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The Chronic Illness Metaphor I'll Use Instead of the Spoon Theory

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I felt my energy ebbing away and knew I was destined to experience yet another unproductive day. I’d had so many of those recently; and despite the fact that most people understand the very substance of the term “chronic” means I will never fully recover, I still get asked if and when I will be “better.”


As I lay down, feeling the full weight of the bed beneath me dragging me into an uneasy slumber, I knew it was time to create an analogy people around me could fully understand. The world-famous “spoon theory works to an extent, but it can also give the impression to some that “spoon” energy can be saved, swapped or stored for specific tasks. We don’t always wake up with spoons, we can’t manifest “spoons” and sometimes the tea tray gets up-ended so quickly that all of the cutlery has hit the floor before we’ve even had the chance to attempt to snatch one single utensil out of the air.

Because of the way I was feeling at that particular moment — simultaneously heavy, awkward and weak — the idea of being like Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole was the first thing that sprang to mind. I could see the fading disc of sunlight attesting to the fact that the exit was above me, but I could in no way defy the laws of physics and simply float my way to freedom. However, the metaphor was lacking in substance — there was no real sense that disappearing into an oubliette was a constant in my life, and besides, gravity is a law that affects everyone.

As the thought of soaring away from the symptoms plaguing me started to occupy my mind, I decided to switch the scenario around: What if everybody else could fly but I couldn’t? What if I was a tortoise living in a world of birds? Raised by birds, befriended by birds and, subsequently, married to a bird. Wouldn’t my explanations make more sense in a world where my corporeal form could not even attempt to match the norm?

I would no longer have to overtly state that my inability to become airborne is due to my lack of wings, that having my home wrapped and fused around my body makes for painfully laborious movement and that the food eaten so readily by all around is essentially poison to me.

They would understand that what appears to be an excessive desire for sleep is actually a physical necessity and not a moral failing or plain laziness. They would understand that retreating into my shell is my fight-or-flight response. They would understand that almost all of my actions have to be carried out deliberately, carefully…and differently.

But perhaps most importantly, it would remind me that my inability to glide into the pale, blue sky is due to no fault or deed of my own; it is intrinsic — it is my nature. This may not be the world I would have chosen to live in — filled with arboreal companions who can never fully grasp what it is to be truly grounded — but a tortoise in a world of birds is what I am and there is nothing wrong with me having to live my life slowly.

Originally published: July 25, 2016
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