The term ‘spoon theory’ was coined by Long Island, New York based blogger Christine Miserandino, a chronic illness advocate living with systemic lupus erythmatosus (SLE). The theory states that those with chronic illness only have so many ‘spoons’, or units of energy, available to them in order to accomplish their daily tasks. This is in contrast to healthy, able-bodied individuals, who have a much greater supply of ‘spoons’ that allow them to achieve all that they need to get done throughout the day.
Christine first created the term after she tried explaining to a friend what it was like to live with the autoimmune disease lupus. After having some difficulty explaining how she lived with chronic pain, chronic fatigue, and challenging symptoms, she realized that it would be easier to explain her disease if she had a visual aid. This is when she handed her friend 12 spoons to represent units of energy, and took each spoon away as her friend described every activity that she had to do throughout the day, including routine items like doing the groceries, cooking a meal, showering, and even getting out of bed. Her friend quickly realized that she didn’t have enough spoons to complete all the necessary tasks in her daily life, and had to make difficult choices, like whether to eat dinner or run an errand instead.
Christine later decided to write a post on her blog But You Don’t Look Sick, to describe her interaction with her friend and the creation of the ‘spoon theory’. This also lead to the development of the term ‘spoonie’, to describe someone with a chronic illness who has to make difficult choices throughout their daily lives on what they will and won’t be able to do.
I think that spoon theory is an excellent way to describe what it’s like to live with an autoimmune disease to any healthy, able-bodied person who may not otherwise understand what you’re going through. This is especially true if you have an invisible illness (when you don’t have any obvious outward symptoms), and others perceive you as lazy, inconsistent, or having poor time management skills.
One of the most difficult aspects of having limited ‘spoons’ is that some friends or family members may not understand why you can’t do certain things, like go out for a fun night on the town on a Friday after work, or why you can’t run a 5k with them, or be a bridesmaid at their week-long destination wedding. These are tough decisions that any spoonie or autoimmune warrior has to make, but, they’re just part of the reality of living with a chronic illness.
On a more positive note, sometimes, have limited ‘spoons’ does force us to choose the things that really matter in life. Maybe you don’t want to go to your Great Aunt’s potluck, but if you were perfectly healthy, you would have begrudgingly gone, just to be nice. But when you live with chronic pain, fatigue and other symptoms, you don’t have the luxury of being a ‘yes-man’ (or woman). You have to decide what is worth your time and what isn’t.
This sentiment was echoed by Estrella Bibbey in the video, Sjogren’s Syndrome: A Place to Begin, when describing her life with Sjogren’s Syndrome. “This kind of illness makes you slow down, it makes you choose wisely, and it makes you want to conserve your energy for the very best things,” she said. “I don’t live my life just willy-nilly, [like] we’re going to do whatever and just pick up the pieces later. It’s a more controlled experience, but we choose the really good things and we make sure our energies are focused on the really good events. When we commit to going to a birthday party, or some other kind of social event, we commit to it and we are really excited to be there, and we made a space in our lives to be there.”
If you’re a spoonie (like me) and I had to give you one piece of advice, I would say to practice self-care, be kind to yourself, and make sure you’re using your limited spoons wisely.