When I was a waiter in a fairly high-end place, it was the only time I ever found any use for Valentine’s Day. Usually, there was an overpriced special menu, lots of champagne, and I made a ton of money. The restaurant was mobbed. Best of all, I had a good excuse to avoid the whole thing myself. Valentine’s Day always seemed to me to be a recipe for the single and lonely to feel more than the usual shame, grief, and despair about being alone and about the morass of relationship and couple-hood.
It still seems to me to be one of those commercial nightmares perfectly designed to benefit and bring joy to few, while leaving most to feel aberrant and horrible about themselves. I remember long ago – perhaps my last attempt to “celebrate” it with a boyfriend – having a huge fight at the table after he had sat alone for an hour in a crowded restaurant while I sat alone on a crowded freeway trying to get there. Oy vey. Relationships are hard enough, especially for those with complicated attachment histories like trauma and neglect, without a day that makes us all imagine it is supposed to be all easy, breezy hearts and roses.
Valentine’s Day always seemed to me to be a recipe for the single and lonely to feel more than the usual shame, grief, and despair about being alone and about the morass of relationship and couple-hood.
Some years ago, I heard anthropologist Helen Singer speak at a conference. A specialist in sexuality, she talked about how in the human brain the grief and pain of heartbreak looks identical to a brain crashing from a large hit of cocaine. The devastation is an undeniable physiological reality, alongside the obvious emotional shattering.
We all remember the first time our hearts were broken. I believe for me it was when I was 10, the first time I had ever had a best friend. She dumped me for another girl who had a canopy bed and a princess phone. I always felt that fourth grade was my best year ever, and it was all downhill ever since. Seriously, however, for mammals designed for attachment, rejection by a beloved other constitutes a massive injury.
We saw the same with our precious dog Angel. We adopted her from a shelter in 2010, along with her sister and littermate Button. After being together in the womb, they continued to be inseparable throughout their lives. When Button got sick and precipitously died in 2020, Angel was inconsolable. She simply did not know a world without her sister, friend and companion. Months later, we still have a very hard time leaving little Angel alone, as her agonizing wailing follows us out the door and into the street.
So, imagine the little vulnerable brain of a human infant, left alone too much, rejected, abandoned, neglected. It is the same crashing brain, but perhaps worse, as this child lacks any nascent resilience that might accumulate from experience. And, of course, has no other resources. Interestingly it similarly looks like the brain of a prisoner enduring the punishing agony of solitary confinement.
Science journalist Florence Williams recently published a book called “Heartbreak: A Personal and Scientific Journey.” She examines the literal reaction of the human heart to relationship loss, citing serious cases of heart attack and other heart diseases. Similar data appeared in “The Beat of Life: A Surgeon Reveals the Secrets of the Heart.” Heartbreak and relationship loss truly are no joke.
The first love, the first attachment, is of course, the mother. We experience a kind of oneness we will never have again. It is nature’s design to have warm, nourishing, enduring containment inside the mother’s body for a good long time, and we continue to need something like that for many years after birth. It is no wonder that the attachment aspect of psychotherapy is so critical and essential. It is not sufficient, but definitely necessary, and even with the most effective therapeutic modalities, a safe attachment and the possibility to process ruptured or missing vital attachments are requirements of regulation and healing.
That first attachment also becomes the template that defines the subsequent ones, particularly the important ones. My most unrelenting heartbreak ever was from an intense and dramatic young adult relationship that spanned ten years from my early 20’s to my early 30’s. It took me four years of breaking up and getting back together to finally leave. For two years afterwards, a day did not pass without wrenching tears of loss. It was five years before I stopped thinking about that man every single day.
Some years later, after learning much more about trauma and neglect, I realized that the depth of grief about that relationship loss was much deeper than I had realized. I was really processing something profound about my mother and my own earliest attachment.
I have since learned that when a client comes to me with unremitting grief about relationship loss, the mother relationship is an important place to look, for at least part of the work, and that work is the work of years I am afraid.
Even years later, with all that dogged processing about my mother seemingly well behind me, I still found that hearing George Floyd’s calls for his mother with his final breaths, for many reasons, brought uncontrollable tears.
V Day 1998
In 1996 Eve Ensler rocked and awakened the world with her ground-breaking Vagina Monologues, a one-woman theatrical show exploring female sexuality in its myriad aspects: consensual and non-consensual sexual experience, body image, menstruation, sex work, and much more, internationally, across the lifespan, and through historical time.
It took the world by storm and has become an invaluable tool for sex education. Ensler herself became a vital historical icon in the worlds of feminism and sexual justice.
In 1998, Ensler proposed an alternative observance of February 14th: V-Day.
In her words: “V-Day is a global activist movement to end violence against all women, girls and the planet.” It continues to this day. What a brilliant idea to transform or repurpose an all too often retraumatizing holiday into a vehicle of justice, equality and health!
In conjunction with the publication of her most recent and perhaps my favorite of her books, The Apology, Ensler changed her name to V. Now I can wholeheartedly say “Happy V-Day” to all. Enjoy your February 14th however you spend it, and Thanks V!
Each time I write a blog, I always try to think of a song that I love that goes with what I’ve written. Today’s is I Will Survive by Gloria Gaynor.
My book “Working with the Developmental Trauma of Childhood Neglect: Using Psychotherapy and Attachment Theory Techniques in Clinical Practice” was published on August 31st. It provides psychotherapists with a multidimensional view of childhood neglect and a practical roadmap for facilitating survivors’ healing.