The spoon theory is a disability metaphor and neologism used to explain the reduced amount of energy available for activities of living and productive tasks that may result from disability or chronic illness. "Spoons" are a visual representation used as a unit of measure in order to quantify how much energy a person has throughout a given day. Each activity requires a given number of spoons, which will only be replaced as the person "recharges" through rest. A person who runs out of spoons has no choice but to rest until their spoons are replenished.
This metaphor is used to describe the planning that many people have to do to conserve and ration their energy reserves to accomplish their activities of daily living. The planning and rationing of energy-consuming tasks has been described as being a major concern of those with chronic and fatigue-related diseases, illness, or conditions. The theory explains the difference between those who don't seem to have energy limits and those that do. The theory is used to facilitate discussions between those with limited energy reserves and those without. Because healthy people typically are not concerned with the energy expended during ordinary tasks such as bathing and getting dressed, the theory helps healthy people realize the amount of energy expended by chronically ill or disabled people to get through the day.
Spoons are widely discussed within autoimmune, disability, mental and other chronic illness online communities, as an emic descriptor. The term spoonie is sometimes used to refer to a person with a chronic illness that can be explained with the spoon theory.
The term spoons was coined by Christine Miserandino in 2003 in her essay "The Spoon Theory". The essay describes a conversation between Miserandino and a friend. The discussion was initiated by a question from the friend in which she asked about what having lupus feels like. The essay then describes the actions of Miserandino who took spoons from nearby tables to use as a visual aid. She handed her friend twelve spoons and asked her to describe the events of a typical day, taking a spoon away for each activity. In this way, she demonstrated that her spoons, or units of energy, must be rationed to avoid running out before the end of the day. Miserandino also asserted that it is possible to exceed one's daily limit, but that doing so means borrowing from the future and may result in not having enough spoons the next day. Miserandino suggested the spoon theory can describe the effects of mental illnesses as well.
According to the Spoon theory, spoons (units of energy) may be replaced after rest or a night of sleep. However, people with chronic diseases, such as autoimmune diseases, and various disabilities may have sleep difficulties. This can result in a particularly low supply of energy. Some disabled people may not be fatigued by the disabilities themselves, but by the constant effort required to pass as non-disabled.
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