mental health

Can’t Versus Won’t: Thoughts on Spoon Theory

Saturday, October 08, 2016

The past two weeks, I have had to push myself well beyond my comfortable limits. I truly dealt with the repercussions of this last night, when I was woken up out of a dead sleep by a sensation I can only describe as my arm being pulled out of its socket. The wretched pain, from shoulder blade to finger tip, was so extreme I had to get up, take an extra strength Tylenol and grab an ice pack. Only after icing each part of my arm and feeling the sweet relief of the anti-inflammatory was I able to doze back into sleep.

When I woke up later, the pain was still very present and I took another Tylenol. Anyone who knows me at all knows that I’m much more of a “grin and bear it” kind of gal. If something is really bothering me, I will take one (1) pain pill. So when Nicholas saw me go for acetaminophen number two, he knew I must be in a pretty immense amount of pain.

For those unfamiliar with Spoon Theory, it’s a pretty simple but easy to understand metaphor coined by Christine Miserandino in 2003 in her essay “The Spoon Theory”. Those who use this metaphor are called Spoonies and it’s been adopted by disabled and chronically ill people around the world. In the grand scheme of things, I’m quite fortunate as my only physical limitations are related to my scoliosis and constantly misaligned spine and mentally I have an on-and-off again relationship with anxiety and depression. This means that I tend to have more spoons than many people and for that, I am grateful.

How many spoons you have in a day determines how many activities you can do. Getting out of bed? One spoon. Brushing your teeth? Another spoon. Taking a shower? That’s a bit more arduous, let’s say two spoons. Preparing a spreadsheet with only a few data points for your boss? Three spoons. You get the idea.

Everyone has a different amount of spoons, basically determined by the physical and mental energy they have that day. Which is an important note – a good spoon day and a bad spoon day will look very different. Often this is the most challenging part of deciding how to use your spoons as when it comes to chronic illness or mental health disorders: you’re not sure how you’re going to feel tomorrow. So if you feel good now, should you try to do that thing you’ve been putting off? Or will that push you too hard and make you have a “spoon deficit” the next day?

Now that you have the gist of the metaphor down, you see the dilemma. If I only have, say, 20 spoons when I wake up (me yesterday), I should take it easy. Because otherwise, if I spend more spoons than I really have, I’m going to pay for it the next day (me today).

You obviously don’t have to have any ailments to use the spoon theory metaphor or understand it. We all overdo it from time to time but this very calculated approach to determining what you can and can not do each and every day is a very real existence for many people. At times, myself included.

Which brings me to our title: can’t versus won’t. If you asked me to carry furniture right now, I probably could not even though on a better day I could. Though there’s a part of me that knows if I took enough Tylenol and pushed through the pain, I maybe technically could. My arm wouldn’t fall off, though the fatigue is so intense at this point I wouldn’t be shocked if my muscle simply gave up and dropped it. I would definitely be in an excruciating amount of pain. So if someone asked me to do such a thing, I would still say “no”. Not because I can’t, because I won’t.

There’s such a ridiculous stigma in our capitalist society that has taught us all to base our worth off of our productivity. A friend and I were discussing recently how difficult this programming is to undo. Last year, when I stopped working, I felt utterly lost. I felt useless. I felt embarrassed. I was healthy, smart, capable; there was no reason why I shouldn’t do some sort of work. But after a while, I started to rediscover things I was genuinely passionate about and was reminded that I am so much more than how much money I can make.

Even outside of the workplace, we hate to say “no” to friends and family when they ask us for things. That’s what got me into this sore mess – helping my mother move into her new apartment immediately followed by us moving out of ours. Truth be told, I don’t know what else I could have done to make everything that happened possible but if I had been presented with another choice, would I have been able to say “I won’t do this?” Would I have been tempted to say “I can’t do this” just to add validity?

This is almost anti-Monday Motivation today. If anything, I want to motivate you to examine your expectations of yourself as well as of others. Allow yourself to say that you won’t do things if it’s something that will push you too far or ask too much of you. In return, when others say they “won’t” do something, respect that. As I grow older, the importance of boundaries only becomes more and more clear. It’s my genuine hope that I won’t allow myself to be pushed beyond my limits again, at least, not any time soon. I hope that this is the case for you as well.

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