Health Uncategorized

How Many Spoons Do You Have?

No, I’m not asking you to go count your silverware drawer, although you’re more than welcome to if that’s your thing. I’m talking about spoon theory.

spoon theory

What is spoon theory?

For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, spoon theory is a way to help explain/understand living with chronic illness. Feel free to go right ahead and click that there link for the full story. If you don’t have the time or aren’t interested enough, here’s the long and short of it: the difference between being sick and healthy is that people who are sick “have to make choices or consciously think about things when the rest of the world doesn’t have to.” In essence, people who are sick have a certain number of spoons to use in a day. It takes a certain number of spoons to get out of bed, shower, walk downstairs … basically all the normal parts of a day. It takes even more spoons to go walk around the block or run errands. (Seriously, go read Christine Miserandino’s explanation of spoon theory, since she came up with it. Do it.)

spoon theory

Spoon theory came into existence because Christine has lupus. It has helped countless numbers of people with illnesses/conditions/disabilities explain what their life is like to other people. For example, you may see me eating breakfast and wonder why I’m already so sluggish and hurting. But I know that I had to give up a spoon to get out of bed, another to walk down the stairs, a handful to do yoga, and another one to make my breakfast.

Contrary to what you might be thinking, though, explaining spoon theory is not the main focus on this post. So now those of you who haven’t heard of it before have it explained, and those of you who have should be ready for the next portion of this post.

Who gets to use spoon theory?

spoon theory meme

There has been some debate in the chronic illness community over who gets to use spoon theory. Since it was developed by someone who has lupus, it has always applied to those who have autoimmune diseases. It also applies to anyone who claims the umbrella term “sick,” as Christine uses that term in her explanation.

The real debate comes from whether or not people with mental illness get to use spoon theory. Some people who have a physical illness are deeply offended when someone with mental illness uses it.

I can understand both sides of the argument, but I am inclined to lean towards one. Many people from the physical illness side don’t see how spoon theory can apply to mental illness. (For the sake of my typing and your reading, I’m going to abbreviate. PI = physical illness and MI = mental illness, cool?) Some people with PI also see those with MI claiming spoon theory as encroaching on their space.

Because let me make this extremely clear – it is not okay to use spoon theory if you are a normal person not dealing with a chronic health concern that affects your day-to-day abilities. The entire point of it is to explain to people who don’t deal with it what life is like. It does not apply to you if you do not fall under that category. Do not use it. Do not claim it. Even if you are joking, please do not use it. It may not seem like much to you, but we take it very seriously.

It might seem silly that people with PI (including myself) feel so strongly about it. That is because spoon theory is something that has united people with chronic illness – we call ourselves spoonies. You may have seen me use #spoonie on some of my tweets. That’s because this is an identifier used across the world for people living with chronic pain/illness.

I can understand why some people are really against those with MI using spoon theory. In fact, when I first heard that people with no PI whatsoever were using it, I felt pretty upset. And then I thought about it.

I don’t know a lot about many different MI, but I do know about anxiety and depression, and I can see how spoon theory can apply there. It is incredibly impressive for someone with severe depression to get out of bed, have a shower, and walk down the street to get a cup of coffee. I know that if my anxiety is bad, there’s only so much I can take. I have a whole lot more spoons for anxiety than I do for pain, but I can see that the theory can apply there.

Like I said, I don’t know a lot of a lot of different mental illnesses. But in my opinion, if the theory can apply to two of them, it can apply to others.

So. What’s your take? Do you think that spoon theory can apply to mental illness? Do you think that it should

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  • Reply Kendra Loisel

    I never really understood how the spoon theory could apply to MI but I was watching a show and it was about someone with extreme anxiety and depression. I found myself crying along side her because she was explaining what I would go through. Maybe not exactly, but there were days she couldn't get out of bed for hours, or even leave her house. While I don't think the Spoon Theory applies to everyone with MI, I think it does in a small way. Where we use it in reference to physically not being able to do things due to pain and it wearing us thin, they feel their pain in a different way. I think at the end of the day it's so hard for all of us to accurately describe what we are going through to those without PI or MI, that the Spoon theory in a way works for them too. Anything to help them express what thy are feeling works for me.

    June 19, 2014 at 8:34 pm
  • Reply Marla Rogers

    I don't have PI or MI, but some of the people in my life who I'm closest to suffer from MI and it really really upsets me that there is so much stigma in society about it. Illness is illness…mental or physical, it doesn't matter. The point is that the person is suffering in a way that "normal" people don't. MI is debilitating just as PI is…I've seen my dear ones unable to get out of bed for hours or even find a purpose in being alive anymore and I know it's really a struggle for them to see through their black clouds. I don't think there's a need to be on two different teams…PI/MI should be there to support one another in any way possible.

    July 1, 2014 at 5:42 pm
  • Reply Natalie B.

    I was so excited when I saw this post. I have definitely heard and read about spoon theory. I suffer with two chronic physical illnesses but also severe depressive episodes. I believe it could apply to MI only if it's in a severe category. People with mild depression and mild anxiety can still function. They can still work and be productive. From my personal experience with MI, when I'm in these episodes, I have even fewer spoons than I do with my PI. Does that make sense? I would certainly be personally offended if someone joked about it or was a working functioning person with a mild mental illness and claimed to be a spoonie. Thank-you for this wonderful post!

    July 2, 2014 at 4:19 am
  • Reply Living with Chronic Illness and Accepting Your Body

    […] point in spend a large amount of time angry with my body. If I only have a certain number of “spoons” per day, I would rather spend them in physical therapy than by hating my […]

    January 14, 2016 at 8:00 am
  • Reply Nisha

    This is a pretty old post now, but I have PI and MI. Both feel like torture and the PI makes the MI so much worse. But for me personally, I have way more spoons for the PI than the MI. The PI is so awful but with MI, I don’t even have a will to live, so the spoons are one or less a day. I would be more insulted by people saying that people with mental illness cannot use the spoon theory. They can – and should. There’s nothing made up or less valid about a mental illness it is still a medical illness and not any less real than a chronic illness, nor less serious, nor more curable. I find myself often trying to figure out if I’m more depressed about my chronic pain or my mental pain. My spoon supply is almost nil. I actually remember when I first noticed there was something wrong with me physically, I wanted to get up and walk about 8 feet to the kitchen and couldn’t really do it. Before that I used to exercise six hours a day with no problem. I’ll never understand why it happened so suddenly, my doctors don’t understand it either. I have 3 sources of chronic pain and 5 mental illnesses, 3 of which decrease energy. With the pain, somethimes I can literally barely walk. With the mental illness, most times I cannot bring myself to move a single part of my body. They are both terrible and I wouldn’t wish either on my worst enemy, but there is no way that chronic pain is worse. Mental illness is chronic illness and shouldn’t be seen any different.

    By the way, I love this post and this blog overall is immensely helpful. Thank you. 🙂

    May 9, 2016 at 12:28 pm
  • Reply CM

    Honestly as a mental health professional, and someone who learned of spoon theory through a book written by someone suffering with MI, it makes me upset to think that those suffering with PI would not want those suffering with MI identifying with this theory. It’s a statement about our society and their value of physical health over mental health (both of which I think are very important please don’t get me wrong!!). I think that working with people with serious mental illness (SMI) it’s clear to me that people with mental illness have a limited number of spoons. For someone with anxiety they hoard their spoons for fear that giving too many will leave them with nothing. And so maybe they don’t leave their house. And maybe they’re unable to care for themselves. Or maybe their anxiety is more low level and they have enough spoons to go to work or care for their children. But not both. For those with depression leaving their bed is sometimes an insurmountable feat with the same issues as anxiety. For someone with Bipolar disorder they have this abundance of spoons during their mania and they throw these spoons into things like wrenches in a machine until they hit a wall of depression and they’re left with no spoons and sometimes a ruin of a life. Those with schizophrenia may give their spoons to delusions and hallucinations and are unable to give them to their loved ones and their activities of daily living. In some ways I think that people suffering with PI have it easier because people are much more understanding of physical pain even if it is invisible. When someone is suffering with MI it is much more difficult for their loved ones to understand because they should be able to just do the things they need to do. But sometimes they don’t have the spoons. By letting those with MI into the ‘club’, by letting them explain their struggle the way that you do yours, maybe it would help break that stigma and help people understand MI more. Pain is pain whether it is physical or mental.

    July 19, 2016 at 11:34 pm
  • Reply SA

    I suffer from both PI (tumoeffective MS) and MI (severe depression). I feel like the depression requires as many, if not more on some days, spoons as my PI. if I’m having a bad pain day but feeling lucid, I’m almost always better off than the other way around.

    September 6, 2016 at 4:34 pm
  • Reply SweetPea

    Honestly, I don’t think this theory is about being in a club. Support is important, yes. And people who use this term to get sympathy from others when they have no reason to, is just wrong on so many levels. But the whole point of it was to try to explain to loved ones, in an effective manner, what you are going through with a crippling health issue (be it physically or mentally) that may not be physically evident from your outside appearance. Most often a mental issue fits this bill better then one involving say, pain. (Not trying to discredit pain sufferers, at all.) I’m just making the point that someone with pain is still going through a physical symptom. Doctor’s are gong ho about treating pain. But try finding a doctor to treat PMDD. It’s near impossible. And I fear my PMDD more then I do my pain. Mental illness is all but invisible in the body, however crippling it is. And it is crippling. It can destroy all kinds of relationships, motivation for living, and joy in life. The over all point is that the spoon theory is an easy to digest conversational tool that can help to build bridges in our relationships with those around us. When you have a severe health problem those relationships can be few and far between and anything that can help you keep those bonds strong in a positive manner is worth being invested in. The visual cues of spoon jewelry for instance are a fantastic way to lead into these conversations and can be a positive reminder for us to know our limitations. Work with them and still achieve our goals. Our goals only being the most important aspects of our lives because we don’t have spoons to spare!

    September 24, 2016 at 12:13 pm
  • Reply Kate the (Almost) Great | Boston Lifestyle Blog - Don't Say "It Could Be Worse" - Kate the (Almost) Great | Boston Lifestyle Blog

    […] illness. It’s often said when a chronically ill person – who I’ll refer to as a spoonie here, and you can click that link to learn more about what that means – tells a healthy […]

    October 21, 2016 at 8:00 am
  • Reply Joanne Fletcher

    Usually chronic illnesses come hand in hand with mental illnesses. They are so closely linked there’s no way to compare. Having had both, I’d say mental illness requires FAR more spoons.

    October 12, 2019 at 10:39 pm
  • Reply Lilac Giraffe

    One thing that hasn’t been mentioned is that chronic, unexplained pain is often a symptom of depression. So, just like PI often goes hand in hand with MI, the opposite is true as well. I feel anyone with a debilitating disease can and should use spoon theory, if it helps. Great article!

    July 25, 2020 at 5:57 pm
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