today, he brought up an interesting point.

He wrote two sentences on a piece of paper that he wanted to use in some group therapy at some time. The first one read, “I can’t use.” The second read, “I can not use.”

He asked me what the difference was between the two sentences (shot in the dark, he wasn’t referring to the grammar).

The first was a demand, the sort a parent would tell a child. “You can’t use today because you are not allowed to, and you’re not allowed to because I say you aren’t.” Show me a person–addicted or not–who isn’t degraded and belittled by this statement… But emotions aside, the statement takes away any chance of autonomy the client may have, which is something I hadn’t noticed until looking at the second sentience: “I can not use.”

I want to focus on the two words: “can” and “not” and note that they are separate in the second sentence, as opposed to being fused into one: cannot. Breaking “can” into it’s own word is what returns the power to the clients in outpatient by reminding them that they can use, if they choose to do so. Granted, we’d rather they didn’t choose to use… but in the end, we acknowledge that it’s their life, and their choice, and we cannot stop them. The “not” is what gives them the strength to do just that. They “can” opt to use, but they won’t, or rather, they will choose “not” to.

The “can’t” in “I can’t use” denies both the can and the not, and this is what strips the client of their rights to choose, just as their addiction stripped them of their rights to choose what would become of their lives.

Just some small words that make all the difference to those who hear or read them.

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