Spoon Theory

Before Saturday, it had been over a year since I saw my paternal grandmother. I’ve always felt a special kinship with her, perhaps because we are both diminutive in stature but punchy in personality, or perhaps because on a deeper level, I see many parallels in our personalities and thought patterns (for better or for worse!). She’s relatively immobile, given that she’s in her nineties, mostly in terms of her ability to travel up here from New Jersey, and since I rarely travel because of my bevy of obstacles, our paths do not cross nearly as often as I’d like. We were blessed this weekend to seize the opportunity to see one another because my aunt and uncle, whom I also don’t see often enough, drove her up for a brief weekend visit. The last time that happened, I was too sick to make the 30-minute drive to see them and regretted it for weeks after. This time, I was concerned we’d repeat that missed opportunity because I was planning to get lab work right before the afternoon time slated to see them. Since there are few routine obligations in my life that so directly cause physical and emotional exhaustion and illness as lab work, I wisely proactively cancelled the blood draw plans. I’m guessing it’s a product of disordered executive functioning, but I rarely have the foresight and self-awareness to preemptively spot a likely problem or conflicting activities, so I find myself often in the cycle of needing to cancel one or multiple plans or goals because I’ve exhausted myself or otherwise precluded their viability.

This reminds me a lot of the spoon theory, which is a phenomenon described in chronic conditions which came up in my recent conversation with Sarah Cormier. The basic tenant of the theory is that we all possess a finite number of spoons per day, the number of which correlates to the individual’s personal circumstances. For example, someone like me, on the spectrum, with abundant sensory sensitivities, depression, anxiety, PTSD, and chronic physical diseases (wow! I sound like a catch…), I possess far fewer spoons than a healthy 20-year-old college student with few extracurricular obligations. Anyway, over the course of a day, you “spend” spoons on various activities (shopping, work, a medical appointment, trying to get a tantruming child to calm down). Once a spoon is used, it’s gone for the day and you simply have one less in your reserves for later. Therefore, those with a small operating budget of spoons (like me), need to consider those “optional” choice expenditures judiciously so that obligations necessitating spoons can be met and your energy (represented by the spoons) doesn’t fizzle out prematurely. I’m terrible at the spoon spending budgeting game. I’m like a kid at the town fair whose parents have given a handful of ride and food coins and I blast through them in a matter of ten minutes upon arrival and then have the rest of the day on the hot fairgrounds ticketless, tired, and nauseous from all the rides. Later in the day, when feeling hungry and bored, I have no more coins to get anything I need. All I can do is wander around aimlessly or lie listlessly on a bench until it’s time to go home.

I want to get better at evaluating my daily allotment of spoons, anticipating necessary expenditures, budgeting disposal rate accordingly, and hopefully saving one or two for emergencies or leisure time enjoyment. Like most beginning runners, as a newbie, I would blast out in runs or races and peter out by the end. But with just a handful of runs under my belt, I quite quickly learned to pace myself and partition my effort smartly for the race distance. I haven’t been nearly as successful at apportioning energy for daily life; and I’ve had thirty years to practice! Hopefully with a more concerted effort, I can make strides toward improving this healthy skill. Successfully doing so will enable me to participate more fully and safely in both pleasurable and required activities.

Saturday, I chose to spend my spoons on taking the trip to soak up family time rather than get medical tests I really need. I still think I made the wise choice because it was a meaningful visit. My grandmother is aging rapidly, which breaks my heart, but means visits with her take precedence in my life. As someone on the spectrum, I sometimes struggle to sort priorities in a reasonable or “logical” way (according to what most “normal” people would likely agree upon), but I’m slowly learning. Everything with me is a process but my heart is in the right place and hopefully my head will grow and get there as painlessly as possible.

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