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What Is a Spoonie? Understanding the Spoon Theory of Chronic Illness

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Editor's Note

The Mighty Explains is an ongoing series covering important topics related to mental health, chronic illness, and/or disability. As with any subject involving the health community, you will find differing opinions on the issues being discussed. When making editorial decisions, The Mighty prioritizes the views and voices of people who live with health conditions. Each article in this series is written by one or more Mighty staff members or Super Contributors who have relevant, lived experience with the topic, in consultation with our editorial director.

Spoon theory. Spoonie. If you or a loved one has recently been diagnosed with a chronic illness, you may hear these terms and be confused. What is a spoonie? What do spoons have to do with chronic illness? Here’s everything you need to know about spoon theory and why some people with chronic illnesses, mental illnesses, and disabilities call themselves “spoonies.”

What is the spoon theory?

The spoon theory is a way to explain what life is like for someone who lives with a chronic illness. The spoon theory is based on the idea that people with chronic illnesses have a limited amount of “spoons” each day — with spoons being a unit of measurement for energy. Each activity in life takes up a certain number of spoons — for example, getting dressed might take two spoons, while taking a shower might take four spoons. When you’re living with a chronic illness, every day is filled with tough choices about which activities you can afford to do and which ones you have to skip.

Every human being has limited physical and mental resources, but as the spoon theory explains, people with chronic health conditions start the day with fewer spoons than those who are physically and mentally healthy. They have to plan each day carefully based on how many spoons they have — or think they have — available. Simple tasks may also use up more spoons, especially if they aggravate pain or other symptoms. People with chronic illnesses often try to keep a spoon in their pocket, in reserve in case something unexpected happens, but that’s not always possible.

For many people with chronic illnesses, symptoms vary from day to day.  So on a good day, they might have enough spoons to get through the activities they need to do. But on a bad day, they might not have enough spoons — and that’s when things start to fall apart. If you run out of spoons, you can’t do anything else that day, and if you go beyond your limits, you may pay the price for days or weeks afterward.

What happens when a person with a chronic illness runs out of spoons?

When people with chronic illnesses push themselves too hard and repeatedly do things that cause them to run out of spoons, it can trigger a chronic illness flare-up, or “flare.” During a chronic illness flare, symptoms become exponentially worse, and a person may be unable to go to work or school, leave the house, or even get out of bed. Flares can last for days, weeks, or months.

Sometimes chronic illness flares are unavoidable, but often, they can be prevented or lessened by carefully managing symptoms and limiting activities. This is where the spoon theory can be extremely useful. It can be tough to explain how your energy levels fluctuate day-to-day, or why you sometimes have to cancel plans, but the spoon theory provides a relatable metaphor.

Who created the spoon theory?

The spoon theory was created by chronic illness advocate Christine Miserandino, who has lupus. In her original blog post about the spoon theory, she talks about how the idea came to her during a conversation with a friend. Her friend had asked her what it was like to live with lupus, and she found herself struggling to find the words to explain it. Since they were sitting in a diner, she gathered spoons from nearly empty tables and used them to illustrate her experience. You can (and should) read her original story here.

How can the spoon theory help people understand chronic illness?

Although it may seem strange to use a utensil as a metaphor for energy, in an unexpected way, it works. We all use spoons every day without even thinking about them, and generally take them for granted. Once in a while, we might be about to eat and then discover we forgot to do the dishes, but in general, we have enough spoons that we can heat up a can of soup without checking the utensil drawer first.

In the same way, healthy people can use energy without even thinking about it, or at least they can reliably make plans around what they can do each day. But people with chronic conditions often don’t know what they will be able to do on any given day. If there’s something they must do or really want to do on a particular day, they may have to plan for days or weeks in advance, conserve their energy beforehand, and spend days or weeks recovering afterward.

Does the spoon theory apply to both physical and mental illness?

Yes. The spoon theory can be used by anyone who lives with a chronic health condition that significantly affects their daily life. This includes people with physical conditions, whether they are visible or not, like lupus, fibromyalgia, arthritis, cancer, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, and more. The spoon theory can also apply to people who live with mental illnesses such as anxiety, PTSD, depression, and bipolar disorder.

Just like physical illness symptoms, mental illness symptoms often change from day to day. For some people with a mental illness, physical tasks such as getting dressed and showering can use more spoons, just as they do for people with a physical illness or disability. For others, spoons are used up in situations that are psychologically stressful, such as giving a presentation at work if you have social anxiety, or encountering a trigger if you have PTSD.

Here are a few articles about how the spoon theory can apply to specific disabilities and conditions:

What is a spoonie?

The term “spoonie” is affectionately used to identify oneself as someone who lives with a chronic illness. You don’t have to call yourself a spoonie or relate to the spoon theory just because you have a chronic condition, but you can if you want! Spoonie has become a term of empowerment for many people, and spoons are used in everything from chronic illness educational materials to memes, awareness events, t-shirts, jewelry, and more. You will often see the word spoonie used here on The Mighty and in other support communities for people with chronic illnesses.

Am I a spoonie?

If you’re not sure whether or not the spoon theory applies to you, ask yourself if your health condition fluctuates and causes fatigue, pain, and/or limits your ability to do daily activities. If the answer is yes, then you can consider yourself a spoonie.

If you do not have a chronic physical or mental health condition, you can be an ally to your loved ones who do by explaining the spoon theory to people who judge them or say they “don’t look sick.” However, please don’t coopt the spoon theory by saying you’re out of spoons because you have typical, healthy fatigue and pain after a busy day or a challenging workout. That’s not the same thing.

Are there alternatives to the spoon theory?

While the spoon theory is a popular way to explain chronic illness, it’s not the only way. Some people prefer to use different analogies or metaphors to explain their experiences. Here are a few:

  • The Splat System: Created by Mighty Super Contributor Christina Irene, the Splat System humorously compares chronic illness symptoms to being run over by a vehicle. Some days it’s a moped, some days it’s a freight train!
  • Bones Day/No Bones Day: Noodle the Pug is an elderly dog who has become a TikTok sensation. Every morning, his human wakes him up and the internet finds out whether he’s having a bones day (good day) or no bones day (tough day). Noodle reminds everyone to practice self-care and shows what it’s like to have good days and bad days with chronic illness.
  • You may relate to one of these chronic illness metaphors from people in our Mighty community.

How can I connect with other spoonies?

The Mighty is a community for people with disabilities, chronic illnesses, and mental illnesses to share our stories and get support from others facing similar challenges. Whether or not you identify as a spoonie or find the spoon theory useful, you can connect with others in our Mighty support groups. Here are a few to get you started:

Do you identify as a spoonie? How do you explain your chronic illness to friends and family?

Getty image by ArtJazz.

Originally published: March 21, 2022
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