"I had nightmares, flashbacks. I dissociated... Changes in self-perception and hallucinations-those are some of my other symptoms. You are poison, I chanted silently to myself. And your poison is contagious."
So begins Mac McClelland's powerful, unforgettable memoir, Irritable Hearts.
When thirty-year-old, award-winning human rights journalist Mac McClelland left Haiti after reporting on the devastating earthquake of 2010, she never imagined how the assignment would irrevocably affect her own life. Back home in California, McClelland cannot stop reliving vivid scenes of violence. She is plagued by waking terrors, violent fantasies, and crippling emotional breakdowns. She can't sleep or stop crying. Her life in shambles, it becomes clear that she is suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Her bewilderment about this sudden loss of control is magnified by the intensity of her feelings for Nico, a French soldier she met in Port-au-Prince and with whom she connected instantly and deeply.
With inspiring fearlessness, McClelland tackles perhaps her most harrowing assignment to date: investigating the damage in her own mind and repairing her broken psyche. She begins to probe the depths of her illness, exploring our culture's history with PTSD, delving into the latest research by the country's top scientists and therapists, and spending time with veterans and their families. McClelland discovers she is far from alone: while we frequently associate PTSD with wartime combat, it is more often caused by other manner of trauma and can even be contagious-close proximity to those afflicted can trigger its symptoms. As she confronts the realities of her diagnosis, she opens up to the love that seems to have found her at an inopportune moment.
Irritable Hearts is a searing, personal medical mystery that unfolds at a breakneck pace. But it is also a romance. McClelland fights desperately to repair her heart so that she can give it to the kind, patient, and compassionate man with whom she wants to share a life. Vivid, suspenseful, tender, and intimate, Irritable Hearts is a remarkable exploration of vulnerability and resilience, control and acceptance. It is a riveting and hopeful story of survival, strength, and love.
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About the Author
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A PTSD Love Story
By Mac McClelland
Flatiron BooksCopyright © 2015 Mac McClelland
All rights reserved.
Later, I would go back over every detail. Like it was a crime scene. Like a detective. But when I arrived in Port-au-Prince on a mid-September morning in 2010, everything seemed—everything was—perfectly ordinary.
As ordinary as could be expected in Haiti's capital then, anyway. Nine months earlier, a 7.0 earthquake had shaken the country into a shambles, dropping or damaging 290,000 buildings, killing or maiming at least as many. You wouldn't know it just to step off a plane. I smiled at the band that greeted us, several guys singing and playing upbeat twoubadou on guitars and maracas. They were cheerful in the blasting heat. But inside the airport, I waited at customs in a long line of other after-disaster interlopers: aid workers, religious workers, groups in matching T-shirts—a youth mission, old ladies spreading the wisdom of naturopathy. Guys I suspected were journalists, like me, and guys I knew were journalists, with the aloofness and cameras and occasional opening up and rearranging of black trunks full of equipment. I stripped down to a tank top, and forgot to fill out some form. Got waved through anyway, and grabbed one of the drivers crowding around outside baggage claim. Hopped in a nice white van, and made the acquaintance of post-earthquake, mid-recovery, pre-reconstruction Haiti. Three and a half million people had been affected. Fewer than 10 million people lived there.
"It's intense," a program officer for a nonprofit had told me at home in San Francisco two days before. She'd admitted that as much as her organization dealt deep in countries' worst problems, forced disappearances and femicide and hate crimes, she hadn't quite been prepared for the shape Port-au-Prince was in. But she couldn't quite say why.
My editors wanted a narrative postcard from Haiti, a description of a disaster that people knew but couldn't meaningfully imagine. I was going to be in town for two weeks, and I was supposed to write shorter stories for the magazine's Web site daily, then a feature-length cover story for print when I got home. How was the aid delivery and rebuilding going. How was morale. Based on my prearrival interviews, the story would probably include the epidemic of sexual violence against women. One of the activists to whom I'd spoken before I left had encouraged me to investigate "coerced transactional sex" for food-aid cards. Two had mentioned "rape gangs."
Beyond the gates of Toussaint L'Ouverture International, the first thing you saw was the camps. "Tents" was the word everyone used to describe what constituted them, but the shelters were barely deserving of that designation, the makeshift tarp boxes erected with sticks and held together with ropes and strings. They undulated along and away from the road in seas of various sizes, camps all the way to the hotel, tucked into every spare space, plastic sheets in gray and white and blue, plastic from USAID, plastic from any place that it could be had. More than a million Haitians, they said, lived displaced like that, crammed into more than a thousand camps. As the months wore on, and the interminable summer, they'd become mires of starvation and increasing hopelessness.
The driver of my hired van was a slim twentysomething named Henri. He was eager to share his expansive knowledge of American rap, and proudly dialed up an iPod playlist with his lanky fingers while I surveyed the scenes of my new assignment. Standard no-infrastructure traffic chaos. Diesel fumes and hot urban dust. The shops were crowded next to each other, as were the people who walked in front of them along the side of the road. There were peacekeepers all over the place, one of the largest United Nations forces on the planet, on foot and in trucks, Koreans and Nepalese and Italians in uniform, the Brazilians in particular decked out for war with assault rifles and helmets and flak jackets. Everywhere there were half-shaken buildings that looked bombed out, gaping holes in their cement facades, or buildings that had been reduced to piles of debris. Nineteen million cubic meters of rubble—enough, people liked to say, that if you put it all in shipping containers, the line of them would stretch from London to Beirut.
Henri gave me the audio tour to this exhibition of his country: It looks different, he said, with people and cars skirting rubble—one of the debris piles a car wash he'd used just hours before it crashed down—but there was also a lot that had not changed. It didn't help now that most of the national government buildings had been damaged, but politicians had always been corrupt, he said. There were always people who were too poor to know what they were going to eat the next day. Henri was from a middle-class family, but said he was going to become upper class someday.
We drove for forty-five minutes. Though the van was air-conditioned, we sweated. Everybody honked, whether to say Thank you or Fuck you or I'm turning! Another car hit us, but nobody really cared. As Henri explained why this was the most opportune time for a businessman to invest in Haiti, I registered my surroundings—the tent citizens wet and nearly naked next to the car, taking baths out of buckets in the street along the edge—a bit mechanically. Like, I remember thinking, a person who's too used to registering surroundings. I and Henri both, maybe. He said his heart was breaking when two tiny kids pressed themselves against my window to beg for money at a traffic stop. But when we inevitably passed another displacement camp fifteen seconds later, and I asked him if that wasn't heartbreaking, too, he shrugged.
I was tired. I'd spent nearly four straight months in New Orleans covering a disaster of the manmade kind, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and I'd been on a beach vacation for a week and back home in San Francisco for just two days before hopping a plane to Miami, spending the night at the shabby airport hotel, then rising early to clear security again and catch the plane to Port-au-Prince. I was relieved when Henri pulled up to the Hotel Oloffson, a storied Gothic gingerbread mansion at the top of a steep driveway. The rest of the street was all bustle, and across it was a displacement camp, but on this side of the road it was high gates tended by men in uniform and, behind them, the hotel's pretty white face rising from among palm and pine trees. I walked up the outdoor stairs and across a huge porch to the reception desk. I took my key straight to my room, a freestanding concrete cottage with a thin wood door, down some stairs to the right of the porch. It was just behind the small pool. My movements were automated as I prepared myself for bed and climbed into it.
Exhausted though I was, I was restless once I lay down, the way one is in a new place. There were new smells of food and fumes and humidity. Despite how the twoubadou guys had made everyone feel for an instant at the airport, I wasn't on holiday. But it was always stimulating to be on the brink of getting to know a place.
* * *
After a long time, I finally napped. After that, I got up, met with one contact, talked to some locals at the hotel bar so I'd have a story for the Web site the next day, and went straight back to bed.
The Hotel Oloffson's front porch, high up two sets of stairs, was vast and beset with tables, an open-air restaurant populated with foreign and elite Haitian drinkers and diners. Journalists held court there, the only place in the hotel with Internet, meeting with politicians and each other. The next day, I set up an impromptu office there as well, filing the story, making phone calls, arranging interviews.
I worked reluctantly, in my fatigue. The breeze off an intermittent rain was pleasant, and as I watched a slow trickle of patrons come and go through the day, I had moments when I wished I could hang around drinking tea, too. Outside, there was always a lot to take in, and given the hard-running, news-breaking, petro-tragedy I'd just worked in Louisiana, I'd resisted this assignment's timing. But I was on a publication deadline. By the end of the afternoon that first day, I wouldn't say I was ready to go out reporting, but I was pleased with my progress toward getting ready to do it. I'd resolved to make myself game. As the early evening came, I continued to e-mail and lay groundwork, stopping only to look around, or to scowl now and then at a large, loud group partying at a long table to my right.
Eventually, a prospective driver and translator—a "fixer," in journalism parlance—that I'd called joined me at my table. His name was Marc. We made introductions and haggled over fees, and after we'd agreed to work together, I told him more about my assignment. When I told him that I wanted to cover the rape survivors and activists trying to help new victims, he told me that, coincidentally, he worked with these groups and could make introductions. Sometimes he drove rape victims to the hospital—women who'd been gang-raped, mutilated. He helped orchestrate their care and took them money and medicine—when money and medicine were to be had—or moved them to secret locations when their rapists threatened to revictimize or kill them—again, if funds allowed. Actually, he said, he was doing work like that tomorrow.
Marc retreated to a quieter section of the grounds to phone an American lawyer who had founded a charity that paid for some of the assistance he'd be providing the next day, to see if everyone involved was willing to share their story. While he was gone, I observed my fellow patrons in the low-lit ambience. I got a better look at the obnoxious partiers, who were, I realized eventually, belting out songs in French. They were abnormally attractive, every one of them too fit and lithe; probably soldiers like the military-cut guys I'd seen outside my room window earlier. Those guys had been making an all-out waterpark of the old, largely unused pool, diving and cannonballing and synchronized-backflipping into the water in their Speedos. Indeed these were likely the same assholes, unless there were multiple packs of underwear-model-grade Frenchmen roving the grounds. Which, given the flood of post-quake foreigners, also seemed entirely possible.
Marc returned to the table, then went home, with an arrangement to pick me up at this same spot early the next morning if all the sources were still comfortable with my presence. I would be ready to go just in case. I wrapped up my work, and headed toward my room. I'd resolved to go swimming before going to bed, to try to settle, try to wrest some of the tiredness and tension from my muscles, try to exercise myself into a hard and healthy sleep. When I got to my room to change, I cursed the Frenchmen. I could see they'd overrun the pool again.
I forced my plan forward. I made eye contact with several of them in the darkness as I approached the pool, entering the water without a word. I swam around them, sticking to the narrow edges. As irritated as I was, I couldn't help watching one through the dim light at the side of the pool as he leaped over another who had bent at the waist, somersaulting through the air into the water.
What must it be like, I had to marvel, to have so much trust in one's center of gravity?
"Excuse me," he said. He swam over slowly, but purposefully, as if we had something to discuss. I saw when he was close that it was the one with the shining green eyes who'd caught my gaze every time I'd glared at them on the balcony. In fact, he was swimming over now because he'd told his platoon mates at the table that I kept looking at him as if I wanted him, and they'd told him that now was his chance to prove it.
"Do you speak French?"
I didn't. He and his best friend, Jimmy, turned out not to speak English, though we'd taken each other's languages in school.
We tried words in our own languages, slowly, until one sounded familiar enough in the other's to get the gist, or used the few French or English words in our vocabularies. I was a pro, one of the best I knew, at deciphering heavy accents—and thank God, as neither of them had exercised their pronunciation since high school. Mine wasn't any better. But pretty efficiently, we were able to clear up that I was American, not British. After that, I confirmed my suspicions about them.
"Are you military?" I asked.
"Yes," they said. "Police."
"You're military? Or police?"
"... We are ... military. And ... we are police."
They knew the words "United Nations," so I understood that the French government had lent them to Haiti's international peacekeeping force. They asked me what I did, with as few words as possible ("You?"); we all said where we lived. Though they repeated it six times, I didn't recognize the name of their city—or know if it even was a city or a region—but they had heard of San Francisco.
We talked, occasionally swimming. After a while, the one with the eyes, who introduced himself as Nico, tried pantomiming something to me for several minutes to explain where their lieutenant was. He touched his forefingers and thumbs together to make a little circle with his hands. He made sort of a V in the air, with a circle maybe on top of it. He said some words I didn't know, but then "gateau" and "glace," and threw his hands up exasperatedly when I said "Dessert?" because he hadn't tried that word. And it was the same word in both languages.
So as their lieutenant had dessert—on the balcony, I gathered from the pointing—we chatted. The rest of the guys had disappeared, and the three of us treaded the quiet black water together. Nico and Jimmy spoke among themselves often, in French, sometimes to try to come up with an English word. When Nico turned his back to me, I wondered what he would do if I wrapped myself around him, pressing my chest into his shoulders.
It startled me a little.
I wasn't given to wrapping myself around strangers. As they continued talking, I interrogated myself. Was I lonely? That didn't seem right; I'd been away from home for four months, but in New Orleans, I'd connected with an old love interest, and loved, been loved while I was there. I figured I was probably disoriented, but I couldn't see why I'd try to orient myself around some random French guy.
Eventually, he hopped out of the pool and put pants on. When he came back, we sat next to each other at the edge of the water. We pointed to each other's tattoos and talked about them by giving key words about their histories, our faces close. "I cannot make tattoo," Jimmy said, from where he was hanging in the deep end near us, shaking his head. "About ze needles ... I am. ..." He mimicked cringing, a kind of prissiness, while searching for any English word in his vocabulary that might convey it. "I am ... gay." When I left to go shower for bed, both of them urged me to instead shower and meet them back on the hotel porch.
There, Haiti's most famous mizik rasin ("roots music") band, fronted by the hotel's proprietor, was gearing up to play the regular Thursday-night gig that drew huge mixed crowds from across Port-au-Prince. I made an appearance, as I'd promised the boys, but only briefly. The hotel was suddenly packed. It was hot and loud. Nico reached in his pocket and shook car keys at me when I mimed that he wasn't drinking like everyone else, and I wasn't, either. I told them I couldn't stay, that I had to get up early to maybe go with Marc as he helped rape survivors, and they shook their heads and pooled their English to say it was like that all the time in the camps, the violence and rape—a lot of rape, they repeated. Soon, the rest of their unit crowded around us, thrilled to meet a U.S. citizen; they were provincial French, not Parisian-mean. They spoke even less English than Nico and Jimmy did but were drunkenly determined to try, enthusiastically shouting one word at a time in my face, any word, as it came to them.
Excerpted from Irritable Hearts by Mac McClelland. Copyright © 2015 Mac McClelland. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This brave retelling of a journey of love, trauma and healing is a must-read for anyone suffering from or who loves someone with PTSD. Moving on is great, but when your body denies you that luxury, it can be as terrifying as it is confusing. Irritable Hearts brought up long-ago traumas, both healed and unhealed. As the story progressed, I was reminded of tools I'd learned to deal with the triggers caused by old traumas, and a few new tools as well. But despite all this pain, the book is a beautiful love story. Thank you Mac McClelland for having the courage to tell these entwined stories with such frankness.