The Gospel According to Nine Inch Nails



I was alone in my parents’ house when Nine Inch Nails helped change my life.

It was a few months after college graduation. I was listening to music while I packed everything—after just unpacking.

Not long before, my mom had told me I had two weeks to get out.

It was just me, a bass line, my worldly possessions, and empty boxes. The loneliness suited me. I could blast the radio as loud as I wanted.

The song changed, and “Head Like A Hole” came on.

Until that day, the song had repulsed me. I didn’t like the raw scream of the singer’s voice. I didn’t like the menace of the lyrics. I expected songs to make me feel good.

But the jagged edge of the music caught me at the right moment. It said everything I was feeling.

The radio was over by the mirrored closet door, so I moved over to it, cranked the volume up and then stood up. I started jumping, less a dance than an attempt to pound the floor to pieces. I glanced up and saw myself scream, my face contorted, my dirty hair flying, my pajamas still on, and I wondered, with shock, who I’d become.

I didn’t know the lyrics well enough to have any idea what they actually meant, but I chanted them with relish. Head like a hole. Black as your soul. I’d rather die than give you control.

I screamed at my reflection with a kind of triumphant bitterness.

I’d come back from college all squeaky-clean and polished. I graduated with honors, had earned a scholarship to study abroad the year before, and won my university’s writing competition.

When I got home, I knew I was supposed to look for a job. Was supposed to parlay my accomplishments into a career. Was supposed to climb higher and achieve more. I paged through a copy of What Color is Your Parachute, set up informational interviews at Hewlett Packard, tried to write out a resume.

But every day, I felt more bewildered.

Sure that those and other woes were a result of spiritual warfare, I went to Christian therapy for the first time. When my therapist told me she thought I was depressed, I laughed.

“Me?” I said. “I’m one of the most optimistic people I know. I’m, like, happy all the time.”

She tilted her head to one side, not amused. “Heather, someone once described depression as anger turned inward. Who are you angry at?”

All the air went out of the room. Because I knew exactly whom I was angry at, even though, moments before, I’d had no idea.

“My parents,” I whispered.

Why was I angry? My childhood had been filled with trauma during and after my parents’ decision to send first my brother, then my sister to a children’s home. I had never really felt any of my feelings about that—neither grief, or anger, or outrage. No, instead, I’d bottled everything up like homemade kombucha.

More than a decade later, everything spewed out at once.

Looking back, I have compassion for how bewildering this must have been for my mom and dad. I came home from that therapy appointment suddenly enraged, with all the coping mechanisms that had helped me manage severe depression ripped off like a child’s Band-Aid.

And we were supposed to sip tea together at breakfast?

They’d gotten used to me being happy all the time and had no clue how to relate to the person who’d replaced me. Our family had made a specialty of ignoring our emotions. My parents loved me, but they weren’t ready to shed their numbness.

After a few weeks of hell, they asked me to leave.

Now, screaming at my reflection in the mirror, I learned something from the wild look in my eyes.

I learned that screaming did not bring lightning down on my head.

I learned that I was not alone. At the very least, the songwriter—whoever he was—probably would understand my rage. I realized that angry, hateful, dark music existed because it was responding to real pain.

I realized that niceness did not cut the mustard for me anymore.

I learned that my feelings were real, and that I could give myself permission to feel them.

I learned that the colossal knot in my stomach loosened a little when I did.

And I realized, looking in my eyes, that afraid as I was of moving, independence and free-falling into depression and unemployment, I would never go back to papering over my anger. My spine, it turned out, was filled with steel.

I was standing in darkness. Complete darkness. Honestly, after that day, things got a lot worse before they got better.

But Nine Inch Nails sang a song of redemption for me. In its blackness was a wild beauty of truth, and honest self-examination, and finally, finally being able to look myself in the eye.


Image credit: Porche Brosseau

Heather Caliri
Heather Caliri is a writer from San Diego who loves British murder mysteries, advice columns, and hot breakfasts. She uses tiny, joyful yeses to free herself from anxiety. Her new devotional, Word Made Art: Lent, prompts you to cut, color, paste and glitter your way through an old Bible before Easter. She lives close to a library with her husband and two daughters.
Heather Caliri
Heather Caliri

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  • HBurns

    Loving this post … and I admire your strength and resolve to let yourself feel on the way to freedom. Blessings xo

    • Thank you, Helen! I’m so grateful for my emotions. They can be messy, but they have led me to Jesus time and time again.

    • Donna-Jean Brown

      Oh, Helen, that’s weird – I read your phrase inaccurately as “feel your way to freedom” and thought – wow – that describes my life exactly: feeling my way to Jesus, feeling my way to feminism, feeling my way to acceptance. How wild are the ways of the Holy Counsellor! I had to learn to value my emotions as well as my intellect.

  • Wow, Heather. A brave and beautiful story!

  • Amazed at the way God’s “song of redemption” is always customized to the heart that needs His light. Stunning.

    • I agree, Michele, He is able to reach us no matter where we are!

  • Dang. I love the permission you’ve given us here, Heather. Permission to own our anger and even our love for dark, angsty music. Permission to look ourselves in the eye. Thank you. This is beautiful.

    • Thank you, Bethany 🙂 And here’s to music for ALL our emotions.

  • cjdeboer

    Heather your writing has become so fierce! But in a good way – I love it!!! It speaks truth and challenges the reader to both self examine and act. I always love your posts and I’m so thankful I get to work with you. xo

    • Saskia Wishart

      Totally what Claire said – fierce! But in the best possible way! Your bravery with storytelling makes me want to take more risks.

      • thanks, Saskia. I’m honored to hear that from someone whose fierce risk-taking I admire so much 🙂

    • Yeah, I feel a little disconcerted to realize I’m a dragon instead of a duckling. But it’s good to feel like I can stretch out my limbs and roar 🙂

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  • I had a similar moment after my last maths exam of high school didn’t go so well and Alanis Morrisette let me express my negative emotions!

  • Kelly Hausknecht Chripczuk

    “I learned that my feelings were real and I could give myself permission to feel them.” Scary, true and hard when you’ve practiced a lifetime of stuffing. I really resonate with the truths you share, Heather. Thank you for writing the hard stuff.

  • Donna-Jean Brown

    Oh yeah, Heather – I’m with Claire and Saskia, loving the fierceness you’re revealing. I am so sorry for your childhood suffering and I admire you for keeping on keeping on toward holy freedom.

    • Thanks, DJ. I’m so thankful that the sucky parts are turning into something beautiful. That is a tremendous gift 🙂

  • Lindsey Smallwood

    Oh Heather, wow. Lovely, hard words. Life is finding all those bits of ourselves and making sense of them. So thankful for this season of learning for you – I had a similar one myself. Thanks for again pointing us toward freedom.

    • Thanks, Lindsey. I’m grateful too, though I would not volunteer to go through it again 🙂

  • pastordt

    Wow, what a journey, Heather. I am sorry for the pain of it, but thrilled at that steel in your spine. Thank you for writing it out so powerfully.

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