I was only fifteen when Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind came out. It was March 19, 2004, exactly 15 years ago. At the time, the Michel Gondry film, which earned Gondry and co-writers Charlie Kauffman and Pierre Bismuth an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, was lauded as an indie darling and has since entered into the cannon of cult classic. Centering on the tumultuous relationship of blue-haired free spirit Clementine (Kate Winslet) and Joel (Jim Carrey), a lonely man in a “funk” who has trouble finding meaning in his life, the romantic sci-fi movie captures telling moments from their relationship as Joel undergoes a special treatment to remove Clementine from his memory after learning she is undergoing the exact same procedure after their breakup. The fictional Lacuna, Inc. performs these procedures to wipe their memories out of existence, which they later try to fight against.
At the time of the movie’s release, I was just embarking on my first romantic relationship—one characterized by messy breakups and even messier reconciliations. It was a formative experience in my trajectory and one that has impacted many of my romantic relationships today; a fact I’ve always felt wildly ashamed of every time a potential suitor asks me for my relationship “resume.” Now that I’m a thirty-year-old woman navigating the vicious dating pool in a time when ghosting, orbiting, and breadcrumbing have become the norm, there is still something deeply alluring about the movie’s premise of erasing a painful relationship from the dark corners of one’s brain, begging two questions: Could it really be possible to erase my exes? And if I could, would I?
First, it’s worth considering why breakups are so painful that we would even want to banish our former lovers from our brains. According to psychotherapist Dr. Juli Fraga, a licensed psychologist focused on women’s health and wellness, “Wanting to erase an ex is a sign that we don't want to face the enormous pain that loss brings.” She believes that in our current era of distraction, there are many ways to numb ourselves (for some it’s drinking themselves into a stupor while for me it’s often ordering $35 worth of pizza) and turn away from relational torment, which can cause feelings such as rejection, depression, anxiety, and grief. Plus, it can be increasingly difficult to move on from someone in our current day and age when every relationship and person has a permanent digital footprint we can revisit with the quick click of a button.
When it comes to dealing with relationship endings, psychotherapist Jennifer Musselman, a former media exec who studies how people are socialized to believe sensationalized ideals of love and dating says, “our brain tells us this pain is awful and we want to make it go away immediately.” And this is especially valid if it was not a healthy relationship, or in other words one that was steeped in attachment issues. In this way, a breakup could actually be reinforcing and triggering deeper childhood trauma and an unhealthy relationship we had with our parents at a young age. Accordingly, Musselman says the situations we may want to shake are usually the most volatile and toxic.
With this, it would make sense that I’d want to erase any and all evidence of my first boyfriend—a relationship that ended freshman year of college when his best friend told him I made out with someone else at a frat party (despite us being technically separated), and he drunkenly ended up punching the friend who gave the message, resulting in their friendship breakup, and our personal grand finale. Did I mention I found out I had mono right after that and had to tell him to get tested?
As we mature and come to better comprehend our patterns, it can be embarrassing to remember ourselves as the person who once put up with bad behavior and/or made our own poor or hurtful choices. How often have we looked deep at ourselves and thought “Shit. Did I totally fuck up?” So it’s only natural to want to forget or repress those parts of ourselves until we actively heal them. Just as Joel and Clementine had to contend with the mistakes they made during their relationship, many of us have done our own version of the same thing by deleting any and all evidence of former lovers from our phones and social media accounts in an effort to preserve some of our own dignity and regain a sense of control. We block and we unfollow so we can try to move on.
But, can our memories of former lovers actually be erased?
In 2007, American neuroscientists discovered a drug that could eliminate memories. According to the Telegraph, researchers developed an amnesia drug that could “wipe away single, specific memories while leaving other memories intact” by injecting the drug right when a subject was recalling a particularly upsetting memory. At the time, the study, performed by psychiatrists at McGill University and Harvard University and was published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, was met with mixed reactions. Some UK governmental advisers were worried the drugs would be used carelessly as a “quick fix,” while scientists proposed that the procedure could help treat trauma victims dealing with PTSD. Ultimately, the findings underscore the plasticity of the brain, and the ways in which our memory can be altered. It also mirrors the fictional Lacuna, Inc., whose scientists erased memories via electric shock therapy administered after a patient recalls their ex.
Even so, removing an ex from our brain is still not a procedure available to the masses, and maybe never will be, but there are practices out there that can help lessen the impact of a very bad breakup.
For example, EMDR, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, is one psychotherapeutic practice in which traumatic memories can be altered or lessened so they are not as emotionally upsetting. In this process, memories are recalled while patients are encouraged to divert their attention by doing specific eye shifts, tapping, and other movements. Multiple studies have found that it is an effective treatment for PTSD.
Then there’s hypnosis or hypnotherapy, where one enters a trance-like state and taps into their subconscious through special techniques, including verbal cues and mental images that heighten focus and concentration while calming the nervous system. In this way, it can be used to help people get control over certain behaviors, like smoking, and allow someone to better cope with anxiety or pain.
Nicole Wells, a hypnotist and public speaking coach, works with clients to use hypnosis to uncover what factors are already helping them move on from a relationship. For example, she suggests one technique, in which a client is brought 5 or 10 years into the future using hypnosis. She then helps them visualize an imagined future in which a specific relationship no longer has the same impact on them anymore. “When you get distance from an experience and see that that emotion has dissipated, that can help change the strong and negative emotional response a memory has, allowing us to see it in a new light,” she offers. In this way, hypnosis can help us get over bad habits, and heartbreak, faster by harnessing our unconscious mind in a direct way.
In the movie the scientific treatment goes awry and the characters realize they do want to retain the memories of their love and pain, which makes sense considering Fraga’s argument that “our pasts can determine our futures. If we don't process our pain, we relive it.” The proverbial is it better to have loved and lost, so to speak. Thus, as Musselman says, “Releasing trauma and these memories from our bodies is key to moving forward.” Knowing all of this now, I don’t think I would erase my first love because that would mean I would be erasing all the joyful moments we enjoyed together (like losing our virginity together while listening to The Shins) as well as the incredible personal growth that I experienced after he left my life.
While Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind still offers a compelling idea that doesn’t seem completely illogical with all of the technological and medical advances we have today, instead of wanting to erase the memories of our past lovers, the film reminds us all these years later the importance of what those memories have taught us. No matter how messy a relationship is, we always grow, and the more we can embrace that growth, the more likely we are to bring healthier people into our lives.
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