Activation Energy

Trigger warning: this post discusses anxiety and depression, and has physics metaphors.


So, as you know, last week I missed my speech therapy appointment by way of a minor car accident that turned into a big event when it didn’t need to. I have bad enough anxiety about my speech classes anyway, ranging from ‘will my voice even work’ and ‘will the receptionist/other people in the waiting room talk to me/touch me and not leave me alone even though I sit in the same spot with my headphones and my word book and telegraph leave me alone as best I can’, all the way to ‘will I get there without being harassed’. In part because my ability to walk to and from the train station has been compromised by the surgery and/or my lack of recovery from it, and because the train was actually not running one week, I tend to drive now. The thing I’m avoiding most is the walk to and from the train.

It takes a lot of energy to not respond when men yell at me from their cars, or when they slow down and follow me, or when they pull over and offer me a ride and get offended because I’m not grateful and accepting of their magnanimity. That’s just on the way to the train. After that, I have to put up with people on the train. One lady decided her disability was more important than mine and sat on my bag, pushing me out of the seat, hurting my bad arm, and then saying “I’m sorry but I can’t stand!!!”, as if she couldn’t make it one more step to the empty seat in front, and the part where I couldn’t have anyone on my right side because it was a bad day and my shoulder was liable to slip out at any slight touch was not important. After that, I have to get through a maze of people who feel their need to stop me and touch me and tell me how pretty I am or how nice my clothes are outweighs the part where I don’t want to talk to strangers. Sometimes I sign back to them, and they stand there gawping and apologise. Sometimes they assume I’m Deaf, which is another can of worms, especially since I can actually hear how they talk about me like my choice not to spend spoons on engaging with them means that I must be at an intellectual level much lower than a third grader.


Each of these interactions takes spoons. Most people understand spoons. You use a spoon to do a thing and when you run out of spoons you have to rest or borrow. The thing, though, is that these spoons are not voluntary. They are taken from me. I have precious few spoons, and having to use them just to get to my appointment makes me anxious. It’s not always the acute attack kind of anxiety. Anxiety, over a long period of time, can’t work like that, because it’s not sustainable. Instead, in my case, it creeps into everything. Things don’t take more spoons. Instead, using those spoons requires more energy. I have to use a spoon to reach the spoon – to pull it close enough to be able to use it. Instead of a spoon converting potential energy to kinetic energy, using the spoon requires activation energy – a minimal input, if you will, that makes the task possible. There’s less available energy for the task itself, because half the battle is finding the energy to just start something, overcome an initial barrier. The most obvious barrier is anxiety from fear – what if someone comes up to me and grabs me to tell me they like my corset? I can’t handle that today. What if the receptionist decides to try to make me talk and I don’t get my half an hour in the waiting room to meditate and read my words and practice them in my head? Last time that happened, the teacher didn’t know what to do, and half the appointment went in suggestions about what to do. It wasn’t helpful.

There are other barriers – putting aside or overcoming pain, brain fog, exhaustion, tics, paranoia, and many other things which manifest sometimes, all the time, and can be expressed differently in different people.


When you have to budget your spoons, knowing some will be taken from you without you actually having anything to show for it other than “I walked down the street! Yay!”, is overwhelming. It’s not just that, though; knowing all this means that every appointment day, I do have one of those acute attacks. I’ve regressed to not sleeping the night before, because my brain is preparing itself for the assaults from various spoon stealers. It takes me three hours to get dressed instead of an hour and a half, because I have to be prepared for comments, and that means my brain won’t let me just get dressed – it all has to be perfect, and I have to have maximum flexibility in case I need to fight someone off, and I have to accommodate breathing exercises, and I have to cover the dark circles because otherwise everyone will know I’m on day infinity of a migraine, and it has to be black so the blood doesn’t show through, and a zillion other things. Organising all that in my head, even before starting, takes a spoon. Making myself do it, knowing that people don’t respect personal space, and that every interaction is harder for me, uses activation energy. It requires more brainpower to get up and do this basic thing most people take for granted.


Somehow, nobody realises that, and when I’m exhausted, they insert themselves again, as if they haven’t done enough. The other week, I literally said “I need to sit and have quiet now,” and instead of letting me do that, the receptionist started running around, offering to turn the music down, turn off the lights, did I feel better, was I sure I wanted to be there? By the time I made it in, any chance of meaningful progress was shot.

Today, I will have to deal with explaining that I was in a car accident and I did my best to let them know I wouldn’t make it, I am fine, it’s none of your business, please just let me pay and sit down. I will have to deal with “I haven’t seen that corset before!”. I will have to deal with questions about the show because I didn’t get asked them last week. And then, I will have to drive home in rush hour traffic, and at that point I will have been awake for 26 hours, because my brain knew all this and wouldn’t let me sleep.


Naturally, if I had slept, it would be something else. That’s why it’s chronic.