What Progress and Recovery Look Like

Medically Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on October 23, 2017
2 min read

Moving forward with bipolar disorder isn’t a quick process. The time from my diagnosis until I reached recovery was more than 4 years. Four years is a long time to wait to “be well,” but there are many markers along the way to show that you’re making progress.

First, I think it’s important to define “recovery.” For me, the most realistic definition is that I’m spending more time living my life than managing bipolar disorder. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines recovery as “a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential.”

No matter which definition you choose, it’s important to remember that recovery does not mean making the money we want, owning the house of our dreams, or meeting the perfect romantic partner. Those are great goals -- they just have little to do with living in recovery.

In other words, it’s quite possible to manage bipolar disorder perfectly and still fall short in other pursuits. I believe it’s important to not tie success in one area with success in another. Just because my mom never became a famous painter doesn’t mean she failed as a mother.

I often tell people that when it comes to reaching recovery with bipolar disorder, the only thing that is important is that you are making consistent progress. My second favorite piece of advice is that there is no time limit. It’s going to take as long as it takes, but if you focus on moving forward every day, I believe everyone can get there.

All of that said, it is reassuring to see progress. It’s easier to accomplish anything the second time around. It’s not about the knowledge or experience, either. It’s about having the confidence of knowing you can do it. Experiencing success is a powerful motivator.

My favorite success indicators are simple things, like taking medications as prescribed, making appointments with my treatment team, and arriving on time to these appointments. While I agree these aren’t exciting, establishing this kind of track record is a lot more progress than people realize.

Though often overlooked as proof of progress, hygiene is another indicator that headway is being made. People who are depressed or manic stop doing basic things like showering, brushing their teeth, shaving, and even getting dressed. If you’re able to get out of bed, clean up, and get dressed, that is an extremely meaningful accomplishment and shouldn’t be ignored.

The reality is that living well with bipolar disorder means consistently doing typical everyday tasks. Many of those tasks are mundane and boring. However, it’s important to realize that if you are successful at life’s minutiae, you’re doing well.