Do People with Bipolar Disorder “Recover”?

Last Updated: 11 Feb 2022
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You aren’t alone in wondering about your loved one’s future. As an expert in bipolar management—with bipolar—I still face mood swings and symptoms. Here’s why.

bipolar disorder recovery question possibility

Bipolar Disorder, Expertise, & Mood Management

I’ve been writing books about bipolar disorder management since 1998, and my web page 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 about: 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 downswing 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—or those we love with bipolar—can 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 or someone you care about struggles 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!

Julie


Originally posted October 28, 2020.

About the author
Julie A. Fast is the author of the bestselling mental health books Take Charge of Bipolar Disorder, Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder: Understanding and Helping Your Partner, Getting It Done When You’re Depressed, OMG, That’s Me! (vol. 2), and The Health Cards Treatment System for Bipolar Disorder. She is a longtime bp Magazine writer and the top blog contributor, with over 5 million blog views. Julie is also a researcher and educator who focuses on bipolar disorder prevention and ways to recognize mood swings from the beginning—before they go too far and take over a person’s life. She works as a parent and partner coach and regularly trains health care professionals, including psychiatric residents, pharmacists, general practitioners, therapists, and social workers, on bipolar disorder and psychotic disorder management. She has a Facebook group for parents, The Stable Table, and for partners, The Stable Bed. Julie is the recipient of the Mental Health America excellence in journalism award and was the original consultant for Claire Danes’s character on the TV show Homeland. Julie had the first bipolar disorder blog and was instrumental in teaching the world about bipolar disorder triggers, the importance of circadian rhythm sleep, and the physical signs of bipolar disorder, such as recognizing mania in the eyes. Julie lives with bipolar disorder, a psychotic disorder, anxiety, and ADD.
46 Comments
  1. I don’t know when I was diagnosed with bipolar. My past is all a haze. I remember a doctor sitting me down in a little room and asking me if I’d ever heard of it. I said no. I was in my 20s. He said I had bipolar1 and I would have it my whole life. He put me on meds and that was it. I went into the hospital after trying to kill myself for the third time. When I got out of the hospital I had no follow-up. I went down the same path until my husband (at age 40) demanded I get help. I’m on medication now and doing better

  2. Hi Julie, I appreciate that you want to educate people about bipolar disorder but statements that you make about your own diagnosis do not align with prevailing diagnostic criteria. firstly, you refer to your dx as bipolar 2 with psychosis. That designation isn’t valid per dsm. If you have psychotic symptoms, eg, hallucinations, delusions, etc, your dx is automatically bipolar 1. Additionally, you continually refer to your dx as ultradian rapid cycling bipolar disorder. This simply is not a recognized dx in the psychiatric community including the dsm. There are of course some clinicians who may promote this as a legitimate diagnosis but it has not been formally recognised as a valid dx, therefore, while your intention is to educate regarding bipolar disorder you are promoting faulty and/or invalid diagnostic standards. Lastly, I hear what you’re saying regarding your opinion regarding “recovery” in bipolar disorder. I agree with you that there is not a permanent cure for bipolar disorder but your position is very outdated within the current movement in mental health. Recovery is very much the current trend in mental health with the definition of recovery in mental health not thought of in terms of complete eradication of the symptomology but rather more the ability to manage the illness in order to live a fulfilling life. The idea of perpetuating the message that bipolar disorder is a hopeless condition which cannot be effectively managed may be your own experience but many people have and do live successful and fulfilling lives with bipolar illness, Kay redfield Jamison is one example.

    1. Lisa, I’ve had issues with stuff Julie posts since I’ve been reading her. One thing I have not noticed is Julie stating bipolar is hopeless, or any other negativity. To the contrary, she does her best to help explain and post positive messages about living with bipolar disorder. Sometimes, Juile makes it clear she’s talking about her own experiences; but then, what else can any of us do? As for “correct” dx etc. you discuss, I sure don’t fit in any of those boxes. Most of us aren’t “textbook cases.” We’re humans. I suppose each of us needs to manage this disorder, or any disorder, from acne to cancer to addiction to mental illness, in whatever world works for each of us.

  3. Julie, I’m almost 75. How do I manage bipolar at my age?

    1. I’m 71yrs old and the same management tools work through out life. Get a plan and stick to it. A therapist who works with bipolar patients could help develop your plan. Hang in there and never give up.

  4. Good morning I found this website in our search to find support as parents of a daughter who is living with Bipolar ll ….she is 29 years old and a truly beautiful person who constantly amazes me with her commitment to learning how to live a full life despite the challenges that this disorder constantly throws in her path. I really am lifted up as I read the many messages of support towards each other here and of the offers of your own personal experiences living with Bipolar …thank you for sharing it helps so much to hear all the different stories & I honour each of your journeys and send love & light to all of you. By sharing your stories you are helping people like me & my husband to better understand the long term management of this disorder. As a parent you don’t expect your high functioning child to change in front of your eyes and the feeling of helplessness & constant worry are all consuming….. not near the feelings she has to deal with I know so we just try our best to be there for her without smothering her….it’s a hard balance to strike but we believe we must for her good and for our own. She recently got married to a really great young man who is her rock and we know that he will always be there for her …..but as seems to be the case even wonderful & joyful things such as marrying your best friend comes with change & adjustment and now 5 weeks later she is in a crisis. It is at these times we feel scared and especially helpless because it is so unpredictable this disorder…… she goes from seeming so happy to suicidal in such a short period of time it is mind boggling. Fortunately she has a wonderful health care team and she has worked hard with her psychiatrist & therapist ( in addition to Lithium) to learn CBT techniques that seem to help during these times. She made me so proud yesterday ( while simultaneously being terrified) when she called our local crisis line for help when she knew that both her Pops & I and her husband were at work and she decided that she must reach out immediately and didn’t want to risk worrying us and/ or not being able to reach us immediately ( health care workers) ….so it is in these little successes that I see her learning to manage this disorder and we feel hope….for her well being & for her future. I will definitely be back here …. thank you again for sharing ….we family members need to hear these stories.

  5. My medical support team uses the term ‘remission’ which as I understand it means that my behavior is acceptable.

    This illness is one that follows you from cradle to grave, but I guess we need a word that describes when we’re neither manic and/or depressed. In the management of this illness, the basic tool is a mood chart. But this chart doesn’t allow for rapid cycling or authentic emotions.

    I’ve had trouble with numerical recording of mood for three reasons. First, I was cycling between mania and depression in a single day. How do you score that? Second, how do you score happiness or joy when your elevated mood isn’t about mania? Finally how do you score situational depression? Surely we experience the normal reasons for being happy and sad, and charting should reflect the moods arising out of the disease and those arising out of life.

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