Spoon Theory

So, it’s been a couple of months since I went back to work and, I’ll be honest, it’s a struggle. I’m definitely in the ‘not waving but drowning’ phase.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the work. It’s frustrating and bitty and annoying, but it feels so good to be using my brain again. I feel like a part of the world; I feel useful.

But, oh my days, am I out of spoons. If ever I wanted to explain spoon theory, now’s the time. So, here goes.

Spoon theory was coined by Christine Miserandinoas a way to describe units of mental or physical energy. For Christine, who had lupus, it was physical energy, but I have always heard it in context of mental energy associated with neurodivergence. And that’s what I’ll describe here. This is purely from my own experience of my neurodivergent family.

When I say that a spoon is a unit of physical or mental energy, I mean it’s what’s required to do those tasks that aren’t done automatically. You probably don’t need a spoon to go for a wee, unless of course you do. It’s hard to define because it’s different for everyone. I see it as any task that needs that extra push. Think of it like a car using fuel – you use more at 20mph than you do idling, and you use a lot more at 80mph. But it varies by car. And some cars have bigger fuel tanks. 

Each of my family members has an invisible illness – anxiety, ADHD, ASD, depression. They’re not all diagnosed, but they’re all there, especially for me. My job for the last decade or so has been to dish out spoons to keep the family functioning. When the children were little, it wasn’t so obvious that that was what I was doing. Nurturing, providing for their needs, is natural when they’re five. It isn’t until they’re ten or more and you’re still doing it that you realise there might be something more.

Let’s take a normal school day morning. My son can get up without prompting, he makes his own breakfast. But there it gets tricky. He needs reminding to get dressed on time, he needs a nudge to brush his teeth. He needs help finding the right clothes for whether it’s PE or not, or if I haven’t put the laundry away. He’ll need to be told to pack his homework – several times – and to fill his water bottle. I’ll pack his lunch and make sure his shoes are clean and where he can find them. We’ll find his coat and make sure he has his phone. Now, let’s list that:

  • Find right clothes
  • Get dressed
  • Brush teeth
  • Pack homework
  • Fill water bottle
  • Get lunch
  • Find shoes
  • Find coat
  • Find phone 
  • Track the time

These are all tasks that require a bit of extra mental energy to make sure they happen, especially to make sure they happen in time to leave the house at 8.15am. So, each one of these is a spoon. Ten spoons, and we haven’t even started the day.

Then I make sure my daughter is awake, is mentally able to go to school, has breakfast if she wants it (three spoons), I make sure my husband has eaten breakfast, because he won’t without a nudge, and then his day is harder (spoon). Then I need to make sure I’m fed, dressed, brushed my teeth, fed the dogs, fed the hamster, walked the dogs, (six spoons) maybe put the dishwasher on because none of us managed it the night before. Sign my daughter’s diary, or check school emails, maybe it’s World Book Day or my daughter needs a new notebook or can’t find a glue stick. All spoons.

Before I went back to work, that would be it for the morning, more or less. After the school run (which my husband now does, so that’s a couple of spoons gone for him), I would have until 3pm to get my mind straight. Catch up on tasks that hadn’t been done. Rest. Do something creative. Often sleep. Basically, top up my dopamine levels (ADHD), although I didn’t realise that’s what I was doing.

Then I would do the afternoon school run (also now my husband’s responsibility), which would require working out where my son wanted picking up from. Then home. To another few hours of dishing out spoons. Different meals for each neurodivergent person. Different after school activities. Mental exhaustion to soothe from the three who had been out in the world. More dog feeding and walking, more chores. Asleep by 9pm at the latest. 

And now? Now I do most of that still, but between 9am and 5pm I have a job. A complex one, with lots of stakeholders, lots of deadlines and remembering things and keeping track of things. I have three different to-do lists on my desk. And still, I carry a lot around in my head, to make sure I don’t miss anything important. So. Many. Spoons. And because I need extra support to make sure I remember all the steps in a process, I have process-mapped a lot of my tasks. I had a call from the Project team yesterday, saying my process maps were great, and could I add them as a project. It’s easy, here are a couple of forms. Another task, another stakeholder. More spoons.

There’s this view that I’m organised. It makes me laugh. I’ve heard it before, and I used to let people believe it, and then work oh so hard to keep up the pretence. I’m not organised. I have ADHD. My brain is like someone emptied out the scrabble bag and now I’m trying to read it like a book. I have process maps and to-do lists and printed out plans because I’m NOT organised. It’s scaffolding. The same scaffolding that I put around my children so that they can seem ‘fine’ in school (hint: they’re not). I’m lucky that I work somewhere that I can say ‘I have ADHD’ and their response is ‘how can I help?’ Unfortunately, I don’t have an answer to that question.

The scary part? I’m only doing about half of the work I will need to be doing in a few months. If I’m still there in a few months. I am so tired. I’m asleep by 7pm. But it’s not restful sleep, because my braining is still trying to create order out of the chaos. I’m eating non-stop, constantly searching for dopamine because I’m too tired to exercise. And exercise takes spoons to start, even if it replenishes once it’s done.

This is not a whinge. I am so lucky. My husband and children have really stepped up to fill the gaps in what I used to be able to do. But I’m tired of eating takeaway. I’m tired of an even more chaotic house. I’m tired of once more having a constantly full laundry basket and a constantly messy kitchen. 

I used to wonder if there was something wrong with me, that I couldn’t work and run a house. I didn’t have the skills, maybe, or I was lazy, or I just needed to try harder, or make my family do more, or hire a cleaner. (We’ve been through three cleaners. Too many spoons.)

It turns out there is something, not wrong, but different about me. And now I must decide what’s more important – having a job, an identity, a chance to use my skills, feeling alive and part of the world, but having my home life a stressful chaotic mess. Or having enough spoons to have a happy home, but not use my brain. It appears I may not be able to do both.


One thought on “Spoon Theory

  1. Big hugs … and also Thank You! The more I read articles from neurodivergnt people opening up about it, the more I’m beginning to wonder if I have ADD, myself. I totally understand the scrabble feel of it all. I can organise things but only the stuff I can keep in my head, and I’m very untidy. I too thought I couldn’t run a home. Thing is, you can. You just run it differently to some people. Maybe you are organised, maybe you just don’t feel it because of your need for precision control. Your need to understand every nuance of the process. Maybe if the folks at work say your’re organised, you should listen to them. 🙂 Like I said, big hugs anyway.

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