18 January 2013

The Spoon Theory and Depression

Some time ago, someone I know who is living with a chronic physical illness pointed me to The Spoon Theory. It's an interesting read, and not only does it help to provide an understanding of what people living with chronic illness are going through, but what I'm going to say in the rest of this post is based on it, so if you haven't read it before, you'll probably want to do so now, or the rest of this post probably won't make any sense.

I hope that the author  and fans of The Spoon Theory won't be offended by my interpretation of how it relates to depression.

In many ways, depression is like a chronic physical illnesses. The main difference is that both the pain and the struggle to do things are emotional rather than physical. Like other chronic illnesses, the daily allocation of spoons varies ~ the deeper the depression, the smaller your allocation of spoons.

Anything stressful costs spoons. For me, going into the office every morning costs a spoon because I am about to check my emails and that's the main method by which bureaucrats deliver threats to my livelihood. Often. Not checking my email costs more spoons than checking, because it creates the stress of uncertainty. In spite of the fact that they are usually completely wrong, it's up to me to respond to their bullying messages and prove that I haven't done something that would justifying them effectively shutting down my business. Just seeing one of these sorts of messages in my inbox can cost me all of the spoons that I had left that day and force me to borrow some of tomorrow's. A particularly bad one can cost me several spoons every day while I try to get together enough spoons to deal with it.

An interruption such as a phone call or a client turning up uninvited while trying to concentrate on writing something will usually cost at least one spoon. Even walking into the house while my wife is shouting at our son usually costs at least one spoon.

Borrowing too many spoons from tomorrow can mean not being able to see a way of having a tomorrow. I've been close to suicidal a few times in the past, and in the context of the spoon theory, I'd describe the downward spiral towards it as reaching the point where you thought that you had borrowed many of tomorrow's spoons, except that when tomorrow arrived you discovered that you actually only got a tiny fraction of the number of spoons that you expected, so yesterday's borrowing of spoons means that you've borrowed all of the spoons that you can see yourself getting. Ever. At that point, it's not that you can see nothing left to live for. It's that you can't conceive of there being any way forward except death. A suicidal person's cry for help is an attempt to get someone to help them see that, no matter how small, there is always a future supply of spoons.

The less depressed you are, the more spoons you get each day, so the best way to increase the number of spoons that you have is to do something that you really enjoy. A lift in mood raises your daily allocation, but the effect tapers off over time, as you gradually slide back to your default mood. Sometimes, you can get such a lift in mood that you can feel almost normal, for a while at least.

The catch is that, more often than not, it takes a lot of spoons to prepare to do something that you will enjoy. Often, a series of little things such as someone being in your way at the wrong time, something not working how it should, etc, can cost so many spoons that you can't continue preparing for the activity that would have given you that emotional lift that would have taken several days to wear off, and given you more spoons in the process.

There are also costs of spoons if an activity that was supposed to be enjoyable turns out to badly, and the fear of such an outcome before or while preparing. If the fear that the outcome will be bad is large enough, it can cost enough spoons to stop you from even trying, or combine with the little things going wrong to convince you to stop preparing. Eventually you stop even considering doing some things because the thought of it costs you spoons.

I describe myself as a social femulator (from fem·u·late (fem´ya-lat´) v., To imitate, copy, or try to be like a female) or social crossdresser. As a term, I much prefer femulator because I feel that it more accurately describes what and who I am, but not enough people know the term, so crossdresser is a fall-back term that more people understand. I prefix it with social to emphasise the fact that it is about socialisation for me. It is not about sex or whatever other motivation people might assume. To be able to present myself (hopefully reasonably convincingly) as a woman and have people around me interact with me as the woman that I present myself as is generally an enjoyable experience that lifts my mood and gains me spoons.

As I mentioned recently, I no longer feel welcome at the local cafe nights. That means that, even though I might enjoy time out en femme, the overall spoon cost of getting there exceeds the spoons gained from going. The other events that I did manage to get to last year each had a clearly positive result in spoon terms.

Similarly, in spoon terms my observation that having my nails long and painted relieves my need to go out en femme is because having them like that is worth at least one spoon to me every day. Positive comments and various non-verbal responses to them often lift my mood enough to give me more spoons.


  1. Thank you very much for publicising the Spoon Theory. I have passed it on to family and friends. It doesn't just apply to physical conditions like Lupus and Me, but also to depression and aging

  2. Very nice account of how Spoon Theory (ST) links to depression. Although I've known of ST for a long time, it's only recently that I've begun to link it to my own circumstances. Take care.