In 2003, Christine Miserandino explained chronic illness to a friend in terms that are now widely referred to as The Spoon Theory, see it here. Since that time, people like me, who have chronic illness, have been thankful to have a way to convey tangibly what it feels like to be totally depleted, or “out of spoons”.
We were away this past weekend at a basketball tournament in Chicago, and, having used all of my spoons, I shared the analogy with my husband. I told the story, as best I could remember it, and he said, “Hm. I like the analogy. I get how spoons can carry, or hold, energy.” Yesterday I was talking with my daughter after almost two days of trying to replenish my store of spoons. She was trying to understand how a whirlwind trip to Chicago took me out of commission for most of two days. My husband prompted me to share the spoon theory with her. I did. She said, “so can you store up spoons in advance?” I replied, “No. You can loan some out from the future, but you’ve got to pay them back. That’s what I’m doing now.”
So, if you got this far without clicking on the link above, you are probably scratching your head and trying to decide whether or not you are going to continue reading this cryptic post or if you are just going to close the window. If you clicked and saw the page-long “spoon theory” you might have said, “Well, I’m not gonna read all that and this blog post.” I know. That’s why in the past three or four years I have only shared the spoon theory a half a dozen times. It’s an effective analogy, yes. But it takes some explaining.
So, I was going through my motions this morning thinking to myself, “is there a more accessible way to convey how I am feeling?” I mean, people with chronic invisible illness find themselves in this position rather often. People look at us and think, “She looks alright to me!” They don’t understand when we “can’t” stay to watch the second round of games in the tournament because we have to go sleep. They don’t understand why we make plans always “tentatively” because we might feel like crap on that day. They wonder why we didn’t make it to Bible study in the morning, but we were able to teach a class in the afternoon.
Maybe we could think of it in terms of limited battery life. We all carry devices around with us wherever we go, don’t we? They all rely on batteries. To make sure that our devices are functional all day long, we plug them in every night at our bedside. Some of us have chargers in our cars. In many public places — airports, malls, libraries –we can now find charging stations. We push our devices to their limits. They get depleted; we have to plug them back in or they will be rendered useless.
Most people have internal “batteries” that can keep them running for twelve to fourteen hours with a minimal recharge sometime during the day. They might be up and out the door before seven, sipping a cuppa joe on the way to work. They might need a brief pause around 10 o’clock and some kind of a lunch break, but then they are good to go for the rest of the day. They might even have enough battery life left to get dinner with friends or attend a play or a concert in the evening. In fact, they can keep up this pace day after day and even get away on the weekend occasionally without fully depleting their battery life.
Not me. Not any of us with chronic illness. Our batteries have been rendered less effective. I might have up to eight hours of battery life per day. If I start off at 7 am and don’t take a break, I will almost certainly be done and in my pajamas at 3 pm. So, I don’t usually function that way. I use 20% of my battery, then I sit down and try to ‘re-charge’. I may get 5-10% back if I sit down, put my feet up, have a cup of tea, or close my eyes. In that way, I s-t-r-e-t-c-h eight hours of battery life into twelve to fourteen hours of wakefulness, if not usefulness.
Occasionally, I throw all caution to the wind and decide that I am going to take a chance, push my battery to the limits, attend a basketball tournament out of state, and suffer the consequences. That’s what I did this last weekend. I had already had a pretty busy week — I had tutored twelve hours, taught the first two classes of the semester, arranged for doggy care, done laundry, tidied the house, purchased new jeans, and packed — before we woke at 5:30am to prepare for a journey to Chicago that would begin at 7am. We arrived in Chicago around 11am CST, found the gym, got some lunch, then watched two basketball games. Of course we “sat” at the top of the student section, so, because they stood for the whole two games, we stood for the whole two games. All of this was a physical drain on my batteries. And then there was the emotional drain. All emotion drains battery life — positive and negative. While at this tournament, I saw many former students and some former colleagues. There was so much hugging and smiling! I loved it, but it drained me. By the time we headed back to the hotel at 5pm, I was done. I put on my pajamas, crawled in bed, and began to read student papers. (Yes, I realize that I said I was done and then I continued to do more — I’m telling you, I threw caution to the wind!) My husband and the others went out to get food. When he got back, I had barely enough energy to chew. I ate my dinner, then fell asleep before one episode of “Modern Family” could play out.
Then I slept for TWELVE HOURS.
We got up at 8:30am, grabbed a quick breakfast and headed back to the gym for more reunions, more hugging, more standing, more yelling, and more cheering — four games worth! Then, at 9:30pm, we started the trek home. Since my husband was driving the van following two charter busses full of students, I wanted to stay awake to keep him awake and alert. So, we drank caffeine at 10pm and chugged along. It was like I had purchased an external battery pack. I was wide awake on purpose. We blared music and sang. We talked and laughed. Finally, at 2:15am, we arrived home. Of course I couldn’t go straight to sleep. I had to run out that external battery, which was, of course, disposable, not renewable.
I found that out halfway through my sleep, if you can call it that. Having depleted all of my own battery, and the external battery, my body didn’t even have enough energy to sleep. It started to scream from the inside out — a burning sensation filled my gut, my joints ached. No position was comfortable. I thought I would have to run to the bathroom to be sick.
Have you ever run your phone battery down so low that the phone actually shuts off? When you first plug it in, you get that image of a battery with a thin red line showing the depravity of life you have allowed your phone to deplete to? Guys, I had a screaming red line.
For all of Sunday I whimpered, whined, and convalesced while my husband, dear man that he is, carried my charge cord around and kept plugging it in — he brought me scrambled eggs and toast, which I at first couldn’t even eat; he ran me an epsom salt bath, which I gladly soaked in for an hour; he brought me tea, and water, and ice; he watched a movie with me; he endured an emotional meltdown; he encouraged me to go to bed at 7:30pm.
Then I slept for TWELVE HOURS. AGAIN.
It’s now Tuesday morning, and I’m pretty sure my battery is at about 70%. I’m gonna go amble off to the gym, hobble onto the treadmill for a few minutes, then sit in the jacuzzi. After that ‘workout’, I will meet with three students and prepare for tomorrow’s class. I hope I still have 15-20% left at 7:30pm so that I can sit in on a board meeting conference call.
But if not, I’ll just have to crawl into bed and sleep some more. That’s the price of throwing caution to the wind when you have limited battery life.
He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.