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How the Spoon Theory Helps Me Explain My Health

Living Well

January 29, 2023

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Photography by Catherine MacBride/Stocksy United

Photography by Catherine MacBride/Stocksy United

by Hailey Hudson

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Medically Reviewed by:

Debra Rose Wilson, Ph.D., MSN, R.N., IBCLC, AHN-BC, CHT

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•••••

by Hailey Hudson

•••••

Medically Reviewed by:

Debra Rose Wilson, Ph.D., MSN, R.N., IBCLC, AHN-BC, CHT

•••••

•••••

Are you a spoonie? If you’re living with a chronic condition and you’ve been having a hard time explaining how it affects your energy, spoon theory might be just what you’ve been looking for.

If you came to my apartment and poked around my belongings, you might notice something slightly strange. I have shirts with spoons on them. I have engraved silver spoons hanging on the wall. I have signs saying “all out of spoons.”

No, I don’t just really like spoons (although I guess they are a pretty great utensil). And I’m not actually out of literal spoons — my silverware drawer is full of them.

Instead, I’m a “spoonie” — or rather, someone who lives with chronic illness. And as my family and friends have picked up on this phrase over the years, they’ve gifted me spoon-related items as a sweet (and sometimes humorous) way to acknowledge everything that means.

Unfamiliar with the spoon theory and how it can help? Here’s a lowdown of my experience with this theory, and how I recommend that others who live with a chronic condition can use it, too.

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What is the spoon theory?

The spoon theory was initially coined by Christine Miserandino of the blog ButYouDontLookSick.com. She was at a diner with a friend when her friend asked what it felt like to be sick with lupus. Grasping for something to help her explain, Christine grabbed as many spoons as she could find from the surrounding tables — and the spoon theory was born.

Here’s a quick rundown. Imagine that you’re holding a handful of spoons. Each one represents a unit of energy. Your job? Making it through your day without using up all of your spoons.

If you want to take a shower, that requires at least one spoon — maybe more if you didn’t sleep well, didn’t take your meds, or your body is in a flare. Hair and makeup take another. Want breakfast? You’ll need to decide whether you want to sacrifice a spoon to cook something or to clean the kitchen.

At this rate, it’s easy to see that you could use up all of your theoretical spoons for the day before you even get in the car to drive to work.

Everything you do takes spoons (or, in other words, impacts your body). Cleaning, driving, preparing food, and socializing — all things people without a chronic condition may take for granted — all use up valuable, limited energy.

Those of us who are living with a chronic condition do not have the luxury of a life without choices.

Things get even trickier when you start each day with a different number of spoons. And depending on how you’re feeling, the same activity might require a different number of spoons on different days.

The spoon theory explains how chronic illness takes away your freedom. You have to carefully weigh a thousand different decisions every day as you try to live your life around your symptoms. Those of us who are living with a chronic condition do not have the luxury of a life without choices.

The spoon theory isn’t necessarily unique to people with chronic conditions. We all have limitations (whether those limitations are physical or not), and we all sometimes have to make decisions about what we can and cannot do. But for those of use with a chronic condition, this is ratcheted up tenfold. Even “small” activities take many more spoons than they do for most people.

“I explained that the difference in being sick and being healthy is having to make choices or to consciously think about things when the rest of the world doesn’t have to,” Miserandino wrote. “The healthy have the luxury of a life without choices, a gift most people take for granted.”

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How spoon theory helps

The spoon theory helps me explain to other people the degree to which chronic illness impacts my life, and why I must structure my days, weeks, and months the way I do.

Fatigue has always been one of my worst symptoms. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the hardest to explain to people.

My chronic fatigue is not like most people’s “dragging because I didn’t have coffee.” I often sleep 14 hours a day, yet I am still constantly exhausted and drowsy. My brain feels sluggish and my body is too heavy to move; I take seated showers and hire people to clean my home because I am so tired that I physically cannot do it myself.

Luckily, this is an area where the spoon theory is helpful. It’s easier for people to understand when I explain my fatigue this way: Some days, it takes one spoon to wash my face, another to take my meds, and another to check email — and then I need to rest so I can build up more spoons and hopefully continue with my day. It puts things into perspective.

When you’re constantly low on spoons, you realize how much each one means. I’m more thoughtful and intentional about how I choose to spend my energy and time.

My mother remembers when I first told her about the spoon theory several years ago. Although she lived with me at the time and witnessed the impacts of my chronic conditions every day, it can still be difficult for people to understand what’s actually happening in your body and how it’s affecting you.

“The spoons represent a tangible way to show that if you are out of energy, then you are out of energy,” she says. “Taking a shower, unloading the dishwasher, and assigning each thing you do a number of spoons — then saying OK, the spoons are gone, you have to go back to bed.”

The spoon theory has also been helpful to me as I continually learn how to pace myself. Pacing refers to spreading out, breaking up, and prioritizing tasks, while also building in rest time to create a sustainable pace of life, so you don’t crash and burn.

When you’re constantly low on spoons, you realize how much each one means. I’m more thoughtful and intentional about how I choose to spend my energy and time.

But the spoon theory isn’t only helpful with pacing and non-chronically ill loved ones. It’s also a valuable way to expand your community of the people who “get it” without you having to explain — other spoonies who live the day-to-day chronic illness life themselves.

Identifying as a “spoonie”

The spoon theory is so relatable and helpful for people living with chronic conditions that it’s turned into a way of identifying oneself. A “spoonie” is someone who lives with any type of chronic condition or chronic pain. The #spoonie hashtag has a whopping 2.9 million posts on Instagram. Other popular hashtags include #spoonielife, #spooniecommunity, and #spoonieproblems.

“Spoonie” is almost like a code word that helps me find other people who understand the chronic illness experience firsthand. I feel less alone because this term refers to a group of people — not just me. It validates my experience and gives me a community of others who are also forced to carefully count every spoon.

If you live with a chronic condition and have trouble explaining it to your loved ones, consider using the spoon theory as an illustration. There are plenty of online resources that can help you visualize and explain this theory.

And the Internet is also a great place to look for support groups for spoonies. Studies have shown that these groups are an effective way to support people living with illness (as well as their caregivers).

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All out of spoons

If you’re living with a chronic condition and have been struggling to explain your experience, the spoon theory can really be a game changer.

I have to add, however, that it’s slightly ironic to me that we identify as spoonies when the whole point is that we don’t have enough spoons. Maybe I’ll start calling myself a fork — because I sure don’t have any spoons to spare.

Medically reviewed on January 29, 2023


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About the author

Hailey Hudson

Hailey Hudson is a freelance writer and content marketer based out of Atlanta, Georgia, who writes primarily in the medical/healthcare, marketing, education, and pet industries. She lives with multiple chronic illnesses that significantly affect her life every day. As her health allows, Hailey enjoys reading, tap dancing, and writing letters to pen pals. You can follow her on LinkedIn.

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