Fork Theory and Chronic Illness

How the Anti-Spoons Affect Mental Illness

Image by Denis Doukhan from Pixabay

I first heard about fork theory from a post on the blog Bipolar Me. Well, that’s not exactly true; I had noticed that some people had made their way to my post on spoon theory by searching for fork theory. Being a bit of a doofus, I assumed that people were just getting their utensils confused.

Anyway, the post on Bipolar Me talked about fork theory as described by blogger Jen Rose in 2018. But before we get to that version, there have also been 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.”

In 2017 on the Chronically Healthy blog, a writer 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. For instance, socializing might cost you ten forks and give you twelve, showering might cost you three and give you ten, and eating might cost you one and give you twenty.”

Getting back to Jen Rose’s version of fork theory, 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.

Jen Rose’s 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.

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?

Originally published at on January 16, 2020.

Written by

Mental health blogger | MH Nurse | Living with depression | Author of 3 books, latest is Managing the Depression Puzzle |

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