Fork Theory: How the Anti-Spoons Affect Mental Illness

comparing spoon theory and fork theory for chronic mental illness

In my 15 years working as a mental health nurse, I had never come across the concept of spoon theory; I only learned about it once I started blogging. More recently, I came across fork theory, which we’ll look at in this post. I’ve gotta say, I’m loving the cutlery metaphors to represent mental illness life!

Different versions of fork theory

The first time I encountered fork theory was on a post by Bipolar Me. She was talking about fork theory as described by blogger Jen Rose in 2018, but before we get to that version, let’s look at a few others that have popped up.

Cade Leebron, who was not a fan of spoon theory, wrote in the American Literary Review in 2018: “Imagine that you wake up in the morning and I hand you twenty-five very sharp forks. Every time you say something ableist to me, I take a fork away from you. When you are all out of forks, each ableist thing you say means I get to stab you really hard with a fork, and leave it stuck in your skin.” Fair enough, perhaps, but yikes!

In 2017, a writer on the Chronically Healthy blog suggested that instead of focusing on sickness with spoon theory, we should “be a fork and stab life. Take what you want. Live a life filled with excitement, laughter, fun, and craziness, but do it in a way that works for you.”

In 2014, the Thing of Things blog described a fork theory for mental illness: “Forks work somewhat like spoons, in that you have to pay varying amounts for tasks. However, unlike spoons, forks don’t replenish gradually over time. Instead, you get forks when you finish particular tasks.” The author suggested socializing, showering, and eating as examples of getting back forks upon task completion.

Forks as external stressors

Getting back to Jen Rose’s version of fork theory, which strikes me as the best fit, she writes: “You know the phrase, ‘Stick a fork in me, I’m done,’ right? Well, Fork Theory is that one has a Fork Limit, that is, you can probably cope okay with one fork stuck in you, maybe two or three, but at some point you will lose your shit if one more fork happens.” Jen lives with both mental and physical health conditions.

Her description really resonates with me, while the concept of fork theory suggested by the other writers didn’t really. While spoon theory covers internal resources, both mental and physical, fork theory focuses on the capacity to handle external stressors.

Forks and my depression

My depression has left me with a very low fork tolerance threshold before both mind and body go into shutdown mode. This threshold varies over time based on how my illness is doing, but it’s consistently and substantially lower than when I was well.

What counts as a fork (or multiple forks) also varies over time. Sometimes, getting an email from my brother would be fine, whereas other times it would feel like a fork. A stressful email from work might sometimes feel like one fork and at other times feel like a whole cutlery drawer full of forks.

For me, both spoon and fork theory work best in general terms to improve self-awareness rather than specifically counting out spoons and forks. They also leave a lot of room for self-compassion by recognizing that chronic illness means fluctuating capacity over time. It can be easy to fall into the trap of self-blaming, but I think spoon and fork theory offer a better way to conceptualize the challenges those of us living with chronic illness face.

Had you heard of fork theory before? Do you think it makes a good addition to spoon theory?

The Mental Illness Cutlery Drawer: spoons, forks, knives, and whisks

42 thoughts on “Fork Theory: How the Anti-Spoons Affect Mental Illness”

      1. Definitely! I think it helps that whilst spoon theory was initially describing chronic pain and physical illness, the fork theory seems to be borne out of understanding mental energy spent.

  1. I don’t think in utensils, it’s too complicated for me. I know I need to ask myself, before I do things the question: what does it cost me and what does it gives to me? Like you said with the forks. I don’t have an emotional bond with forks whatsoever.
    Handling external stressors is something else! Some things can feel like knives, especially words. Words can hurt so bad.
    I love the use of metaphors but I need to come up with something else.
    What was good to read is the acknowledgement that it fluctuates over time, you can sit there with your spoons but at a certain day showering cost me 20 spoons and the next week maybe one. I try to listen to my body carefully and rely on the fact that it will send me signals when I’m getting too overwhelmed or too tired for instance.

  2. Never heard of it, but I am not sure I like any of these theories that force us into victim/explain mode. It comes back to bite us in the butt as you allude to… why? Because people will “stab” us with the fact that we did X thing one time and were fine. Then we have to explain that we were pretending to be fine in order not to whine or that things have changed or whatever. So damn tired of this. Why do WE always have to explain?!! I note that my friend with a horse just says things like, can’t go, gotta ride my horse, or gotta leave, time to feed my horse. NO ONE QUESTIONS THIS! But God forbid I need to leave because a room is so noisy it’s triggering a migraine. Then I get the 3rd degree later.

  3. I hadn’t heard of fork theory before. Jen Rose’s version was the only one that appealed to me

    I struggle with the varying nature of mental health, the fact that (for example) yesterday I did a full day of work, plus a long commute and then I came home and worked on my novel for a while. Whereas today – well, I’ve been worse, but I didn’t get up until lunchtime and it’s more of struggle to do stuff. That gives me practical problems in terms of working out what is realistic, but also makes it harder to accept when I’ve done my best but have been unable to do what I wanted to do.

    1. That’s hard when there’s day to day fluctuations. Planning doesn’t work very well when there’s no way to know what resources are going to be available.

  4. I have to admit that I was only vaguely aware of spoon theory itself, so fork theory is new. I like the part you pointed out about forks representing our ability to handle external stressors. I really like visual metaphors for mental health because they just “stick” with me better (pun semi-intended).

    Also your line at the beginning about cutlery confusion made me chuckle. 🙂

      1. Forks are new. You taught us about spoons. We like how forks can cost you and still result in a net gain of more forks sometimes. That resonates. Life can be that way at times. The way vulnerability can reap rewards. Our Spouse originally rejected our overtures. Spent a lot of forks at a net deficit for weeks or months. Those risks are still paying back forks 💕❤️

      2. A lot of people have talked about knife theory. Knives are a lot like forks, only they’re traumas, rather than “chronic inflammation”. They’re the things you need active medical/mental health care to deal with in the long term, and they may not be 100% heal-able. Forks, for me (and my husband, who’s actually the one who came up with Fork Theory) are more transitory. They hurt, they can push you over the edge, but they aren’t long term damage, and you can get rid of them pretty easily.

        So for me, dealing with an ableist git is a fork, having a friend betray me is a knife. A headache is a fork, a new major illness is a knife.

  5. Familiar with the spoon metaphor, but not the fork one. I like your take on it. Even people who don’t have to deal with chronic illness should be able to relate to it, because everyone has days where their ability to deal with the stresses of life is compromised.

      1. This is about as layman’s as I’ve found an explanation for spell slots. I just like the addition of some (usually stupid and useless things) are cantrips. My cantrips are watching tv without a series-long arc or reading fluffy urban fantasy. Upgrading either of those to things with a serious plot to follow makes it at least a first-level spell :-p

        1. I think by D&D theory, “forks” are when you roll a failure – or critical failure! Like you normally can do the thing…but, nope, some other magic user imposed a penalty on a spell that requires a saving throw, or you cast a spell that you have to roll a d20 for and just rolled a 1 :-p

      2. In your WP stats there’s a referrers section that lists sites people came from, and a search terms section that lists the search terms (presumably in the WP reader) people used to find your posts.

  6. I hadn’t heard of the fork theory but I like it. The spoons make sense for me when planning, as in going to an appointment will use most of my spoons so I won’t plan anything else or set major goals for that day. The fork theory seems, to me, to relate more to unexpected, uncontrollable events visited upon me. I still do so much self-blame. sigh

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