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Fatigue, Compulsion, and the Search for Spoons

  • Posted on May 24, 2010 at 9:15 PM

Executive Summary: A less-than-100%-coherent search for spoons, which represent our daily currency to get things done.

During the latest Blogging Against Disablism blogswarm, I read a post that mentioned the “spoons theory.”  I wasn’t not sure what the author meant and he/she didn’t elaborate.  But I did find an article/post that described the theory. (Recommended reading!)

I’d gotten the general gist of the theory based on the context of the original post.  In short, spoons represent your energy and ability, like currency.  You have a limited number spoons each day and have to spend them wisely.

(I disagree with the author that healthy people don’t have to worry about this.  Perhaps some people don’t think about it, but the reality is we have all a finite number of spoons each day.  Some of us just have fewer spoons than others, and some of us require more spoons to accomplish a given task than others.  And every day is different.)

Most days I have sufficient spoons.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not rolling in spoons.  It’s not like I have so many spoons to spare that I don’t have to think about how I spend them.  Usually I have just enough spoons to get through the day.  But I do get through the day.

Each day I spend some spoons without making a conscious choice.  I have compulsive tendencies.  If I do not control these tendencies, they control me.  Controlling these compulsions requires having spoons to spend.  I also spend spoons to deal with the stimuli in my environment.

Noise costs me some spoons.  Interestingly enough, silence costs me spoons, too—just not as many spoons.  In order to not spend spoons, I need a manageable level of consistent white noise.  Then, of course, listening costs me some spoons, because I have to drown out the white noise to focus on what the other person is saying.  Really, when it comes to auditory stimulation, I just can’t win.

Touching an icky texture costs me a spoon.  A smell that triggers my gag reflex costs me some spoons, if I don’t have the spoons I throw up and that will cost me more spoons—even though I don’t actually have the spoons to spend.  Processing too many visual elements costs me a spoon.  Wearing clothing that requires processing costs me some spoon (itchy clothes, skirts, or tops that dip down if I bend forward are examples), how many depends on how much and how often my clothing requires my attention.  Basically, just having to process the world around me costs me spoons.  Add human interaction into the mix, and I use a lot of spoons just to exist within an environment.

Keep in mind I haven’t done any work yet and have already spent quite a few spoons.

(This is why I consider myself borderline-neurodivergent versus autistic.  This is not to say that I actually believe there is a border—I believe autism is a range within the human range of experience and that our choice to make firm distinctions is a value judgment that doesn’t accurately reflect reality, but that’s another post.  The point is that my ability to pass for most of my life without anyone suspecting anything was really “wrong” leads me to differentiate my experiences from both “normal” people and genuine autistics.  I seem to have more spoons than most autistics, but I spend my spoons on things that don’t require spoons from “normal” people.)

But there are those times when the monster under the bed eats my spoons before I even get up in the morning—or in the afternoon as the case may be when I’m being night-owlish.

Over the last month I’ve had sinusitis, or maybe it’s allergies, or—well, we really don’t know.  But I’ve had fewer spoons as the days go by, yet I had just as much work to do.  So, I overextended myself, spending spoons I didn’t have.  Of course, there’s a cost for that.  A steep cost.  I end up with fewer spoons the next day.  If that wasn’t problematic enough, I have to spend more spoons to do the same tasks, which I still have to do though I don’t have the spoons.  Thus, the cycle of spending spoons I don’t have continues and grows.

Work, of course, requires spoons as well.  Play requires spoons too.  Taking care of the kids, taking care of the house, and spending time with family and friends all require spoons.  Outings of any kind require having plenty of spoons to spend.  Getting ready for an outing costs me spoons.  The type of outing indicates how many spoons something is likely to cost, but the indication may be off depending on what happens during the outing.

On most days I have enough spoons to do all the things I need to do, most of the things I should do, and some of the things I want to do.  The closer I’m able to stay within my comforting routine, the fewer spoons I usually have to spend coping and the fewer spoons it costs me to complete a task.

Then, there are those times when I don’t feel well.  Having a headache costs me spoons.  And that’s just having the headache.  Treating the headache requires more spoons.  Doing something while I have the headache costs me spoons to have the headache, plus the spoons to perform the task, plus a few extra because the task requires more effort.  This is true of any bodily discomfort.

Lately, I’ve had headaches, nasal congestion, chest congestion, coughing, pressure in my head, feelings of disorientation, earaches, tickly ears, and a sense of unbalance.  Each of these symptoms necessitates the spending of spoons.  Just having the symptoms costs spoons.  Treating them costs spoons.  Doing other tasks while having the symptoms costs the spoons to perform the task plus extra spoons for the extra effort required.

It’s easy to see why I’ve been running short on spoons.  Yet, work needs to be done.  So, I spend spoons I don’t have, sabotaging future days and future work, which requires spending more spoons I don’t have.  Badness, quite obviously, ensues.

Now, getting the point, I spend spoons to control my compulsiveness.  If I choose not to do so, if I let the compulsiveness win, not only do I not spend spoons to control my compulsiveness, I get spoons for allowing myself to be compulsive.  So, when I finally admitted I had to stop spending spoons I didn’t have, I recouped by sleeping more and watching La Femme Nikita.  Television poses significant challenges for me.  Once I start watching something I really enjoy, I don’t want to stop.  It costs spoons to not watch.  The same thing happens with book series.  If the series continues, but I don’t have the next book, it costs me spoons not to purchase and read the book.  So, allowing myself to watch whichever show I’m into is like getting extra health points in a video game.  I get more spoons!

But, in the process, I lose time.  If I have a full day scheduled, I won’t be able to do all my work, because it costs time to get the spoons to do the work.  Then, I have to choose which work needs to get done, do that work, and let the rest go until I have spoons I don’t have to buy with time.

But (there seems to be a lot of buts in this post), if I try to indulge myself and am thwarted, that costs a lot of spoons.  So, when the DVD-drive on my laptop couldn’t find the DVD (hello!  It’s in the drive!), I spent four hours trying to make it work.  In the process I discovered that this drive has problems—not just mine, but a lot of people’s—and that there was no identified solution, so I ordered an external drive online.  Not because we had the money to spare, but because it was costing me far too many spoons and far too much time not having a DVD-drive that would actually, consistently and predictably play DVDs.  (I don’t cope well with things that don’t work the way they’re supposed to.  I mean, really: DVD-drive = drive that plays DVDs.  Why is that such a difficult concept for my computer to understand!?!)  After that, I took my DVD upstairs and watched it there.  Luckily, my husband recognized that watching the DVD had become a need—and I do mean need, I didn’t have enough spoons left not to watch it—and he abdicated his computer time in favor of my indulgence.  (Isn’t he fabulous!)

So, I guess the point is—do I have a point?—ah, yes, the point is that we must manage the spoons that we have.   We must be aware of how our spoons get spent and what gives us more spoons than is spent doing it.  It’s kind of like celery.  I once heard that digesting celery consumes more calories than the celery contains.  Most activities consume more spoons than the activity provides.  But there are spoon-rich activities (i.e., chocolate cake, not celery) that will provide more spoons than performing the activity consumes.  Everyone is going to have their own spoon-rich activities.  Find yours.  Use it to help you manage your spoons.  Then all you have to do is manage your time, but at least you’ll have the spoons to do it!