I recently read about a simple and effective way to explain the impact of chronic illness to people who have never experienced long-term health problems: spoon theory. Spoon theory was created by Christine Miserandino as she tried to make her friend understand the debilitating effects of lupus. Her friend struggled to appreciate how everyday activities left Miserandino exhausted. She tried to sympathise with her challenges, but couldn’t empathise – until Miserandino grabbed some spoons as they ate in a diner and developed her theory.
The Basics of Spoon Theory
The original article is well worth a read, but this is the concept: spoons are metaphors for units of energy/ability and people with various chronic conditions, illnesses and disabilities usually have a limited number of spoons each day. When your spoons are “spent”, you are unable to do more activities. Even activities which seem simple to healthy people, like getting dressed or cooking dinner, use up spoons.
This means every daily activity has a trade-off. If you start the day with 12 spoons and use 3 getting dressed, showering and eating breakfast, you have 9 left for the rest of the day. Cooking dinner will use another spoon, ditto getting ready for bed, so that leaves 7 spoons remaining for the middle of the day. If you meet a friend for lunch, that could use 3 spoons, maybe 4, If you want to do a couple of hours of work, that might take 4 spoons. So what do you do?
You want to do both, but if lunch uses 4 spoons, it leaves 3 spoons for work – which means you will have to cut corners. Maybe you will be lucky and lunch will take 3 spoons; but you also might be unlucky and have to negotiate bad traffic on the way to meet your friend, meaning lunch uses 5 spoons. 6 if the traffic is bad on the way back. What do you prioritise? Work or lunch with a friend?
People who haven’t experienced long-term illness will probably think it’s no big deal – surely you can somehow find another spoon so you can do your work? Or do your work tomorrow? But your spoons are always limited. You only have a certain number each day. The number may vary, depending on the intensity of your symptoms, but you can’t magic extra spoons out of thin air. You can decide to postpone activities until tomorrow, but you can’t guarantee how many spoons you will have tomorrow. You may have a good day and start out with 17 spoons. Or you may have a bad day and start with only 5 spoons. How do you plan around that uncertainty?
Spoon Theory and Mental Illness
Spoon theory is useful in explaining how mental health issues can limit your life. It’s reductive, but that’s the point – it’s a way of simplifying the complexities of long-term health problems so they are easier to understand. I think of my spoons in terms of both energy and ability because anxiety and depression affect these factors, which also merge in the form of mental/emotional energy.
To explain what I mean, it’s easiest to use the spoon analogy. When I cook and eat dinner alone, it uses 1 spoon. If I invite a friend to my house, it takes 2 spoons because of the added anxiety using more energy. If my friend takes me to a familiar pub for dinner, it will take 3 or 4 spoons – more if it’s busy. If we go to an unfamiliar location, it uses at least 6 spoons. If we are joined by someone I have only met a couple of times, it uses an extra spoon. If someone I have never met is invited, it takes 2 extra spoons. If we are in a small group, a couple of extra spoons are needed; a large group takes 4 or more extra spoons.
So if a friend invites me to dinner in an unfamiliar location and invites a big group of people, including a few who I don’t know very well, it would require at least 12 spoons.
Let’s say I have 12 spoons on an average day. Can I go out to this dinner? No. Because I don’t have enough spoons to get ready, let alone travel to the restaurant and carry out my normal everyday activities. On a good day, I probably have 20 spoons. I can go to the dinner and probably cope, but it will limit the rest of my daily activities.
The problem is, when a friend invites me to such an event, I don’t know how many spoons I will have on that particular day. I can accept the invitation and hope for a good day, but the odds are against me. If I accept the invitation and it turns out to be a bad day, with only 6 spoons, I will have to cancel.
Can You Ever Use Spoons You Don’t Have?
What if I get invited to a very special event, like a wedding? Can I still go, even if I don’t have enough spoons? Yes – at a huge cost. I have pressured myself to go through with plans when I haven’t had enough spoons and it always has dire consequences. The best case scenario is it leaves me with a very limited number of spoons for the next few weeks. However, it usually leads to my experiencing worse symptoms – panic attacks, self-harm, harmful thoughts – which affect my mental health for weeks, sometimes months, afterwards.
When you try to use spoons you don’t have, it’s like spending money you don’t have and can’t pay back straightaway: you get charged interest and the amount owed increases rapidly. It’s very stressful and seldom worth the price paid in the end.
For this reason, I avoid accepting invitations to events which would use a lot of spoons. I hate having to cancel plans, because it makes me feel like a crappy, unreliable friend. I know I’m ill and can’t completely control my symptoms, but it still feels awful. The exceptions are special events, like weddings and christenings, which I would try to attend at all costs.
People struggle to understand how “borrowing” spoons takes its toll. They see me push myself to undertake challenges, so they think I can always push myself without ill effects. They see me act (vaguely) normally at a party for a few hours, but they don’t see me burnt out and suffering for the following week.
Sometimes it’s worth the price to try to “borrow” spoons, but it risks a great deal. I have to weigh up how bad I’d feel about missing an event or not undertaking a challenge against the probable effects.
Can You “Buy” Extra Spoons?
While you can’t magic spoons out of thin air on any given day, you can prioritise activities which will (hopefully) give you more spoons in future. Exercise helps me gain extra spoons, for instance, but I can’t determine when I receive the extra spoons. Going for a walk today (2 spoons) may give me an extra 3 spoons tomorrow, or an extra 5 spoons next week. But it might not.
Mental health management involves a lot of trial and error, as does spoon management. Broadly speaking, activities which improve your health and give meaning to your life will give you extra spoons in the long-term. But prioritising these activities can be difficult, because they require spending spoons which might be better spent on activities which give you pleasure and have other beneficial effects in the short-term. Choosing to prioritise activities for long-term effects is like investing money: you know it’s the sensible option in most cases, but buying something you can have and use right now is more appealing!
Spoon Theory Going Forward
I have only started considering my mental health problems in terms of spoon theory, but I think it’s already helpful. It can help me explain the reality of my daily life to people who haven’t experienced long-term health problems. It also enables me to view my difficulties with more compassion. When I’m unable to do something – especially something which seems easy – it’s not my fault for being useless: it’s just because I don’t have enough spoons today.