How Does Spoon Theory Relate to Mental Illness?

spoon
A picture of a pile of silver spoons on a black background. Credit to flickr.com user liz west. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

Sometimes those of us with chronic illnesses, ranging from physical diseases like multiple sclerosis to mental illnesses like bipolar disorder, are unable to keep up with the demands of the day. Especially if we’re suffering from depression, which is the most common symptom of chronic illness.

The Spoon Theory, a concept popularized in a personal essay by the same name by Christine Miserandino, explains the idea of energy in short supply due to chronic illness using “spoons” as units of energy.

Miserandino lives with lupus, a chronic autoimmune disease which causes the body’s immune system to attack healthy cells. To her surprise, her friend, while sitting with her in a café, asks Miserandino what it’s like to be sick. Miserandino answers with the need to take pills, and her friend presses her: What is it really like to be sick?

“How do I explain every detail of every day being affected, and give the emotions a sick person goes through with clarity,” Miserandino writes. “I could have given up, cracked a joke like I usually do, and changed the subject, but I remember thinking if I don’t try to explain this, how could I ever expect her to understand. If I can’t explain this to my best friend, how could I explain my world to anyone else? I had to at least try.”

Miserandino gathers up spoons from the nearby tables, so many that it seems excessive. She hands the twelve utensils to her friend, and tells her that she always has to be conscious of how many she has, and can’t have any more. Then Miserandino asks her to spell out her day.

Her friend says she gets out of bed, and Miserandino takes a spoon. Her friend says she takes a shower, and Miserandino takes a spoon. She explains that getting dressed is a trial: if her hands hurt, she can’t use buttons; if she has bruises, she has to wear long sleeves, and that dressing takes two hours. Eventually, her friend realizes that Miserandino’s “spoons,” her time and energy, are severely limited by stress and pain–and breaks down crying. “Christine,” she says, “how do you do it? Do you really do this everyday?”

Miserandino probably had no idea that so many people would connect with her theory. For people living with chronic illnesses, spoon theory is a perfect way to explain to healthy people how diseases impact their lives. Some of those people call themselves “Spoonies.” In 2013, Dawn Gibson, a woman who suffers from spondylitis and food allergies, created #SpoonieChat on Twitter. It’s a chat held on Wednesday nights from 8 to 9:30pm Eastern time, where people can share their experiences as Spoonies. Dawn also runs a Spoonie Chat community on Facebook, for those of you looking to connect with other Spoonies.

But how does Spoon Theory relate to mental illness? Easily. If you’re suffering from bipolar mania, you might spend all of your spoons all at once in the morning. Mania and hypomania inflate your sense of your spoons and borrow them against future days, whereas depression puts a limit on the spoons you start out with.

Someone afflicted by panic attacks will drop their spoons trying to manage their disorder. Substance abusers are generally replacing their spoons with chemicals that do ridiculous amounts of damage to their bodies. And someone with schizophrenia might not be aware of how many spoons they have at any given time.

Your spoons are precious. Try to keep them, and try to manage them better. Sleep well if you can, eat healthily, and practice mindfulness, and hopefully you will be able to combat the days when you spend your spoons too soon.

Good luck.

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Author: Cassandra Stout

Hi! My name is Cassandra Stout, and I am a freelancer and memoirist who blogs at The Bipolar Parent (Cassandrastout.com/bpparent) and at the International Bipolar Foundation (IBPF.org). My current project is Committed, my upcoming memoir that depicts my time spent in a psych ward after a postpartum psychotic breakdown. I am a ten-year member of a five-person critique group called the Seattle Scribblers. It's nice to meet you!

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