Irritable Hearts: A Searing, Beautiful (and Funny) Chronicle of Love and PTSD

Click here to buy a copy of Irritable Hearts: A PTSD Love Story.

“No one says that unresolved trauma can kill you. If anyone did, maybe people would take it more seriously. Serious as cancer.” Thus writes Mac McClelland in her unflinching new book Irritable Hearts: A PTSD Love Story. Part memoir, part investigative journalism jaunt, part searing look at a complex and frequently misunderstood illness, Irritable Hearts  chronicles McClelland’s battles with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — which she first experienced while reporting on the atrocities of post-earthquake Haiti in 2010 for Mother Jones magazine — and whose persistent effects include a delightful grab bag of night terrors, dissociation, numbness, self-harm, suicidal thoughts, hysterical sobbing fits, alcoholism, and a belief that she is the embodiment of poison.

The book begins with an unlikely romantic endeavor. McClelland’s boyfriend Nico, a French peacekeeper whom she met in Haiti, asks her to marry him in the middle of a hysterical breakdown, prompted by her unresolved trauma from reporting on Haiti’s alarming sexual violence epidemic. An award-winning human rights reporter and author of the heart-rending, nonfiction look at Burmese genocide, For Us Surrender Is Out of the Question, McClelland is no stranger to horrific cruelties. So it’s unsurprising that Irritable Hearts claws deep into the shitstew of PTSD, with McClelland candidly and shockingly presenting facts and statistics about the disorder that many probably have never heard or read about.

For instance, though we mostly associate PTSD with soldiers, in actuality, the most common cause of the disorder in America is violence against women (with domestic abuse and sexual assault ranking highly). Another is that many natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina, which McClelland evacuated from in 2005, result in PTSD. Another is that every day, eighteen veterans commit suicide. In an alarming catch-22, McClelland notes that “the very things that made the ones with PTSD want to die were the symptoms their bodies produced because it had so badly wanted to survive.” Another is that PTSD sufferers don’t even need to directly experience trauma in order to be develop symptoms, as countless wives of veterans have attested (and many of whom McClelland interviewed).

But far from a beautifully crafted catalog of emotional and cultural atrocities, Irritable Hearts is seared with an undeniable hopefulness, as well as McClelland’s cheerfully acidic wit and singular talent for storytelling. The subtitle delivers on its promise: at its core, the book is a love story, and a terribly romantic one at that. The barriers that Mac and Nico overcome are so numerous and so weighty that they increasingly take on an almost soap-operatic quality. For each other, they cross language barriers and continents; they face displacement and mental illness and suicide — one attempted, one carried through. And yet, in spite of all that, it’s love’s deep and reassuring promise that carries them both through.

"I wanted to feel myself in the world so I could feel the best thing the world had to offer, and that was Nico's love," she writes. And in this way, Irritable Hearts is far more than a love story — it’s a life story. A testament to survival, the bloody fist of it, how we make it through the pain and suffering of living in a world that has been and will always be fucked. Not only that, but it’s about how we move on and grow and love, not just others, but our own deeply flawed selves. This is the crux of McClelland’s book, the rare beating irritable heart of it.

Much like the earthquake Haiti that McClelland was reporting on when she first experienced her plight with PTSD, Irritable Hearts will shake you to the core, and all the agony and defeat and struggle that McClelland lives and writes through is palpably felt. It can be, at times, an exhausting read. In fact, early on in the book, I joked to my girlfriend that reading about her PTSD was giving me PTSD. That’s an exaggeration, of course, but McClelland writes with that kind of immediacy and nerve. You can tell she is writing for her life.

One of the most deeply felt facets of the book is in regard to our cultural biases against those who experience trauma. Culturally and systemically, we have a tendency to want to downplay, deny, ignore, and outright mock those who suffer from the disorder (PTSD didn’t even make it into the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until 1980, a scant 35 years ago). Our warped societal views on PTSD often take on a victim-blaming mentality, and the ensuing ridicule, rejection, and stigma only serve to prolong and worsen PTSD symptoms. McClelland herself had much trouble accepting her own PTSD diagnosis, despite her symptoms matching the DSM’s definition to a T, and confirmations from not one, not two, but three licensed therapists (the last one involving a state-certified psychiatric evaluation, so that her insurance would allow her to keep seeing the second therapist).

Despite the book’s weightier issues, Irritable Hearts is also quite funny. This is due to McClelland’s signature self-deprecating style, which gives even her craziest moments a kind of unhinged jubilance. For instance, after months of struggling to have non-hysterical-crying-or-triggering sex with Nico, she finally succeeds, joyfully exclaiming: “Make way for this girl; she’s got FUNCTIONAL SEXUALITY.” In another scenario, she has imaginary truthful phone calls with her loved ones that go like this: “Hi it’s me. I still hate being alive. Yeah, I am still not coping with any of this.” In another, she recalls the absurdity of having an episodic breakdown in the canned-bean aisle of the grocery store. In another, she recounts of the daily night terrors she experienced at the same time that she was falling in love:

“[W]e woke up smiling at each other and he said, “I was dreaming we were shopping for engagement rings.”

“Oh yeah?” I said. “I was dreaming I stepped in a decomposing face.”

McClelland is, as she describes herself in regard to how her journalistic sources feel about her, “universally charming,” despite all of the panic and anger and sadness piled on top of her life like some kind of clownish grief cake. And her keen, sympathetic eye in the face of all the suffering and loss is what ultimately buoys the narrative out of darkness and into one of kindness, forgiveness, and wobbly triumph.

Near the end of the book, McClelland (with help from renowned trauma researcher Judith Lewis Herman) reminds us that recovery cannot be done in isolation. We need to surround ourselves with good people and big loves and new connections if we are to have a chance at survival. “Recovery can only take place within the context of relationships,” writes Herman.

McClelland sums up this importance in one stark, lovely passage toward the book’s end. It’s shortly after she and Nico have wed, and are about to start the rest of their lives, “for better or for worse”: “We celebrated in the stillness at a cabin there, my dress, spilling over a chair, a reminder of what we’d done, but the feeling around us the same as in my hotel room that night in Haiti: relief that we were near. Permanently relieved, now, that we would never be another way.”

Click here to buy a copy of Irritable Hearts: A PTSD Love Story.

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