Valentine’s Day Rehab: A Conversation with Jo Piazza

by Jen Doll

My best Valentine’s Day occurred years ago, in high school, when I made a cake for my then-boyfriend that said “Happy V.D.” on it. (I thought it was hilarious, so did he. Neither of us, for the record, had an STD). That V.D. was followed by many, many other Valentine’s Days, all fine, good, decent, whatever, that I don’t really remember too terribly much about at all, because nothing much happened on those Valentine’s Days aside from going to dinner or not going to dinner with a date or boyfriend or not. I remember a cheeseburger with bacon; that was good.

If we’re talking worst Valentine’s Days, however, the worst have been times in which I was dating someone and I tried, perhaps unknowingly, to force our relationship into a kind of Valentine’s Day status — the time the guy was sick and fell asleep after cooking a meal and I dejectedly watched the Olympics and drank a bottle of wine by myself (actually, that sounds kind of nice), or maybe the time with another boyfriend when we fought through the entire meal in the fancy restaurant that cost even more than usual for its special Valentine’s Day menu. Those were the times I felt like I was forced to celebrate, forced to keep up with everyone else in their relationships, forced to cover up any of the issues any relationship inevitably has. Forced to be in love in a Hallmark kind of way. Truth be told, over the years, I’ve grown to rather dislike Valentine’s Day, whether I’m with someone or not.

But also, love. Love is something to celebrate. So why have my Valentine’s Days become so unloved? I sought the advice of Jo Piazza, who wrote the highly entertaining novel Love Rehab: A Novel in Twelve Steps, in which her main character, Sophie, dumped by a cheating boyfriend, starts a support-group-slash-home for women coping with heartache and an array of unhealthy relationship habits (like stalking exes). Maybe I just needed a V.D. perspective rehab.

First of all … how true is this novel? How true to your own life, and with regard to your friends’ dating lives?

A good 25 percent is stuff I did, and half is probably stories that happened to my girlfriends. I was a neurotic dater in my 20s, and I felt bad about feeling bad about being single. My friends were sick of hearing about it. I did go to an AA meeting and was like, what if I talk to strangers about my relationship drama? My friends would stop hating me. I read through the AA literature, and I thought, with relationships, it is so similar to an addiction. You get these highs when they’re paying attention to you. I wanted to write a book that touched on things they don’t talk about in rom-coms, the things women actually do, with the overall message that we need to be kinder to ourselves and find a community to take care of ourselves.

In real life, did you stalk exes?

I’ve done it three or four times after breakups; I’ve been obsessive-compulsive, Googling, checking Facebook, checking Twitter. You go down that rabbit hole of complete obsession.

Who hasn’t done that?

Everyone’s done it. These are things we barely admit to our best friends, “I Googled him nine times today.” But ever since I wrote about it, everyone’s like, “Let me tell you my Love Rehab story.” I wanted to open up that dialogue. Let’s all admit we do it and realize it’s a problem.

Did you stop doing it?

I think writing this book was way cheaper than all the therapies that never got to the root of the problem. I thought I needed to be in a relationship to have this complete and fulfilling life, but writing the book slowed me down a bit and got me thinking about how I wanted to be the next time I was in a relationship. Right before the book came out I started dating an amazing guy, and I was like, Don’t stalk him. We’ve been dating two years.

Has he read the book?

He refuses to read the book. He’s very proud, though.

Tell me about your worst Valentine’s Day.

Two or three years ago, before I started dating my current boyfriend, I was going to D.C. for a work trip. I started getting these crazy text messages from a guy I’d dated maybe eight years earlier. He’d been my brunch waiter; we’d had to find a new place to go to brunch after that, that was devastating! It was Valentine’s Day and he starts texting me. We make plans to meet. He starts talking about his wife and one-year-old, he’s having a nervous breakdown. I realize I’m getting him during this breakdown and he wants to have an affair. I didn’t go through with it. That was a pretty depressing Valentine’s Day.

I’ve also been broken up with on Valentine’s Day. I’d been dating a guy for a couple of months, and he said he felt too much pressure; he couldn’t go on our date because he was afraid it would lead me on. I’ve had friends who’ve gone on out Valentine’s Day to run into their noncommittal quasi-boyfriend on a date with someone else. But I don’t think Valentine’s Day is this horrible thing. I think it can be a nice reminder to single women to check in with themselves. They should take a moral inventory of themselves, have a great time with their friends, try to put this thing out there to find what they want. Single girls shouldn’t have to be mourning on Valentine’s Day.

Single or coupled, it feels like we’re expected to behave a certain way on this day, to fulfill some Hallmark charade, or some charade of single womanhood, if that’s the case. And I hate doing what’s expected.

I loop Valentine’s Day in with New Years and Halloween, the days when I’m forced to have fun. My boyfriend is going to San Francisco this weekend, and I’m like, I get to watch House of Cards in my PJs and order pizza. We’re not going to have some forced Valentine’s Day celebration. I wish it were treated like any other day of the year. If you do want to put significance on it, do it as a check in, then move on and have the rest of the day.

You said they got sick of hearing you talk about your breakups, but how important have your girlfriends been to you in relationships?

They’ve been amazing. That’s the thing, that’s the main difference. I’ve had a lot of guys who read the book and they’re like, Wow, I wish I had a support group anywhere near this. We have this tribe of women who help us through these things, and even if they get sick of us, they’re still there to support us.

Do you feel like the character in the book is a former iteration of you?

Oh my gosh, it’s me in my 20s. I didn’t feel like I was a grownup until about two years ago. This is like reading about me in a past life, though it’s a kind of sadsack version of me.

There are lists of things I would tell my 20-year-old self: How about you don’t get so drunk on a second date, or stop falling for guys who are so mean to you. Or, it does work to be unavailable sometimes. But I had to go through it to get to a point where I wouldn’t do those things. I think I have a lot of battle scars and guys who don’t want to speak to me ever again, but that’s OK. When I see them in public we just avert our eyes.

What is the most important “Love Rehab” step you think someone should take?

I think it’s taking that moral inventory, being honest about what you do wrong. That’s linked to the first step, admitting that you have a problem. I think a lot of the problems, we tend to repeat them over and over again. We repeat them even in good relationships. So it’s thinking about the things you don’t love about what you do, but also what you want. I’m not going to put up with the guy who doesn’t call me back for four days, or the guy who doesn’t want to call me his girlfriend. You need to have self-respect. And having a rehab group or a support group holds you accountable. You can’t hide.

In the book they stop watching shows like The Bachelor because they think they’re unhealthy. There’s been a lot of talk related to this again lately. Do you agree?

I did stop watching The Bachelor. I watch it sometimes now, and when I do I tweet about it. It’s fun, and I love reading Jennifer Weiner’s tweets. But I think shows like that are ridiculous and dangerous. They perpetuate this fairy tale. The same with rom-coms. They have this very strict narrative, this is how love happens and this is what we need in life to be happy. I think we should be breaking the myth that women need a guy, a husband, to be happy. My character ends up with her guy, and I think that’s the major flaw with the book. It was my first novel. If I could change the ending, I wouldn’t have it be so pat. The screenplay, which I’m working on now, will be different.

What’s the best Valentine’s Day you think a person can have?

Wake up in the morning and have a mission to make it an awesome day for you. Take all of the trappings of Valentine’s Day with a grain of salt. If you’re the kind of person who’s going to get upset if all your coworkers get flowers and you don’t, why don’t you get yourself flowers? Or if you become a blackout mess when you drink when you’re sad, don’t go to the bar. Make that plan ahead of time.

Is it wrong that I kind of want to live in a house in New Jersey with all of my best friends, like your characters do?

I want to live in New Jersey in a big Victorian house with all these women around doing yoga and cooking, it sounds like this idyllic existence! I wrote this while I was going on a lot of yoga retreats. I think there’s this big movement to do these retreats, to fix what’s wrong with us.

Is it that there’s something wrong with us, do you think?

I don’t know if it’s right to say that to say that it’s wrong with us. I don’t like putting a value judgment on it. But there are definitely things we do that are unhealthy. The book is about making sure you don’t feel that way anymore. There’s this physical terrible reaction, this anxiety —

And Internet stalking, while it temporarily makes you feel better maybe, ultimately always makes you feel worse…

It’s definitely a form of self-harm. It makes you feel briefly better to get this callback, and then you feel so much worse. It’s like one hit of a drug, I imagine. I’d constantly check this guy’s Facebook page, trying to figure out where he was, or checking gchat, you know they’re online, look at the green dot. All of my friends were like, that green dot just haunts me. Just doing those little things, we beat up on ourselves.

Oh God, the green dot. Social media can be … I mean, it does seem to make things more difficult.
It’s different now. I remember in high school my friends doing drive-bys, you turn the music down low, you think, he’s probably doing this. You create a whole narrative.

That’s how I got my first boyfriend!

Hahahaha, that’s awesome. But you can do so many more things now. You can see where someone is in real time. We know exactly what they’re doing, and we have nine ways to access that. I wish dating could go back to the age before technology. Even in a healthy relationship, he’s constantly in my pocket.

So, less social media is good.

That’s actually my #1 prescription. Doing a social media cleanse is a big part of Love Rehab, they have to put it away. For the single girl, I don’t think you should go on Facebook or Twitter on Valentine’s Day. You’re going to see everyone else’s “perfect” version of Valentine’s Day. Everyone is a dirty, dirty liar on Facebook, and it’s only worse on those faux-holidays. Everyone will be having much more fun on social media than they do in real life. If this is the most romantic day of your life, you’re not tweeting about it. You’re not taking selfies.

Previously: An Interview With Sara Eckel

Jen Doll is a regular contributor to The Hairpin.