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Irritable Hearts: Book summary and reviews of Irritable Hearts by Mac McClelland

Irritable Hearts

A PTSD Love Story

by Mac McClelland

Irritable Hearts by Mac McClelland X
Irritable Hearts by Mac McClelland
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  • Published in USA  Feb 2015
    320 pages
    Genre: Biography/Memoir

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Book Summary

"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-wining 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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Media Reviews

"McClelland's candor and empathy are admirable, but this would have benefited from more editorial shaping." - Kirkus

"In Irritable Hearts, [McClelland] recounts her struggle with soul-baring candor, explaining not only her jarring symptoms, but also her fierce, unconventional attempts to cure herself." - Barnes and Noble

"Irritable Hearts is a powerful memoir about a young journalist's painful battle with PTSD and her arduous road to recovery. But it is also a passionate and beautifully rendered love story. The way McClelland weaves together these two disparate tales makes this book a brilliant and captivating read." - Mira Bartok, author of the New York Times bestseller The Memory Palace

"In her unforgettable memoir, McClelland begins to unravel her experience with PTSD while falling in love, traversing the globe and trying to understand both how the mind breaks and what it takes to heal in a world where all too often, we are constantly faced with how terribly vulnerable we are." - Roxane Gay, New York Times bestselling author of An Untamed State and Bad Feminist

"This is an important and brave book about an epidemic that everyone should read." - Katie Crouch, bestselling author of Girls in Trucks and Abroad

"At once a memoir, a cockeyed romance, a reporter's travelogue, and a clinical case study, Irritable Hearts will provide great consolation to others who suffer from PTSD - and McClelland's resilience and determination will resonate powerfully even with those who don't." - Scott Stossel, author of the New York Times bestselling My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind

"A broken body can heal only when the mind has found some peace. So I hope that Irritable Hearts will draw attention to PTSD in all its forms and wherever it occurs, and that McClelland will continue poking into those dark places from which the rest of us too easily recoil and turn away." - Julie Metz, author of the New York Times bestseller Perfection: A Memoir of Betrayal

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Reader Reviews

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Elizabeth T. (Psychotherapist, Salem, MA)

A Wild Ride Through Trauma and Recovery
Irritable Hearts: A PTSD Love Story is an irritable but utterly fascinating memoir by Mac McClelland, a journalist in her young thirties, who specializes in stories about breaking crises in chaotic and dangerous environments. She went to Haiti in 2010 to cover the rape epidemic encouraged by the island's deeper dip into lawlessness and poverty caused by the monster earthquake earlier in the year. During that visit, she saw something so horrific (even in the book, she does not give details), that it significantly rearranged the neurons in her brain in the way all trauma does. The book narrates the two-plus years of disregulation in emotion, thought and behavior that resulted in the awful loneliness, roiling emotions, disconnection, and overwhelm that every trauma victim suffers.

"Irritable Hearts" is a name given in 1871 by a doctor named Da Costa to the battle fatigue found in soldiers after the American Civil War. I call the book itself "irritable" because I found the author, her story, and her writing completely annoying for the first 90 pages. I become absorbed by any memoir far more quickly if I immediately find the narrator reliable and likeable. At first I found Mac neither. This woman went by herself to a country that was without a functioning police, government, or infrastructure. She hired male guides and taxi drivers she hardly knew to go visit rape shelters. She began an immediate affair with a French soldier she met in the hotel swimming pool in that previously-described country. She presented herself right away as hard-drinking and heavy-smoking. And she was surprised to be exposed to trauma? Seriously? As a woman who has traveled widely by herself, I judged her all over the place. As far as I was concerned, Mac violated the major commandment of women who travel alone: First, invite no harm. Her breathtaking disregard for her own safety made my hair stand on end. Also, it took work to get used to her writing style, a jumble of convoluted sentences, moving back and forth in time, imparting far too many ideas all at once.

But I didn't quit reading. And after the first 100 pages, after she convinced me that staging rough sex with a male friend, and writing about it for Mother Jones, actually helped her with her PTSD, a change in my attitude occurred. Completely counter-intuitively, I developed a grudging respect for her. Which grew. I got used to her writing style. I admired the way she chose wise and knowledgeable therapists to help her. Her fight with her disordered mind seemed to last and last, but she never gave up.

My faith in her journalistic skills increased with each page. In the midst of this crazy story, she had read, and managed to include, important material from the major historical and psychological literature on trauma. She'd really done her homework. I know this because I am a psychotherapist, and one reason I chose to review this book was that I wish to deepen my specialty in trauma by learning about it from the inside out. Mac's story contributed layers of insight. As her story unfolded, I saw the links between her disordered thoughts and emotions and those of my own traumatized clients. I saw the societal denial and the stigmatizing attitude she describes in my own reactions. This book is not for everyone. But if you've ever been interested as to why soldiers with PTSD seek redeployment, why "rescued" prostitutes return to "the life," why drug addicts that have been clean for 10 years can snap and end up in an alley with a needle in their arms, you will appreciate the insights in this book.

Oh, and by the way, that ill-considered affair that began in a Haitian swimming pool? It lasted, despite the fact that Mac lived in San Francisco and Nick in rural France. He was exactly the healing influence she needed, able to hang in while her moods swung wildly, because he himself was trauma survivor. It was another example of the "across a crowded room" phenomenon, the mysterious way people sense their mutual compatibility instantly. Read this book if you dare.

Gigi K. (Lufkin,, TX)

Difficulty of living with PTSD
The difficulty of living with PTSD and the difficulty of living with one dealing with PTSD are highlighted in this well written book. As the mother of one with PTSD, I saw what research had told me. It was difficult to read but I can be a better mother and friend after reading Irritable Hearts.

Paula Jacunski

Will expand your definition of PTSD
This is a well-written, stunning book that altered what I believed about PTSD. In addition to the author's personal experience, the topic is well-researched. The source list runs the gamut from scientific and medical research to journalism, social media and literature. Anyone who knows someone with PTSD or works in any healthcare related field would benefit from reading this book. It's not for the easily offended, though. McClellan writes with a sharp pen, cutting and to the point, and is up front with what she feels are her personal failures as well as the criticism she received about her writings. A very honest and courageous book that will challenge your beliefs about PTSD. I would have liked to see her explain the rape she saw that triggered her PTSD, but it is easy enough to piece together the basics from reading her articles available online that are referenced in the book's Source list.

Lori L. (La Porte, IN)

Unforgettable chronicle of living with PTSD
I think what makes this book so compelling is the author's incredible gift for explaining exactly what she is feeling in every moment (both good and bad), drawing you deep into her story and allowing you to experience it through her eyes. The author is a journalist on the human rights beat, a job that takes her into some of the most tumultuous areas of the world. When she witnesses a violent crime in post-earthquake Haiti, she is thrown head over heels into periods of disassociation from her own body and inexplicable emotions of terrifying fear as well as uncontrolled bouts of crying, and the loss of her old life. This book not only explores this one individual's bout with PTSD, but sheds an important light on a topic that effects millions of people each day, returning soldiers, trauma survivors, aid workers, etc. The author was fortunate enough to find a form of intensive holistic therapy and to have the love and support of friends and her fiance. Many other individuals turn to suicide when their symptoms become too much to bear. A brief word of caution, while this book is excellent and compelling, it is not an easy read. It may contain triggers for survivors of rape, trauma, or sufferers of PTSD.

Ann W. (Cashiers, NC)

Irritable Hearts
As a result of being a helpless witness to a horrifying crime in Haiti where she was covering the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, PTSD unexpectedly and violently crippled Mac McClelland's physical and mental health. Irritable Hearts is a brave and candid memoir of her relentless fight to be well, to continue in her work, and to be able to give her heart to the man she loves.

Irritable Hearts is a gripping page-turning story, giving the readers an informed insight into PTSD and the crucial need for continued medical research and treatment as well as compassion for those suffering from PTSD.

On a side note, according to an estimate from the US Dept. of Veterans Affairs, we lose 22 American military veterans each day to suicide - most are PTSD patients.

Claire M. (Sarasota, FL)

Irritable Hearts
McClelland writes an intensely personal and deeply researched memoir of years of her life in the clutches of PTSD. That she actually functioned through most of it is perhaps because she sought subject specific help and had friends, two therapists and a new lover who supported and never abandoned her. There is so much of her invested, so much investigation of what and who gets PTSD that at times it seems we are all candidates. Her work with veterans' wives and sexual abuse cases is considerable and as she hardly needs to point out, the mental illness can be fatal. As I read this I understood quite clearly why a distant friend and so many vets kill themselves. This is a powerful and eye opening testimony of living with PTSD and reading it may well be consolation to others with the disease.

...12 more reader reviews

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Author Information

Mac McClelland

Mac McClelland is the author of For Us Surrender Is Out of the Question. She has written for Reuters, Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, the New York Times Magazine, and the New York Times Book Review, among other publications, and won awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Sidney Hillman Foundation, the Online News Association, the Society of Environmental Journalist, and the Association for Women in Communications. Her work has also been nominated for two National Magazine Awards for Feature Writing and has been anthologized in the Best American Magazine Writing 2011, Best American Nonrequired Reading 2011, and Best Business Writing 2013.

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