Why It's So Hard to Accept that Recovery Isn't Linear

March 24, 2020 Megan Griffith

A common bit of wisdom when it comes to mental illness recovery is that recovery isn't linear. You won't necessarily go from "sick" to "healthy" in a straight line. You will likely have setbacks, backslides, and slip-ups and your journey might look more like "sick," "sicker," "better?" "worse," "functional but still mentally ill." In my experience, this back and forth may continue for years. I can intellectually appreciate that recovery is not a linear process, but emotionally, it often feels like I'm failing.

Why Do We Expect Recovery to Be Linear?

In our culture, we have a traditional narrative of illness where the sick person makes steady, hard-won progress toward being "better." This narrative relies heavily on deep-seated ableism which implies that the only way to be "good" is to produce goods or labor for the workforce, something which illness often prevents. In order to uphold this ideal, even when it clearly makes no sense for disabled or chronically ill people, the false narrative of illness emerged where the ill person is shown getting better through hard work and determination.

While mental illness recovery is absolutely possible for everyone, it is very rarely linear like this, and it requires so much more than just hard work. If all it took for people with mental illness to feel better was to work hard, we would all be cured by now. People with mental illness need tools to cope with our reality. 

Unfortunately, this false narrative of illness is so ingrained in our minds, it's nearly impossible to ignore it entirely. Even once we understand why it is false and recognize that our recovery is going to take time, it is very difficult to quell those feelings of shame that it creates in those with disabilities or chronic illness.

If Recovery Isn't Linear, What Is It Really Like?

If you're at the beginning of your recovery journey, or even if you've been walking this path for a while but still feel lost, you may not have a clear picture of what your recovery will really be like. There's no one recovery story for all of us because we are all different and we're all facing different issues, but I thought it might be helpful to share what my recovery has been like.

My recovery started when I finally recognized that I had a mental illness. This is often a difficult step to take because if you've lived most of your life simply trying to ignore or avoid your mental illness symptoms, it can be scary to admit that they aren't normal and you need to do something about them. This was a great step toward recovery, but for several years afterward, my recovery stagnated.

I had recognized that my mental health was in bad shape, but subconsciously, I wasn't allowing myself to investigate why, because that would completely turn my world inside out and I wasn't ready for that. This prevented me from making significant progress, and I grew increasingly frustrated. I finally took another step forward about a year ago when I accepted that there were things from my past that may have impacted my mental health, and have gotten to the roots of my problems. 

Now, my recovery is amazing most days, but there are still plenty of backslide days where I feel like I'm stuck back in that stagnant time, feeling desperate for answers and completely unable to cope with who I am as a person. On those days, I try to remember all the progress I've made. Even though it feels like I'm back where I was, I try to remember that I'm not. I have moved forward, and sliding back doesn't erase that, it just means I'm somewhere different for the time being. I will get back to my healthier space. But to do that, I need to be patient with myself.

What has your recovery been like? Have you been frustrated by the false narrative of illness? Share with the community below.

APA Reference
Griffith, M. (2020, March 24). Why It's So Hard to Accept that Recovery Isn't Linear, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 19 from

Author: Megan Griffith

Find Megan on Facebook, Tumblr and her personal blog.

June, 19 2022 at 12:08 pm

Thanks for this article ❤️ It’s really comforting to read. I was in the hospital a little over a month ago. My recovery hasn’t gone the way I’ve wanted it to. I’m still very far from where I want to be. I feel worried about recovering too slowly and that I should be further along than I am. Im trying to learn to be gentler with myself.

Lizanne Corbit
March, 24 2020 at 3:40 pm

I think this is such a powerful realization to have, so many can relate to this and the journey it takes to get there! So many of us crave that linear recovery belief because it's clean, straightforward we can think ok point A to point B and so on. When we are dealing with healing or recovery, we are already hurting in some form or another so we crave the comfort of simplicity, but what we don't realize is that clinging to that linear belief can actually hurt us and impede our progress. I love that you now recognize just because you have some days that go "backward" doesn't negate all the progress you've already made. Beautifully written. Keep taking care.

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