One night of ecstasy and dubstep was enough to get the maybe-feelings that my maybe-crush and I had for each other out of our system. Nothing happened—on the precipice of making-out, we consciously decided to wait to take things to the next level until we were sober. In the hazy light of morning, and with the magnetic attraction we'd felt evaporated from our systems, we decided to stay just friends.
Now that Valentine's Day is upon us, I'm reminded of the many artificial ways in which we seek out, stimulate, and simulate love. Turning over memories from my single days and navigating my current relationship, I noticed that both ecstasy and Valentine's Day assist with the pursuit of romance; and yet, people tend to sneer at the idea of them as giving rise to genuine expressions of love. Looking back, I would have rolled my eyes at the sight of my friend and me that night: contemplating a relationship with our arms wrapped around each other, our wrists covered in bracelets that could have been made by kindergartners.
Clearly, ecstasy and Valentine's Day are two different beasts. Dehydration caused from ecstasy or MDMA can bloat your brain to the point of death; Valentine's Day cannot do you bodily harm, though it can wreak havoc on your emotions. But in the realm of love, are the two really that different?
We laugh off ecstasy-fueled soulmate encounters in the same way that we snigger at the Valentine's Day aisle at the local convenience store, stocked full of "I Love You" bears made in sweatshops. When it comes to love, ecstasy and Valentine's Day have a manufactured quality. The common criticism of Valentine's Day as a "Hallmark Holiday" takes issue with the day as a way for corporations to profit off of emotion, commodifying love into candy hearts inscribed with thin san-serif messages. When gifted by the right person, those always disappointingly bland sugar tablets can produce a similar effect as a mass-produced illegal drug that makes you feel, well, rose-colored ecstasy.
In other words, the problem with both Valentine's Day and ecstasy is that the lovey-dovey feelings they catalyse aren't exactly genuine. Ecstasy artificially produces the high amounts of dopamine and norepinephrine that naturally occur in the brain when you're in love. Similarly, on Valentine's Day, the feelings you have for your date may be real, but the expression of them comes from nothing but a day on the calendar. There is a perception that romantic feelings should arise from a soul-level connection, and both V-Day and MDMA fly in the face of that. Instead, they suggest that you can manufacture love with the right chemical cocktail, or by conforming to the same heteronormative, market-driven social rituals that everyone else is following.
They both also work by capitalizing on our instinct to belong. As the writer Elias Cannetti points out in his iconic 1960 book Crowds and Power, being part a group and feeding off of pack emotion is human instinct. Whether or not you're in a relationship, Valentine's Day is basically one giant FOMO bonanza of flowers and chocolate and dinner dates; people want to know they fall in the Love camp, and not the Un-loved camp, and they'll do all sorts of things to prove that—including posting manufactured pictures of their perfect relationships all over their Instagrams. Similarly, anyone who's taken the drug at a rave knows that amazing feeling of the crowd pulsing together, the high that comes when the bass drops and everyone collectively loses their shit, that beautiful feeling of kinship you feel with the people around you. But when you're sitting alone at home watching this unfold on social media, or maybe just not feeling it that particular night at the club, it's heartbreaking to be left out.
Valentine's Day and ecstasy undermine the idea of love as something real.
In other words, Valentine's Day and ecstasy undermine the idea of love as something real. This is especially problematic because of our generation's obsession with authenticity. We're focused on find our true calling, being Who We Are without apology, living woke. A much-shared New York Times column about how most people are doomed to marry the wrong person concluded that the only way to find a partner who won't make you miserable is to know yourself deeply. Valentine's Day and ecstasy irritate the love purist because orchestrating a romantic rush with either a holiday or a drug cheapens the view of coupling as a true expression of the self.
Even if ecstasy is fake, the experiences the drug can impart are real. One night my partner and I spent the night talking, listening to music, and rolling in a fancy hotel room. After a couple hours of laying on the criminally comfy bed, dressed in oversized robes and staring up at the ceiling, he confessed something about his past he'd been hiding from me. I pretty much instantly forgave him for the lie of omission, but the next day, I bust into tears the moment he walked out the door. I was crying in part because of my depleted serotonin reserves, yes, but mostly because it seemed like he had needed a drug to be emotionally honest with me.
Back at home—grappling with the closeness I'd felt with him when he told me his secret, and the ocean of distance that seemed to stretch out between us the next day—I started to peel back what it was about me that made him feel like he had needed drugs to communicate. I realized that I was also guilty of withholding, of bottling up feelings that required hard conversations—and then, too often, using alcohol to let emotions tumble out of me like so many broken shot glasses. Taking drugs with him the night before had taught me something. I wanted more openness in our relationship, when before I didn't even know that it was lacking. Now we're both trying to entrust each other with hard truths regularly, without the help of substances.
One of the other things we're working on is romance. Now that we live together, we have to actively find ways to remind ourselves that our relationship is about more than starting and ending the day with each other. For now, we do this by making one another coffee in the morning and knowing each other's most ticklish spots and the million other small ways you show gratitude to a partner. Still, sometimes you want a grander gesture of affection. That's where Valentine's Day or anniversaries or even birthdays come in: a holiday with a script can help you satisfy an emotional need with an action. I'm excited for our fancy date this week, and feel lucky that I get to spend the holiday with him. I feel loved. So despite Hallmark's best efforts to neuter it, Valentine's Day still can have its uses, especially for the romance novice.
At their best, pleasurable lubricants like Valentine's Day and ecstasy make it easier to love.
I think the premium we place on untainted, "authentic" romantic feelings are too high. Even if you have found a partner who brings you joy and knows you like no one else, maybe it's OK to look for assistance with building qualities like attraction, openness, trust, emotional honesty, and romance. So while it's easy and even justified to rail against both PLUR culture and Valentine's Day, if you're looking for love, who are we to judge what gets you there. Happy Valentine's Day.
Follow Rachel Krauss on Twitter