If you aren’t familiar with “spoons” in the context of disability, take a few moments to read Christine Miserandino’s landmark piece on Spoon Theory before reading this post.
Spoons, by nature, are a limited resource. They’re replenishable, but not on demand. Sometimes we get a new supply each day and sometimes we have to ration out spoons over many days before our supply is restocked. And there’s no spoon store, so forget going out to buy some if you unexpectedly run out.
Conserving spoons is an essential skill. The most obvious way to conserve is simply to ration. More things to do today than you have spoons for? Eliminate some stuff!
That works fine when your day has lots of padding. It’s relatively easy to cut out things like “go out for lunch with officemates” or “participate in 500-comment Facebook conversation.” You probably won’t miss them much. But what happens when you’ve got your daily schedule down to only the most essential items–literally just the things you need to do to make it through your day without getting fired, flunking out of school, or starting to grow exciting new cultures in the kitchen sink?
Not only do you have to start choosing among cutting out essential activities, but life can start to look pretty grim. Extreme rationing is not a viable long-term strategy.
Understanding Where Your Spoons Go
It can help to think about how spoons are getting used up. For example, spoons are disability region-specific.
We have social spoons and language spoons and physical activity spoons and all sorts of other spoons. Here’s how I envision my spoon drawer looking:
Depending on our disability and how life is going at the moment, each of our spoon drawers is stocked a little differently. In general, however, most people are going to have more spoons in some areas and less in others.This is why someone who doesn’t have the spoons to go to a movie with their family might have the energy to stay home and build an intricate scale model of Narnia out of popsicle sticks.
Not all spoon reserves are created equal.
Having an idea of what your spoon drawer looks like on a given day can make it easier to conserve spoons without randomly eliminating everything that feels “nonessential.” For example, I can look at my spoon distribution above and conclude that an hour-long run in the morning isn’t going to impair my ability to work afterward. An hour-long meeting first thing in the morning will.
I have physical activity spoons to spare. My language and social spoons are precious commodities.
Recognizing this has helped me structure my days smarter. Sort of. I’m still on the fence about which strategy works best: using up essential spoons early in the day and then mostly avoiding that section of the spoon drawer for the rest of the day or conserving essential spoons for as long as possible and then burning through what remains of them at the end of the day.
For example, if I write in the morning, I know that I’ll be fresher for that task but mentally sludgy afterward. If I do non-language-intensive work in the morning, I know that I’ll be less fatigued throughout the day, but when I get around to the writing task in the afternoon, it will be more difficult. Spoons don’t entirely exist independent of each other.
Which brings me to the problem of leaking spoons. There are activities that sneakily steal essential spoons, a little at a time. For example, I was shocked to discover recently that a fun 45 minutes of IMing could leave me exhausted. Was typing silly gossip and “LOL” and really that demanding? I wouldn’t have thought so. I was enjoying it! Aren’t spoons supposed to be used up by challenging, or at least productive, activities?
It turns out that unexpected things drain my spoons via a slow-drip leak. The sound of hammering all day as my neighbor’s house is getting a new roof? Sensory spoon leakage. Sitting in one position for too long? Physical activity and sensory spoon leakage. Listening to a radio program while I work? Language spoon leakage. Cursing out the bank’s confusing phone menu? Executive function spoon leakage.
Even activities that seem passive or low-intensity can drain spoons in the way that the battery drains even when you’re not using your mobile phone.
To some degree, leakage can be stopped or slowed by fencing in your spoons. (Yes, now we’ve got metaphors running amok, but bear with me.) I’ve found that explicitly stating, even if it’s only to myself, that I can do X but I can’t do Y or Z helps plug chronic leaks. If I don’t clearly state up front what I can and can’t do, I’m more likely to talk myself into “just one more hour” or “just one more time”, raiding my spoon drawer without consciously noticing.
Unfortunately, there aren’t a whole lot of rescue strategies if you find yourself short of spoons early in the day. Resting is a good one, of course, but sometimes that isn’t an option. As Christine Miserandino pointed out to her friend, sometimes you don’t have enough spoons to make dinner and eat it too. That’s not an exaggeration. I’ve been there too many times. One strategy that I think sometimes autistic people forget exists is borrowing someone else’s spoons by asking for help.
Asking for help is strangely difficult at times. Maybe because we want to prove that we’re competent independent people. Maybe because we don’t want to bother anyone or be a nuisance or some other useless, deeply ingrained belief about our impact on our loved one’s lives. But asking for help is an important self-care tool, especially when the spoon drawer is looking barren.
In the long term, identifying the cost of activities becomes a crucial conservation strategy. I know that a social activity will cost more spoons if I have to wear uncomfortable clothing or can’t take a break when I need to. A similar activity may have a lower social spoon cost if I attend with someone who can run interference for me. In a sense, accommodations are like getting a spoon discount and situations filled with triggers carry a spoon tax.
When you’re low on spoons, stopping to think about the cost of an activity is critical. If the cost is high, what kinds of discounts (accommodations) might bring the sticker price down into a range that you can afford?
Sometimes, emphasizing quality over quantity is a way to avoid cutting out activities entirely. I used to read the New Yorker cover-to-cover each week. Obsessive, yes, I know, but I love the writing and I was hyperlexic so it was enjoyable. Now that reading has become harder, I page through and choose a few articles to read that look interesting. If I start one and it’s not grabbing me, I move on.
This may sound like a minor change to make, but the mental shift required was wrenching. I used to be the kind of person who would finish a book even if I hated it. It was as if I’d started it and now there was no choice but to finish it. Weird, right?
It was only when The Scientist pointed out that my stress over being 5 weeks “behind” in reading The New Yorker was completely avoidable that I realized how counterproductive my brain was being. Trying to make my spoons go further than they realistically can unnecessarily increases my stress, which causes further spoon leakage. Allowing myself to make new mental rules–and in turn shifting my self concept from hyperlexic to slow reader–allows me to spend my language spoons wisely.
Admittedly that feels like a silly, trivial example to share, but sometimes what appears trivial is freighted with hidden meaning and symbolic weight.
And finally, the hard one: let go. Sometimes, no matter how elaborately I structure, change, accommodate, plan and think about conserving my spoons, I’m forced to admit that something important will still have to go. This is really tough to face. I don’t like to lose and giving up things I like doing because I can’t do everything feels like losing. Which is silly, because there is no losing at life.
While it’s hard to say “I can’t keep doing this thing I really enjoy,” I’ve learned that it’s a lot harder, in the long run, to keep pushing myself to do something when I’m spoonless or on the verge of running out of spoons. Hopefully, if all goes well, the letting go combined with all of the other conservation strategies will lead to that day when I discover an extra spoon or two has appeared in my drawer.