Chronic Illness and Stigma

To Rest or Not To Rest? A Humorous Introduction to Spoon Theory

Ah, the age-old debate.

One of the biggest struggles of dealing with a chronic illness is figuring out how far is too far. Should I push the boundaries of what I think I can handle, or should I take a page out of the book and rest?

To be honest, there really isn’t a tried and true answer.

It’s one of those things that you kinda figure out over time. I’ve lived with some form of chronic illness my whole life, but it didn’t get to the point where it was seriously impacting almost every aspect of my life until about five years ago.

A friend of mine was asking me about my life, and I had briefly mentioned that every day I wake up with some kind of pain; I’m rarely ever completely pain-free. Her response?

“Then why get up?”

I get what she was trying to say here. If you wake up in pain and you’re not feeling great, why not just take the day to rest?

I guess there’s a few answers to this.

The first and most obvious: I would never get up.

Think about it. If I were to sit in bed and wait for the pain to go away, chances are the pain never will. Things need to be done, errands need to be run, and there’s a whole world out there that needs exploring, something I can’t do from the comfort of my own bed.

But then what happens when it’s new pain, or a new sensation that I haven’t experienced? Or it’s midway through the day and there are things that need to be done but I feel awful and fatigued? Do I push forward? Or do I listen to my body and take the day off?

The easiest way to sort of explain the argument is through the Spoon Theory. For those of you who aren’t familiar, here’s an unabridged- abridged version.

A “spoonie” is someone who is usually dealing with some sort of chronic illness – it be physical, mental, or a combination of both – and the spoon analogy is a way of explaining exactly how our bodies works.

For instance, someone who is healthy and able-bodied has an unlimited amount of spoons (the spoons are meant to be a way of objectifying energy), and if you’re healthy, you have an abundance of energy and can usually get everything you need to get done. When you go to bed, the spoons recharge and you’re set to go the next day. Most “normal” people don’t need to worry about running out of spoons.

A “spoonie” is someone who doesn’t necessarily have that luxury. Every day they have a certain number of spoons. Some days they have more, like on good days, and some days they have less. Now, if they run out of spoons, they can borrow from the next day, but then they have to pay the consequences, meaning that the next day they might have no energy and have to stay in or utilize some other form of self-care in order to continue to function and take care of their body or mind respectively.

Borrowing too many spoons, or overtaxing themselves, can lead to feeling pretty crummy, or can even make them sick. It is important that a spoonie continuously checks themselves and make sacrifices in order to keep themselves as healthy as possible.

One important thing to note is that for a spoonie everything is exhausting, even things most people wouldn’t expect. For instance, I sometimes get exhausted just sitting in my living room hanging out with my sister. Even getting up and walking the ten feet to my fridge leaves me winded on bad days. Hanging out with friends? Sometimes that depends on the person; it take more energy to hang out with some people than others if I even have the energy to hang out. Taking a shower? Some days I have to completely forget about that.

Now here’s the thing: spoonies never know how many spoons they have. Some days they might gain more as the day goes on. Some days something might happen and they lose all their spoons instantaneously. Other days they think they have more spoons than they actually do  (I am SO guilty of this one). Quantifying spoons isn’t cut and dry; just as “normal” life can be unpredictable, “spoonie” life is too.

Since spoonies don’t always have a neat little cheat sheet that tells them how many spoons they have, it can be very difficult to gauge what the best decision is in the moment. Even if they do everything right and are extremely careful to save spoons for one particular event, they may find myself cancelling, like I am right now.

I was supposed to go out with my best friends today to play some video games at the local library. I worked super hard trying to maintain my spoons all day and yesterday. I kept a consistent sleep schedule, I ate healthily, I didn’t overtax myself this morning…but despite my best efforts I still find myself here, in my house, on my laptop, while my best friends are playing Black Ops 2.

You win some, you lose some.

So do you push yourself? I am by writing this blog right now. It is currently 4:41 pm as I type this sentence and my body is screaming for sleep. But this blog post needs to be written. I may be able to give up Black Ops, but I won’t let myself give this up. After all, things do need to get done.

But some things can wait. I gotta make sure I have enough spoons for my first day back at school tomorrow.

“I try to take one day at a time, but sometimes several days attack me at once.”

-Jennifer Yane




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