In 2003, a woman by the name of Christine Miserandino coined the Spoon Theory to explain what it is like living with a chronic medical condition to her friend. When asked by her friend what it is like to live with lupus (an autoimmune condition resulting in various symptoms such as joint pains, fatigue and rashes), she gathered twelve spoons and handed it to her friend.
Miserandino explained to her friend that the spoons represented units of energy. Doing tasks – whether they be simple or complex, fun or a chore – used up spoons.
Getting dressed in the morning? That’s a spoon. Catching up with a friend in the afternoon? That’s another spoon. Cooking a proper meal for dinner? That might even take up two spoons. Even the simplest task such as doing dishes or taking a shower uses up energy.
When all of the spoons are used up, you don’t know what will happen, but you do know that you won’t be able to do anything else. To make it safely to the end of the day, you must carefully ration your spoons so that you have at least one spoon left by the time you get to sleep in your bed.
Most healthy people have a much larger pool of spoons to start the day with: large enough that they can reliably do pretty much all of the things they want to do throughout the day, then replenish the spent spoons through sleep and rest. But for people with chronic conditions such as lupus or depression, they live with a constant awareness of the limited supply of spoons that they have, along with the crushing fatigue and lack of motivation that awaits when the spoons run out.
You never know when you’ll have a sudden need for more spoons: you might get acutely sick, a friend may need emotional support, your relationship may become strained. Ergo, not only do you have to ration the spoons for a typical day, but you need a rainy day reserve of spoons.
Of course, the Spoon Theory is not only helpful for understanding what it is like to live with a chronic condition (or being a “spoonie” as some people would say), but it also helps us understand what our own reserves are when we are reasonably well.
No matter how healthy and well-adjusted we may be, life will indubitably challenge us with various demands. We will have to expend physical and emotional energy to keep up, whether it be going to work to pay bills, supporting our loved ones through tough times, or even doing enjoyable things such as indulging our passions.
There will no doubt be a day when we run out of spoons and we find ourselves unable to do anything, even if it’s as easy as getting out of bed in the morning.
By knowing about the Spoon Theory, we can always be mindful of how many spoons we have left and have the wisdom to keep a spare spoon in our pockets for that particularly tough day.