I struggle with thought contamination.
It ruins certain moments, permanently tarnishing memories.
This has happened to me on a few occasions and it can take years to overcome. Sometimes, certain memories are permanently ruined.
It was a bitterly cold March, back in 2008. I was 19 and on my first visit to New York City. To say I was excited was an understatement.
I was a student, travelling with university from the UK. We were on a trip that was tied to our next assignment, spending five days there and time to see the sights.
Despite my excitement, I knew OCD would be a problem. One thought can ruin such experiences, and often my thoughts contaminate my happiness.
How OCD controls my behaviour
On special occasions I need to make sure certain moments are free of bad thoughts. The moments that often give me the most intense emotions. I will call these moments ‘chapters‘.
I need these to be full of happy thoughts for my memories sake.
I only get one shot to make these moments perfect. I can’t ask the taxi driver to do a u-turn because it ‘wasn’t right’. I can’t ask the pilot to turn the plane around and redo the take off.
This is what makes failing so unbearable to me. The lack of control to put things right again in my mind.
If something happens on day three or four, it isn’t such a big deal to me. However it is important that the check-out or final meal is free of intrusive thoughts too.
The final moments are just as important, like the closing chapter of a book.
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 contaminate the whole trip, 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 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.
I will still go about my day, but I will feel empty, or dirty. It is also a very lonely feeling.
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 horrible 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.
Back in 2008, we 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.
Throughout my teens and early twenties I had a slight worry of terrorism, partly due to media coverage and partly anxiety.
And here I was, on top of one of the most recognizable buildings in the world, in a city still rebuilding after a terrible terror attack.
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. 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 felt sick. The self hatred and guilt began to overpower me.
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 proudly say that I had been up the Empire State Building.
I couldn’t be proud that I had been to New York City at all.
Why did I have to have that thought? Why did I have to choose that family member? I was so close to making it a perfect trip.
As I mentioned earlier, the main chapters of a trip have to be free from intrusive thoughts.
This is also true for the chapters of a specific chapter.
It gets smaller and messier, trust me.
- 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 everything.
If I had a bad thought whilst visiting the restroom, I would have to reverse it, but it wouldn’t be so bad. It’s not a memorable moment.
It’s the feeling on the way up. The doors opening and the view. My stomach dropping on the way back down. Being back on ground level with the sounds of cars honking, people arguing and the hot dog vendors.
These are the memories I will keep. The ones I want to protect from negative thoughts.
The final attempt to put things right
This happened 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 these feelings to myself.
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, and we had a long wait between check-out and our bus-trip 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, walked onto the street and looked up at the ESB only a few blocks from us. A ten minute walk max? I didn’t waste another minute.
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 visability though‘ 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 lucky it was a foggy day. 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, 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, but I know that it’s a cycle that will keep repeating.