I hate Valentine’s Day. A lot of people do. But I don’t hate it for any of the conventional reasons. As a former Hallmark employee and lifelong midwesterner, I find chalky candy hearts, pink plush puppies, and other kitschy garbage hard to resist. I’ve never spent V-Day alone weeping into a pint of ice cream while You’ve Got Mail plays in the background. In the past decade, I’ve never even been single on February 14.
Yet every year around this time, I’m invariably struck with borderline-debilitating despair that lingers just long enough to be terrifying. It starts with a dearth of motivation, followed by a series of damning self-defeating comparisons: suddenly, I feel like more of a failure than usual and I’m overly focused on how much harder everyone else works, how much more talented and bright they are, how they deserve to be loved so much more than I do. My eyes get crusty from nightlong crying jags and the world seems to move at a creep. My thoughts grow more and more negative until everyday conscious existence becomes painful.
Then I catch sight of a display of heart-shaped chocolates in a CVS and remember why I’m such a wreck. It’s my annual Valentine’s Day depression, and it’s my stupid dead dad’s fault.
My first real Valentine’s Day was in 2007, when I was a college freshman. I spent the evening with my then-boyfriend, a goofy white dude in a too-tight Dr. Dre T-shirt. He took me to a “fancy” outdoor mall, where we ate pommes frites on the patio of a French restaurant. We smuggled beer into a massive arcade and spent hours slamming our feet on Dance Dance Revolution game pads. Back at the dorm, he led me down a trail of construction paper hearts into his room, where a massive stuffed gorilla sat holding an $8 bottle of champagne. The gorilla’s stomach was embroidered with the words love is a jungle. I was smitten. We made out and I studiously ignored the ceaseless vibration of my cell phone.
When I finally looked three hours later, I had dozens of missed calls and one life-changing voice mail. Unbeknownst to me, my dad had been missing from his job for several days. That afternoon police had gone to his home and discovered his body.
Every February, my mind invariably dispatches me on an endless game of neurosis whack-a-mole. I am a failure. A fuck-up. Pathetic. Unlovable. If one reason for self-loathing goes away, another pops up, just as ugly and large.
I don’t know if I’m the mallet in this metaphor, or if I’m the moles.
At the time my dad died, we hadn’t spoken in more than two years. He’d disowned me following a particularly vicious fight, after which I changed my last name and cut off contact. But death thrust him back into my life. There were relatives to call, debts to settle, a funeral to arrange, an autopsy to request. There would be looming, unanswerable questions about his unchecked diabetes, his mental state, and the tubes of unused insulin lying around his home, but I didn’t know any of that yet. I just knew he was dead and had been for days.
My boyfriend suggested popping the champagne. We sat on the edge of his bed drinking until I couldn’t sit up anymore. Sobs violently wracked my body until I passed out. At 8 AM I got up and went to work. I didn’t take a single day off. I didn’t tell anyone.
From then on, I swore off celebrating Valentine’s Day. I pretended to be vehemently against consumerism. I got into open relationships and claimed to loathe romance. I moved to Chicago alone and sat in a dark studio working on my master’s thesis. I slammed my head against the drywall, wailing, scared of how sad I was.
At the time of his death, my dad hadn’t tested his blood sugar in more than three years. My sister observed he had many “cheat days,” during which his apartment was brimming with cookie cakes, cheesy bread, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, and Pepsi. He smoked all day long, never wore a seat belt, and frequently said he’d be dead by age 50. He was correct.
Despite his penchant for self-harm, he’d always been fervently anti-suicide. The first time he brought up the topic was when I was 13, in response to an episode of TV show, probably one of the crime procedurals he’d devotedly watch, a two-liter bottle of Pepsi in hand. “I’d never do that,” he yelled at the screen. “It’s disgusting. I’d never even consider it.”
I didn’t believe him but knew better than to argue.
A few Februarys ago, I traveled to Austin with my current boyfriend. We went out for an expensive meal and I exploded into psychotic weeping at the table. I shook and was nonverbal as we walked three miles across the city to our hotel. I wanted to explain the outburst, but saying “I hate myself and don’t want to exist” didn’t seem particularly helpful.
I spent the night sitting on the floor sniffling and eating chocolate armadillos (a Texas delicacy), glad not to be alone, afraid what would’ve happened if I was.
I can’t know for certain that my dad died on purpose. But I’ve felt the panicky self-hatred he used to radiate; I’ve heard the frustrated cadence of his voice in mine. I can project my saddest self into his position, imagine what I’d do if I were older, divorced, disowned, and out of hope. I can imagine the choice I’d make in that situation, and presume he chose the same.
My dad’s home after his death was littered with dozens of therapists’ business cards, all with different names, addresses, and logos, printed on various types of card stock. They spilled from drawers and pockets, peeked out from underneath mugs, pizza boxes, and the phone.
He was trying to get help. Or he was considering it.
I signed up for a mental illness support group. I was too mentally ill to show up. Something about that cracked me up. I remember being on the phone with the therapist, making up excuses for my absence, laughing at myself.
I found live literary events less threatening than therapy. For months I sat silently in crowded bars and cafes, glad not to be alone. A year passed and I was actively participating, reading and performing my own written words. I developed a voice, and stopped hearing my dad’s caught in my throat.
My dad didn’t live long enough to get better, but I did. It only took me nine Valentine’s Days.
Last year I spent Valentine’s Day eating popcorn shrimp and drinking Bloody Marys at Fireside Lounge with my boyfriend. We stumbled home over mounds of dingy snow, napped, and watched Star Trek. He went off to perform in a show and I sat alone in the dark, writing. There were no flowers, candy hearts, stuffed gorillas, or thoughts of my father. I didn’t cry even once.
Originally published at www.chicagoreader.com.