“But You Don’t Look Sick”: The Spoon Metaphor

Lynne Murray says:

I have measured out my life in coffee spoons…

T.S. Eliot

was in his early ’20s and his spoons in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock probably meant something a little different to him than what I’m about to discuss.

I was searching for information about fat-friendly children’s fiction when I ran across Rebecca Rabinowitz’s LiveJournal.

coffee spoons

She mentioned the concept of “spoons” when talking about how her chronic illness can drastically limit what she can do each day. She linked to this insightful little essay, “The Spoon Theory”by Christine Miserandino.

Miserandino describes how she used twelve spoons to demonstrate the real daily life effect of a chronic condition like lupus. She gave her friend the spoons and explained that this was all she could have for a day and each task she did would cost her one spoon. She would have to plan carefully because once the spoons were gone, there was no way to get more.

Miserandino describes the ever-present situation of having to ration her energy just to safely get through the day, the need to constantly calculate how to deal with small things that healthy people never have to think about (such as the exertion involved in cooking a meal versus how sick she would feel if she did not eat), and how bad weather or a high temperature could be genuinely dangerous to her. She says, “I miss that freedom. I miss never having to count ‘spoons’.”

Her words struck a chord with me and I shared her essay with a friend who has Crohn’s disease. She found it helpful enough to print out a copy or two to put in her purse to give to well-meaning friends who try to tell her to “just” walk faster, “just” get up earlier or “just” try this or that miracle cure, people who can’t or won’t listen or hear her when she says that she can’t do something or that their helpful advice won’t cure her.

That’s probably why I’m sharing Miserandino’s metaphor here, despite the fact that talking in detail about my own limitations is extraordinarily difficult for me. It isn’t just that it sounds like complaining, which I try to avoid. It’s that I’ve never seen much use in going down the list of what I can’t do that lots of other people can. If there is a payoff there, I have not found it. The best I can come up with is that it may encourage others in a similar situation, just as Miserandino’s essay on spoons helped crystallize some daily-life situations for my friend and me, and that is a genuine positive result.

However, the possibility of helping someone is stunningly abstract compared to my strongest feelings–the bone-deep caution of an injured wild creature mistrustful of showing weakness that could make it a target. Despite all my misgivings, I did want to share the spoons essay and concept, as I’ve found it a helpful metaphor for an energy level that demands careful monitoring of limited reservoirs.

9 thoughts on ““But You Don’t Look Sick”: The Spoon Metaphor

  1. I think it’s an incredibly useful essay and metaphor, and should be as widely read as possible.

    I’m generally able-bodied, but during my two pregnancies I experienced about a three-month stretch where my body would just shut itself down periodically. My effective work day was cut in half — I had half as many spoons as I normally carry. And it was particularly frustrating because this was mostly during the first trimester when I didn’t look pregnant and wasn’t telling most people that I was pregnant — so suddenly I was a lot less effective a worker, and no one understood why. This essay actually made it easier for me to not beat myself up as much about it, the second time around.

    Most of us will experience debilitating conditions at some point in our lives — at the end of life, if at no other point. It behooves us to understand the resources that others (and ourselves) are working with.

  2. Thanks, Mary Anne, I agree that even if other people don’t understand, not beating ourselves up for what we just cannot do is important. I come from the, “Hope I die before I get old–whoops!” generation and I really get irked when I get the media message (designed to make us feel bad and buy products of course) that it’s okay to be 60 so long as you look and feel 40, and it’s okay to be 80 if you can run a marathon.

    The more time we spend straining to be what we are not, the less time we have to appreciate where we are and what we do have. I’m glad you have your own permission to be pregnant in the real world and your real body as opposed to some ideal superwoman pregnant state. I’ve never been pregnant but I’m guessing that it wouldn’t help to beat oneself up for not having energy one just doesn’t have. A useful lesson, which as you say, will come in handy when age comes along–whoops!

  3. Lynne,

    Thank you for this. The spoon theory has been transformational for me since I first read it, and I appreciate whenever it comes up anywhere.

    Thanks for your own openness here, too.I know what you mean about talking about your own limitations. But sometimes “coming out” as limited (ie as human) is an important act. So, like I said, thanks.

  4. Thank you Stefani, your comment is right on point. It made me smile when it brought up a conversation I had with a young woman I’d known throughout her process of coming out as a lesbian, which coincided with her college and grad school years. I told her I was going through my own “coming out” process about being fat and she said, “How can you be in the closet? Everyone can see that you’re fat.” Ah, but whether other people can see it is one thing. Owning it myself and presenting to the world as owning it is another.

  5. I’m not a fan of the spoon metaphor, and I’ve been kind of outspoken about that, but I AM a fan of how much it’s helped various people. Speaking only for myself, the word “energy” works anywhere that other people might use the word “spoons”, and it’s immediately understood, whereas the spoons metaphor has to be explained first to make any sense at all.

  6. Serene, I understand the limitation of the spoon theory in that it means nothing if not explained. What I do like about it is that it is concrete and visualizable–if that’s a word. To me the idea of “energy” seems harder only because it’s not visible. My experience has been that I’ve still had to explain that my energy is limited and I can’t get more when I run out. But when it comes to “energy” your mileage may vary–which is also the point–LOL!

    Metaphors are by their nature imperfect. And talking about limited stamina is difficult, partly because those of us who “prematurely” run out of steam (to use a totally obsolete steam engine metaphor) wish we didn’t have to deal with it, and those we’re trying to explain it to often would prefer “fixing” us to understanding our sometimes depressing reality!

  7. Serene,

    I understand what you are saying. But for some of the people in my life, saying “I have no energy” is a recipe for the “buck up, soldier” lecture. Lack of energy is understood as a lack of drive. The spoon metaphor, because it’s more concrete, helps me talk instead about resiliency, which seems not to trip those same wires.


    Word. I know that for my family “fixing” me is as much because they are distressed for my difficulty as it is because I may inconvenience them, but sometimes the care part of the concern is hard to see/remember.

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