Love After Trauma

How PTSD can shapeand test—a relationship

J’aime bien mieux etre malheureux en t’aimant, que de ne t’avoir jamais vu,” Nico wrote on a card he gave me in Montpellier when I arrived to meet him there, quoting a 17th-century French writer. It was our third meeting after Haiti, nearly a year after we’d met when I was in Port-au-Prince covering the 2010 earthquake, and he was there with the French military, helping with the aftermath. We hadn’t seen each other in person since a trip to Paris, three months earlier. He was talking about how hard it was to be apart all the time.

I would rather be unhappy loving you, he was saying, than never having seen you.

Well. He had no idea.

* * *

I was in Montpellier because everyone was in agreement—my dad, my friends, my therapist Denise—that I needed a vacation. I had been barely holding it together. I had arguably been not holding it together, haunted as I was by the things I’d seen and experienced in Haiti. I’d asked Nico during a Skype chat if I could join him in Montpellier.

“Of course,” he said. “You’re welcome, my beauty.”

The flight between San Francisco and France encountered rowdy turbulence. People clutched and gasped around me. I sat patiently, realizing that I would be more relieved than disappointed if we went down. That made me sad. The only reason I cared if we pulled out of it was that I would’ve liked to kiss Nico’s face another time—it’d been so few times—before never doing anything again. But other than that, I was 90-some percent resigned to our imminent death. When it became clear that we were going to make it, I was left with the sorrow of that peace.

On the ground, my symptoms stayed fairly well behaved. Conveniently, during that week, we were drunk all the time. Not in the PTSD way, but in the cocktail-before-dinner, then split-a-bottle-of-wine-because-it’s-August-on-the-Riviera way, which, however different the motives, produced the same results. It kept me loose and open, so that I was touched deeply by the sex we were having, but the steady stream of booze assisted a light dissociation that kept my rawness to below-freak-show levels. Only small amounts of it seeped through. One night when Nico was inside me, I clutched him and begged, “Please don’t ever leave me.” A sentiment I’d never felt for anyone, even the man I’d married, uttered to a guy with whom I’d spent a total of eight days. For the most part, I maintained the appearance of a still possibly normal person.

Ditto when he came to visit me two weeks after I left Montpellier, in San Francisco. His deployment was over. He had some time off. He’d never been to America, and I’d been urging him to come since our first e-mail. Finally, almost exactly a year after we’d met, he arrived. I kept myself moving and kept myself busy with the task of impressing him with California’s majesty.

“This cheese is made here,” I said of the artisanal varietal I set out in front of him when he arrived. “And this wine. And these figs were grown here.”

In our first couple of days, I fell into a dark, hopeless hole. But it was shallow. I looked sad but calm, not having raving, committable-type PTSD symptoms. Nico lay down on the floor with me that day, wrapping me up and saying, “If you can’t be happy with me, you can’t be happy with anyone.” Pretty quickly, I got it together. I drove him to Marin County, north over the Golden Gate Bridge, past redwoods to a rented house in a small town with sea-salt-and- eucalyptus-tinged air. I fed him Mission burritos and world-famous chocolate tarts. I turned crazy and started yelling at him bitterly, over an indiscernible trigger, in an Indian restaurant that I’d hoped would astound him. But because his self-defensive mechanism to his girlfriend’s becoming a quick bitch, like many people’s, was to shut down and become an asshole, our yelling ended up looking like both our faults, a couple’s misunderstanding, not something I had started with no cause.

On his birthday, which fell toward the end of his two-week trip, I rented him a motorcycle more powerful than the one he rode at home—with more horsepower than was allowed by French law—and climbed onto the back of it, giving him directions to Big Sur via California Highway 1.

I liked my guests to have a good time. But this time I also had ulterior motives.

Nico had sensed this from day two or three. Finally, a week in, he brought up his suspicions. “You just want I like California in case you want me later,” he said at my apartment. He meant that I was trying to convince him that California was great in the event that I later decided I wanted him to move in with me. Meaning I hadn’t decided that yet.

I got up from the table, where I’d opened an exorbitantly expensive bloomy-rinded California goat cheese with a line of ash through its center. I walked to the kitchen, opened a drawer, and came back with a jewelry box. I placed it in front of him on the table.

“What is it?” he asked.
“Open it,” I said.
 It continued like this for a while, until he did. The box had a copy of my house keys inside it. My friends would mock me for this move later, but Nico’s eyes filled with tears.

“Excuse me,” he said.

It was the same thing he’d said the first time I’d seen him cry in person, which had been the day I’d brought him back from the airport. It was late, and after he’d eaten and showered, we lay down in bed. I was propped up on one elbow, looking at him, then pressed my face to his chest to breathe him in, and kiss his skin, and he’d welled up.

“Excuse me,” he’d said.

But emotionally overwhelming as my key-proposition was, it wasn’t an easy question. He didn’t answer me. He still hadn’t answered me when we got to Big Sur a few days later.

After checking into our 1930s inn and cleaning up, we headed to our dinner reservations in the dining room. In Montpellier, Nico had worked long shifts, so I’d still been able to lie down and read books all day by myself; in this cozy, rustic restaurant, five hours of motorcycling and eight days of tour-guiding down, my exhaustion was setting in. I was unused to socializing that much those days, and I had marshaled all my energy to do it. Along with the stressful uncertainty of my pending proposal, I was starting to break down.

When we returned from Big Sur, I could barely drag myself out of bed anymore. I only did so fueled by the knowledge that I just had to keep it up for two, then one more day. Nico could feel it. It wasn’t as if he didn’t know about my illness. But he was still managing to escape the majority of the everyday, real-world worsts of it.

That would end on our next trip.

* * *

When we got back from Big Sur, Nico had said yes. Yes, he said, he would move in with me, move to the United States for a while. He would take some time off work and get a six-month visitor’s visa so we could see how it was to be together. But he had to go on a three-month deployment to Guadeloupe, in the Caribbean, first.

There were two interceding months in our plans to see each other in person. I would go visit him over Thanksgiving in Guadeloupe. Before then, between each moment of mightily gathered and embarked-upon functioning, mostly what I did was, as Denise put it, “suffer.”

My battle never to be able to feel anything at all won, I waged deeper into my new battle: dealing with my feelings. Keeping defense mechanisms such as dissociation from getting overwhelmed and kicking in—or, still, keeping from wishing I was dead. Like most other people, I never in my life had spent any time trying to ground myself, find my center, and feel the entirety of my emotions.

I continued to try to practice groundedness and connectedness daily. When I got there, I continued letting my mind and body do whatever they needed. But none of those things felt good. The uncontrollable, intrusive images of things that did happen in Haiti were now joining images of things I had never even seen. I woke up from a nightmare to have a picture of a girl on her back with dead eyes suddenly enter my mind. Her head was moving against the ground to the rhythm of whatever someone was raping her with. To stop thinking about that wasn’t an option. It couldn’t be made to go away. So then there came all the girls who were on their backs with dead eyes everywhere, maybe at that very moment, and I had no choice, however hard I closed my eyes, but to look at the hundreds of them all crowding into my vision in a collage.

Please start screaming, I asked them when I couldn’t take it anymore. Maybe you’ll feel better if you resist at least that much.

And they opened their mouths and scrunched up their eyebrows and started screaming, a thousand screaming faces. But then all I wanted them to do was stop.

“How was therapy?” Nico would ask on Skype.

“A little bit hard,” I said. “Sometimes I can’t feel pieces of my body, you know.”

“Yeah,” he said. He knew. He was getting more regularly and more graphically briefed on the state of the crazy.

But he still knew only in theory. A few days after that conversation, and two months after he’d left California, I flew into Pointe-à-Pitre, the biggest city in Guadeloupe. Nico’s unit was deployed to the Lesser Antilles island, an “over-seas department” of France, for three months to help with routine police matters and do “interventions,” they called them, SWAT raids of suspected drug dealers. He didn’t know, he couldn’t have known, what my episodes were truly like. I couldn’t explain it even to people who did speak my language, so though I’d tried to let him know as much as possible, as I so wanted him to understand me, there was no way he was prepared for experiencing them firsthand.

Within hours of my landing, I had my first one. We got in bed, and all my limbs disappeared, and I became woozy, and panting, then tearful. The next morning, I woke up from a nightmare with the kind of shaky blackness that always started a day in which I could do nothing but count the minutes until the day was over and I could go back to sleep and try to start again.

My nightmares at that time were generally about murder—about someone getting murdered, a stranger or me, sometimes kidnapped and tortured first. Lately, though, I’d been going through a spate where I was the one torturing and murdering people.

That first night in Guadeloupe brought another installment in the series. “I had a dream that I tortured two people to death,” I told Nico when we woke up.

I’d tied two people down to the floor, or someone else had. They were alive, and I was whipping a grappling hook into their faces. Its sharp metal points caught with a sure, soft thump in one face, and then I pulled it back and repeatedly cast it into the other until nothing was left but wet, hamburgery meat.

When I told Nico about this, he said simply, “Which two people?”

He was lying on his back in bed next to me, shoulders loose and wide. I pictured his perfect little organs in his torso, open to attack. He saw the envy in my face when I looked over and whispered, “I can’t do that.” In my terrible sleep, I’d bolted my arms across my chest. My hands remained locked onto my sides, reinforcing my skeleton.

When Nico rolled over on top of me, I didn’t loosen my grip. He took my right wrist and pulled my arm back to my side, and panic rushed through my rib cage.

Danger, my body screamed, and my eyes welled up. Dangerdangerdanger.

Protect the midline. The skin that holds everything precious inside there is too delicate to do it alone.

My mind, knowing there was no danger here, repeated this knowledge as a mantra, chastising my body as usual. That internal disconnect, or the additional alarm when Nico took my other wrist and pressed that arm gently to my side, too, proved too much. I dissociated.

My mind refused to agree with my body on where I was. I tried to force it to.

You are in a bed in Guadeloupe.

No. I’m not.

That looks like it’s true, but I can’t actually feel it.

My arms became numb below the elbows.

A therapist would probably not recommend Nico’s forcibly if very lovingly undoing a trauma patient’s contraction. When I contracted like this on the table, Denise often had me contract more, contract all the way, hold every muscle in my body tight with teeth gritted and braced until I felt like I was ready to let it go. That way, I was in control. I was empowered to pick the moment that I would release and she would start pushing on me from the side, shaking it out. But Nico wasn’t a therapist. He was a guy who woke up next to a girl he loved whose nervous system didn’t work normally and did the best he could.

What he did next actually was something my therapist did—he stroked my arms, toward my hands, toward the place that’d turned from weight-carrying blood and muscle to nothing but static. Eventually I relaxed. Then I sobbed profusely. When I started, Nico said matter-of-factly, “Yes,” as though it was a thing that had been certain and necessary. Holding me, he encouraged me to stick with it, let it through. This was something therapists did, too. Stay with the sensations, Denise always said. If you can.

But the last thing I wanted was for my boyfriend to become my professional caretaker.

This trip was three weeks long. There was no sucking it up and hemming it in for that duration. It was too long to remain in a jet-lagged, sex-dizzy, touristic-drinking haze. Also, from now on, as far as Nico was concerned, the stakes were higher. Before, he’d been my fabulous if improbable hot young French boyfriend, who was to some extent a fantasy. Now he was moving into my house. It was likely this was lighting up a bunch of issues. Divorce. Fear. Potential for failure. Vulnerability, uncertainty, unreliability. The timing wasn’t ideal, but I didn’t want to lose him. If I did and ever managed to find another person I loved that much, I would have to confront the issues then, anyway.

We were just going to have to work together.

* * *

It quickly became clear that the only thing worse than dealing with myself during an episode was dealing with someone else trying to deal with me at the same time.

The next time, it started with a salad.

“How much onion do you want me to use?” Nico asked me a few days later, standing in the kitchen of the island cottage we’d rented. It was perched on a hill in a neighborhood of concrete homes, a carriage house at the end of someone’s long driveway. I’d just stepped out of the little tiled shower and into the kitchen, which was open to the living room, which opened via a wall of glass doors to the outside. There, beyond the property’s bushy greenery, bursting with flowers and palms, an ocean undulated in the distance, too far away to hear.

My body turned to static. I hated dissociating, being lost in the clear light of a place I belonged, lost when I wasn’t lost at all. Physically, this particular dissociation covered a lot of area: everything between my pelvic bones and my chin. Just, gone, dissipated instantly into a billion particles that I couldn’t feel anymore as a part of me but could sense floating around, agitated, nearby. When the room started to move fast away from me, past me, I walked from the kitchen counter and into a dark corner of the bedroom.

“Baby?” Nico asked after me.

But I was very busy arguing with myself, one voice inside me saying that if I talked to Nico I’d be swept up in that disappearing, fast-moving room he was part of out there, and another voice saying that made no sense. I grasped for my tools, like trying to focus on something real. Like that I had fingers and they were holding on to a real mug I’d taken out of the kitchen.

“Baby,” Nico said. He was standing in the doorway.

When I looked up at him, saying nothing, he started toward me as non- threateningly as possible, crouching down to make himself small, reaching out to me on his knees. He touched my face, which softened with his warmth. He said he needed his petite femme to help him make dinner. He held me in his bare arms, and I was a real person in there this time, feeling my skin on his skin. And then I could suddenly feel what had set me off and sent most of my body away to escape it.

It was sadness. Regular old sadness. I started sobbing.

Mon bébé,” Nico whispered. “Je t’aime tellement. Je suis là.”

My baby. I love you so much. I’m here.

Later he would admit that this was terrifying for him, walking in and looking in my eyes to find them completely unmoored. But he held on and incanted his support like a lullaby anyway.

Je suis là, he repeated. Je suis là, je suis là, je suis là.

That was how it went.

Except for when it didn’t.

When I started crying another time, he told me to try to smile, and I told him that really wasn’t helpful, and he got mad that I called him unhelpful, and I got mad that I now had to manage someone else’s drama along with my own, and he ended up yelling, “Why we are even together if this is how is our fucking time together?” Sometimes when I interrupted a make-out session to announce I was too crazy to have sex because my reaction to arousal that day was shame and disgust that made me fantasize about lopping his hands off with a machete so he’d stop touching me, he didn’t pet my face and say “OK, my love.” Sometimes it turned into an argument about not enough respect for each other’s needs. Or his complaining that our relationship wasn’t as passionate as it should be.

There’s a steep learning curve for a couple dealing with trauma. It’s hard enough for one person to withstand, and much of it is compounded with two. Best-case scenario, when it didn’t start a fight, I found his presence comforting—but then, at the same time, I was humiliated that a nice normal person was witnessing my being a maniac, then guilty about making such a nice normal person witness that. This time in Guadeloupe, too, we didn’t just have our own relationship and my problems to contend with. This time, these long weeks, was real life.

“You have so many bad things inside you,” Nico said to me at some point before the trip ended. He was acknowledging it as much to himself as to me. He meant collected fear and grief, not that I was some sort of hell spawn. At night, with his back smooth against my chest, I stayed awake to be ready for something terrible to happen. I didn’t know what it was, but I knew it was coming.

Nico could feel my restlessness next to him, even when he was asleep. No matter how still I was, I made his slumber fidgety and choppy, too. “You know how you can feel other people’s feelings?” he asked once, casually—because though hardly everyone can, it came perfectly naturally to him. He just let them land on him, other people’s enthusiasm or nervousness. He could feel his lieutenant’s anxiety prick up his skin, or his best friend’s relationship trouble weigh down his muscles, unless he “cut the links,” as he also casually put it, when this is a legitimate practice that can take years to master.

“He’s an empath!” My friend Tana said when I called her from Pointe-à-Pitre. “Like Deanna Troi.” The Star Trek: The Next Generation analogy was not bad. Nico could sense the shifts in my shape and mood as easily as an expert like Denise. And spending so much time in his presence, I was starting to disturb him.

“You’re so intense,” he said.

Earlier in the trip, I’d found Nico going through my closet, and when I asked him what the hell he was doing, he said, “I was smelling all your clothes.” This was a guy who sometimes said, “If you stop to love me, I will stop to live.” Who, after he hurt my feelings once, after I retreated to the shower, stepped into the stream of water alongside me without bothering to take off his pants and belt first, lest one more moment pass without my understanding how sorry he was. It was not easy to out-intense the French. But here I was, being that unstable and extreme. Being that much work.

“Don’t worry,” he said with my face in his hands and his lips against my ear after I started crying about his comment. “T’inquiete pas. I will not stop to try to understand.”

I didn’t know how he could possibly understand me, when I not only lost the ability to locate my own self in space and time, I also no longer knew the person I was supposed to be looking for.

This article has been excerpted from Mac McClelland's book, Irritable Hearts: A PTSD Love Story.