'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.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Thinkstock photo by Aryut

Find this story helpful? Share it with someone you care about.

Related to Mental Health

woman with shadows from blinds

What Can You Do for Someone With a Mental Illness When You Don't Really 'Get' It?

To the mothers and fathers of children with mental illness, To the friend of someone experiencing depression, To the teacher who notices her student struggling, What can you do? What can you say? How can you make them “feel better” when you do not understand? How can you relate when you have never felt the [...]
Businesspeople waiting at underground platform

To the Man on the Tube Who Stopped (and Saved My Life) on a Dark Day

The thing which niggles me most isn’t my erratic moods, the inability to concentrate, the social anxiety, the low self esteem, the feeling that everyone has got this so much better than I do.. it’s with the daily grind and management of this condition. It’s the feeling that I’m not worthy of my kids, my [...]
A group of female athletes on the field

How I Found the Silver Lining of Mental Illness as a College Athlete

Talking about mental health in sports is hard. Not only is it hard because it seems to contradict our strong and invincible personalities as college athletes, but because mental illness is widely misunderstood. Being a college athlete, I have realized I am automatically held to a higher standard by everyone I meet. I am not [...]

What 'Logan' Taught Me About My Mental Illness

I saw “Logan” this afternoon, and it surprised me how much it showed me about my own mental illness. I’m not a mutant superhero, but I get to have a few things in common with Wolverine and Professor X. First, Wolverine and I both have frequent nightmares — violent ones that leave us exhausted mentally and [...]