Matchstick Theory

The first time I read Spoon Theory, like many others, I was inspired. As a woman who has dealt my entire life with chronic pain what grabbed my attention first was the friendship between Christine Miserandino and her friend. In any true friendship one doesn’t just share the joys and pleasures of life. One seeks to share in the pain, to understand it, and if possible to help hold that pain for the other.
Christine had this kind of friend. A friend that knew her inside and out, had earned the right to ask “what does it feel like to be you.” I have that kind of friendship with my girlfriend Dia. She knows me inside and out. The first one to visit me in the recovery room after surgery. The one that comes over and massages me on days when my arthritis is so flared I can’t move. Hell, she even flew all way home from Texas for one of my surgeries and then planted pink flamingoes in my yard as a welcome home surprise before she left. Dia, like Christine’s anonymous friend, has earned the right to ask “What does it feel like to be you?” and expect a full and honest answer. I fully believe that everyone should feel free and easy to seek knowledge about another’s life experience and asking questions is a great way to do that. However, I also whole heartedly believe that one has to earn the answer to that question.

And that is where I have a problem with Spoon Theory. Suddenly the whole world thinks they know what it’s like to be me. Except you don’t. Now we have all these dickheads running around handing out spoons, embroidering them on samplers and asking me in a condescending way “how are your spoons today?” I’ve grown so tired of spoons I’ve started eating my Lucky Charms with a fork.
Look, Spoon Theory is great and has inspired many of us, given us a safe, friendly, non-confrontational story to share with the people we love and who are also there for us every day. The good days and the bad. The happy times and the bat shit crazy times. Forgive me for saying this, but the rest of you don’t deserve a nice, safe, friendly and non-confrontational story. For those of you that have never suffered (or suffered with someone who had) chronic pain, I give you Match Theory.

Imagine waking up each morning with one fresh pack of matches.
Get out of bed? Strike a match.
Watch it burn.
Will it burn long enough to make it down the hall to the Bathroom? Most Mornings? No. It will not.

Strike another match.

See I can get a lot of use out of a spoon. Most people can and do. That’s why the spoon analogy doesn’t work for me. I’ll use it to stir my coffee, eat my fruity pebbles and then grab out of the sink later to eat a whole tub of cookie dough. But a match? A match is a one-use item and it’s time is finite. Like my body and it’s go juice.

Sometimes the unexpected happens. Strike a match? It breaks mid strike.

Somebody with no placard has taken the last handicapped spot in the lot. The snow plow cleared the parking lot but left all the snow piled up in the handicapped access, leaving no clear egress to the sidewalk.

Some mornings you wake up with a full pack of matches but some rat bastard has ripped off the striker. You’re not going anywhere today. This is what we call a flare up. The disease has your body in a vice and you probably couldn’t strike a match if you tried. There are many reasons for a flare. It could be a sudden shift in the barometric pressure; that late-night freak snowstorm the weatherman forgot to mention. It could be stress. Your boss has warned you that project must be on her desk by end of day yesterday. Or it might just be that deep-fried pizza you ate all by yourself last night.

Then come the mornings where you wake up to the smell of sulfur. That last spark from last night’s last match has landed on today’s matches and incinerated them. You’ve overdone it again. Held the match for too long. Let it burn down til your fingers blister. It’s your best friend’s wedding and by god you’ll burn every last match down to ash to be there for her. Or it’s that early morning phone call. Your father’s in the hospital again and you need to fly out today to get to him.

But here’s the other thing Spoon Theory doesn’t address to the chronic pain uninitiated. Whether it is the stranger on the street or a government agency, these individuals frequently make overarching generalizations of an individuals overall health, ability and needs based on a snapshot moment in time. They think these spoons are gifts to be used sparingly and responsibly. Some may even feel entitled to prescribe how one’s spoons should be allocated. Particularly if the cripple in question is on disability. Here’s where Match Theory gets bad-ass.

These are my goddam matches.
I decide when and where to light them and how long to let them fucking burn.
End of fucking story.
So, you saw the girl who parked in handicapped parking tearing it up on the dance floor. That’s her business. Not yours. She may be burning five fucking matches at once and the instant the music shuts off maybe she will too. Those few short feet to her car may be the most painful of the night. But they will have been worth it. She needed the dance. Needed to feel alive. Needed to move. Tomorrow she’ll lie in bed like the tin man, a scorch mark on the night stand next to her but tonight she forgot the pain, forgot the doctors, the drugs and the disfigurements. Tonight she lived.

To learn more about Spoon Theory, please visit Christine Miserandino’s original piece on “But You Don’t Look Sick”.

The Spoon Theory written by Christine Miserandino
The spoon theory is a disability metaphor used to explain the reduced amount of energy available for activities of daily living and productive tasks that may result from disability or chronic illness. Spoons are an intangible unit of measurement used to track how much energy a person has throughout a given day.

52 thoughts on “Matchstick Theory”

  1. This is just so damn perfect. Exactly all of this. I appreciate the sentiment of the spoon theory, but it always fell short. This is spot on.

      1. I quite liked the geek version – spell slots. See any version of DnD except fourth. And quite a lot of other fantasy games.

        Some tasks are Level 1 spells, some tasks are Level 2 or 3 spells. You can use a higher level slot to do more L1 things, but to do a L3 thing takes a L3 slot – and you only get one of those a day. you get a few L2 slots, and a handful of L1 slots. But they are limited.

        Occasionally one can cast a spell today that gives you an extra slot tomorrow – but it takes extra training to be able to do this

        If you run out of slots and keep trying to cast, you use up hit points. Better be sure you can rest up and regain them!

        Incidentally, this metaphor also has the added side effect of implying that some days just getting out of bed is like working magic – hard, and takes something out of me. Also, if you take away my wand and spellbook, casting is a lot harder (when they take away welfare, or a car, or cut carer hours)

        Thought I’d throw that out there; whatever works for you. Hugs of the gentle kind all round.

      2. Yeah, but where the heck do the spoons come from? Why does doing ‘old passions’ take spoons while replenishing them?! Passions are ‘phoenix matches’, prolific phoenix matches… burn 6 to do, whatever, and 8 more arise from the ashes.

    1. I live with brain damage and pain and rage. he Spoon theory did help to explain a lot but you Matches are sofa king brilliant. Thank you SO much.

  2. I do not have epic chronic pain, but definitely do have chronic stupid immune system stupidity, and some minor aches. I think this match analogy of yours is absolutely as amazing as anything.
    I am aware I could have things worse, and I am also aware that there are those who handle what they do have with amazing chutzpah =) You are solid chutzpah with a generous dollop of sass. Be as well as you ever may, Ms. Psarah, and may you always have an extra match.

  3. Until someone shared this with me, I’d not heard about the spoon theory, but I had wondered why some of the people in my groups kept mentioning spoons, without really taking much notice.
    Now I’ve read it, followed by yours, I have to say, while the spoon theory is pretty good, your match theory is so much more accurate! I love it and will definitely be using it in future to explain things to people. Thank you for your honesty and wit x

  4. Yes! Spoons are reusable, you can pick them up because they still exist! Thank you for naming what has been bugging me about the spoon theory. My energy is not something that comes back, when it is gone it is gone. My pain can’t be doled out spoon by spoon, it burns away, sometimes fast sometimes slow, and sometimes it doesn’t light at all. I never know how many spoons I will have to begin my day with, it depends on if my pain or meds. allowed me to sleep. I might have no spoons. Spoon theory is a great start, match theory works better for me. Thank you for sharing it!

  5. I love what you have done, and it does make more sense in many ways. The only bit I am not sure about this: “Imagine waking up each morning with one fresh pack of matches.” – maybe different wording to “fresh”? It’s just that some days you wake up with 4 or 5 matches to burn and other days you might be lucky enough to get 20 matches, but you never know how many are going to be in that packet!! 🙂

  6. I think both theories are useful, everyone’s experiences are unique based on their conditions and neither quite work for me but neither quite sum up my personal experiences. Because my issues are related to depression and motivation and because I am a bit of a geek I like spell slot theory. Some things are cantrips and I can always do them, even on bad days, like reading a book or making a cup of tea, some things are low level spells and I can generally do them, like making something to eat or talking with friends, and some things are higher level spells, like tidying up my room or filling out a long complicated form etc. Now I can use my higher level slots to do low level things but not the other way around, and some of my things aren’t necessarily the level other people think they should be (tidying and cleaning and stuff tends to be a higher level because of emotional baggage, kind of like taking spells from another classes lists at higher expense) and it takes proper rest to recover all your slots rather than only some of them for the next day. Also occasionally I find I have bonus spell slots for specific things (like one extra healing spell, you can’t use it for a fireball) like going to the gym with a friend, then my parents are like “you have the energy to do the things You want to do…” and I do, and I don’t have the energy to do the thing they wanted me to do, so I could either sit home and do neither or do what I wanted.

  7. This is why I remember that long before the “spoons”, there were marbles. Start the day with a bunch of marbles, yada yada. But the end is a little more me. When I have lost my marbles, I am done for the day. And sometimes the week. I think the matches may be even better. Because when I am out of matches, it is cold and dark in my world.

  8. I have some chronic pain due to TMD and other issues, but this resonates with me most for my bipolar and anxiety disorders.

    The finite nature of resources never seems to occur to people who don’t battle severe mental illness on a daily (hourly, constantly) basis. By the end of the day, there aren’t any more damn matches to indulge the poor mental hygiene of the “mentally healthy”, to “act as if”. Napping during the day isn’t “lazy” — it’s trying to save a few matches, often to deal with people who carelessly start forest fires. That’s just one in a million examples, because people can’t see the fuel (or the fuel gauge) of those with chronic pain and/or mental illness, and they’re too young, naive, or ignorant to have learned that fuel is finite.

  9. I love it! So very accurate and it just feels….”right”
    As someone else has said, the spoons theory is great but reusable, a burnt out match is a burnt out match, and a burnt out person is just that!!

  10. Hi and thank you for your article.

    the phrase “spirit animal” when used by non-native people is culturally appropriative. it’s a spiritual idea used by many indigenous cultures in North America and has been taken away and used in popular culture nomenclature. I’m not talking from nowhere here. I’ve been told by many native people and read up on the issue.

    just an FYI when sharing this article and using this term. I’m not sure if the author is indigenous but I hope as spoonies and people who experience erasure we can understand that the things WE do and say can also cause harm to others.

    better terms to use could be:
    Secret identity
    Patron saint
    Coat of arms/blazon
    Guardian angel
    Shoulder angel
    Imaginary friend
    Role model


  11. I adore this so much I want to print it and frame it like all those goddamn “Desiderata” homilies we had in the kitchen as kids. This is GENIUS, most especially the part about “my goddamn matches and I’ll burn em as I like.”
    I’m the proverbial healthy ox. Nothing ever wrong with me. But my wife has cervical dystonia and fibro, and just had to have an L4-L5 fusion for degenerative arthritis. She is a BADASS, but yeah – it takes more than one match to get out of bed in the morning. Some days the whole box is up in smoke by the first cup of coffee.
    And some days, she’ll use up a week’s worth of matches building custom furniture and doing construction for a day. BAD. ASS.
    Thanks for this!

  12. Brilliant, insightful, and extremely generous of you to share your Match Theory with both the initiated & uninitiated. Such clear & undeniable imagery, which I believe is more relatable to a general human experience than the other idea and that can only be a good thing for those who suffer as those who don’t begin to fully comprehend the vastness that you deal with and meet you there with compassion. May it be so!

  13. Thanks for this.
    Have often steered people to spoon theory, but this is _way_ more accurate. I didn’t know I needed this until I read it.
    I have severe chronic pain and yes, matches are a much better analogy for what I live with.
    Thank You again.

  14. Perfect! Absolutely perfect! And this covers all those things spoon theory just didn’t touch on. Thank you!

    When I can, and I get the chance, I burn my matches (as many as I have to) to go rock hounding. Its hard physical labor, and an hour or two one day can lay me up for days afterward. But sometimes, I just have to!

  15. I am crying at this analogy. I have chronic fatigue syndrome and have been experiencing more and more chronic pain as I’ve gotten older and with each subsequent flare up. I also have bipolar disorder which I have been on disability for since 2009. My disability renewal was just denied because I happened to be having an okay day the day I did my evaluations with the disability doctors. And so, they determined I am no longer disabled because of a single hour of a single day on which I was actually okay. They have said I have “discomfort” but it is not enough t be disabling. I am getting ready to fight and hope that I have enough matches or spoons to get through it when all I really want to do is lie down and cry.

  16. This is a powerful article. Thank you for writing it.

    I did want to open a dialogue with you about one important concern that I have. I am deeply concerned with the name of this website. “T-rex Is My Spirit Animal” is a joke I have seen in multiple places. This joke trivializes Native American culture and spiritual practices. I wanted to find out if there is any context here that I am missing. For example, if you have a connection to Native American culture.

    I do want be open about the fact that I am white. I want to be very clear that I am not the final arbiter of these things. I can only do research and listen to the wishes and experiences of my Native American friends and community members. I will say that there are multiple articles and posts by Native American people that explain why these jokes are a problem.

    In regards to being able to repost this article, I have multiple disabled and chronically ill friends who are Native American who might very well connect to your powerful article, but I know that this particular joke is something that would be hurtful to them and it is impossible to show them the article without them being affected by this joke.

    I don’t know where this conversation is going to go, but I did want to say that I understand that being a website name makes this more complicated. Should you decide to make a change, there may be ways to address at least part of this that are simple and don’t require drastic changes to the website.

    Thank you again for writing this article.

  17. I’ve never heard of spoon theory! I will follow-up in it but, after reading Matchstick Theory I really have found someone that understand my LIFE! Thank you so much for keeping it real Ms. Psarah! Much love to you!
    I would love to continue receiving information!!!!
    Stay Encouraged!

  18. Yes! I absolutely love this metaphor because a match is gone when it’s gone. There’s no going back to reuse it.
    What troubled me about this post, however, is the tone. If I understand correctly, I have to earn the answer to a question posed out of concern for another human being? What if I have finite matches and can’t be there “earning” the answer by being the first to visit after surgery or by offering massages? My care for them doesn’t diminish because I can’t be there offering limitless support. And just because I’m working with finite matches doesn’t mean that I know what it’s like to be them.
    Next item: Spoon Theory came to be to offer insight. Maybe some people now have better insight. Is that the whole world? Nope. Are all these “dickheads” embroidering samplers actually dickheads? Probably not. Maybe they’re trying to do a nice thing, maybe they’re trying to make a buck. Doesn’t mean they’re dickheads. The people asking you condescending questions are totally dickheads though, let’s be clear. There’s a kind way to approach this and it’s not that difficult, though apparently for them it is.
    The example of the girl dancing is perfect. And it makes me think of a day I went to Whole Foods to pick up a cake for a friend’s birthday. I took the last handicapped spot in the lot. I was not in my daily driver and I didn’t have a handicap placard in that car. I thought about moving, but my pain level was super high that day and the bakery was closer to that door which would save me steps. I lit a match going into the store; I asked for help with the cake out to my car. I found a note on the windshield that read, “F— you, a–hole. Handicap parking ONLY!!!” Dickhead for sure.

  19. I only recently heard of spoon theory but this is like spoon theory in my language. Chronic pain from 16 and a hip replacement by 25 with the other hip still crumbling away… sometimes i use all my matches for a few hours in a cute pair of heels knowing I won’t have another box for a week; but it was worth it. Thank you!

  20. This so much this. I have RA but more importantly I’m the caregiver for my daughter who is non-verbal with severe CP.

  21. I am seventy and have had ME since my early forties. I have cared for my daughter who was completely bedridden with ME throughout her twenties and most of her thirties. I have known and supported many hundreds of people with ME, many severely ill, some of whom took their own lives. I have campaigned. But I find this article hard. Yes there is anger. Especially with vested interests who villify people with our illness, misrepresent it’s reality and prevent research. It is right to be angry but not to be this angry with people who are well meaning but don’t understand your experience. None of us can really understand another’s pain. I have learned that there are many kinds of pain and it is the inheritance of everyone who is born, sooner or later. There is a place for anger. There is certainly a place for communication. But we should not just question whether someone is good enough to be our friend but we should ask ourselves whether we are good at befriending and understanding others. I have received huge compassion and support from mothers who had lost their own daughters to this awful illness. Their own suffering had given them compassion for others who were in a less difficult situation than themselves. No-one would want to walk the path of severe chronic illness but if you have no choice, it can give you grace.

  22. Psarah, I absolutely commend you for going so far out of your way to acknowledge and praise the Spoon Theory. You made it absolutely clear that you were tweaking an original idea without bashing it or pretending your own idea was completely original. I think Christine gets way too much flak for her idea not being “perfect” enough. Too many people forget she was relating something she had made up on the spot, and in my opinion, what she came up with was pure genius.

    That being said, your improvement on the Spoon Theory is genius in itself. The imagery provided by matches over spoons gives a much more clear idea of what our reality is. And I love the idea of yesterday’s spark burning through all of today’s matches as an explanation of consequences.

    In short, I commend your genius on this improved work, and I commend you for giving full credit to the author of the original idea. Brilliant!

    So, how long until random strangers start handing out matches on the street? 😉

  23. To be fair? Christine wrote that over a decade ago. It was spoons, because that’s what was handy.

    But yes, I like the matchstick analogy better. Especially as we don’t have any idea if it will light, break, or burn out before we are done.

    The thing I still need to figure out how to communicate is that we often burn matches as if we had an unlimited supply just so someone else won’t know we are down to just a few. Masking is what I always refer to it as. We have friends, family members, coworkers or others we just don’t really feel safe letting know just how bad it really is.

    But thank you for a better analogy. Sadly, if it gains traction, people will diminish it the way spoons have become. I see ordinary people wishing someone without chronic pain spoons and my head spins.

  24. Oh, I like this.

    Some of my friends with chronic pain talk about the spoon theory, and it helps them. But I have chronic migraine, and it just doesn’t do anything about the unpredictability of my life.

    How many migraines will I have today? How bad will each be, how long will each last? (They vary within one day.)

    *When* will they hit? On the subway on the way to a gig? While I’m talking to a new client? (Aphasia is fun…) At lunch with the friends I have not seen in a year? Or at home after dinner when it doesn’t matter as much?

    And if I push through to get something done that matters – the gig, the meeting with friends, just plain getting *home* from wherever – how much longer will I be in pain? How much worse will it be? How badly will I pay for it tomorrow? Will I be able to get anything done?

    “No, sorry – I burned my matches yesterday, I had to…” I can use that.

  25. I really like this. Yes, even more than spoon theory. As the mother of a young woman who suffers from chronic pain, this analogy is spot on. They’re her matches, and she can burn them however she likes. I can, however, make offers (and she can ask too) to conserve her matches, like when I give her a ride to class so she doesn’t have to take transit or walk long distances from her car in the rainy cold.

  26. Just….WOW. I never realized just how many of my spoons were actually matchsticks that I couldn’t re-use. Maybe instead of my tattoo being a bouquet of spoons, it could be a book of matches…..

  27. Thank you. THANK YOU. Tears are streaming down my face because my desire to have a life and my willingness to sometimes incinerate myself to live it feels SEEN.

  28. I have both physical and mental illnesses, and I’ve always used “spoons” as my term, but I think I’m switching to matches. Because, yes, when they’re gone, they’re GONE. And I’ll be DAMNED if you’re telling me what I’m using them on.

    LOVE it.

  29. I was just introduced to your theory this morning, and I love you for it! It fits exactly how I feel most days (and let’s not forget the days where we try to burn the last dregs of a burnt matchstick for just that one last task). I agree the spoon theory is wonderful for what it’s done, but like you and others, it just never fully fit.

    Thank you.

  30. THANK YOU SO MUCH! I now know what to call my “super short fuse/no fuse” type days. I was tearing up reading this because it totally hit the nail on the head for me. I was using “Spoons”, but I think they’re more for the days where I can get multiple things done (low pain days). “Matches” are for the days where I can only do one or two things or nothing at all (high pain days/flares).

  31. Love this analogy. It is so much better than the spoon theory, to me. As others have stated, spoon theory has been co-opted and become almost trite and too cute. I also have chronic pain related to autoimmune disease,specifically nerve pain from a horrific case of shingles. My son’s wedding was 2 days ago, and I think I used a whole case of matches. Thank you.

  32. I have won the lottery with Systemic Sarcoidosis, NeuroSarcoidosis, Fibromyalgia, Degenerative Disk Disease, Arthritis of the Spine, Diabetes and a sprinkling of Scoliosis. I love your theory! Some days though, if I have overdone it, I don’t have matchsticks, I have book of matches to work with that day!

  33. I live with permanent brain damage after surgery to remove a tumour on my brain-stem back on Dec 13/99 and this really sums up what it is like living with a brain that is damaged (tbi and or abi) and there are thousands of us that are expected to just ‘get over it’ and many of us also live with chronic pain to. Nothing works the way it did before the damage and every thing we try to do is a struggle that leaves us exhausted. And sadly most of us lose most of our friends and even family members drift away when we don’t ‘get over it’.

Leave a Reply to Lori Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *