Today’s post is inspired by author Liz Prato (Volcanoes, Palm Trees and Privilege: Essays on Hawai’i) and a comment she made on Facebook. We were talking about spoon theory (https://butyoudontlooksick.com/articles/written-by-christine/the-spoon-theory/) and how it became one of the most talked-about articles in the genre. Liz commented:
“I like that spoon theory opened a way for other people to understand about chronic illness, but I feel it needs some caveats. Like: sometimes we can borrow spoons from the next day to get through a big event. That, of course, means we start the next day with fewer spoons. And sometimes, for reasons we don’t know, our spoons aren’t replenished overnight. For me, the metaphor is more like a well that we can drain, that we can ration, that sometimes refills and sometimes doesn’t.”
Spot on, Liz. I just got home from a 3-day bike trip and I left exhausted because I had to be caught up on work before I could leave. I get an adrenalin spike on my trips that I can sustain for several days, but I was in that zone where I had to be careful not to hurt myself making stupid mistakes on Saturday, and I was so wiped out by Sunday that I was more than ready to get home. For the last 2 days, I’ve accomplished nothing but sleeping as if I’d been bitten by a tsetse fly.
Once my boss said, “I don’t get how you can take these long bike trips but you can’t work an 8-hour day.” That inspired one of my earliest posts, (https://blogs.psychcentral.com/hidden-disabilities/2017/12/what-the-normies-dont-understand-theres-buildup-activity-and-tear-down-activity/). Translated to the language of Liz Prato’s well, both my bike trips and going to work drain water from the well; however, the bike activity generates an overnight recharge of a greater amount of water than was drained out, while the working simply drains the well without putting any water back. In order to have the water needed for work, I have to do some recharging activity to support it.
The other major point Liz makes is that it’s not exact math. When we do build-up activities to recharge the well, it doesn’t always replenish the water at the same rate, or at all. Sometimes no matter what we do, the plug pops out the bottom and we’re left with nothing. Other times, we do inexplicably well, exceeding our own expectations for reasons we don’t understand so we can’t replicate.
I had a migraine one day that took me out for the entire day, and someone asked, “What did you do?” That’s a bit like me saying I lost my wallet and the same person asking, “Where did you leave it?” And I’m definitely not going to have insights about possible triggers while I’m still in the throes of pain and nausea. The time to ask that question is the day after—“What do you think might have triggered that?” I have an app on my phone, Migraine Buddy, that dissects every attack after the fact, asking about your day leading up the attack, what you did for relief and what helped and what didn’t, all to try to find consistencies that lead to insight, prevention and management.
Some days after a migraine, I’m perfectly fine. Other days, the postdrome shimmers and I’m just not all there. I never know which it’s going to be. My chronic pain is even more erratic. I can have a spike for no apparent reason, or I can get through a stressful event unscathed.
It’s especially maddening when I want to commit to an event and I don’t know how I’m going to feel that day. I can do everything right and still be tapped dry on the event day. This is why I can’t work an on-site, scheduled job. It’s reasonable to think I’ll have 20 good hours in a week, but not necessarily the hours an employer needs them to be. When I made my own schedule for food delivery, I still missed 25 percent of my scheduled shifts. They didn’t fire me because I wasn’t technically an employee (they had to keep our indie contractor status). They just overbooked drivers for the shifts I signed onto, reducing the available tip pool for everyone if I showed up.
So, to recap—the number of “spoons,” or liters of water in our well, that we’re issued per day is arbitrary and can only be generally influenced by behavior—the things we try will probably work, but there’s no guarantee. We can try to “borrow” from tomorrow and sometimes that works. Other times we either ruin the event we borrowed for, or get charged excessive interest for the loan.
Spoon theory is very useful for explaining chronic illness to others, but like any model, it has limitations. Christine Miserandino deserves the attention her article has drawn; she’s given us a great communication tool. The breakdown of spoon economics in our actual world is more arbitrary than all that, though, and we still end up trying to explain ourselves.
What about your spoon economy? What have you struggled to explain to a boss or loved one lately?