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The scoop on Spoon Theory

When living with a chronic condition, how can you express your feelings and needs in a way others can understand? Spoon Theory.

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If you’re living with a chronic health condition, you already know it involves much more than adding a medication or therapy into your daily routine. It’s an added mental weight — and sometimes even a physical one — that causes “easy” tasks to become difficult. Exhaustion comes on quicker than before your diagnosis because the extra energy you use to perform these tasks takes a toll.

This daily struggle affects all areas of your life, and it does so in a way that’s hard to explain to people who don’t have to think about how much energy they spend on simple tasks.

So how do you express your feelings and needs in a way others can understand? Spoon Theory.

This metaphor was created by Christine Miserandino, a writer with lupus. Miserandino was at a diner with a friend of hers who couldn’t understand why she had so much trouble accomplishing seemingly simple tasks. Miserandino used the closest objects at hand to illustrate her metaphor — the spoons on the nearby tables at the diner.

Spoon Theory explains that someone who has a chronic health condition starts each day with a limited amount of energy — represented in Miserandino's example by a set number of spoons. When you perform an action, you "spend" a spoon. When you have spent all your spoons, you are exhausted mentally or physically and can no longer perform even easy tasks.

If you’re a “Spoonie” — Miserandino’s term for people whose health conditions limit their daily energy — this exhaustion can happen at any time of the day. It can even cause you to skip things you really want to do.

Using all your spoons

Let’s take a walk through the day of someone with a chronic illness to see how she might spend her spoons:

Maya is a 35-year-old woman living with early-onset multiple sclerosis. She lives with her husband and 7-year-old daughter in Ludington, Michigan.

Maya starts each day with 16 spoons. However, overnight she woke up once to use the restroom. That cost her one spoon.

With 15 spoons left, Maya spends one spoon to get out of bed and two more to brush her teeth and put her hair up — skipping a shower.

Her daughter, Lea, has a soccer game after school that Maya would like to attend. With that in mind, Maya asks Lea to ride the bus to school that morning so she can use her spoons to get ready and go to work.

After breakfast, getting dressed and driving to work, Maya is left with nine spoons.

Once at work, Maya spends one spoon just getting to her desk. After settling in, she uses two more spoons to go to a meeting and respond to emails.

With half of her day done, Maya skips lunch to reserve the spoon she would normally use to go to the lunch room for an extra bathroom break.

Battling dizziness, hunger and brain fog, Maya spends another spoon going to the bathroom again before leaving work early. Two more spoons are spent walking back to her car and driving home.

After Maya walks inside the house, she only has one spoon left. That means she will likely have to skip making dinner, or she will barely have the energy to get to bed. She definitely doesn’t have the spoons left to go to Lea’s soccer game. She could go into debt with her spoons to attend the soccer game anyway — but if she does, she will likely start her day tomorrow with fewer spoons, and she might need those spoons in an emergency.

Lea rides with a teammate to her soccer game. Maya’s husband comes home to cook her dinner and help Maya into her pajamas so she can use her last spoon to go to bed. Running a little late, he goes to Lea’s soccer game to cheer her on.

You’re in charge of your spoons

Maya’s day cost her all her daily spoons, and she wasn’t able to do everything she wanted. Meanwhile, the actions that cost Maya 16 spoons could cost nothing to someone without a chronic health condition.

Spoon Theory can help people who don’t have chronic health conditions understand the decisions and trade offs you have to make each day. It’s also a good reminder that you’re empowered to make those decisions and spend your spoons the way you feel is best. The number of spoons you have each day doesn’t define you. In fact, it can open doors to even more possibilities. The Spoonie community is filled with people who are living with chronic health conditions while embracing their spoons. By sharing their stories, they are supporting others and can help empower you to live your best life.

To learn more about Spoon Theory, visit Christine Miserandino’s blog at butyoudontlooksick.com.