Oct 152010
 

I’m learning a lot this semester.

This week a student introduced me to the term, “spoons,” used in the disability community, she told me, as a measure of energy and, like, emotional wherewithal.

I investigated further and found the original theory, as written by Christine Miserandino. She’s at a diner with her friend, who asks her to explain what it’s like to live with Lupus. In an inspired moment, she gathers up a bunch of spoons and hands them to her friend:

I asked her to count her spoons. She asked why, and I explained that when you are healthy you expect to have a never-ending supply of “spoons”. But when you have to now plan your day, you need to know exactly how many “spoons” you are starting with. It doesn’t guarantee that you might not lose some along the way, but at least it helps to know where you are starting. She counted out 12 spoons. She laughed and said she wanted more. I said no, and I knew right away that this little game would work, when she looked disappointed, and we hadn’t even started yet. I’ve wanted more “spoons” for years and haven’t found a way yet to get more, why should she?

I *love* this. I love the language of spoons. People living with chronic illness or pain, mood or anxiety disorders, or with a partner who is living with any of those, can handily use it as shorthand for describing where they’re at. It’s something I’ve been looking for for years to talk about how my own mood stuff affects my life.

Anyway, she goes on to explain to her friend that every choice in a day is affected by this limited resource, these spoons. She walks her friend through a hypothetical day:

When we got to the end of her pretend day, she said she was hungry. I summarized that she had to eat dinner but she only had one spoon left. If she cooked, she wouldn’t have enough energy to clean the pots. If she went out for dinner, she might be too tired to drive home safely….I then said it is only 7pm, you have the rest of the night but maybe end up with one spoon, so you can do something fun, or clean your apartment, or do chores, but you can’t do it all.

Being me, of course I’m thinking about how spoons and sex interrelate.

Does sex use spoons, or does it give spoons?

In the case of chronic illnesses like Lupus and MS that are associated with pain can kill desire simply through pain and exhaustion; that’s a spoon. Anxiety and (especially) depression tend to kill sexual desire; that’s a spoon. I bet worry about performance (erection, orgasm) or body image uses spoons. I bet feeling bad about feeling bad about sex uses spoons. Managing the paraphernalia associated with chronic illness? Spoon user.

And at the same time, we know that physical affection from someone you like who likes you too is among the MOST energizing, renewing, spoon-giving things we can experience.

Maybe there’s a relationship between spoons and responsive desire. Like, maybe ya got no spoons so ya got no desire, but then your lovenugget comes and starts kissin’ on ya and snugglin’ all over ya, and that GIVES you spoons, so you get some desire!

And maybe, under the right circumstances, generating and witnessing arousal in your partner gives you spoons too!

Conclusion based on rough review of science: attempting “performance” of sex, feeling obliged to behave in a particular way, or trying to connect sexually in the absence of trust = loss of spoons. Relaxing into affection and pleasure with someone you trust = increase in spoons.

Hell, that’s true for everybody.

Emily Nagoski

  11 Responses to “spoons”

Comments (11)
  1. It’s not true for everybody.

    I’m glad you were introduced to Spoons! It is indeed a very handy way to talk about experience and where you are in life. Please understand that I mean this respectfully, but it is very unlikely that more than a very very small handful of people are going to *gain* spoons from sex. Even for those of us who are intensely sexual beings, sex takes energy. Even if you’re solely on the receiving end, it takes energy. It causes and intensifies pain. It is time that you could be spending sleeping. It is time that you must spend thinking about the needs and desires of another person. Even for people who find sex wonderfully rewarding, it doesn’t get at the heart of what spoons are about for most people.

    For most people, spoons are a hard limit. Once you’ve used them up for the day, they are gone. If you go beyond what you had for the day, you are borrowing from the next day. Even if you’ve “created” spoons for yourself by doing energy “gain” activities like snuggling or consuming caffeine, those are just methods of allowing yourself to borrow from the next day. Yes, sex is a way that we take care of ourselves, and it’s very positive. But it doesn’t magically create the ability to do more with your limited energy. It’s an energy consumer. That’s OK. Everything we do in our lives is an energy consumer. But it’s not a good starting point for someone with a able bodied privilege to begin a conversation with someone who has limited spoons. As much as it’s a terrible thing, pleasure is an energy consumer. Part of being disabled is recognizing that we have real, hard limits that other people don’t have. And having to forgo things we enjoy is hard enough without people asserting that if only we would engage we would emerge refreshed!

    Please don’t take this the wrong way. You haven’t put your foot in your mouth any worse than all of us do every day. But what you wrote read as very condescending to me, a person with a limited number of spoons. It’s nice that that’s what you took from the science, but it would be an even better starting point to ask us what our experiences are, rather than to extrapolate what our experiences ought to be.

    • I confess it made me sad to read your comment – the reason the concept of spoons was so powerful for me is that it gave me a vocabulary to talk about my OWN limits, caused by a chronic and severe mood disorder. It’s a way to explain to my mother why the 6 hour drive to her house makes it impossible for me to go to a party that night, or even talk with my boss about why I can only have so many meetings in one day without feeling dead and depleted and useless.

      I certainly don’t intend to say what anyone’s experience OUGHT to be, and I greatly appreciate your description of your own experience. My experience might be quite different because, for example, it doesn’t involve physical pain. Or maybe I’m completely misunderstanding the concept, because my own experience is that there ARE a small number of things that GIVE spoons – sleep, sunlight, watching ocean waves, and physical affection all actively renew me. They’re not just borrowing against tomorrow, they’re income.

      That said, you’ll notice that I said, “Relaxing into affection and pleasure with someone you trust = increase in spoons.” Which isn’t necessarily sex – it could easily be more like snuggling, which is one of the two “energy gains” you mentioned.

      • Gotta respond here. I think that there are always exceptions to the rule but what you wrote is the general rule, Emily. Energy is all around us and depending on what we do, we zap ours or renew it, even with physical disabilities or emotional disorders. Being in the right situation or doing the right activities does give us spoons that aren’t borrowed from the next day. Energy is a renewable source. It never dies.

        You used a spoons analogy. I’m going to use a car one. For years I’ve had to deal with hypothyroidism which not only affects my physical energy levels but also my mental and emotional well-being. When my hypothyroidism was at its worst, doing anything required an ungodly amount of energy and effort on my part. I was like an old car on a bitter winter’s day with a negative wind chill. It would take a while to get me started, a while longer to warm me up, sputtering and backfiring, but once I got going, it was mostly smooth. At least until I ran outta gas and had to refill. My tank was smaller, more like a Honda Civic’s than a Hummer’s so more time spent refilling it, of course.

        Same with sex. I couldn’t even get a desire to stay in my head if I was watching porn. Add to the lack of desire a husband who has great intentions but doesn’t understand the complexities of a woman’s sexual drive and that damn car could be almost impossible to start. So not worth all those “spoons” it’d take sometimes.

        However, when I did throw out the last of the spoons it was almost always worth it. The pleasure always draws the spoons back like a magnet, for me. Granted, it doesn’t hurt that I have an orgasm 98% of the time I have sex (God bless my man) and that the fun is just beginning after I do. Even so, sex can feel like a chore that requires more spoons/gas/good damn antifreeze for those cold nights than what I’ve got. But once I make the effort and commit to it, I almost always find more spoons than I started with before sex. :)

  2. And we all get to learn from your blog^_^

  3. I think this is the first time anyone’s ever brought up the idea of GETTING spoons (short of getting large amounts of sleep), ever.

  4. While I have heard of “spoons” before, I still am somewhat new to this concept, so if what I say sounds in any way ignorant I apologize. That said, I think it depends on the kind of disability/ chronic illness a person has if it is possible or not for that person to gain spoons (and possibly on other factors, too). For one, we all have physical limits, and for people with a disability or a chronic illness these limits might be significantly lower than for others. I believe that those limits are very difficult to stretch (if it is possible at all). However, I think that emotional levels are somewhat more “stretchable” under favorable circumstances.

    I, too, have a chronic mood disorder and social anxiety. And I most certainly can gain spoons. However, the number of spoons I can gain is not limitless, so there is still an upper limit to what I can or cannot do. There is an additional complication, though. That complication is that the situations that potentially cost me the most spoons, namely social interactions, also are the situations in which I can potentially gain spoons. And I never know in advance how things will turn out.

    On the other hand, nobody, not even a person without any disability or chronic illness has an unlimited number of spoons. It is just that some people have so many spoons that they hardly ever run out of them.

  5. Wonderful simile, I will keep it in mind. Quite a number of my friends have illnesses that leave them with only a small number of good hours a day or week. Anything we try to do together has to fit into their few small windows of opportunity, and even then they often come up spoonless when the day arrives.

    In my case, my physical health is pretty good, but my emotional health is always just a little sub-par. My mood problems are too mild to call for psychiatric intervention, but I get far less done than my talents or free time would explain, and that low-grade chronic failure makes me unhappy — and as a result, less productive and less happy.

    But after a session of lovemaking, I feel energized, pleased and eager to go undertake the projects that, an hour previously, weren’t even on my radar. This was a reliable effect over decades, and did not require I had an orgasm for it to occur.

    Unfortunately, I live alone now, and seem unlikely to be adding a spouse or boyfriend to my life anytime soon. Ah well.

    • Why not add a “B.O.B.”–a battery operated boyfriend, in case you haven’t heard the euphemism. Lots of toys to choose from, bullets for the clitoris to penis (or bunny) shaped vibrators to insert into the vagina and plenty of anal toys. Whatever knocks your knees. So you can get some of the benefits of sex until the next stud comes into your life. They’re great for two-play too. ;o)

  6. I’ve been thinking about this exchange for a few days now…first my credentials – brain injured for 26yrs, limited cognitive ability/stamina.
    My first reaction was similar to Bean’s, not knowing Em’s disability status (should this make a dif?)…Anyway for me the spoon thing is kinda the chainsaw school of explaining – good for rough cuts but… I mean are a good night’s sleep, wholesome food, safe shelter, loving and sexual relationship etc ALL in the baseline? If LSR is in the baseline then it doesn’t add spoons, it maintains them… Cutting to the chase it seems to me to be about expectations. There’s more to this, but it’s all I can do right now.

  7. I’ve been thinking about this exchange for a few days now…first my credentials – brain injured for 16 yrs, limited cognitive ability/stamina.
    My first reaction was similar to Bean’s, not knowing Em’s disability status (should this make a dif?)…Anyway for me the spoon thing is kinda the chainsaw school of explaining – good for rough cuts but… I mean are a good night’s sleep, wholesome food, safe shelter, loving and sexual relationship etc ALL in the baseline? If LSR is in the baseline then it doesn’t add spoons, it maintains them… Cutting to the chase it seems to me to be about expectations. There’s more to this, but it’s all I can do right now.

  8. Being me, of course I’m thinking about how spoons and sex interrelate.

    Being me, of course I’m wondering if anyone out there has an actual silverware fetish, and whether anyone has used a spoon as a sex toy with any success. :)

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