Sorrow found me when I was young
Sorrow waited, sorrow won.
I’ve always known depression by the way it makes me feel like there’s no way for me to make eye contact with the world. Depression is too much feeling, too much thought; it’s someone turning on the tap until the bathtub overflows, until the bathroom floods. I learned to take care of myself by shutting out the world when I needed to. I’d turn the world off and wait out the storm.
Do anything long enough, and it becomes a habit.
It was a habit when I moved to New Haven for my girlfriend of five years, in a relationship on its last legs even before we’d moved. But it was so worn into my skin, into my lungs, that I didn’t notice it anymore. And after a few months in my new city I barely noticed that sometimes the only words that left my mouth in a given day would happen in the car, by myself, no one to talk to but my stereo.
Once a week I voyaged down the interstate to the Trader Joe’s. My car had a six-CD player and no input for an mp3 player or a phone, and, too lazy—too tired—to change them out, I listened to the same six CDs over and over again.
That’s a lie. I listened to one. The first half of it was Boys & Girls, by Alabama Shakes, and the second half was The National’s High Violet, minus the first track, “Terrible Love,” which I was frustrated to realize I’d left off in order to make room. I always skipped through it to land on “Sorrow,” the second track of High Violet.
I liked The National at first for the weird way I always misheard the lyrics: In “This Is the Last Time,” I consistently heard “I won’t be vacant anymore “ as “I won’t be bacon anymore,” and in “Sorrow,” “cover me with rag and bone sympathy” became “cover me with Reagan-born sympathy.” These inaccuracies cracked me up in the early months of my time in the new city. They reminded me of the friends I’d left behind in Seattle and the hours we’d spent riffing on lines and making shit up. I sang my misheard lyrics along with the stereo, off-key, and laughed at the thought of ceasing to be bacon.
It was a momentary lift. A respite.
My girlfriend had grad school; I had what I called freelancing but what could more accurately have been termed unemployment. I told myself I was writing a book; I told myself it would get better.
On my trips down to the Trader Joe’s, I listened to High Violet and a scrounged-up copy of Trouble Will Find Me on repeat, and my car began to feel more like home than home did. I retreated into the deep croon of Matt Berninger’s voice.
“I Need My Girl” made me feel the quiet tremble of my body preparing to cry, the silent vibration of emotion across my ribcage, my collarbones; it made me want to shut my eyes and shiver. The distortion at the beginning of “Little Faith” made me panic, like something was clawing its way out from my chest, until the opening chords and Berninger’s voice stepped in and I immediately calmed. “Fireproof” made me feel like I was a string being plucked, thrumming. Listening to “Afraid of Everyone,” I felt translucent, ghostly.
In the car, hurtling down to the grocery store, I felt. But it wasn’t mine—I could leave those feelings behind me when I got home, shut off and feel nothing, inside or out.
“Sorrow found me when I was young / Sorrow waited, sorrow won,” he sang to me, those lyrics crisp and clear, unmistakable, and it wasn’t just the sounds coming from my speakers, but the words, too—yes, I thought, that is exactly how I have always felt. Emanating from the surround-sound speakers of my car, the song’s drumbeat reached in through my chest and I felt it as my own, the slow, steady, melancholy beating of my heart. Single plinks of piano keys gave way to a cascade of notes that tugged me along, ever forward, even as Berninger’s voice bore down, heavy and comforting, like a blanket cast over a birdcage to shut out the light. Driving down the highway, I wanted to close my eyes so that the trucks and SUVs would fall away, leaving nothing but the music—but Matt’s voice—to hold me.
The thing is, when you’ve been depressed, you learn what to look for, how to recognize your triggers. I’d learned to anticipate the swell of overwhelming sadness, the onrush of emotions that felt like drowning.
So when, a few months in, I stopped feeling outside those fleeting moments in my car—when I became numb, when I stopped looking even my girlfriend in the eye—I thought, yeah, sure, I’m fine, I’m not depressed. I guess I’m happy. Happy enough.
And the thing with The National, with Berninger, with Matt—in a weird way, it almost felt like being in numb, hopeless love. Without the music, everything was flat and nothing mattered. But as I listened to him, I felt Matt’s emotions filling me up.
It wasn’t that I was in love with him, but with his voice, with his words. I was in love with the knowledge that in the confines of my car, I could give myself over completely. I wanted to feel sheltered under the cathedral of his voice, to feel, always, the way his songs made me feel.
But after an endless winter, something in me broke. The island I had so carefully constructed for myself began to feel too small, too confining. I moved out and drove, my car filled to the brim, three hundred miles down the eastern seaboard to my parents’ house in DC. I think I cried twice, whipping around the bends on I-95. But mostly I was calm. I had finally admitted to myself that I was no longer in love, had recognized that, numb myself, I could hardly feel anything for anyone else. And so I had ended the longest relationship of my life, and I knew, desperately, that I should feel something, but I had no idea what that feeling was supposed to be. I was lost, but couldn’t even bring myself to feel afraid.
The whole way down I listened to High Violet on repeat. Halfway there, I found the disc I’d made that contained Boxer and part of Alligator, and there, nestled in between the two albums, I found the missing track—“Terrible Love.”
I’d been home for a month or two when I bought the missing The National albums in my collection and burned them all to disc. I placed each one of them in my car, in chronological order.
I had cut myself adrift, no girlfriend, no job, no home, and I listened to the first three discs most of all. Those early albums are raw, angry, almost desperate. Not necessarily more upbeat but always grasping for something—an understanding of how to be, of who to be, of how to keep people around. The guitar is louder, faster; the drums more insistently frenetic. I took long aimless drives to howl along with “Mr. November”’s cry of “I won’t fuck this up,” so fast and frantic that you know he’s trying to convince himself as much as he’s trying to convince the listener. I listened to “The Geese of Beverly Road” on repeat because the guitar and drums never seemed to fit quite right and that made me feel a troubling sort of anxious fluttering, almost an anticipation, that was always tempered by the weirdly calm chorus.
I listened to the refuge of his voice and it taught me to feel something new.
Maybe it was the range of emotion stretched across six discs; maybe it was all the change, the newfound independence, the fact that I was no longer avoiding my sneaking suspicion that I had fallen out of love. But even outside my car, away from his voice, I started to feel again, bit by bit, spikes of sadness or anger—and occasionally, a tremble of happiness, cutting through the gloom.
They weren’t Matt’s emotions filling me up; they were mine.
I find solace in sadness, now, because it is something I feel, deeply and completely and my own. Like Berninger’s voice in the car it sinks into my bones and resounds, resonates, exquisite discomfort. I let depression wrap me like a blanket but it’s a different kind, a kind that feels, a kind that wants to scream. I don’t push it away. I revel. I waver; I let it retreat, let it ebb and flow; I welcome it back with open arms.
I keep my eyes open.