Explanations and Excuses

Hello my Zebras and Spoonies! Thanks for coming and hanging out with me today. I’m glad that you are here. Today I want to talk about Explanations and Excuses. This is a frequent topic of conversation in chronic illness forums. Doesn’t matter if it is ADHD or GP, having a chronic illness leads to this strange debate of Explanations vs Excuses. Are they different? If so, how? Is it ever reasonable to use your illness as an excuse? Is it ableism to accuse someone of using their illness as an excuse? A lot of questions come up around this topic. So, let’s get into it!

Let’s start by talking about the differences between an explanation and an excuse, because I think that we can all agree that they are different. Here’s how they are defined:

1. a statement or account that makes something clear.
2. a reason or justification given for an action or belief.

Oxford Languages

1. attempt to lessen the blame attaching to (a fault or offense); seek to defend or justify.
2. a reason or explanation put forward to defend or justify a fault or offense.

Oxford Languages

Both are about providing a reason that something happened. But there is a key difference here: blame. When talking about making an excuse rather than providing an explanation something has happened on a social level that has made the person desire to assign blame. The conversation of excuses is built on the assumption that a fault or offense has occurred and that the explanation being provided in an effort to defer ownership of that. Thus, excuses are always explanations, but explanations are not always excuses. It depends on whether on not there is blame being assigned.

This makes things messy because it quickly becomes a matter of perspective. Let’s look at an example of this. Let’s say that I was suppose to hang out with a friend but I had a flare up and was not able to attend. My friend becomes angry that I didn’t attend the social event because they blame me for having the flare because they believe that I could have controlled my symptoms. After all, I have had this disorder for years and have been managing it for years. I should have a handle on things by now. Right? This logic does make sense. However, it fails to understand that regardless of how good a care plan is, there will always be flares and symptoms of the chronic illness. That’s the nature of a chronic illness. Yet, they are also correct in that there are plenty of times that we make choices that lead to our flares. Sometimes we know ahead of time that it will lead to a flare and sometimes we don’t.

Where does that leave us in this conversation? No where useful. The conversation of excuses vs explanations centers around the idea of control. Did you have control over how things played out or were you a victim of circumstances? And the answer is yes. When it comes to chronic illness, we do have a certain amount of control over our symptoms and that’s why having management care plans is so important. Yet, we are also victims of circumstance because even when we do everything right we can still have a flare. We could spend all day trying to tease out whether or not a person had control over their symptoms in the context of a given situation and you’d never come to any clear conclusion. Thus, you can never really have a useful conversation that centers around this idea of excuses vs explanations.

I suggest that instead you shift the conversation. Let’s go back to the example I gave before. I call and tell my friend that I can’t go to the social event because I’m having a flare. That friend is upset and states that they feel I always have an excuse for not attending social events with them. Instead of engaging in whether or not this is an excuse, address the real issues at hand. You have hurt your friend’s feelings and they are beginning to doubt that you actually want to spend time with them. Directly addressing those two issues will be a much more productive conversation than trying to debate about what makes something an excuse vs an explanation.

Start with stating the fact that you didn’t mean to disappoint them and share that you are disappointed too. If this is something that has been happening a lot lately, try brain storming with them ways to still be social with them when you’re having a flare or how to be spontaneous and take advantage of the good days when they pop up. When people see us putting in the effort like this, they are more likely to see our flares as explanations rather than excuses. Now, we all know that having a flare often means having no spoons. This conversation doesn’t have to happen in the moment. You can call them up the next day or as soon as you’re feeling up to it. But keep in mind that the sooner you talk about it the better it will be for your friendship.

And let’s shift the focus here…

If you type in excuse and chronic illness into google you will get a whole bunch of results. Many of those results are posts talking about how to avoid using your chronic illness as an excuse. But the truth is that we are the only judges of whether or not we are doing our best to control the situation or not. Time management is a huge factor and there are definitely skills in this area that can be learned. This is also true for pacing or spoon management. But the only person who will ever know if you are making excuses or providing explanations is you. And sometimes our internal imps make that self assessment hard.

The truth is that managing a chronic illness is about creating a balance. We cannot do anything just because we want to. This world builds limits around all of us. Those are real and denying them isn’t helpful. It is not an excuse to say that you cannot walk because you don’t have legs or you’re a paraplegic. That is an explanation. But creating balance means finding other ways to get things done. You don’t have to walk to get across the room. Wheelchairs can accomplish that too. But there is no amount of wishing or wanting that will make a person grow back their legs. So, it might be an excuse for that person to say that they cannot get out of bed because they have no legs. Or it might be where they are at in that moment. It takes time to learn how to do things without legs when you grew up having them.

While I believe that we cannot allow ourselves to wallow in our chronic illnesses, we must also be realistic about the cards that illness has dealt us to work with. Declaring that the only thing that keeps a person from reaching their dreams is not wanting it enough is toxic and a denial of the very real limitations this world has built around each of us. None of us are going to grow wings and fly today. Maybe tomorrow when genetic research has advanced more, but not today, regardless of the amount you want it. Yet, we cannot give ourselves permission to be assholes or to give up because we have a chronic illness. Being successful with chronic illness is possible. Often times, creating success is more about changing our expectations than it is about reaching ceaselessly for the golden egg.

And some times, using our illness as an excuse should just be considered fair. Giving people grace is about seeing people where they are in that moment and allowing them room to deal with whatever it is that they are tackling in the moment. There are times that we run out of spoons yet we have no choice but to keep doing things and thus we move forward with our knives. Saying it is a knife day is an excuse. But we should all be allowed to have an occasional knife day whether we have a chronic illness or not.

In the end, I think that what I wanted the most to highlight with this post is how complex the idea of explanations vs excuses is. We need to be very careful about making blanket black and white statements like: Never use your chronic illness as an excuse. Life isn’t black or white. It is a whole bunch of complex swirls of grey. When we reduce complex ideas to these single liners, we risk cutting away fundamentally important pieces of what makes us human. Here’s what’s true and what’s grey: every human makes excuses and sometimes that’s alright.

Thanks for joining me for this musing. Until we hangout again, you take care of yourselves.

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