Hello from Chronic Motivation land.
I am here to tell you a story about my interpretation of the reaction to “The Spoon Theory”, and how I feel it applies to me (and doesn’t apply to me).
In an Instagram live chat I held on April 21st, 2017, I was discussing some of the content that chronic illness forums put out into the universe, with derivatives of “The Spoon Theory” being at the top of the list. For those of you who aren’t familiar, “The Spoon Theory” is an essay that was written by Christine Miserandino, in an effort to help one of her friends understand what it was like to live with Lupus.
To read “The Spoon Theory”, click here.
In abbreviated terms (this is paraphrased), it’s basically understood in the chronically ill community that spoons are used as an analogy for levels of energy, or units to be doled out for anything requiring exertion of any kind. It was basically created to help people who aren’t chronic illies to understand that there is a limit that we hit every day, that more or less becomes our “shutoff point.” Do not pass go, do not collect $200, head straight for bed (and don’t forget the ice cream and the remote).
The theory also does a really good job of explaining how different activities cost us in different ways, and that if there is something we are really determined to do (like go to Prom and dance the night away, for example…), we can “borrow” from tomorrow’s reserve, but we’ll pay for it, and ultimately be laid up in bed recovering from overdoing it the day before.
I have been sick for my entire life – 32 years – and it was only when I saw Instagram’s chronically ill community of accounts that I became acquainted with “The Spoon Theory”, “spoons” and “spoonies” (a name chronically ill individuals call themselves as a result of the theory). It blew my mind to see how many people, people who more often than not are so passionate about not being “defined by their illness”, would label themselves as something that so specifically defines them, and of all things, by their illness.
(Note: I feel like this is the appropriate place to say that, as mentioned above, I do appreciate the Spoon Theory. I think finding a way to articulate, quantify and qualify what we experience every day, in tangible terms, no less, is long overdue, and for me, feels right. I don’t want my thoughts proceeding this statement to come across as an attack on a piece of prose that is warranted for receiving a lot of positive attention. I do, however, have some concern about the way this document has impacted the stigmas surrounding chronic illness, but only as a result of getting into the hands of some bad apples.)
For me, the Spoon Theory is what I think it should be – it’s effective and to the point. Referring to “spoons” isn’t too far behind it as far as my interest-level is concerned, but it does start to make me feel a bit uncomfortable. Finally, referring to myself as a “spoonie” is not something I’m attracted to at all, and I’ll explain why.
As someone who has only ever been battling a debilitating rheumatologic disorder (Blau Syndrome), I have accepted that the life I was born into is the life I will be living until there’s no life left in me. I didn’t have a choice in the matter, but I also have had nothing else to compare to. For this reason, I’ve always said that I give a lot more credit to those who were diagnosed later in life (my definition of later = past the point of remembering not being sick), because they know what they are missing. For example, I will never be sad about not being able to run the same way a runner diagnosed with RA at 25 years old will be sad about not being able to run. Of course, there have been moments in my life where I’ve felt out of place because of my physical limits (field day in elementary school was a major one), but I’ve never sat at home longing for a function that I never had.
With that said, since this is the only life I’ve known, it is what feels normal to me. I know that on paper, compared to every other 32 year old on the planet, there is probably not much “normal” going on for me physically, but all that has ever mattered to me (and will hopefully ever matter to me) is that relatively speaking, I’m living a normal life. And I think that’s sort of the key point that makes me hesitate when starting to label myself as anything other than what I am – which in my case, a physically disabled young woman. I think what many people fail to understand, whether it’s a result of a denial, a need for attention, or otherwise, is that everything is relative for everyone. I might have an autoimmune disease that roughs up my life in some ways, but other people my age might have lost both of their parents in a car crash as a child, or maybe they are sorting out navigating through life as homosexuals, or better yet – maybe their sore point is the fact that they’ve been exposed to no hardships at all, and they are just shitty human beings because they don’t know how to appreciate things.
What I’m really trying to say is that we all go through something; none of it is fair, and not all of it is out in the open. There is also a lot of discussion on social media about how chronic illies live with “invisible illnesses”, but the last time I checked, many illnesses, whether chronic or not, are not seen (headaches, stomach bugs, pulled muscles, etc.), and when walking through the streets of Manhattan, I’ve never seen “I just lost my job” or “I got an eviction notice” stamped across anyone’s forehead, either. There is nothing special or unique about being chronically ill – what makes chronically ill people special or unique has nothing to do with the chronically ill part at all… we are just another group of people, like any other group of people, facing a hardship, which in this case, manifests for us in a physically detrimental way.
It’s funny, because as I’m playing these typed words back into my head, it doesn’t sound like someone who is painfully struggling has written this at all – and that’s exactly what my intention is. I will not start using cutesy words like “spoons” to describe something that isn’t cute at all, and I will certainly not refer to myself as a “spoonie”, since frankly, I think it’s a word that has become epidemically used and in many cases, abused. Because again, for a group of people who advocates so much to try to be seen as equals and not “disabled,” why would we go out of our ways to highlight the fact that we are different than the rest of the socially accepted population?
And this is when I say: “Fork your spoons.” ©
I don’t mean for that to sound aggressive, and again, I am not trying to discount or discredit the Spoon Theory in any way. I mean for that statement to be empowering, and to motivate the chronically ill population to really accept and appreciate their lives for what they are. We can’t sit here and denounce that we’re different, and then go to great lengths to identify ourselves as such. I say we be exactly who we are: chronically ill. I am a sick person. I am defined by my illness. I am physically disabled. These are just words, and words that, in my case, represent facts.
When I say I am a sick person, it’s because that’s exactly what I am. I am a person who is sick. Every second of every day. There are days I feel better than others, but even on good days, I am medically compromised. My autoimmune condition is always inside me, ready to fight, and just when I think it’s under control, it rears it’s ugly head. Knowing that, alone, humbles me constantly, because I know what a good day looks like, and when it’s happening, I savor it and pray to God it never goes away.
When I say my illness defines me, I’m saying it shapes me. It makes me a better person. My illness has made me tough, articulate, passionate, and wise. I am able to read people well, I matured at lightening speed, and I am more independent than anybody I know. I am so grateful for these character traits that I sometimes wonder if when people get upset by the idea of being “defined by” their condition (but label themselves as “spoonies”), they might not have fully come to terms with or accepted the fact that this is their permanent situation. Because once that epiphany presents itself, it isn’t hard to see the positives at all.
When I say I’m physically disabled, I’m saying I have physical limitations. Again, as someone who has truly accepted my fate, I am not afraid to use words that sound scary if they represent the truth. There are things that I know I just can’t do, and I’m OK with that. I’m sure there are things I think I can’t do that if I cared enough about, I’d do them, but I feel satisfied with that list at this moment. It’s not about a lack of confidence or downing myself, it’s about understanding what is actually within my reach, and not holding myself accountable for the things that aren’t. If there’s anything I’ve ever wanted to do badly enough, I’ve done it, regardless of my setbacks in mobility. This part of my life is what gives me drive and determination, and as a result, I know what hard work and perseverance look like.
The reason I’m explaining all of this today is because a) I am a passionate person, and b) I wanted to express my thoughts in a way that was thorough and representative of the entire picture. My experience utilizing social media to advocate for others suffering has been overwhelming, and not always in a good way. I am vulnerable and open about what my experience has been as a patient, but I also want to be clear in saying that I have, at times, been disheartened by the misrepresentation of how strong chronically ill people really are.
We are tough cookies, stronger than your average bear, feisty, brave and resilient. We’ve been through a lot, but the ones who have the best handle on it also know that we’re blessed with a lot. (And if there are some out there who haven’t reached that point yet, I hope it comes for them soon). We live our lives on purpose, with meaning, full of zest, and with the intention to do as much good as possible. We don’t need to feel validated by others, because we know the darkness that we keep locked away for no one to see. And the only attention we ever want, is not the kind that feels pity for our differences.
It’s the kind that celebrates them.
© Becky Lewand