Mental Contamination on Vacation: My nightmare on the Empire State Building

It is a bitterly cold March 2008. I’m 19 and on my first visit to New York City.

To say I’m excited is an understatement.

Despite mental contamination OCD doing its best to ruin this trip, I regard it as one of my most memorable vacations.

One particular incident however is still fresh in my memory and was pretty traumatic at the time.

Intro to blog with title and Empire State Building

But please let me elaborate on what this post is about. It is about my struggle with mental contamination OCD when on holiday and the affected memories looking back. Mental contamination can ruin certain moments on my trips and with that, permanently tarnish memories.

I am confident that if you have found this post, you can relate in some way.

This has happened to me on a few occasions and it can take years to overcome. Sometimes, certain memories are permanently ruined.

Mental contamination (in my experience) is having a certain thought ruin the experience I was having at the time of the thought, even though the two aren’t linked. An example would be to think of harm coming to my parents whilst I’m at a movie theater, and not being able to enjoy the movie as a result.

I may refuse to watch that movie again, or feel guilt and shame every time I watch that movie days, months or even years into the future. It has become contaminated.

How mental contamination affects my vacations

If you would like, I have published a more in depth look at mental contamination from my personal experience here. It takes a dedicated post to describe it fully and you can always continue here later (I won’t mind!).

This type of OCD is damaging due to the longevity of the stress. It isn’t just in the moment, but every time I look back at that moment.

Although I try to escape unwanted thoughts constantly, on special vacations I need to make sure certain moments are free of bad thoughts or it could spoil the whole trip.

I need to be free of unwanted thoughts at vital moments on a holiday. The main moments that often give me the most intense emotions. I will call these moments ‘chapters‘.

The flight there, the memorable experiences whilst there and the flight back are examples of these chapters, as these are the memories that stick with me long after the trip has ended. I need them to be full of happy thoughts for my memories sake.

I stress about having happy thoughts at these times because I only get ONE SHOT to make it a perfect moment. If I ruin it, I can’t ask the pilot to turn the plane around and start the flight again.

This is what makes failing here so unbearable to me. The lack of control to put things right again.

You will notice I have mentioned my ‘first’ hotel night or ‘first’ restaurant, as eating and sleeping are not one-off moments on a vacation… they happen every night.

For this reason the first night or check-in is the most vital for me to get right. If something happens on day three or four, it isn’t such a big deal to me, there is less stress. However, I will say it is important that the check-out or final meal is free of intrusive thoughts too.

The final moments are just as important as it is like the closing chapter of a book. I need that to be perfect.

If I let an intrusive thought manifest on the flight from London to New York, I am in danger of letting it contaminate that chapter of the holiday. A big chapter of that book. This can risk contaminating the whole trip if I let it, similar to how a bad chapter can ruin an actual book.

If I have an unwanted thought whist eating noodles in my hotel room on the third day, it isn’t so much of a big deal. That is more of a page in a book rather than a whole chapter. It isn’t so important and holds less weight in my mind… I am not going to regularly look back at this noodle-eating moment in years to come.

Although ‘reversing’ the bad thought with a good thought normally brings relief, it is harder to get relief if it is done in one of these ‘special’ moments.

This is especially true if the unwanted thought is the first thought I have stepping on the plane or my first footsteps in the hotel. The first moments need to be clean, happy thoughts. The first footsteps in these chapters of my journey… the first bite of food, the first swim in the pool.

I will often flood my mind with good thoughts to make sure the first thought isn’t a bad thought.

Sometimes it is effective, other times not so much.

A memorable incident at the Empire State Building

I had an intrusive thought during my visit to the Empire State Building, one that threatened to ruin my whole trip.

This actually happened on the elevator back down after what was a great experience, relatively OCD-free.

The most distressing intrusive thoughts I can have with OCD involve my family members. These thoughts focus on harm coming to them and of course, this is not what I want. These thoughts cause much distress and guilt.

Back in 2008 (the time of this trip), British and American Troops were still very much at war, and I remember the countless news reports from captured soldiers or charity workers held hostage during this time.

I am not going to make this political, I am simply going to state I had a horrible intrusive thought about a close family member being in one of these hostage videos.

This specific scenario didn’t often manifest as an intrusive thought. Harm does, yes, but often they are just worries about harm coming to my family in general.

But on this occasion I was on top of one of the most recognizable buildings in the world, in a city still rebuilding after a terrible terror attack.

Throughout my teens and early twenties I always had a slight worry of terrorism on a flight or at specific destinations, partly due to the media coverage and partly OCD.

The Empire State Building trip was of course no exception to this. Combining this worry with a fear of heights I was on edge the whole visit, despite my joy at being there. It took me a good few minutes to compose myself at the top, but I was able to escape intrusive thoughts up there.

Photo taken on a great afternoon from the Empire State Building

But coming back down to ground level was the moment things went wrong. I guess my recent visit to Ground Zero, the constant news reports from the war and the increased security formed a thought I wanted to avoid. I won’t say what the exact thought was as it isn’t really relevant but it was distressing.

I failed to avoid a negative thought- as much as I tried- and from the moment I stepped onto the sidewalk to the moment I got back to the hotel room I knew that my Empire State Building memory had been contaminated.

I thought of a specific family member being harmed by a violent group, I felt sick and the self hatred and guilt began to overpower me.

I would stare at the Empire State Building from my hotel window for the remaining days, wondering if a second trip would make it right

The thoughts that led me to go up a second time

I couldn’t stop thinking about how I ruined that moment. The only trip I would make to the observation deck and I can no longer go home to show off the fact that I had been up the Empire State Building. And with that, I would find it very difficult to be proud that I had been to New York City at all.

It was full of guilt and distress. Why did I have to think that thought? And why did I have to choose that family member? I was so close to making it a perfect trip as well. I fell at the last hurdle.

Now I have to explain something else here. Especially if you are wondering why the journey down from the tower is enough to contaminate the whole experience… as I did state that the first steps into a building are the ones I focus on being perfect.

As I mentioned earlier, the main chapters of a trip have to be free of intrusive thoughts. The journey to and from NYC for example. However this is also true to the chapters of a specific chapter.

It gets smaller and messier trust me.

For example, if I think of the chapters in my Empire State Building trip, they would be:

  • The first footsteps in the building and the elevator ride up
  • The first footsteps on the observation deck
  • The elevator ride down and the first steps back on the sidewalk

These are the most important moments. If I have an intrusive thought during one of these chapters, it can contaminate the whole experience. The same way that if I have an intrusive thought during one of the main chapters on the whole trip i.e the flight home, it can ruin the whole vacation.

Like my noodle example earlier, if I went to the toilet at the ESB and had an intrusive thought there, I would have to reverse it, but it wouldn’t be so bad.

This is because when I look back in memories I won’t be thinking of my toilet break. I will be thinking of the feeling of being in the elevator. The sounds, the commentary on the way up, the doors opening and the view for the first time. My stomach dropping on the way back down. Being back on ground level with all the car horns and hot dog vendors. These are the memories I will keep, and the ones I want to protect from negative thoughts.

A diagram showing how one specific trip can affect the whole vacation

Although I do not feel in control of my OCD, I understand the patterns that occur. I understand when I try my hardest not to have them, and when contamination can ruin something.

The final attempt to put things right

This happened probably two days before we departed back to London. During my remaining time there I could not forget the mistake I made. It stuck to me like glue and was impossible to shake off. I kept it to myself of course.

I was never going to tell anyone about this. I would seem crazy. Not to mention our itinerary was packed in the short five days so I never found time to myself to go back and put things right.

That was until we checked out of the hotel, Hotel Thirty Thirty as I recall. It was only a few blocks from the ESB as you can see from my earlier shots, and we had an hours wait between check out and our coach ride to the airport. We all sat with our luggage in the lobby waiting for the return coach ride.

I sat deep in thought. I asked my lecturer how long we had before the coach picked us up for the airport:

45 mins or so‘ was the response.

This was enough time for me to make a break for it and head back to make things right.

I told everyone I was going to grab a coffee. I walked onto the street and looked up at the ESB only a few blocks from us. A ten minute walk? I didn’t waste another minute and I ran.

Map of my walking route to the ESB from the hotel

I got there through dense fog and soft rain.

How long to get to the top?’ I asked whilst catching my breath.

‘Seven minutes, practically zero viability too‘ the worker said.

I didn’t care for the views, just my sanity. I bought the ticket and got in the very short line.

I was actually lucky it was a foggy day. If not the queues could have been longer and I may have either bottled it, or missed my coach.

I got to the top, trying my damn hardest not to have an intrusive thought. I pumped good thoughts into my head like crazy on the way up, whilst at the top and did the same coming down.

It worked. I felt a huge weight lifted off my shoulders and that journey home was full of relief instead of guilt and self hatred.

I felt like I had rescued the whole trip at the very last minute. That dirty, guilt-ridden feeling I had bottled up inside me dissipated.

I got back to the hotel, the students looked at me for a brief moment, the kind of look you get if you had briefly popped out to the shops and returned. Nothing special and that is just what I needed.

The relief I felt on the flight back was amazing.


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