When I was in grade school, I loved Valentine's Day. Adored it. I relished picking out those boxes of marvelously corny valentines, usually Barbie and/or Batman, to write out for all of my classmates. Valentine's Day was one of my favorite days at school - an entire afternoon blocked off for exchanging cards, eating Dunkin' Donuts munchkins and watching movies. What's not to love?
But as I got older, Valentine's Day became an increasingly stressful holiday. By my junior year in high school, it became downright panic-inducing. That was the year all my friends got boyfriends and my long-held nightmare of being the only single girl among us came true. Why God was plaguing me with such emotional torture, I wasn't sure, but I set about mitigating the public humiliation days in advance (I have since relinquished the notion that "God" had anything to do with it, but that's a post for another day).
There were fewer things more horrifying to me than being at school on Valentine's Day when I was single. What was I going to do while other girls had roses and candy grams delivered to them, sit alone and die of fucking embarrassment?
Not a chance. Rather than orchestrate a cleverly timed trip to the nurse's office or a doctor's appointment that would take me out of school through lunch period - by far the most torturous stretch of the day - I decided I simply was not going to school on Valentine's Day.
Humiliation in any regard was one of my greatest fears as an adolescent, and I felt that not having a serious boyfriend when all of my friends did was a tremendous shortcoming on my part. I went through long bouts of self-loathing, admonishing myself for "fucking up" by breaking up with guys who had actually liked me.
Like most people, I had no idea what I was doing when it came to my romantic relationships as a teenager, but I was convinced that I was some unique breed of singleton. On my worst days, I lamented the fact that I was clearly a mean, spiteful person who deserved to be alone. I virulently criticized my appearance, personality, intelligence and aesthetic tastes until I was nauseated from crying and self-hate.
This made regular days at school stressful enough, but Valentine's Day, I was certain, would be unbearable. Worst of all was the fear that my loneliness and shame would overwhelm me and I might cry during the middle of the day, and that was a hell to which I would not subject myself.
Of course, I realize now that it wasn't that big of a deal. Being single, not having a Valentine...none of it mattered all that much. And no one would have treated me like a leper had I shown up to school boyfriend-less on Valentine's Day. But the shame of it ate away at me all the same.
And so, well in advance of the big day, I would announce to my parents that I was not going to school on Valentine's Day. Fortunately, by the time I reached the second semester of my junior year, they had stopped fighting me on taking days off and gave their tacit approval to my writing my own absentee notes, so this proved to be a less difficult conversation than I would have originally anticipated. I had my temporary reprieve from the shame of my singlehood.
Once I escaped the Valentine's Day Hell of high school, there came college. None of those are particularly remarkable - lots of chocolate eating and rom com watching with my single girlfriends, if I remember correctly. I still spent much of college longing for a boyfriend, and I still found admitting that I was single to be an exercise in emotional torture, but everyone's love life is a mess in college so I was in good company.
Then came the post-collegiate years of 22-24, which passed in boozier and occasionally more dramatic fashions (in one instance, a former love interest called me at 2 a.m. the night before Valentine's Day and called me "an asshole" when I got upset that we weren't spending the holiday together. Dubious though my taste in men was at the time, I did have enough self-esteem to promptly end that affair.).
The best thing I ever did for my love life, it turned out, was move overseas. I've had more flings, dates, sex and relationship-esque situations in the past three years than I did in all of the years between high school and my early 20s combined. Through the combination of therapy and some serious introspection and reflection, I learned to heal some of my own insecurities and change my perspective on relationships. That opened up a whole new world for me and I gained confidence and became a little less afraid to put myself out there.
And somewhere along the way, I stopped alternately hating and feeling sorry for myself because I was single. I no longer berate myself regularly for not being in a relationship. And when I realized that Valentine's Day was upon us this week, for the first time in years, I found myself looking forward to it.
There were no traces of shame or sadness and embarrassment. In fact, those were replaced by a sense of optimism and even elation. This is not the first Valentine's Day I've spent solo but it is the first one that I won't be pining away for or fostering resenting toward someone from my past.
It's the first one that I've felt comfortable with my single status, not because "I've given up on love forever," but because I actually feel open to love and to meeting someone when the time is right, without old fears and losses and baggage hindering my current happiness.
So this year, I'm allowing myself to remember how much I do love Valentine's Day, cheesy and manufactured though the holiday may be. And I will celebrate, probably by watching a movie and treating myself to a glass of cheap red wine. Because even though I'm single, I'm celebrating for that 16-year-old somewhere inside me who can finally be at peace and know she's worthy of love and celebration, even if she doesn't have a boyfriend.
All photos from BuzzFeed's "150+ Valentines from Your Childhood"