“If you love somebody, you stick with them,” she said, and there it was, naïve, and beautiful, and impractically pure.Irritable Hearts, p. 231
Until now, we’ve been exploring fictionalized accounts of PTSD, first from a sufferer’s and then from a doctor’s point of view. But despite our cultural preconceptions of veterans suffering in stoic silence, PTSD is a disease that rarely lives alone. It impacts relationships, especially intimate partnerships.
I came across Mac McClelland’s* work fairly late in my desperate two-year search for PTSD relationship stories. It was a revelation.
As an investigative reporter for Mother Jones, McClelland traveled to post-earthquake Haiti in 2010. Two things happened on that trip: she contracted PTSD, triggered by events related to sexual assault, and she met a man, Nico, with whom she would fall in love and eventually marry.
Irritable Hearts — the memoir’s name is taken from the post-Civil War term for PTSD — follows her journey from symptom onset and first kiss to healing and marriage. This sounds like a Disney version of PTSD; you can imagine an uplifting song about love conquering all. But it’s actually a raw, difficult, honest, complicated, challenging story.
I could have lived like that. For a long time. People do it. Like a piece of cardboard, walking around tall and flat in the world, without nerve endings, sinews stiff enough to keep any weakness they’re holding safely twined up. It keeps the good things from getting in, too. But you barely register emptiness when you only have two dimensions. People do it, keep their constriction mostly intact; except for the moments when they don’t.Irritable Hearts, p. 93
The memoir is full of incredible insights about gender and trauma, the emergence of PTSD as a clinical diagnosis, and its impact on families and communities. It’s also full of deeply moving personal experiences drawn from McClelland’s path to healing, the hope she found in somatic therapy, her later reporting on secondary trauma, and the community of PTSD survivors she discovered through the process.
It’s an impeccably researched and beautifully written book, and I can’t wait to get started discussing it with you all. If you are following along, we’ll discuss:
First third of the book (Prologue – Chapter 8, or pages 1 – 114 in the 2015 paperback edition): Thursday July 15
Second third of the book (Chapters 9 – 12 or pages 115 – 201): Thursday July 23
Final third of the book (Chapters 13 – Epilogue or pages 201 – 256): Thursday July 30
Alibris has a number of copies of the memoir for less than $5 including shipping. You can borrow a copy from Internet Archive. If you live in the Cap Region of NY, the Washington Ave. branch of the Albany Public Library has a copy as well — I know because that’s the copy I first read!
* Mac McClelland now goes by the name Gabriel Mac, and uses he/him pronouns. When referring to the main character and author of Irritable Hearts, I’ll refer to Mac by the name and gender he was inhabiting at the time of the writing and publication of the book. I don’t want to dead-name him, but many of the points about PTSD and relationships made in the memoir are gender-specific and I want to stay true to those original observations.
Content warnings for Irritable Hearts: While McClelland doesn’t go into grisly detail about the events leading to her PTSD, there is a lot in this book that might trigger a trauma response: discussion of sexual assault, military violence, alcohol abuse and suicide among them.