MH@H Mental Health

The Mental Illness Cutlery Drawer: Spoons, Forks & More

The mental illness cutlery drawer: spoon theory, fork theory, knives, and more

You may have heard of spoon theory, a popular metaphor for dealing with chronic illness and energy-depleting activities. You’re probably less likely to have heard of a variant called fork theory, and you probably haven’t heard of knife theory. In this post, we’re going to do a deep-dive into the mental illness cutlery drawer, and perhaps have a bit of fun while we’re at it.

Spoons

Spoon theory, which has become hugely popular in the chronic illness community, was first described by Christine Miserandino. The idea is that you start your day with a particular number of spoons, and throughout the day, different activities require different amounts of spoons. Depending on how you’re feeling, taking a shower might require one spoon, or it could require a gazillion spoons, which you just don’t have available. Once you use up your spoons for the day, you’re pretty much useless until you get some rest and sleep to replenish your spoons.

For more, check out an earlier post I did on spoon theory.


Forks

Fork theory was first described in 2018 by Jen Rose. Unlike spoons, which are internal resources, forks are external stressors. There are only so many fork pricks that you can handle, and then you need time and rest to heal and recover.

This is a massive part of my mental illness life. Fork pokes worsen my psychomotor slowing. It’s gotten to the point that even minor pokes have an effect, and I’m very slow to recover to wherever I happened to be pre-poke. Often, I haven’t recovered yet from the previous fork poke before the next one comes along Like a fork poke, the stressor itself can be brief, but it leaves damage that takes time to heal even after the fork itself is long gone.

There’s more on fork theory here.

comparing spoon theory and fork theory for chronic mental illness

Knives

There have been a number of ideas suggested for knives; you may find one fits more in your own circumstances than others.

The first i heard of knives being part of the mix was in a comment that Jen Rose left on my fork theory post. She said knives are more serious traumas that require active intervention and are much harder to heal from than forks.

I also came across Terry Masson‘s knife hypothesis, which was described as a way of digging deep into the cutlery drawer to borrow resources from tomorrow. Except that increases your resource debt even further and increases the number of dirty used utensils you need to wash, and on and on it goes in a stabby spiral.

In the comments below, Norma suggested that knives hurt not just you but the people around you. For example, if you take on more than you can handle, that can come back to stab you and others in the butt.


The less common utensils

The mental illness cutlery drawer doesn’t have to be limited to those three. Besides your major utensils that are coming out pretty regularly, you’ probably got a few more kicking around in your cutlery drawer that you use every so often, or maybe just once a year. But they’re still there, waiting for that special occasion to bite you in the butt.

Whisk

For whisk, I’m thinking anxiety and/or sensory overwhelm. There’s way too much spinning around to have any clue about anything.

Whisking could produce lasting changes. If you whisk some eggs, they’re not going to go back to the way they were before.

Meat tenderizer

meat tenderizer

I think the mental illness meat tenderizer comes out when people are trying to beat you down, and even when they know they’ve run you over (yes, I’m mixing metaphors), they back up and run you over a few more times just to make sure you’ve had the crap fully beaten out of you.

The last time this happened to me was probably three years ago, and happened at work. Not fun at all.

Turkey baster

Some people suck the life right out of you, leaving almost nothing left. There’s also a risk they might spew some of it right back in your face.

Pastry blender

pastry blender

I’ve also thought pastry blender seemed like an odd name for this contraption. Anyway, this is when one knife just isn’t quite enough. It’s not as sharp as a knife, but it’s got multiple blades to slice and dice you and leave you ragged and bleeding.

Corkscrew

This is for when your key support people decide you’re just too crazy for them, so they bore into your heart and then yank it right out. Then maybe they do a dance on it for good measure.

Ladle

This idea comes from Norma, and I’ll quote her because she describes it well: “That’s for those activities which replenish your energy and save your ‘spoons’ (so you don’t need to use so many), like sleep, exercise (for mental health) or connecting with supportive friends. Most of us only have one or two in the drawer so not inexhaustible.”


So far, the cutlery drawer consists of:

  • spoons
  • forks
  • knives
  • whisks
  • meat tenderizers
  • turkey basters
  • pastry blenders
  • corkscrews
  • ladles

That’s it for my drawer. What plays a role in your own drawer?

The rainbow model of mental illness symptom and functional domains from Mental Health @ Home

You may also be interested in the rainbow model for conceptualizing chronic mental illness.

COVID-19/mental health coping toolkit from Mental Health @ Home

The COVID-19/Mental Health Coping Toolkit page has a wide range of resources to support better mental health and wellbeing.

Visit the MH@H Resource Pages hub to see other themed pages from Mental Health @ Home.

Image credits: InspiredImages from Pixabay ; NickyPe from Pixabay; Jhfortier at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

44 thoughts on “The Mental Illness Cutlery Drawer: Spoons, Forks & More”

  1. I have never used utensils as a source for describing. Spoons, I have heard about from you and another blogger. The rest, via here.

    If I were to use utensils as a description, then spoons partially and for this year how I feel, forks.

  2. Oh wow, those are some brutal utensils!! Especially the corkscrew!! Yikes!!

    I love using utensils as a metaphor!! What fun!! I can relate to the forks the most!! 😮

  3. Whilst not a utensil off the back of learning about spoon fork & knife theories I came up with the Swimming Pool Analogy in an attempt to help better describe the flow of different states of Mental Health (and how we all have it).h

    Hopefully you’ll find this of use in helping describe Mental Health and its “waves” in future 🙂

  4. No I hadn’t heard of this before, only spoon theory. Fork theory really resonates and helps along with the spoon theory. The others play a part too. Will have to come back and read this again later when I’m properly awake! Thanks Ashley xx

  5. This reminds me of the story of chopsticks that I heard when I was a child. There was a family of brothers who didn’t get along. Their father wanted to teach them the importance of unity and cooperation so he gave each of them a chopstick and asked them to break it, which they did easily. He then gave them a bunch of chopsticks and asked them to break it, which they couldn’t. Using that analogy, chopsticks resemble to me, social support.

  6. How about a Ladle? That’s for those activities which replenish your energy and save your ‘spoons’ (so you don’t need to use so many), like sleep, exercise (for mental health) or connecting with supportive friends. Most of us only have one or two in the drawer so not inexhaustible.

    My take on ‘knives’ is that they include things that may drain or hurt not only yourself but those around you, i.e. your nearest and dearest take the brunt of you overdoing it, or taking on what you can’t really manage. I guess it’s like business debt, necessary in some cases but needing careful management.

      1. I think i also heard about it here the first time and it was so accurate. I could never explain my own situation better at that time this theory did that for me.
        Thanks for this incredible post i enjoyed it. It’s validating on many levels

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