“A Better Son/Daughter” by Rilo Kiley is one of the best song portrayals of bipolar disorder. It’s associated with episodes of mood swings ranging from depressive lows to manic highs. The manic phase may include high energy, higher self esteem, racing thoughts, impulsiveness, and irritability. Depressive phase may include lack of concentration, low self esteem, suicidal thoughts, helplessness, loss of interest, and low energy levels.

The song was also played on the TV show “Orange is the New Black” which is about female prison inmates. Many prisoners suffer from mental illness. The song can be relatable to anyone suffering from mental illness. People do not choose to mentally ill. It is something out of their control. But our society often has a stigma against mental illness, thinking “it’s all in your head”, and that you can just “snap out of it”.

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Lyrics & My Interpretation

Sometimes in the morning I am petrified and can’t move
Awake but cannot open my eyes
And the weight is crushing down on my lungs I know I can’t breathe
And I hope someone will help me this time

Describes sleep paralysis. Awake, but cannot open eyes or move. Makes you feel petrified. The anxiety or paralysis may make it hard to breathe. She hopes someone can save her.

And your mother’s still calling you insane and high
Swearing it’s different this time
And you tell her you give in to the demons that possess her
And that God never blessed her insides
Then you hang up the phone
And feel badly for upsetting things

She’s in the manic high phase of bipolar disorder which may cause delusions. That’s why she tells her mom that demons possess her and that God never blessed her inside. That’s why her mom calls her crazy. But of course, the girl is still a human with emotions, so she feels badly for upsetting things. She doesn’t want to be like this! She doesn’t want to upset people, but she can’t control it. She might feel like she can’t control her own body. People are pulling away from her. 

Crawl back into bed to dream of a time
When your heart was open wide
And you loved things just because
Like the sick and the dying

She feels bad for the way she is now. She can’t control it. She misses how she was before, when her heart was open and she loved things. She feels like she’s a different person.

And sometimes when you’re on
You’re really fucking on
And your friends they sing along
And they love you

When she’s in a high manic phase, she may have a lot of energy and be impulsive, the life of the party. When she’s high, her friends love her.

But the lows are so extreme
That the good seems fucking cheap
And it teases you for weeks in its absence

The depressive low phases are so bad that they make the manic phases seem cheap. She really misses the manic phases when she was happy and full of energy, but also impulsive and delusional.

But you’ll fight and you’ll make it through
You’ll fake it if you have to
And you’ll show up for work with a smile
And you’ll be better
And you’ll be smarter
And more grown up
And a better daughter or son
And a real good friend
And you’ll be awake
You’ll be alert
You’ll be positive though it hurts
And you’ll laugh and embrace all your friends
And you’ll be a real good listener
You’ll be honest
You’ll be brave
You’ll be handsome and you’ll be beautiful
You’ll be happy

She wants to overcome bipolar disorder. She doesn’t want to allow it to affect her life and her relationships. But she’s just putting up a fake smile, a happy face for others to see. She wants to be better, smarter, more grown up, awake, alert, positive though it hurts, a good listener, honest, brave, and happy. This seems to be in her depressive phase. She feels bad about the way she was. She wants to be able to be functional and positive in front of people. She is locked in a cage of mental illness, but she wants to escape. She wants to, but it’s so hard. We all want to be the best people we can be. It’s not always easy.

Your ship may be coming in
You’re weak but not giving in
To the cries and the wails of the valley below
And your ship may be coming in
You’re weak but not giving in
And you’ll fight it
You’ll go out fighting all of them