Samantha Regalbuto at Morris Home

For the first time in nearly a decade, Samantha Regalbuto will spend Valentine’s Day without her boyfriend. He was murdered eight months ago while incarcerated.

On this holiday — the eighth anniversary of the day they first met — Regalbuto’s grief is subdued. She’s begun to adjust to life without her boyfriend. Still, she said, she speaks to him every morning when she wakes up. She’s learning to cope with the loss, in tandem with learning to maintain her sobriety.

Regalbuto lives in Morris Home, an inpatient addiction rehabilitation center for transgender and gender-variant people. She moved into the Southwest Philadelphia house and entered her recovery from addiction two weeks ago.

Every year, Morris Home plans special programming for Valentine’s Day. The staff takes the holiday as an opportunity to teach self-love, especially as it pertains to recovery. And with her boyfriend’s death so fresh on her mind, Regalbuto hopes to spend this Valentine’s Day loving herself.

“It’s not bad for me, because I’m a trying to learn how to let go and live life,” Regalbuto said. “I know he’s happy because I’m doing the right thing. I’m off drugs. I know he’s watching my every move.”

Even the Morris Home chores list is dressed up for Valentine’s Day Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

Choosing to love yourself

For people in recovery from addiction, all holidays can be a major adjustment — Valentine’s Day included. Entering recovery can come with harsh realities about past relationships.

“After [residents] have been in the program for a while,” said Morris Home Director Laura Sorensen, “they realize that maybe they’re not going to be able to return to some of the friendships and relationships that were in their life when they were using.”

Kade Collins, a therapist at Morris Home, said building self-worth and self-love is an essential — albeit very challenging — first step for people who want to stay sober.

This year, Collins will lead a psychotherapy session for residents beginning with a presentation on why self-love matters in recovery. Then, participants will write love letters to themselves, and to some who support them. In case they struggle with this, Collins already has a love letter template prepared.

“This is sort of separating the part of them that was just in survival mode — trying to treat an addiction without the resources at the time to do it,” Collins said, “versus now: who they are when they have the resources that they need. Learning who that person is.”

After Collins’ therapy session, Sorensen will distribute love notes and valentines from staff members to residents. A Morris Home intern will follow up with a surprise workshop on pampering yourself — including face masks and nail polish.

The important message this sends to residents, per Sorensen: “You deserve to treat your body well.”

“We want to take a break from talking about trauma and triggers and the deep, hard work that people are doing to really cope, and just have a chance to celebrate each other,” Sorensen said.

Samantha Regalbuto’s Valentine’s Day decorations at Morris Home Credit: Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

Letting love fill the room

Long before she entered recovery, Regalbuto always loved holidays.

Her mother would decorate the house for every occasion — planting flowers at the beginning of spring and hanging American flags for the Fourth of July. Valentine’s was no exception.

“My mom would always give me a dozen roses, a box of chocolates, a big teddy bear,” Regalbuto said. “I love Valentine’s Day. I love doing stuff like that. It brings joy.”

For her first V-day at Morris Home, Regalbuto channeled her mother’s passion.

She hung up all the decorations in the living room — pink and red hearts, streamers and a message to Cupid written on a chalkboard.

Sorensen said she loves to see residents bring their past holiday traditions to Morris Home. It can help smooth the transition to celebrating without using substances.

“A lot of the folks that we serve at Morris Home are facing a lot of things that feel like the opposite of love,” Sorensen said. “A really important thing we can do is focus on the fact that everyone who lives here deserves to be loved and is worthy of love.”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...