bipolar disorderSometimes I wish that I had a disease like cancer instead of bipolar disorder. It’s not because I think cancer is an easier illness to treat or has better outcomes; it’s because a doctor could run tests and tell me if I’m doing better, worse, or the same.

That definitive test doesn’t exist in the treatment of any mental illness. Even the diagnostic criteria are based on self-reporting and observation. Because of this, people living with bipolar disorder need to find other ways to both see progress for themselves and show others they are improving.

It was four years from the time I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder until I reached recovery. While there are many definitions of the word recovery, for me it means spending the majority of my time living my life, rather than managing bipolar disorder.

It’s important to note that four years is not an uncommon amount of time for this. I point this out not to discourage people, but to show that it’s important to locate markers of success along the way and to accept that this is a long process. I’ve worked with many people who believe themselves to be failures because they aren’t well in a short amount of time.

Such a perception would have prevented me from ever considering myself a success because the negative feelings alone would have been too much to overcome. It may sound a bit trite, but there is power in acknowledging the strides we are making toward recovery.

Defining Progress with Bipolar Disorder

Early on in my diagnosis, I had a therapist ask me what I thought progress looked like. Trying to answer was frustrating, because I really couldn’t explain what I was thinking. For me, forward progress was more of a feeling. I defined success as feeling positive more than I felt negative. So, progress would be getting close to that goal.

By working with my therapist, I learned that I defined success as being active with my family, friends, and community. So, the more time I spent making plans, engaging in conversations, and participating in family functions, the more progress I was making. Even something as simple as answering the phone would be an example of progress.

The more I started to be aware of examples of progress, the easier it became to notice them. Taking a shower, leaving my house, and completing small everyday tasks are all excellent examples of progress.

After I started seeing all the small steps forward I was making, I began noticing bigger steps. Making appointments with my doctors, participating in my medical treatment, and looking forward to weekly support groups rather than dreading them were all huge indicators of forward momentum.

At that point, other people around me started to take notice that I had come a long way. When they asked me how I was, I took pride in telling them how far I’d come, rather than talking to them about how far I had to go. That acknowledgment of my progress inspired me to take on bigger goals.

Suddenly, things like volunteering or even working full time didn’t seem as impossible as they did when I was unable to get out of bed and shower.

It was a slow walk up a steep mountain, but every day I made forward progress in any way, I considered myself successful. Sure, it took a long time to reach the summit. But, had I considered myself a failure throughout the climb, I would have given up long before I arrived.