'The Spoon Theory' Applies to People With Mental Illnesses, Too


By now most of you out there have heard of “The Spoon Theory,” by Christine Miserandino. She opened up the discussion about having an invisible illness, what it was like living with something that hurt but didn’t make you “look” sick. Since then millions have started using the words “I am out of spoons” for all manner of illnesses.

Yet, there are people who still cock their heads or roll their eyes when someone with a mental illness says they are out of spoons. How can a mental illness even need spoons? I’m going to answer that.

So, the spoon theory says you start out the day with just so many spoons to complete tasks and do self-care. I start the day arguing with my brain as to the number of spoons I can have.

“I’m taking these spoons, you don’t need ’em. You can make do on just those.”

“But I have to give a presentation today. I need more spoons, give those back.”

“No. I’m keeping them. So there.”

And then I have to negotiate using spoons for things that require me to really focus, think and respond. Like driving.

“You just used up 10 spoons driving to your appointment.”

“How am I going to drive back?”

“Don’t ask me, you insisted on using your spoons.”

For someone who is struggling with mental illness, running out of spoons can lead to all sorts of bad things. Meltdowns. Crying. Upset stomach. Vomiting. Disconnection from reality. Hallucinations. Or just wanting to be away from people and noises in a classic “blanket fort.”

Trying to do things while negotiating with a mental illness can play havoc on any sort of well-being. Taking medications can only shore up the spoons I have; it cannot replace or add any.

“I’ve taken my meds today.”

“Oh good, you can use the spoons you have.”

“Great. Today I have to clean out my room, I can’t function or find things anymore.”

“On second thought, you shouldn’t do that. You don’t have enough spoons.”

Even if I want to do things, my brain may not want me to. And it starts taking spoons and flinging them everywhere. Oh look – shiny! Whereupon I cannot finish a task. And I get further lost in trying to sort out my life.

Spoons do apply to mental illness. And today I have just enough spoons to write this for all you out there.

Follow this journey on Written Talk.

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Thinkstock photo by Aryut

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