Running Out of Spoons

I’ve been all out of spoons lately. I don’t normally deal with this issue, though I know lots of people who do. But the thing is, the things that tapped my spoon supply blindsided me.

Blogger Christine Miserandino developed the Spoon Theory as a way of explaining her chronic illness to a friend.

This caught on, since spoons as a metaphor for energy is something we can easily grasp. This infographic outlines the idea well, although it comes from an organization unrelated to my illness.




I take issue with the infographic’s claim that healthy people have “unlimited spoonfuls of energy.” Everyone has limits, as anyone who’s seen athletes collapsing at a marathon finish line can attest. But the analogy still holds true. Healthy people usually have all the spoons they need for whatever they’re going to face in a day.

People with chronic illnesses, though, have spoon deficits.

The chronic condition that keeps me from doing as much as I’d like is osteoarthritis. As my doctor described it to me, “you get old, and your joints wear out.” It’s far less painful and debilitating than rheumatoid arthritis, in which the body attacks its own tissues.

My arthritis is in my spine, and it produces pain in my neck and shoulders. Not too bad most days. I take a couple of medications for it daily, and I have a heavy-duty painkiller if the pain gets really bad, which it rarely does. But I still have to ration my spoons. If I try to do too much too early in the day, I’ll have no spoons left for anything in the evening.

This is why I go to the gym at the end of the day. Working out takes all my spoons. If I go in the morning, I won’t have enough left for work or errands or much else. I’m just done at that point.

Yard work is even worse. I tried doing it early, right after dawn, before it gets hot—I live in Florida, remember—but it was no good. Twenty minutes of yard work used up all my spoons. I finally had to give up yard work completely. I can’t say I’m real broke up about it. It was never my most favorite thing anyway.

But see, all these things are physical, and I expect them to take a lot of spoons, so I can manage my energy. But in recent months, I’ve had some personal drama going on that just wasted me for everything else. Not to share TMI, but a family issue has taken up a lot of time and energy. A lot of spoons.

So between my health and my drama, I was already low on spoons when the Orlando shooting happened. And that was it. I was done. I could barely get out of bed in the morning. It took me to negative spoons. Fortunately I have very understanding friends and colleagues and clients who cut me enormous amounts of slack.

I’m starting to recuperate, though we’ll see how I do after pulling this all-nighter to catch up on some of my deadlines. It’s a quarter after three in the morning as I write this, and I still have a stack of client critiques to get through and a magazine article that’s due by the end of the day.

Part of spoon management is finding a balance between self care and meeting one’s obligations. I’m really out of balance right now. But I’m doing this the only way I know how. Using my spoons on the most important thing first, taking frequent breaks, and napping when necessary. At first I thought the hardest part was admitting to myself that I’m not as strong as I used to be.

But no, the hardest part has been letting people down. Confessing my weakness. Begging forgiveness and a deadline extension. I hate that my health and my life and my grief have gotten in the way of my work. I can only hope that someday I will have the opportunity to extend to others in their weaknesses the grace that has been given to me in mine.

About Kristen Stieffel

Kristen Stieffel is a writer and freelance editor specializing in speculative fiction. She's a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association, Christian Editor Connection, and American Christian Fiction Writers.

10 comments on “Running Out of Spoons

  1. Kristen, Thank you for sharing this. This is the first time I’ve read about the spoon theory and I can certainly relate. Particularly to having lots to do with limited energy to do it. I have the benefit of nineteen years experience dealing with chronic illness, but it took me a long time before I allowed myself the grace of ‘down time.’ And I still struggle with it. 🙂 I know I am never alone as God has promised to sustain me, and though I certainly wish you didn’t have to deal with your illness it is nice to know that other people feel a similar way and can relate. I pray you have the energy needed to catch up and find your balance again. Have a blessed day.

  2. I’ve never thought of it as spoons, but certainly as cups of energy. And I share that tendency to use too many, and then be totally done in and unable to pull my energy back together to do anything else again for days afterward.

    I’m not over my limit of spoons today, but–I’m right at the edge, and somehow, I’ve got to find enough to do a few more things… at the moment, I just don’t know where it’s going to come from.

    (((HUGS))) for you, and prayers for both of us…

  3. Thank you for sharing! I knew about spoon theory and love it! I have quite a few friends who have various chronic illnesses and I have come understand their limits.
    Thank you for making this point. “I take issue with the infographic’s claim that healthy people have “unlimited spoonfuls of energy.” Everyone has limits, as anyone who’s seen athletes collapsing at a marathon finish line can attest.” This recently happened to an Iron Man level friend. Rough for sure.
    I run out of spoons or more often I have only teaspoons when I need soup spoons.
    Praying that you find the rest you need!

  4. Thanks for sharing, Kristen! I hadn’t heard of the spoon theory before, but it sure fits anyone with chronic illness, especially the kinds considered invisible. I have more than one type of arthritis, and I’ve tried to explain it as a whole body ice cream headache (aka brain freeze) that occasionally recedes but never stops. On a daily basis, it’s also like tight wire balancing on a swinging, bouncing wire — the least misstep sends you crashing.

    And you’re right: prioritizing the spoons is essential. That translates into spoon usage only at survival level. Housework/yardwork won’t get done according to what anyone with uncompromised spoons thinks should be, and it’s so easy for others to pass judgments: wimpy, lazy, selfish, uncaring.

    I don’t wish any chronic illness on anyone, but once in a while, I do wish others could experience a few moments, just a little taste, of a day in the life.

    Prayers for you & for all in the day-by-day, minute-by-minute challenge of using (if not playing) our allotment of spoons.

  5. Revisiting because it occurred to me a supplemental Fork Theory might be useful.

    Some days, my spoon use for getting dressed jumps from 1 to 4. Yesterday, it took a little over a half hour of trying shirts and socks that didn’t hurt (each one a fork of pain) due to a wrinkle or touching a pressure point or …
    Today, it’s settled back to 2 spoons (and hopefully no forks when I change clothes for work), but the clothing items are exactly the same ones that tried to kill me yesterday.

    On a daily basis, spoon usage varies for those with chronic illness. It’s rarely 100% predictable, but you can always count on running out of spoons.
    Every. Single. Day.

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