“I’m tired” Elin* said, “I’ve completely ran out of spoons” she continued as she lay down on the couch on the film set we’d all agreed to help out on all day under searing lights during a hot summer-day in Malmö last May. “Spoons?” I queried, as I looked on bemused. She explained. You see Elin has a degenerative illness and uses a wheelchair to get around every day, regular activities that you and I who are able-bodied might take for granted, can be challenging and that is on top of coping with the tiredness that is symptom of her illness and the demotivation that can come from the everyday difficulties she faces.
So, what is spoon theory? The BBC explains it as a “a quirky and easy to understand way of explaining how much energy you have left.” Coined by Christine Miserandino in her 2003 essay “The Spoon Theory”, it is used by a growing number of people with stamina difficulties due to a variety of conditions. It has often been used by those with debilitating physical conditions such as ME, fibromyalgia and Ehlers Danlos syndrome to name but a few – but increasingly is being used by those with mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. In summary, it is a way of quantifying how much people feel able to do during any given day, breaking down things into individual “spoons”. Some days you might have ten spoons, other days you may only have 1-2 – in either case it is a useful way of thinking and managing your own expectations of how much you can achieve in any given day. As Miserandino explains “Most people start the day with unlimited amount of possibilities, and energy to do whatever they desire, especially young people,”. She continues “When you are healthy you expect to have a never-ending supply of ‘spoons.’” But people suffering from chronic illness or pain don’t have an unlimited number. They might know they only have ten “spoons” and that it will take three to shower, eat, and get dressed in the morning and that is before they have really begun their day.
The OCA has a diverse student body, many with a variety of challenges. As a tutor I frequently support students with difficulties with their course as a result of their condition – demotivation is probably the biggest symptom of this I see. Spoon theory is an incredibly powerful tool that can help manage this. Often when people are not feeling OK, they are their own worst critic. Spoon theory helps you manage your time by planning realistically for what you personally can do within a given space, adjusting and managing your own expectations. It avoids feelings of guilt and shame for what you might normally see as having achieved very little, by acknowledging that you have a good reason for not doing so. It also helps you feel empowered by a sense of achievement by understanding that everything you have done in a day was no mean feat. So next time you wake up and don’t feel ok, write down your activities and how many spoons they might take and ask yourself how many spoons do you have to use today?
*Name changed to protect identity.