The spoons model of disability works like this:

Imagine that you have a certain number of spoons. Every time you do something, you have to pay a certain number of spoons: eating is one spoon; showering is three spoons; going out and socializing is ten; having to give a speech in front of ten thousand people is a hundred. If you’re out of spoons, you can’t do anything. Most nondisabled people have more than enough spoons to do everything they want to do. Their spoons are overflowing the kitchen drawers. However, disabled people often have to watch their spoons. If they shower today, they might not have enough spoons to go to class.

The spoons model has been elaborated upon in various ways. Two of my favorites are the concept of multiple kinds of spoons, so you may be out of language spoons but not out of self-care spoons, and the concept of “borrowing” spoons– using emotional energy now at a high cost in the future.

The spoons model is an excellent model. However, in thinking about my own mental illness, I have discovered that it is, in fact, the exact opposite of how my mental illness works. Therefore, I have decided to coin the forks model.

(Look, I was not the one who decided that all our emotional energy metaphors needed to be utensil-based.)

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. (Eating is important.)

In my own case, I’ve found that the more I do something, the easier it is for me to do it. When I haven’t written for a week, if I try to write, I wind up staring at my word processor and occasionally typing “the” and then slowly backspacing it. On the other hand, I have, several times in my life, written more than ten thousand words in a single day. When I haven’t left my house in a few weeks, if I try to go to a party, I’ll probably end up fleeing to my room or having to carry around a stuffed animal so I don’t start crying. On the other hand, if I’ve been socializing a fair amount, I start spontaneously generating cuddle puddles wherever I go.

There’s a correlation/causation issue here: maybe sometimes I am better at writing or socializing, and other times I am worse at it. However, the difference is that I’ve found that forcing myself to do things makes it more likely that I will genuinely want to do them. At least one of those ten-thousand-word days started when I did a ten minute timed writing exercise out of sheer irritation at myself for being unable to write.

You would think that you would start doing productive things and then wind up in a beautiful virtuous cycle where you do things, and the things give you more forks, and then you spend more forks on doing things, until the forks are not only spilling out of the drawer but they’ve filled the kitchen and are making headway into the bedroom. This is probably true of some people: they’re triathletes with four successful startups who are considering going for a PhD in physics (you know, just for the fun of it).

Unfortunately, some people– like me– are, for whatever reason, stuck with chronically low forks. Chronically low forks leaves you in one of the most perverse situations ever: when you know that if you did a particular thing, you would be happier and more able to do things, but you don’t have enough forks now to do the thing. (Unlike spoons, you cannot borrow forks from future selves.) If I worked on my homework, after like fifteen minutes I would feel like I could take on the world, but right now all I have the energy to do is browse Tumblr. If I ate, I would totally be able to cook an awesome meal, but right now I’m too hungry to cook.

(As someone who regularly winds up with too few forks to cook: MealSquares are a goddamned lifesaver.)

There is a second problem, which is that you don’t always get the forks. For instance, I’ve found I get socializing forks if the people seem to like me and want to hang out with me, working forks if I feel like I’ve accomplished something, and eating forks if I actually manage to eat the food. If I hang out with people who are only sort of vaguely tolerating my presence, or I discover that my two hours’ work is wasted, or I get halfway through cooking but don’t finish making it, I don’t get the reward but I still have to pay the forks. That is probably fine for our startup founder PhD triathlete, since the only consequence for her is that she now has a sleeping place that isn’t covered with cutlery. But if you have low forks to begin with– particularly if you’d spent your last handful of forks on trying to do the thing– it can be disastrous.

As I was talking about this post with Scott, he pointed out that the spoons model does apply to some aspects of my mental illness. We had just left a distressingly loud and crowded restaurant, which made me have to cover my ears and make high-pitched keening sounds. (As you can no doubt tell, I am extremely neurotypical.) Going to more restaurants would not make me more able to withstand the restaurant; it would just mean that I would progress from high-pitched keening sounds to crying. Most of the things relevant to my life work on the forks model, but not everything.

I suspect that there are general patterns about what things tend to work in a forks way and what things tend to work in a spoons way. There are some things– the things usually called self-care– that I think pretty much always work on the forks model. For me, not exercising makes me feel twitchy, not binding gives me gender dysphoria, and having a dirty home is a minor but constant stressor. For other people, self-care might be meditation, social interaction, getting enough sleep, recreation, spending time alone, or going outside regularly. I also suspect that flow state is usually forks: it might be difficult to get into flow state, but once you’re there you can produce tremendous amounts of work and you feel good afterward.

Conversely, physical energy, which is what the spoons model was originally invented to be about, is probably a spoons thing for most people (those who are energized by exercise aside). Ability to withstand stressful environments, such as my loud and crowded restaurant, seems anecdotally to mostly work on spoons. For some autistic people, ability to communicate in language may work on spoons.

Unfortunately, I still mostly run on a chronic forks deficit. However, I’ve figured out some techniques. The first is to not just think about what’s urgent to do: think about what things will give you the most forks if you do them. For me, that means making sure not to neglect self-care stuff, which is particularly difficult, because self-care stuff is exactly the stuff you don’t get in trouble if you don’t do. It also means prioritizing things that give me a sense of accomplishment, such as writing. Dialectical behavior therapy has already had this insight, and captured it in the amazingly kinky acronym PLEASE MASTER.

The second is to break your tasks into pieces that are as small as possible. It costs fewer forks to make one phone call, or wash one dish, or send in one job application. Pomodoros might help, because you can think to yourself “it’s okay, I only have to work twenty-five minutes, and then I get a break.” If even a pomodoro feels too big, you might want to be like “okay, I have to work on this for five minutes.” After five minutes, check in with yourself: do you have the forks to work more? If so, keep working; if not, go back to poking Tumblr or whatever else you were doing before, knowing that at least you accomplished five minutes.