“No one says that unresolved trauma can kill you. If anyone did, maybe people would take it more seriously. Serious as cancer."
PTSD is an insidious disease, one that crawls into every crevice of the sufferer’s body and mind, spreading its fear and darkness even to the happiest of moments, and this is what McClelland’s new memoir Irritable Hearts: A PTSD Love Story captures so well.
As a journalist, Mac McClelland has traveled to the most war torn regions of the world, but nothing could have prepared her for Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 2010 after the earthquake that left more than three million people homeless. She arrives in Haiti to find people living in tents made out of tarps and wooden poles that threaten to collapse in a mudslide with every rainfall. It is not destitution or hunger or sickness that has the population living in fear, however: it is rape. Violence against women, specifically rape, has always been higher in Haiti than in most other countries in the world, with an average of 50 women raped a day, according to one of the sources McClelland interviewed during her time in the country. After the earthquake, this number hiked up exponentially, with men cutting through the makeshift tents and stealing women right from their refugee homes. They were raped for food, for shelter, for anything that they required, and many did not survive the experience. In a city facing such destruction, the police was inefficient at best, and at worst, corrupt. Even Haitian doctors turned their backs on these assaulted women, blaming them for the violence or shrugging it off as part of life.
It is while setting out to interview sources for her story that McClelland sees “it.” We do not know what “it” is, since she does not gives a description. All we know is that she witnesses something related to rape happening in a vehicle and a group of men. This image along with its accompanying scream, is what latches on to her like a tick, drawing all vitality and equanimity from her.
No matter how many times we read about PTSD, there is a classic image in our heads about what suffering from this debilitating disorder means. A soldier just returned from war with anger issues, depression, and hallucinations. The reasons we have this notion about what the disorder looks like is because the majority of cases we have heard about are those related to soldiers. Reading about McClelland’s experience, however, allows us to put a different face on the disease. Nothing happened to her directly, yet she is struck down, her mind crystallizing and shattering after witnessing trauma.
The memoir speaks to the nature of trauma. It splits damage open to show us the underbelly of our minds and bodies, the way we can all too easily break apart. It speaks of what it means to be a victim versus being victimized with all its subtle but important distinctions. It shows that there is no magic cure or special button that can erase damage done to our minds, but instead that it is a steep struggle to sure footing once again. But, however, McClelland’s memoir tells us that it is possible to do.
Since her own mind was so disjointed at the time of her PTSD, it is no surprise that the memoir has its rough patches. There are some head-cockingly strange transitions that could require a seconds reading, and although the book calls itself a love story, this aspect of it is its weakest. We do not get a strong foundation of the relationship between Nico and Mac, so it is difficult to understand the strength of that relationship or what it means to the author as the narrative progresses.
Ultimately, Mac McClelland presents a fearlessly raw look at what PTSD is. She is honest about every aspect of the disorder, from its inception and all the way down the long road to recovery. Acute narration and powerful insights into what it means to be helpless make this memoir one to read.