what are chronic illness ‘spoons’?

Whether you face mental illness, chronic pain, an autoimmune disorder, or any other chronic disease, it can be hard to explain how you’re feeling at each given moment. Every day can bring about it’s own set of challenges, and how we capable we are of approaching them varies.

So where do spoons come in? We aren’t playing any card games or enjoying any bowls of soup. Chronic illness “spoons” are a visualization for those who might not understand. Christine Miserandino first wrote the spoon theory, so all credit goes to her, but essentially, chronic illness spoons are a way to identify with other people and quantify the seemingly unquantifiable.

As much as we’d like to read up and research on every disease under the sun, we can only learn so much. We can be our most empathetic selves, and even then we cannot necessarily walk in someone else’s shoes. We’re all different. We all experience and interpret life differently. That’s why we need a universal language to represent our chronic conditions so everyone can become more empathetic toward them.

Back to spoons. 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. The healthy have the luxury of a life without choices, a gift most people take for granted. Healthy individuals typically assume they have an unlimited number of spoons in which to carry out their days and do whatever they need and would like to do.

But with chronic illness, spoons are a constant weight in your hand to remember. Each day, you’re starting out with a certain number of them which can vary even throughout the day. We cannot simply will ourselves to have more spoons than what we start with; otherwise, we wouldn’t be having this analogy in the first place.

Think of the list of tasks you do each day, even the most mundane, including the act of waking up and getting out of bed. If you’re exerting effort, it costs you a spoon, sometimes more than one. You’re thinking of every little thing and detail to weigh out what is worth your effort, your spoons. By the time you might actually leave for a day of work or classes, you’re already slightly drained.

Once your spoons are gone, they’re gone. You can potentially borrow from tomorrow’s stash, but you never know what each day might bring, and going into it with even fewer spoons won’t help. To prevent a complete drain-out, you end up thinking about your daily tasks differently. You sacrifice some simple things to get other things done. If you’re lucky, you might have a spoon to spare at the end of the day.

With this image in your head, it can feel jarring to realize how truly challenging each day is with chronic illness. Just because someone externally seems healthy and put-together doesn’t mean that came easily. They made that choice, probably using a spoon or two, to make that happen. It’s not easy for anybody involved: those dealing with daily symptoms have to accept slowing down and not always accomplishing everything on their plate, and loved ones have to realize that “just doing” whatever you want without laying out everything in a step-by-step plan is a blessing not everyone shares.

But there’s silver lining in this concept. Having the spoon theory allows those who identify with it, “spoonies,” to connect in their struggles usually invisible to the naked eye. Living with limited spoons also makes you more aware of each day and appreciate whatever it brings. It forces you to prioritize what’s important to you and reminds you of how precious each little effort can be.

Learning to pace yourself with chronic illness spoons is not easy. For me, it’s a work in progress as I navigate my own health. At this point, my goal is to be high-functioning with anxiety and depression, but I’ve also recently dealt with randomly occurring migraines, joint pain, questionable digestion, and restless sleep. All of that piled together is overwhelming. Last semester was even worse, and I can honestly say I barely scraped by.

While I hope my health improves with greater awareness and treatment, I cannot predict the future. All I can then ask of others is to be mindful of where I might be at each given moment, especially since I have to prioritize basic self-care and schoolwork above much else. Even if you aren’t a
“spoonie,” if you know someone who is, show them love and understanding. Please know they don’t mean to drop off the face of the social world, or cancel plans, or just seem “out of it.” And also know if they are reaching out to you, you mean a lot to them; they’re using up a daily spoon or two for you, and that’s pretty wonderful.

Mindful meditation: Almighty Lord, we are grateful for each day of life You grant us, even if some days bear heavier burdens than others. Please provide strength to those with limited spoons to spare, and instill compassion in those who might overlook their blessings and health. Help us each climb whatever mountain You have set before us. In Your Holy Name, we pray. Amen.

Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie

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