Spoon Theory & Bipolar: A Conversation with Rebecca W. Morris

My favorite thing about social media is the ability to find kindred spirits and connect with people you would have zero chance of actually meeting in real life. One such person is Rebecca W. Morris, a disabled and chronically ill artist who lives in Spain. She reached out to me about being featured in her newsletter I Don’t Give A Spoon. Prior to meeting Rebecca over Zoom, I was not familiar with the term “spoonie,” a shared identity among people with chronic illness derived from a personal story called “The Spoon Theory” written by Christine Miserandino.

In “The Spoon Theory,” Miserandino uses spoons as units of energy illustrate the complexities and frustrations associated with living with a chronic illness. Symptoms, such as pain, fatigue, difficulty breathing, and nausea, limit productivity, energy output, and an overall sense of wellbeing needed to carry out daily tasks. By measuring energy in spoons, spoonies or people with chronic illness can express their exhaustion or symptom flair ups by saying, “I can’t do the dishes, I spent my last two spoons cooking dinner.” Or, “I have so much on my plate today, but I woke up with no spoons.”

I found the spoon metaphor intriguing given that I have a chronic mental health condition, but I do not identify as a spoonie. Although bipolar is a chronic illness, it is often discussed in the same manner as physical chronic illness, such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, MC/CFS, or long COVID.While there is no cure for bipolar, it is an episodic illness which means people can experience periods of remission (called euthymia, with no symptoms of depression of mania).

Unlike unipolar depression, which has more in common with experiences described by “The Spoon Theory,” bipolar presents with deceptive hypomanic symptoms (mild mania) that may increase functionality, productivity, and a sense of wellbeing. High functioning people with manic symptoms are often charismatic, work on several projects at once, have creative ideas, and have seemingly endless amounts of energy to tackle all their goals and ambitions. One could say that the hypomanic or manic individual has too many spoons and not enough ways to spend them. However, this results in another kind of impairment resulting in restlessness, insomnia, agitation, strained relationships, and self-destructive behaviors. To temper their fire, bipolar suffers may engage in hypersexual activity and self-medicate by over-consuming drugs and alcohol.

The following is an excerpt from Rebecca’s newsletter based on our conversation about productivity and how I negotiate having too many or not enough spoons. Rebecca writes,

There is a myth that artists live best in chaos, or that creativity comes from extreme highs, followed by extreme lows — ideas mainly fueled by Hollywood biopics. Like Nadia, although productive parts of my life were a result of frantic activity, they ultimately led to burnout, which has huge repercussions for chronically ill people. Nadia says that what helps her creativity is being grounded, disciplined, adhering to the “slow grind”. She affirms that rest is one of the most important factors for managing her illness. I couldn’t agree more. 

My burning question for Nadia throughout the interview was — how do you manage it all? Nadia has a huge array of interests, including playing the guitar, dancing, and creating art (some of which are interspersed throughout the newsletter).  

“Having a child has shown me that life happens in phases,” Nadia tells me. Remembering that everything is cyclical keeps the panic at bay. Nadia says that being a mother forces her to pause and think, “What needs my immediate attention now?” When you can’t lurch to the next stop or the next hit, what is it to be present? What is it to be playful? Both states are necessary for creative thinking.  

The conversation I had with Nadia helped me to connect a few loose threads I had in own life and practice. For example, letting go of the idea that my interests should be separated. Or indeed, that I can do less because of ill-health. Whilst we all may not have the same 24-hours in a day, we have our own unique ways of thinking.

Understanding my struggles empowers me to define who I am and what I need to thrive. I do not need to fill each moment of each day with activity. I do not need to dominate others, nor distract myself. Knowing what I am also gives me the freedom to challenge the labels and categorisations thrust upon me. I can dream beyond my body, or narrow perceptions of my discipline. As Nadia reminds us, life happens in phases – not all at once.  

Rebecca Morris, “I Don’t Give A Spoon” (January 18, 2022)

Image Description: A larger assortment of mental spoons stacked on top of each other.

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