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What Does Remission Mean in Bipolar Disorder?

I mentioned what remission means for a mental illness in a clinical setting: reduction in specific, empirical symptoms by a given amount. In other words, you are given a depression “score” and remission means reducing that score by a given number.

But does that number mean anything at all to the patient in question? If you achieved it, are you “better”? If you suffer from mental illness, what does remission really mean?

A Cure for Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder is a life-long illness and no one in the medical community is suggesting bipolar can be “cured”. The best that can be hoped for is a suppression of symptoms through treatment. In the best case scenario, the person with bipolar disorder would take medication, attend therapy, build relationships, get a job, be happy and live one of those normal lives everyone seems to talk about.

How Often Does That Happen?

Well, I can’t say. In my experience, almost never, but that’s probably because I only hear from people who are experiencing difficulties. Those who don’t struggle as much probably aren’t reaching out to bipolar writers.

triumphant woman

What Does Remission Mean?

Every person with bipolar disorder, or any mental disorder, is different. Some have more mania, some have more depression, some self-harm, some have anxiety, some can’t hold down a job, some are homeless. All of these people have “bipolar disorder,” but in every case it manifests differently.

And not only does it manifest differently, but an individual’s tolerance to each symptom is different. Some people have hypomanias that are euphoric and not problematic; some have anxiety but control it through meditation; some have a history of self-harm but have found a support group that helps suppress that behavior. And in other cases, mania, anxiety, or self-harm is completely unacceptable.

In each case, bipolar remission means something different. For a homeless person without a job, remission may be the ability to hold down a job and pay rent. For someone else, it might be having stable relationships and a happy home life with a wife and children. And for some it might be enjoying their previous hobbies and interests. We all have different goals and different levels of illness that we are willing to accept.

What is Remission for My Bipolar Disorder?

Personally, I never think of bipolar remission; all I think of are levels of symptoms. I never get to the place where I can just say, yes, my bipolar disorder is under control. I never get to the place where I don’t have fairly bothersome symptoms, side-effects and cycles. All I think about are temporary periods of stability. Times when I’m feeling OK. I’ve come to accept that these times will never be great and likely won’t last long. But that is my experience and certainly not everyone’s.

So Should Bipolars Try to Achieve Remission?

Absolutely.

Yes, I think most of us will have to accept that bipolar disorder will never really go away, but I think striving for an acceptable level of treatment is important. I see people give up when their symptoms have only improved 20% and they are still much debilitated. This shouldn’t be enough for your doctor and this shouldn’t be enough for you. You deserve better and you should aim higher. Remaining sad for the rest of your life is not good enough.

Yes, accept that your life will likely never be what it was before bipolar disorder, but also know that with bipolar treatment you can do better. Call it remission, assign it a number or don’t. It’s better than being sick.

You can find Natasha Tracy on Facebook or GooglePlus or @Natasha_Tracy on Twitter or at the Bipolar Burble, her blog.

Author: Natasha Tracy

Natasha Tracy is a renowned speaker, award-winning advocate and author of Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar.

Find Natasha Tracy on her blog, Bipolar Burble, Twitter, Google+ and Facebook.

38 thoughts on “What Does Remission Mean in Bipolar Disorder?”

  1. I was diagnosed with bipolar and phycosis and schizoaffected disorder , 15 th Dec 2016 was told that I’m in remission. I’m on a tablet and injection. I feel lost at mo not having to fight my illness each day is that normal????

  2. hi natasha im 30 years old and diagnosed with bi polar disorder i wonder if temporary not using of medication would took effect for a while.. i really hate the side effects. i am planning to follow the meds religiously for a while and then stop it if the doctor dont give me another prescription. i am also planning to wothdraw from medication and live cleanly.. if there is no follow up medication..would that be ok?

    1. Hi Michaelj,

      Thanks for your question. Unfortunately, I am not a medical professional and I can in no way offer medical advice. What you should do is talk to your doctor about your plans and see what he or she thinks.

      – Natasha Tracy

  3. Also I have been on disability for about 9 years but always try to work full time and get off disability but then I have a psychotic break or get suicidal and end up at the stupid ER and then they send me to acute in my state hospital. My question is how do I not self harm or threaten to kill people when I am stressed out? I am in remission now fr 3 weeks or 4 weeks. Also do drugs cause a healthy person to become bipolar?

  4. I have been in and out of hospitals from 21 diagnosed for the first time at 24 and am now 35. I keep having my diagnosis change from bipolar to Schizoaffective to a “mood problem” plus BPD. It is frustrating they (social workers and nurses) tell me everything and can’t just leave me alone they grill me constantly about stuff I can’t and don’t need to understand.
    Now I am in court system and they are trying to either out me in Jail or make sure I never go to a hospital again. I asked my psychiatrist resident to put me on a mood stabilizer and she refuses. Most people believe I have no mental illness at all. I do isolate and get anxious and sad and stuff and I have psychotic breaks but I don’t think its that serious. So basically is it okay for me to get off the meds since I have been better for 4 weeks now?

  5. It is not true that remission happens “almost never”. Read the book “Unquiet Mind” by Kay Redfield Jamison. It is an autobiography about a PhD Psychologist who gets diagnosed with bipolar and then goes to work as a researcher for Johns Hopkins. I myself have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and work as a functioning member of society. It has been 12 years since my last manic episode. There was one major depressive episode 2 years ago after a doctor took me off an antidepressant and lowered the mood stabilizer. I am a working professional at a job that could be considered stressful to the general public. Recently I got promoted to a management position at my job. I am also considering going back to graduate school and pursuing a doctorate level of education. People would not guess that I suffer from bipolar disorder unless I disclose the information. I take my meds every day, follow with a psychiatrist, go to therapy and keep myself healthy. I am careful to get enough sleep, rarely drink alcohol and have never done drugs. These are all things I do to maintain a healthy balance. Mostly I struggle from the stigma of the disease and am working to maintain a healthy self esteem. I live completely independently, have a bachelors degree and don’t struggle with symptoms on a day to day basis. This is manageable disease and there is hope for people who suffer from it to be able to live a productive life.

  6. Hi Natasha,
    I am saddened to hear your views about remission in bipolar. I feel free of ‘symptoms’ of the condition most of the time, and rarely have episodes of full scale unwellness. The one thing about mental health conditions is that they effect the underlying reasons we make decisions. Given this, everyone on the earth differs in their reasoning for making decisions on a wide ranging scale. There are actually no ‘acutely unwell’ symptoms in a person with a bipolar condition to speak of. You cant actually notice a person feeling more or less emoitional on a given day if their moods are in a period of fluctuation or not. As in all areas of life, we are subject to our social circumstances and the resulting pressures these apply to our emotional state, whether we become more or less emotional reacting to losing a job or a place to live or a friend does not even necessarily dictate us as having an abnornmal “bipolar” reaction as such. The anyone reacts to given stressors in their life is unique to that person and at times,everyone is a little over-emotional during different circumstances. I had a child at age 37 and since then my whole outlook “settled” significantly that I have not had significant issues with my emotional reactions to stress, I have effectively been in a “remission” from my bipolar symptoms. I am not sure if this is due to hormonal processes through having a child, or due to my age, or lifestyle but I am very thankful to not suffer with frequent bouts of illness and am convinced this is my true remission. Having a child necessitates a stable steady lifestyle of daily routines and eating and sleeping patterns all of which are beneficial to stabilising mood and ability to cope with stress. I have never considered myself as a person who suffers with a “chronic” condition or chronic symptoms ever. Even though I have had several episodes of illness, I am always able to return to a stable and very boringly normal ‘self’. I feel sorry that your experience of bipolar is so chronic and constant.

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