Do People with Bipolar Disorder Recover?

Last Updated: 29 Oct 2020

I’m an expert in bipolar management, yet I still have frequent mood swings and deal with symptoms regularly. Shouldn’t I have “solved” this by now? Shouldn’t I have “recovered”?

bipolar disorder recovery question possibility

Bipolar Disorder, Expertise, & Mood Management

I’ve been writing books about bipolar disorder management since 1998, and my webpage started in 2002. How is it possible that I still deal with so many mood swings? Shouldn’t I be better by now? Why am I still talking about my own mood every day and bipolar in general?

Well, it comes down to this: It’s all about the nature of this illness.

I recently received a question on my Instagram account that made me think about bipolar disorder and the concept of recovery. This question certainly was an eye-opener about how people see my work:

“Julie, why are you so often in a mood swing? If you’re managing your illness, doesn’t this mean you should not be having mood swings so frequently?”

I could tell that the person asked this question with honesty and that there was no judgment. It is probably something many people wonder: Shouldn’t someone like myself, who is an expert in bipolar management, be stable? Why am I not in “recovery” and getting on with my life without bipolar symptoms?

What Is “Recovery” & Does It Apply to Bipolar Disorder?

Before I give my answer, I would like to share my opinions on the term recovery.

Recovery is a word used in the addiction community to describe people who are working within a program while abstaining from addictive substances.

When used this way, it makes sense! There is a behavior (substance use) that has to be stopped or moderated. It can be measured and a person can recover; in other words, go back to how they were before they were using a substance.

This framework simply doesn’t apply to bipolar disorder, in my opinion. Our illness, bipolar disorder, is genetic and is not caused by our choices. Mental health campaigns that talk about recovery and how things get better often leave out illnesses that are more physiological, such as bipolar disorder. As a parallel example, with a physical condition, I don’t think we would use the term recovery when talking about type 1 diabetes. And this is why I don’t use the term in my own work about bipolar. (Please know that this is simply an opinion and I respect that we are individuals and some might disagree with me.)

So, when I get a question like “Why I am not symptom-free, considering all of my focus on management?” I have to remember that, over the past 20 years in the mental health community, there has been an emphasis on recovery and getting better, instead of an emphasis on managing bipolar disorder as a physical illness. Imagine asking someone with diabetes the same question I was asked on Instagram:

“Julie, you write books on type 1 diabetes and health, and yet you still can’t produce the insulin your body needs! I would think that someone who is an expert would be able to control the pancreas a lot better.”

I am not trying to be snarky here. I believe these questions come from a lack of understanding about the nature of bipolar disorder, and about how it is treated and managed.

Why Do I Still Experience Mood Swings?

First, I will share my answer to the original question of why I still have so many mood swings, even though I write books and train healthcare professionals on bipolar management.

My Answer:

I have a chronic form of bipolar disorder called ultradian rapid-cycling bipolar. This means I live with daily mood swings. Without my management plan, I would not be here. I never believed I would live a long life, as I was sick for so long. I wasn’t diagnosed until age 31, even though my symptoms started at 16. But … with hard work, I’ve cut my mood swings by around 80%. I used to be sick for long periods of time. For example, I would have a three-year down swing or a four-month manic episode.

Now, I am rarely sick for more than a few hours a day or a few days at a time. I often wake up in a mood swing, and it is always my goal to manage it that day so that I go to bed feeling better than when I woke up. It’s exhausting, but it’s a lot better than being sick for years.

I stay out of the hospital. I can use smaller amounts of medications. And, most important, I have strong relationships and can work part-time. None of this was possible in the past. I also live with a serious psychotic disorder that complicates my bipolar. I use my plan to manage this in the same way I mange mania and depression.

All people with bipolar have the same symptoms, but what differs is the intensity and the duration of those symptoms. Some people have less-intense bipolar and go long periods between mood swings. I am not one of these people! It really is a spectrum. Without my management plan, I continually cycle between psychotic, suicida1 depression, paranoia, mania, irritation, and overall melancholy. I am also plagued by OCD if my work is too stressful.

I have taught myself to manage all of these symptoms, but they are still there, waiting to take over my life. I can feel the symptoms simmering in my brain. The plan I teach in Take Charge of Bipolar Disorder is a lot of work, but it really works! It keeps my symptoms at bay. When they are triggered, as they often are, I am ready to meet them with my management skills. It’s no different than someone with diabetes who uses diet, stress management, and an insulin pump to stay healthy.

Few people with bipolar disorder are asymptomatic. Most of us deal with regular mood swings, some more than others. Bipolar can be managed, but it never goes away. There is no “recovery” from bipolar disorder. Just as there is no “recovery” from insulin-dependent type 1 diabetes. There is management, and there is definitely hope for a better life, but this is an illness of the brain that we have had from birth. It doesn’t simply go away one day.

I am very aware that my brain isn’t an easy brain. It’s a very difficult brain to manage. I can tell you that daily management gives me a very full life. I have far more good days than bad days now. Thank you for your question.

Final Thoughts on Recovery, Management, & Bipolar

Maybe we are scared to hear that bipolar isn’t something that we recover from at this time. One day, there will be genetic help, and we will be able to end this illness. I believe this with all of my heart. For now, the goal is to manage the illness in a way that allows for fewer mood swings, in terms of duration and intensity. This is our success.

If you struggle to manage bipolar, this is normal. It’s why you’re on a website devoted to bipolar disorder management! You aren’t weak if you can’t “recover” from bipolar. The goal is to have a plan that is stronger than the mood swings. This is possible. I am not a negative person. I am an optimist. It’s amazing that we can use a plan to manage our mood swings. Recovery is simply a different topic. For us? I believe it’s all about management and focusing on reducing the intensity of mood swings and making sure they are shorter and shorter each time.

It is possible!


Originally posted October 28, 2020.

About the author
Julie A. Fast is the author of Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder, Take Charge of Bipolar Disorder, Get It Done When You’re Depressed, and The Health Cards Treatment System for Bipolar Disorder. She is a columnist and blogger for bp Magazine, and she won the Mental Health America journalism award for the best mental health column in the US. Julie was also the recipient of the Eli Lilly Reintegration Achievement Award for her work in bipolar disorder advocacy. Julie is a bipolar disorder expert for ShareCare, a site created by Dr. Oz and Oprah. Julie is CEU certified and regularly trains health care professionals, including psychiatric residents, social workers, therapists, and general practitioners, on bipolar disorder management skills. She was the original consultant for Claire Danes for the show Homeland and is on the mental health expert registry for People magazine. She works as a coach for parents and partners of people with bipolar disorder. Julie is currently writing a book for children called "Hortensia and the Magical Brain: Poems for Kids with Bipolar, Anxiety, Psychosis, and Depression." You can find more about her work at and
  1. As always, thank you for sharing your wisdom. Stay strong, lion!

  2. This comment has nothing to do with the article. I recently fractured my ankle a few weeks ago and had surgery last week. I live in an apartment and have a wheelchair that is very difficult to move around in. When I need to do something it is a long thought process. For example when I’m leaving my bedroom I try to have everything that I need in a bag ( cell phone medication, tissues, phone charger and headphones etc) so that I don’t have to come back in the bedroom. It is a hassle to go to the bathroom. The wheelchair doesn’t fit all the way through the bathroom door. So I’m hopping to get to the toilet hoping that I have enough time to attach the elevated toilet seat, tighten it and sit on it. Alot of times for some reason, I guess it’s the way I sit on the seat I end up getting urine on the floor. So after I’m finished I have to getting the cleaning bottle spray some on the floor and reach down to clean it up while on one foot.I also remove the toilet seat and place it on the side. I share the bathroom with my daughter. I become so nervous, sad and anxious when it’s time to use the bathroom. I try to go to use the bathroom before I really have to go so that I don’t have an accident. There are alot of other things going on but I don’t want to take up too much of your time.

  3. Thank you, VERY, VERY much! I cannot tell you in words how much this describes me. My first major depression began at age 15. It was triggered by a real disappointment, but I understand that is often how it starts. Also, I was a very late developer and I think that played a part in the chemical shift. Then I had the hyper times and switched again, etc. I was not diagnosed until I was about 40, after about a year of very manic behavior. I don’t think meds help me much – Paxil and Lamictal ( also take Topomax for migraines)…I think I experience a lot of mixed episodes. I recently tried to get one of the new drugs. It was 1,400 dollars a month. I don’t have Ins. and there is no way that I can afford that. I have begun to seriously try to work on a routine, esp. sleep, and a better diet ( I’m addicted to sugar/ice cream). Thank you, again! It helps so much to know that someone understands. ❤

  4. This is an awesome way to put into words! If only if we could get everyone to read and understand this. This, right here, is why I let so many relationships go. People don’t understand or deserve to constantly deal with my cycles. Add those crazy incidences of life in and it sends me over the edge. I isolate so others don’t have to deal with me.

  5. Julie, as always!! ❤️

    1. This is an awesome way to put into words! If only if we could get everyone to read and understand this. This, right here, is why I let so many relationships go. People don’t understand or deserve to constantly deal with my cycles. Add those crazy incidences of life in and it sends me over the edge. I isolate so others don’t have to deal with me.

      1. If my recovery requires me to go back to the hospital to get my brain rebooted so be it. Have been there 5+ times. With one step there will be always be a back step..,.awareness that because I feel doesn’t mean I have fallen. It means I am alive. And being alive means I am a recovering surviver and alive…to be continued.

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