Change, ambiguous loss, and spoons

Change, ambiguous loss, and spoons

One of the hardest things I had to do after my brain injury was accept that things had changed. I didn’t want them to change. I hadn’t expected change. But now it had been forced upon me. I fought that change, fought hard to get back to the ‘way things were’. It was exhausting. Sound familiar?

I wrote several jumbled blogs over the months of the UK’s initial lockdown, but haven’t had the energy to edit and post until now. Why is that? I’ve not been out and about. The usual conferences, appointments, and parties are cancelled. Despite lockdown easing, my diary has been empty for months. When I video call friends we all say “No, not been doing much. How about you?” So why do I feel like I’m barely managing to get through the day?

Spoon theory

Weeks ago, when I started those blogs, I didn’t have an answer. But recently I’ve been thinking about spoon theory. This theory is used to explain the reduced amount of physical or mental energy available to someone with a disability.

This theory holds that our energy is only available in quantified amounts, e.g. spoonfuls, and that we only have a fixed number of spoonfuls available on a daily basis. This limitation means we need to plan how to spend our spoons of energy throughout the day.

I think spoon theory applies to everyone, especially when it comes to self-discipline. This is backed up by Professor Roy Baumeister, a psychologist who spoke to the BBC. He sees willpower as “a form of energy to be used wisely - with levels that can rise and fall”. 1

Willpower, disabilities and a pandemic

Spoon theory explains that feeling of not having enough willpower to get ourselves out the door on a run when we have just finished hours of work. We’ve already spent all our spoons of willpower on just getting through the day. When someone is living with a disability, brain injury or chronic disease like PKU, they are forced to spend spoons on simply managing that condition. This means they are already at a disadvantage when it comes to other daily tasks. Exercise, I’m looking at you!

When you imagine your willpower as a limited number of spoons, you start to understand where all your energy has gone even when you feel like you have done nothing. Change is a constant right now. We are bombarded with new concepts and rules to understand which can then change at a moments notice. When you realise that you are having to spend ‘willpower spoons’ on just dealing with the day-to-day and on working out what is safe, you start to realise where all your energy is going.

Ambiguous loss

As well as the changes to routine and our daily lives, we may be dealing with the feeling of loss. Even someone who hasn’t lost a loved one may experience an odd feeling that something is lost, but isn’t able to say exactly what is missing. One of the webinars I attended in June reminded me of the correct phrase - ambiguous loss.

Loss isn’t just a bereavement, it is a loss of normality. When we are prevented from doing many small things this can be an accumulative effect. To paraphrase a well known idiom: it isn’t a single straw which breaks a camels back. Many small losses can be overwhelming.

This is starting to happen. We have probably all experienced small moments when we can no longer avoid the fact that our reality has changed. Or perhaps when we realise just how used we are to the change. These could be simple things like putting a facemask on, seeing bottles of hand sanitiser in stores or walking in the road to maintain social distancing.

The new normal, subject to change

Slowly we are becoming used to the new normal, but with a sense of fragility. A knowledge that our small freedoms can be taken away by a government announcement late at night2. Next month autumn will begin, but I don’t think my summer holiday will happen at all this year. Perhaps that is a good thing?

  1. Does willpower really exist? BBC Bitesize website. Accessed August 2020. ↩︎
  2. Tweet by UK Secretary for Transport, posted 9:54 pm · 13 Aug 2020 Accessed August 2020. ↩︎
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