You may have heard of the ‘spoon theory’, used by some people with chronic illnesses or disabilities to describe their day-to-day lives, and you might have wondered what they meant. Or you may have seen the hashtag ‘spoonie’ on Twitter or Instagram and been just as puzzled. In fact, the spoon theory is a very useful tool for explaining the effect a chronic condition can have.
Origins of the Spoon Theory
The spoon theory was created by Christine Miserandino, who suffers from several debilitating medical conditions, including Lupus, and runs a website called But You Don’t Look Sick. She was having dinner with a friend, when the friend asked what it’s like to live with Lupus. Struggling to explain, Christine handed her friend a bunch of spoons, and asked her to imagine she had Lupus, with each spoon representing the energy reserves she would have and the decisions she could make during the course of a day.
Each everyday thing her friend would need to do – like getting out of bed, having a shower, and making breakfast – would cost one spoon, which Christine would then remove. If her friend tried to do more than her number of spoons allowed, she could ‘borrow’ against some of the next day’s spoons, but she would start with a deficit; in real terms, this meant starting the day with even less energy and ability to move.
Christine explained that each task involved making a decision: can you afford to expend energy in this way? Will this task have a knock-on effect, causing other tasks to build up? Have you got enough spoons left to cope with increased pain, fatigue and other symptoms?
Every day is a constant balancing act, according to how many spoons you have. The number of spoons you start the day with can vary, and on some days, you may have used them all up by lunchtime.
Importantly, the spoon theory means people living with chronic illness can spend less time explaining their symptoms and justifying their actions to others (such as needing to skip a family gathering because of depleted energy, or ordering takeaway rather than cooking and washing up). Applying the spoon theory to your own condition means you reach a state of acceptance, which is crucial when living with long-term sickness of any kind.
You might even find it useful when talking to your manager at work, talking to your GP, or completing an assessment for benefits. Any way you can get through to the other person and convey your symptoms is helpful.
Spreading Awareness with the Spoon Theory and #Spoonie
Countless other sufferers of chronic illnesses, both visible and invisible, have adopted Christine’s spoon theory to explain their own conditions, and many have started referring to themselves as ‘spoonies’. Christine has since produced a video and a PDF guide that you can send to friends and family, to help them further understand what it means, and volunteer translators have begun translating the theory into other languages.
Nearly 10,000 people have added a special Twibbon (a Twitter icon on top of your profile picture) to show support for the spoon theory, either because they have a chronic illness or they know someone who does. They also post on social media channels using the hashtag #spoonie, to raise awareness and connect to like-minded people.
Here’s to the spoon theory and the spoonie online community, breaking the stigma and misunderstanding surrounding chronic illness.
Written by guest contributor Vikram Das for Dr Chrissie Tizzard, Chartered Consultant Psychologist, PsychD, BSc, MSc, C.Psychol, C.Sci, AFBPS. Dr Tizzard is the Clinical Director of Christine Tizzard Psychology (ctpsy.co.uk).