I Tried Hypnotherapy to Get Over My Breakup

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Photo: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis

Southern California is a great place to live if you want to be fixed. Whether you are dissatisfied with your skin or your intestinal flora or your mother, a friend will have "the name of a guy" or the number of "a LIFE-CHANGING lady" for you.

So when I found myself having trouble getting over a series of breakups, I felt a uniquely Angelenian urge to apply some sort of … laser. There are many wonderful, intelligent people in L.A., but you'll often hear the other half of us, heading glassy-eyed into a studio or home office or medical spa, say stuff like "I'm working on myself!"

I wanted to be one of those dumb people on a fake journey. They looked happy.

At a certain point, romantic repudiation does not feel poetic or Petrarchan — it feels physically uncomfortable and distracting, like craving fajitas while being punched in the throat. Conventional wisdom is to wait for time to heal you, and in the meantime, to allow yourself to grieve. But I did not want to embrace my sadness. Mostly because all of my embraces were reserved for the pillow that had briefly still smelled of someone's hair, until I sniffed all of the smell gone. But also because it felt terrible.

I was halfway through an inadvisable rewatch of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (and, yes, a pizza crust I was dipping in rye whiskey) when I realized: This is it. This is the "treatment" I've been looking for.

If you somehow haven't seen the film (in which case: not cool. It's very good!), it stars Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey as a couple (stay with me, it works somehow) who have a bad breakup. It's SO bad that they enlist a new medical technology service that selectively eliminates memory. "Lacuna, Inc." (overseen in the goings-on by Tom Wilkinson, may he live FOREVER) erases all recall of your relationship and the person you were in it with, so as to make you more able to bear the southern Civil War prison that is being a human who goes on dates.

Whether you're in the plangent throes of rejection or just light crotch-grief, the idea of erasing someone who hurt you is deeply tantalizing.

In the film, the actual procedure is vaguely analogous to having a tattoo removed. The main obstacle, of course, is that the technology is strictly magical realism. I'd have to kind of replicate it using regular realism, and the magic of my own idiocy.

I knew several friends who'd credited hypnosis in helping them quit smoking. They never even thought of cigarettes anymore, they swore up and down, through their lotus-white grins.

Available locally for around the price of electrolysis, clinical hypnotherapy — and methodically purging my life of any unhelpful reminders of my anguish — seemed like the home version of the remedy dreamed up by Charlie Kaufman and his French felt-puppet friend, Michel Gondry.

Here's how it went. 

Step 1: Breakup Hygiene

This part was mostly taken care of, as I have already divested my apartment of every last painful breakup memory to the point of microinsanity. I threw out evocative CONDIMENTS. I stopped driving by a restaurant where I'd gone on a disastrous date, or watching any TV shows where the actors might eat meatballs because it would, in turn, make me think of the restaurant. Emails were gone from my inbox, numbers from my phone contacts, songs from my iTunes.

But for the sake of thoroughness, I do one last pass on my apartment, and end up throwing out an undershirt of unknown origin and an old lollipop. The candy hadn't belonged to anybody, but it did remind me of a guy who sometimes called me "dum-dum." Again: Erasing? Very appealing! 

Step 2: Informing Loved Ones

You know that point when absolutely everyone in your life is sick of hearing about your despair? I had passed it weeks ago, draining the reserves of my friends' goodwill so that there was an audible sucking sound, like someone trying to finish a milkshake.

"I know I've been a little … emotive," I tell my friend Molly over dinner, watching her try to arrange her features into a mask of neutral sympathy and not the face of someone hearing the shrill Chipmunk Christmas song of my sorrow for the billionth time. "But the good news is, I won't be anymore."

"Okayyyyyyy," she replies, looking understandably skeptical.

"Because I will be Eternal Sunshine–ing my dashed hopes," I continue. "So please don't bring that period in my life up, as it may confuse me in the way that awaking a sleepwalker might."

She nods, relieved, weirdly not objecting to the fact that I'd used a movie as a verb. Again, may have talked this one to death.

Walking home later, though, she stops me and takes my arm.

"You know that at the end of the movie, they get back together," she says, crushing the bones in my wrist supportively. "You don't want that, right?"

I think for a minute. Well, not a whole minute. She's really hurting my wrist. It isn't so much that I want to reconcile with anyone — I just don't want to feel this way anymore.

Step 3: Create a Pain Map

The one person who is not permitted to be bored by my anguish is the person I pay not to be: my therapist, whom you'll be relieved to know I see regularly.

Although, by this point, I could see even she was a little over my drama. ("Oh, you saw a man's initials on a license plate? Well … I hate to, but I guess I have to ask how that made you feel.") When your life has become a lazy New Yorker cartoon in that way, you can see how a person might resort to LARPing a movie with a Beck soundtrack.

I tell her about the candy and the ketchup, but also about my executive decision to Brita-filter my woe.

She nods, and considers for a moment. "Maybe we need to talk about allowing yourself to feel loss."

"Yeah, no, I don't want to do that," I say.

Step 4: Mind Erasure

Finally, the ACTION part. I've always wanted to be put "under," although I wasn't sure if I really believed it were possible. (I certainly don't believe in past-life regression! How can I be the reincarnated Liza Minnelli when we're alive at the same time?!) I researched a few local practitioners before settling on Dr. N., a striking blonde woman with a doctorate in psychology, whose website featured her shaking hands with Anderson Cooper. Her services — which confidently offer to assuage a variety of uncool behaviors — seemed like the perfect amalgam of science and sorcery.

At her West L.A. office, I certainly feel like I'm at a spa: There are low, glowing lamps and the same kind of reclining leather chair where you might have your upper lip waxed.

After listening to me describe my goals (and asking if the men I date are anything like my dad — I say no, other than that some of them are also kinda short), Dr. N. draws a picture of the human brain on a legal pad, dotting it with pluses and minuses. Hypnosis, she explains, can target negative memories. But instead of erasing them, you supplant crazy messages and unhappy thoughts with chill, positive ones. (Here, she uses her marker to turn all of the little minuses to pluses. I admit I love a visual aid.) Trance, unlike the terrible genre of music that shares its name, is the place in which this healing is done.

But it's not, she warns, like anything you see in movies.

Essentially, what she ends up telling me is hypnotherapists aren't Vegas-style mind-freaks, and they can't make you believe you are a duck, or anything other than a deeply silly woman who is unable to deal with adult loneliness. Dr. N. could help rid me of the behavior related to pain (the urge to text, or to equate heartbreak with sandwiches, say), but not the pain itself.

She has me close my eyes and talks me into a (very, actually!) relaxed state in which I'm meant to be very receptive to suggestion. (I mean, I have a pleather jacket I bought from Forever 21 because I think it makes me look tough, so her job isn't really that hard.) I can't say that I feel hypnotized, but I do feel kind of like you do when you're getting a massage or realize you've "zoned out" while driving a car someplace familiar and haven't been paying attention to the road. During the trance, Dr. N. says a bunch of nice, soothing things while I just sort of sit there silently with my eyes closed, not doing anything. She tells me to let go of self-doubt, and, in its place, to develop the overwhelming urge to erase numbers from my phone, and to wait for somebody who desires me equally. I try not to let my mind go into the logistics of that and instead just kind of stay in a suggestible daze where I'm not thinking about how in all relationships there's usually one sap who likes the other one more. The whole thing takes about a half-hour, but it feels like way less.

I do my best not to fight it and to ignore the fact that I am breathing heavily in a leather recliner in an office building that also houses a "gyrotonic Pilates" studio and holistic drug-counseling for teens. To continue sessions on my own, Dr. N. gives me an MP3 to listen to before bed, a relaxing recording of her voice instructing me to feel my fingers getting tingly while not thinking any inappropriate thoughts.

Those first nights, for whatever they're worth, I sleep and dream of nobody.

***

In the days following my visit, when I think about it, I stop and gingerly take a mental inventory. I don't feel cured or cinematically amnesiac, but I do just kind of generally feel … less. This, I suppose, could be attributed to the simple passage of time, or having occupied myself with something other than the solipsistic crumpled-diary-page wad of my brain.

But what I had hoped for was the instant gratification of a "procedure." I wanted to be emotionally Juvédermed, waxed of discomfort, anal-bleached of sentiment. I wanted somebody to get a pointy little hose and squirt warm water into my heart to get at whatever was impacted there, like dislodging 17 years of Scotch-wet cheeseburgers from an old movie star's colon.

And you can't. Because that's the nature of cautionary futuristic technology.

You just have to wait.