A more concise version of this title would simply be mental health and spoon theory. It’s a long time since I started planning this blog post, but it’s been really fascinating to go back over my notes and actually write words. However, I do need to add a content warning for discussion of mental health and depression, and mentions of suicide. Take care of yourselves folx.
I’ll admit, I sometimes forget people don’t know what spoon theory is – in the same way I forget that someone might ask me to explain asexuality or what I mean by PIV sex. Personally, I’m amused that I know at least two of these things from Harry Potter fanfiction – along with the fact that a condom can be used while giving a blow job… which says a lot about the sex education I received. As a fangirl-turned-sex-nerd, spoon theory is one I don’t end up mentioning too often, but it’s one I’ve been thinking about a lot in the past few months.
Spoon theory is a metaphor that helps explain the struggle of chronic illness. It compares the reduced amount of energy someone who with a disability or chronic illness might have for everyday tasks and activities with spoons. Each spoon represents unit of energy, different activities require different numbers of spoons, and spoons can only be replaced though rest. The term spoons was first used by Christine Miserandino, whose essay ‘The Spoon Theory’ describes how she used the spoons from surrounding tables in a café as a visual aid to help a friend understand what having lupus felt like.
I love the idea of spoon theory. I’ve found the more I think about it, the more I relate to it. A few months ago, I couldn’t work out how to make people understand how much my depression was constantly affecting my life. I was completely exhausted. In fact, I was completely exhausted all the time. A five-hour shift at work could leave me almost too tired to speak. Cooking dinner was enough to leave me wanting a nap. I wished I’d been able to use spoon theory to describe how I felt then. Classmates, colleagues, and even doctors seemed to find it hard to understand that I simply had no energy for human interactions.
I like having the labels and the language to talk about how I feel. Trying on asexual, gay, lesbian, and bisexual were all words I played with and explored before working out that queer was the word that fits me best. Struggling with my mental health, I really wanting my doctor, my therapist, or my psychiatrist to tell me that I had depression: I needed the label so I had ‘permission’ to be ill. Words help me make sense of myself. In the last week or so, I’ve been thinking about spoon theory in a different way: to give me words to help me understand how I am, physically and mentally.
I’m definitely happier than I was a year ago, but even now I get frustrated with myself because I do still struggle with my mental health. Maybe not every day. Maybe not quite so visibly. Maybe I can’t tell you exactly when I cried because it was less than two days ago. (I still can, but it wasn’t.) Positive routines, new habits, and lots of sleep are helping me get out of bed and doing small things to change the world every day. I’m better at knowing what I need and doing that thing. I usually know when self-care needs to be chocolate and a nap, versus a shower and cooking dinner, versus getting some fresh air and doing the scary thing that is making me sick with anxiety.
The fact I am coping much better, however, means that even I sometimes forget that just because I’m functioning it doesn’t mean I’m ok. I’ll have a brilliant day, getting up early, going for a run, taking notes and participating in class, writing a blog post, and grabbing coffee with a friend… and then I crash and fail to understand why. I get confused and sad, because it’s been a good day and I should feel good, not exhausted and drained. This is I begin to apply the language of spoon theory. My depression means I often have a finite amount of energy, even when I don’t realise that.
Tiredness, lack of energy and decreased productivity are all common symptoms of depression. As exciting as my life is right now, overwhelming exhaustion will still hit me, and putting this in the context of ‘my spoons have run out’ makes me feel better about myself. I’m not lazy or broken; I have a mental illness. When I wake up in the morning, it’s ok for me to feel empty and unenthused about the day. I need to practice self-care and prioritise my to-do list, conserving my spoons for the most important tasks.
But this is where I reach a point of internal conflict: is spoon theory mine to use?
It’s a metaphor most commonly used for disability and chronic pain and illness. I have clinical depression rather than chronic depression – I think. The idea of one day no longer taking anti-depressants is a terrifying one, but one that might happen within the next five years or so. The SSRIs I take help me stay alive. I’d even say that they are the reason I am still alive today, as I have no qualms with telling people who make me defend the fact I’m on medication for my mental illness.
I definitely think spoon theory can give language to how depression affect me. If I use up my spoons on coursework, I might not have any left to write for my blog. If it’s late and I haven’t eaten dinner, thinking about my remaining spoons helps me work out if I should maybe cook but not wash the dishes that night, because making and eating the food is the important thing. If I spend time with family, I might come away feeling like crap and will need to take lots of time to rest and read and recharge. I’ve also noticed how certain interactions – like encountering sexist language or homophobic comments – can turn a relatively low-spoon activity, like watching a presentation in class or buying coffee, into one that takes a lot of spoons.
The fact it definitely works for me and helps me feel better about what I need to do to take care of myself doesn’t mean that I don’t often wonder if I should feel guilty for using spoon theory to talk about how I feel. Apparently, Christine Miserandino herself said it can be used to describe mental illness as well as well as chronic illness and disability, but I can’t find evidence of this in the sources cited. I’m very aware that people’s use or misuse of language and words used by people with mental illness can annoy and upset me. I don’t want to use language that belongs to another community and end up hurt or offend people because I’m using ‘their’ words or misusing them.
Does talking about something, especially if I acknowledge ‘this applies to me, but more so to folx with chronic illnesses and disabilities’ help remove the stigma around talking about chronic illness and mental health? Or is like so many people sticking a spoon into a tall sundae glass to taste the cool sweetness that the person who bought the ice-cream because they needed it has nothing left, meaning it didn’t have its much needed effect of helping them feel cooler?
I don’t have an answer, but I hope that terrible metaphor has in some way explained my question: can I have a taste of this ice-cream? Can I use the words created for another community to describe my own mental health?
Wow, I think I just wrote a blog post about my mental health without swearing. Now, I’m going to go and find some fucking ice-cream.
Image sourced through Pixabay.
Quinn Rhodes (he/him) is a freelance journalist, sex writer, and professional transsexual. His work focuses on dismantling shame and queering sex.