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What Spoon Theory Means to Me as Someone Living With Mental Illness

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When I first heard the word “spoons” used in a mental health setting, I didn’t really get what it meant. After all, a spoon definitely isn’t a conventional unit of measurement. I went out onto Google and looked up “mental health spoons,” and found Christine Miserandino’s personal essay that started it all, and I realized what a truly apt metaphor had been created. It wasn’t the fact that it was spoons as the example — it could be any object, like candles or shoes — but the idea that something was being spent.

There’s an adage that says, “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” And for the first time since I had begun dealing with my mental health, I realized that this was true for my emotional health as well as physical things in my life. Every thought or cognitive action when you’re dealing with a mental illness has a cost, a cost which can pull things out of your day later when you might need it. If I have to spend an hour talking myself out of bed and convincing myself I can do what it takes to get ready to go to school, that’s so much mental energy I would have loved to use for — say, doing my homework in the evening. If I have to cope with exposure to a trigger in the middle of my day, that’s a huge mental effort I might not be able to give to listening to my lecture later.

Not everyone really grasps what’s behind spoon theory, even if you patiently describe and explain what the metaphor means. I’ve found myself extremely frustrated with this on several occasions when people will say to me, “Well, doesn’t everybody have a limited amount of spoons?” Aside from the fact that it feels intentionally obtuse and misunderstanding when someone says that to me, there are a few key factors they aren’t getting that really made this click for me.

Spoon theory isn’t saying that only physically or mentally ill people, or people with disabilities, have limits. Everybody has limitations — physical, monetary, emotional, even just limits on the time they can spend — but people who don’t have to contend with their health on a daily basis operate under the assumption they can get done all they need to in a day. Yeah yeah, I’ve heard people bemoan how busy they are, how they can’t seem to get enough done in a day, and that is valid. But take one step back from that. Many people without a disability or illness take for granted that they can even get to the place of being able to do things in a day.

It might seem, to an able-bodied and neurotypical person, that a basic day involves going to work, having dinner with your partner and making sure to pick up groceries for cooking dinner. But for me personally, I’m acutely aware of how much preparation goes into just those three things. I have to prepare myself before I go to school, to physically get to school, to be in my classes, to manage my lunch period, to physically get home from school and to meet my needs after I return from school. Add in any commitments I’ve made, like visiting family or having friends over, and it just adds so much onto that list. Some days, I can tackle that list with relative ease — but on most days, I have to give things up.

Do I want to dress well and eat in the morning, or do I want to get a headstart on my work for the day and be prepared for class? Do I want to do my dishes and take a shower, or do I want to pay my bills and pick up the living room? Do I want to read a book and spend spoons on comprehending the plot, or read the news and spend spoons on understanding the social implications? These are choices I make every day. This isn’t to say we aren’t all faced with the occasional dilemma of what we can and cannot do — but healthy people don’t seem to realize that this is the situation for every day of my life. Again, some days I’m up to the challenge — some days I can do all the things I have to do just for myself — but those days usually come with a voice in the back of my head, saying: “Be careful, you don’t know what tomorrow will be like. Don’t push too hard.”

Spoon theory is not a crutch, nor something just to elicit sympathy. There’s nothing I wouldn’t give to not have to worry about my spoons in a day. Even writing this post, as important as it is to me, I know I’m taking energy away from something else in my day. It could be something small, or something big — I won’t know until I’m faced with that choice — but I’m always aware of it. Having the words for spoon theory, and a way to put to words the internal struggle of picking and choosing what I do to keep myself alive, means I can be very clear about what sacrifices and tradeoffs I’m making in a day. But I’ve encountered many people who hear me talk about spoons and take it to mean I’m trying to excuse my own laziness.

I feel like the abuse of spoon theory to excuse personal laziness is very, very small. Considering it was coined by a chronically ill woman to describe her daily experiences, I don’t understand the mindset behind this. This is, unfortunately, the approach to a lot of physical and mental conditions — that you use it as a crutch, to excuse yourself. I’m sure anyone with mental illness has heard the phrase “you’re making it up,” or “it’s all in your head” in some variant, and those with physical illness have heard “it can’t be that bad,” or “maybe if you tried x it would get better.” Folks who are outside these health experiences take a long time to understand that we would be much happier if we didn’t have to think about our lives in these terms.

But this is the language that fits us. I don’t claim that every sick or disabled person subscribes to spoon theory necessarily, but we all pick the most purposeful language we can when talking about our condition. To claim that spoon theory is just a cleverly-crafted excuse for bad behavior puts sick and disabled people on the level of young children — untrustworthy and unable to handle ourselves. We don’t need a big sibling to monitor us. You don’t have to like that we handle our conditions in this way — but you do have to respect it regardless.

And yes, I do have to think about spoons, even if I look good today. Just because I had the energy to put on makeup and do my hair and socialize today doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten my lack of energy for it yesterday. Anybody can say “You look like you’re doing better today!” and think it’s true because it’s what they see, but even on my best days I still have to consider my energy. I can be having the time of my life–and then come crashing down a few hours later because I overtaxed my mental faculties, my emotional supply of spoons.

Here’s an example: my stepmother invited me on a day out with her friends to the spa. The spa is supposed to relax you, right? I had a fantastic time getting the special treatment, spending time with her friends, and having lunch with them afterward. I really enjoyed myself throughout the whole experience, and definitely would do it again if I had the chance. But there was a certain point in the day when I could feel myself getting to the end of my rope, and I had to bail out — and take a three-hour nap when I got home to even think about going out for dinner with my parents later. If I had left the event earlier, spent less time out socializing or ate lunch at home — despite feeling good while doing it — then maybe when I got home I would have had the chance to work on some homework or put away my laundry. It’s all a tradeoff. And while some days I get close to the ideal balance of “work and play,” I’m still trying to build up to it.

The amount of spoons I have can vary wildly from day to day because depression and anxiety can manifest themselves in physical ways even on the days I feel OK emotionally. On days I don’t have to go out, I probably spend the least amount of time considering spoons — getting out of the house feels like a huge undertaking — so I’m usually much closer to doing everything I need to do because I don’t have to worry about commitments outside of my own home. But you know what? I’m OK with that. Sometimes it’s harder to come to terms with that than I would like it to be, but generally, I find that spoon theory and being a “spoonie” is something I’m OK with.

Using spoon theory can be a very unifying experience for someone who’s sick or disabled, and I would say that’s been my experience. Some of the best people in my life are “spoonies,” and because of that, they have a deeper understanding of where I am coming from. So, I’m grateful to Christine Miserandino for sharing her thoughts and experiences with the world. I am deeply grateful to have these words, these ideas, to use in grappling with my mental illness and relating to the world. And, most importantly, I’m thankful to everyone who takes the time to understand what someone is going through by learning about the spoon theory.

If you’re someone else who uses the spoon theory, remember: you’re not alone. And no matter what you’re able to get done in a day, even if that’s just staying away from harmful habits, we are all proud of you. We’re all getting through, one spoon at a time.

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Unsplash photo via Mira Bozhko

Originally published: July 1, 2017
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