How Writer Used Violent Sex to Help Ease Post-Traumatic Stress

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Mac McClelland Lived Among Refugees

McClelland began to experience subtle symptoms at first -- avoiding places and feelings that reminded her of Sybille -- but nightmares followed, as well as intrusive thoughts, as well as hyper-arousal.

"I couldn't sleep. I couldn't stay sober," she writes. "When the power went out, I just sweated in the stifling heat because I was too scared to open my windows even though they weren't the kind someone could fit through."

She spent an evening with an attractive French peacekeeper, but when he went to kiss her, she wrote she could only feel "something static and empty in the places usually occupied by my limbs."

Every time she thought about sex, McClelland associated it with violence.

She cried on her flight back to San Francisco. Within 24 hours she went into counseling and was diagnosed with PTSD. Her therapist told her to "inhale trauma and exhale compassion," but McClelland had other options in mind.

"All I want is to have incredibly violent sex," she told her therapist, who wasn't shocked.

"She said, 'Sure, do you have someone in mind who can do that for you?'" said McClelland. "She didn't blink."

And McClelland did -- Isaac, an old friend, someone she'd had rough sex with before. Someone she trusted.

"I needed to confront my extreme fears and nightmares," she said. "I needed it to be violent and forceful."

Isaac protected her from his punches by placing a pillow on McClelland's head. She discovered she was strong and could break away briefly, but the 60-pound difference in their body weights eventually overwhelmed her.

Panic and pain gave way to a new strength.

"My body felt devastated but relieved; I'd lost, but survived," she writes. "After he climbed off me, he gathered me up in his arms. I broke into a thousand pieces on his chest, sobbing so hard that my ribs felt like they were coming loose."

Trauma expert Newman said that when person is threatened, the body goes into a state of alert, and in PTSD, that alarm system becomes embedded psychologically.

The most effective treatments include re-experiencing the event in a safe environment -- "revisiting it your mind, going over it -- integrating the emotions and feelings," she said.

"You have to get the body to no longer be aroused at the level," she said. "It's a type of learning."

"But I wonder about the degree to which [McClelland's self-therapy] was a volitional choice to engage in this sadomasochistic experience or if it was trauma-driven," said Newman.

Journalists rarely talk about the emotional impact of their reporting. That changed to a degree in February after CBS News correspondent Lara Logan was molested in Cairo. McClelland took to task the Committee to Protect Journalists for not once mentioning sexual harassment in their manual. They subsequently added an "addendum on sexual aggression."

Since then, CPJ has interviewed almost 50 journalists who have experienced sexual violence -- from groping to rape -- while doing their jobs.

"If the handbook had a section detailing 'symptoms of a journalist who really needs counseling and should probably go home,' I would have fit the description," wrote McClelland.

She went back to Haiti for two weeks in January and discovered more triggers. "My therapist had warned me," said McClelland. "But I was still a lot better by then. I still occasionally have weird moments, but they are few and far between."

McClelland also returned to the Congo where interviews were about sexual violence and murder, but there were no flashbacks.

The French peacekeeper is now her boyfriend and their sexual relationship has been rekindled, this time with more normal passion. He is soon to visit the United States for the first time. "I am so excited, I could almost die," she said.

McClelland said she doesn't think of herself as a "fragile" person and said she feels compelled to continue her reporting.

"Whether people say I'm insane or not, it's tough enough to do this job," she said. "If I didn't have any feelings, that would be scary. It's a human response to duress."

As for staging her own rape to save her sanity, McClelland said she would not suggest others try it, but for her it worked. "There was a feeling in my body that I had survived," she said. "I was not going to die."

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