Conspiracy Theories, Autism, Fear, and Life on the Crazy Train

Mental wounds still screaming
Driving me insane
I’m going off the rails on a crazy train

— Ozzy Osbourne, “Crazy Train”

I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about conspiracy theories. Or, more accurately, I’m fed up with conspiracy theories.

My fiancé and I have been discussing these theories against the backdrop of world events for the last several years. On our dining room table there is a stack of books a couple of feet tall that I’ve been meaning to read about conspiracy theories and related subjects such as the premillennial dispensationalist interpretation of the Book of Revelation and the fundamentalist Christian worldview. To be quite honest, I’m mildly fascinated with conspiracy theorists and I’m trying to understand how they think: if I’d had the time to read these books lately, conspiracy theories would have become another special interest by now.

So why do I say that I’m fed up with conspiracy theories? Aside from the lack of logic and evidence in many of these theories, I’m also sick and tired of the worldview which is engendered by the most ridiculous, extreme, and far-out of theorists, which goes something like this: everything is a ploy to undermine our cherished way of life – the immigration of Muslims to the United States (this particular belief is included as part of the rampant Islamaphobia present in the U.S. today), affirmative action, gender equality, religious tolerance, interracial marriage (I’m not shitting you – back in the 1960’s many conspiracy theorists such as Myron Fagan were espousing the view that racial equality, interracial marriage, and the Civil Rights movement were part of a Communist agenda to ruin America), etc., etc. etc. Included in the latest of these as accounted by a fellow autism blogger on Facebook is a notion that same-sex marriage is part of a Communist plot to take over America. And a little closer to home is the insistence by some that vaccines cause autism…and supposedly, it’s a plot cooked up by a secret shadow government.

Another reason I am fed up with conspiracy theories is the blatant (and subtle) racial, ethnic, and religious prejudice which is mixed in with these kinds of beliefs. Not just present in the so-called “lunatic fringe”, I have seen this kind of prejudice in less extreme viewpoints present in the online truth community, which includes many people from many walks of life with a diversity of viewpoints. Most I have encountered from my own readings are certainly not bigoted, but when I read the writings of the few loud ones who are, it really does make me shudder: for example, I frequently see the insistence that Jews and non-whites are the seed of Cain (or of the devil, depending on who you read).

Taking Off the Tin Foil Hat

I have my own beliefs about the world. Some events are connected. Some are not. Some are caused by evil, greedy, power-hungry people who do not care about people and their health, well-being, and personal liberties. Some are caused by demagogues acting singularly with help from hangers-on, underlings, those who obey without question, an apathetic or desperate public willing to follow whatever ideologies sound good, and those interested in their own rise to power (case in point – Adolf Hitler). Some are indeed plotted by multiple individuals conspiring together. And…there are some good people and things that still exist in this world.

I came to my own conclusions after years of examination, coming to terms with the presence of both good and evil in the human soul, and disproving a lot of things that I once believed were truth. This process took many years of dealing with my own fear through examining beliefs (both blatant and subtle) that inhabited my mind for many years and which I had simply taken for granted. I also had to deal with my own tendency towards black-and-white thinking which hampered my ability to “cleanse my door of perception” as William Blake might say in order to see and understand.

“You’re Going to Hell”: Fear, Belief, and Asperger’s

I’ve already written a little bit about autism spectrum disorders and anxiety, particularly as it relates to Asperger Syndrome. Those on the spectrum tend to have greater trouble with anxiety, and it would stand to reason that belief systems which naturally promote a fear-laden, suspicious, and paranoid worldview would increase that anxiety. It’s also been my experience that anxiety can increase exponentially until I am paralyzed with fear and find myself unable to act or thinking rationally. And once rational thinking is thrown out the window, it becomes even easier to believe conclusions no matter how ridiculous they sound or how little evidence there is to support them.

As I mentioned in this post about PTSD as well as a few others, I grew up in a very dysfunctional family with the worst of the dysfunction occurring in my teen years. During this same time period, the same family also became heavily fundamentalist Christian. And I found out through personal experience that fundamentalism and dysfunction tend to create a cocktail of repression, authoritarianism, and the inhibition of personal freedom to explore, believe, and choose for one’s self.

As a teenager, I scoured the Bible trying to find some sense and meaning to it and while some things made sense, I also found myself questioning my beliefs. For example, the hatred of LBGT individuals promoted by certain verses in the Old Testament and by church doctrine seemed illogical in the face of the claim that God is Love. Also, I could not convince myself that the restrictions on some sexual behavior promoted by the same scripture as well as doctrine were reasonable and logical no matter how hard I tried. Later, I began questioning that a loving God would commit anyone to Hell based solely on their beliefs. Unfortunately, I kept all of this questioning to myself, kept attending the church my aunt insisted upon, and hoped that no one would notice my painful, private struggle with cognitive dissonance.

During this time period, the major religious-infused public battle between my aunt and me was over my taste in music. During my teen years, my listening choices were mostly R&B, rap, and alternative music – all of which were banned after my aunt declared that secular music was no longer allowed in the house. She insisted that such music were not the proper tastes for a young Christian woman. As a result, I would later sneak and listen to MTV or BET when no one was in the house – but I would have much rather listened in front of everyone’s face rather than behind their backs.

Was keeping my skepticism and uncertainty to myself the product of cowardice or an attempt to avoid further abuse? I’m not sure if it can be that simply categorized as either/or. I know that my particular experience is unique in some ways yet my kind of experience may not be as uncommon as I think. I have come across at least one other individual on the spectrum – Xanthe Wyse of the God Confusion Blog – who had similar experiences with Asperger’s, family dysfunction, and fundamentalist Christianity and concluded that this particular mix of circumstances would make it difficult for anyone but particularly so for an Asperger or autistic child who questions what does not seem logical or correct. Rudy Simone mentions in her list of female Asperger traits that an autistic or Asperger female may hate injustice and hate to be misunderstood, so such a mix of circumstances would be particularly trying on her. In my case, fear and anxiety won out in the end and kept me silent.

Anxiety and “The Crazy Train”

Fast-forward to my late-twenties. During this time period, I began having nightmares about the Book of Revelation coming true. My most terrifying imagery involved literal images of the moon turning into blood, the four horsemen wreaking destruction on the face of the Earth, and stars falling out of the sky, which my mind translated into nuclear holocaust. Add some alien invasions to this mix of baleful Doomsday imagery and you had one very scared, mentally wounded, and paralyzed Aspie. At one point, I honestly believed the world would end, literally at any time, and play out as premillennial dispensationalists claim that it will. It is very frightening to be twenty-eight years old and believe that you will never have a chance to fulfill your hopes and dreams because God wants history to play out in a very bloody, fiery, and dystopian fashion.

Shortly before the nightmares began, I was undergoing personal troubles. Sparing you the gory details, I will only say that some family members were being demanding, unreasonable, and egotistical. At this same time, I began reading about conspiracy theories and the worst of the ones I encountered were permeated with Doomsday predictions, paranoia, and mistrust. I also lost my job and began to become very worried about how we would make it. Anxiety? You bet.

I’m not sure if the nightmares were an unconscious attempt to distract myself from my real worries – perhaps they were. I do know that all of the frightening beliefs that had been shoved at me as a teenager began to manifest themselves in my thinking – first in my nightmares and then in my waking state. I began to fear the reprisals of an angry God if I did not comply with certain beliefs – and taking center stage was self-condemnations of my sexual identity and the music to which I listened. For example, I sold nearly all of my CD’s and my fiancé even had to convince me not to sell an R.E.M. collector’s item I had bought the year before, which was disturbing considering that I am very much an R.E.M. fan. Bottom line: I was willing to give up my own identity to avoid rejection and what I believed to be a painful and fiery fate. Caused by anxiety? Definitely. I was literally going insane.

Early Maladaptive Schemas and Anxiety

I am thankful to the Gods that I am here now, in my right mind, and able to tell my story. In order to do that, I had to learn how to stop fixating on my frightening ideas and slowly let go of my fears.

One of the ways this began to happen was purely by accident. When I was assisting the course developer in one of my previous contracting assignments in a distance learning program, I read through the material for a course on the Book of Revelation and it was then that I discovered apocalyptic literature and its purpose, which was to comfort and strengthen those being persecuted for their faith. And apocalyptic literature like the Book of Revelation tends to contain coded imagery — an average Roman official who might have confiscated Revelation would not be able to understand the imagery and thus have no clue of its true meaning intended by John of Patmos.

After this discovery, the veil of fear began to lift from my eyes. I began to question other things again, including the conspiracy theories I’d read and the particular doctrines that I’d had major disagreements with as a teenager. I found that actively questioning them made me use deductive reasoning and search for evidence, and eventually I began to draw my own conclusions.

This questioning process also made me think today about something I’d written about back in 2010 – early maladaptive schemas (EMSs). While writing this post, I began to understand that my fears resulted from negative beliefs in two major categories: 1) disconnection and rejection and 2) over-vigilance and inhibition. Disconnection and rejection beliefs focus on the idea that people are untrustworthy and malevolent and over-vigilance and inhibition beliefs contain the idea that the world is an unsafe place and that inappropriate expression of emotion will result in disaster.

As a teenager, I had begun to unconsciously believe that God would reject me unless I was “perfect” and fit the ideal touted by my aunt of the “good Christian girl” – basically, a straitlaced heterosexual goody two-shoes who only listened to Gospel music, behaved perfectly, and never had a dirty thought much less even pursued the imagery in said dirty thoughts (please understand I have nothing against heterosexuals – this is simply one of the descriptive terms of the image to which I was expected to live up). That belief is certainly in the disconnection and rejection category of EMSs. However, it also gave rise to tendencies of over-vigilance and inhibition, which meant I would carefully monitor my behavior and inhibit anything that would be deemed unacceptable. Considering that perfectionism and OCD tendencies also occur frequently in the autistic population, you can certain understand (and anyone who has been through something similar will definitely understand) how painful such efforts are, especially if you perceive that you are failing to meet such expectations.

So What Next?

I still have my days. I am probably not a poster child for adults who were damaged by cults or fundamentalist belief systems as children, but I do still have my difficulties. Under stress, I find it very hard not to slip into my old ways of thinking, which include an either/or, black-or-white mentality: it’s either ok or it’s not. I value my sanity enough to keep on fighting, as well as my individual happiness and the future my fiancé and I have discussed at length that we desire. Not to mention, without my fiancé’s patience and support as well as help from my counselor, I would have definitely gone insane by now.

It’s my personal struggle which makes me frustrated, fed up, and angry at anyone who pushes or sells fear. The issues with autism and anxiety aside, fear is not healthy for anyone and I find myself bristling at the narrow thinking and intolerance I have found with those who believe heavily in conspiracy theories. I chose to write about this today because I have had enough of the fear, enough of the anxiety, and enough of the harm that such thinking promotes. Additionally, I feel nothing but empathy for folks of the spectrum who are plagued by such fear and such thinking – I can firsthand testify to the mental hell this creates.

I honestly believe that some individuals who push their conspiracy theory thinking have personal issues that they are projecting onto the rest of us by their particular worldview. I understand the human and very real fears of change as well as fears of what could happen next, which are certainly aggravated by the economic and political conditions around the world. I also understand that it may be easier to think that there is a single “hidden hand” that controls world events – a crazy view but one which nonetheless promotes the idea that there is a pattern and logic to what happens in the world. However, fear and ignorance seem to go hand in hand, and it is almost a never-ending cycle — unless one chooses to break it.

Please forgive me for eviscerating, but I needed to write about this today. Please reach out and let me know via comments what your experience has been with fear, conspiracy theories, and negative thinking. I’ll be listening.

-Nicole

P.S. I will begin responding to comments soon, I promise!

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10 thoughts on “Conspiracy Theories, Autism, Fear, and Life on the Crazy Train

  1. I like trains, though. Having said that, I think the pattern and logic can be love, not hate, and people who peddle hate are often mean, and mean people are usually afraid and usually wrong. Pattern and logic are excellent, and may fear and hatred never purport to own them!! Think of a dodecahedron. Mmmm. Or a train, or nice spiral having do to with Fibonacci, or the way water behaves, or leaves dappling sunlight, or the word ‘logos,’ or some Bach on a cello, or the way a baby can radiate a smile all the way through the whole body, or, or, or…. 😉 Love.

    • Hello Ibby:

      In most cases, I agree — pattern and logic can be beautiful things. Nature is full of patterns and logic, as you mentioned the Fibonnaci spiral, the precise distance between sun and Earth which keeps our climate and ecosystem running perfectly, and so forth.

      I think those who are into paranoia and hate are unable to accept the randomness and chaos of the world (primarily the human world). Unpredictability can be scary, so it’s easy to try to create a false logic that insists that all world events are controlled by a hidden hand. That’s a very Machiavellian point of view, as someone else mentioned on Facebook, and it’s a bit indicative of the mental states of the conspiracy theorists. In short, their logic is not logic but reflective of their own psyches.

      Thanks for stopping by. Hope to see you around again.

      -Nicole

  2. OH! Thank you so much for writing this! It feels as if you pulled words straight from my head and got them down. I have been trying to work through this for the past few years and feeling a stirring to start writing about it. It is a scary feeling to share because the rejection, and condemnation has been fierce throughout my life.

    The struggles do not go, I have a hard time sometimes because I do go into black-and-white thinking. It made it easy for me to slip right into fundamentalism and not even realize it. I feel like I have been clawing to get my senses back for the past three years. It doesn’t help that I have family members who believe that autism is from the devil or caused from sin. Um, yeah…I don’t even know how to handle that. There is no reasoning with people when they think those things.

    I appreciate how well you articulated this and all the efforts you went to in sharing. I am hoping more of us who have been affected in similar ways start sharing our stories. It is hard for me to process though, and I take a long to time to gather my emotions and words with such traumatic topics. However, you have given me some hope in seeking out my words to help me work through some of this in a constructive way.

    • Hello Angel:

      Thank you for stopping by. I can relate to how easy it is to slip into black-and-white thinking… the problem is that all of this type of nonsense that is thrown at us in our formative years ends up in our subconcious mind and becomes the subtle programming that attempts to control our actions when we least expect it. If you’re of the Freudian persuasion, my best guess is that this stuff ends up in the superego, which becomes overactive and paranoid. “OMG! Don’t do *that*! That’s a sin!” You get the point.

      I don’t have contact with said family members anymore, which is really helpful. My aunt is dead, so is my uncle (who stood by and watched it all happen), and I don’t speak to either of my cousins. So that’s at least a good thing…no one in my present that is reinforcing all of that awful programming. And as for your aforementioned family, you are right, it can be really hard to deal with such lack of logic and reasoning. I hope you have as little dealings with them as possible for the sake of your mental health.

      I’m glad that you found this post helpful. i was wondering how many more of us went through similar experiences. I mentioned the author of God Confusion, who underwent a similar upbringing and ended up choosing atheism. I still do believe in a Supreme Being, despite some of the confusion and pain due to ideologies and philosophies. The way I figure is that Father and Mother God are not responsible for the stupidity committed in the name of faith and religion. I know how painful it can be to think about these experiences and wish you healing.

      -Nicole

      • Oh, yes I still have moments when I have thoughts like “OMG! Don’t do *that*! That’s a sin!” as a matter-of-fact it happened this morning! I wrote a fictitious story (based on actual events) about said fundamental nonsense and published it. Then, I felt like I had done something wrong, leading into thoughts that if anything bad happened it was because I wrote that story. I write my emotions through stories and poems to help me process. I quickly dismissed these thoughts, but they are there and they come up whenever anything is perceived as a “sin” in my mind from this programming.

        I am learning to distance myself to a point with these family members, it is rather hard because they are close in relations. I have learned to not talk about religious matters, but now that I am a mother of an autistic child, and two others with traits I am super sensitive and protective of what people say around them or to them about God. I am teaching them to be open and accepting of all faiths, as well as being a skeptic and learn how to use critical thinking skills. They all three lean toward black-and-white thinking and that makes me want to help them even more since I understand that challenge.

        I found God Confusion about a week or two ago and have been meaning to go back and read through the website some more. I am not sure where I am at exactly, I tend to have more of the literal ideals of Jesus teachings, with a healthy dose of skepticism, fused with science, and not negating mysticism. I can simply say I do not know and that’s ok. I cannot seem to shake the feeling of a Higher Power though, I am not sure how to define it anymore. 🙂

        Thank you for your response!

      • Angel, I’m all too familiar with this kind of guilt. I think it’s similar to the guilt one from a dysfunctional family might feel in regards to talking about their experiences…akin to the all-too-common admonition of “not revealing family secrets” or “not talking bad about the family”. Similar to this, dysfunctional fundamentalism may instill this kind of guilt into us. I fight both kinds frequently, and as you know, it’s no easy task.

        I understand your concern about how your children perceive God. As a parent, it is your within your purview to teach them about faith, God, and religion in a healthy and open-minded manner, and I can understand how those family members can undermine your efforts. My fiance has a term — “third party syndrome” — for this sort of thing: you present the truth to someone first and then someone else comes along and tries to inject doubt. The black-and-white thinking doesn’t help either. I imagine that any dialogue with these family members is likely futile since I gather from your comments that they are of the “hellfire and brimstone” mentality, along with the mentality that “what I believe is true for everyone, and if you disagree, you’re bad/going to hell/an infidel/etc.” Of course, the verse “judge not lest ye be judged” is coming to mind. But I digress.

        To expand on what I said earlier about my own beliefs: I couldn’t shake an inner sense that there is a Higher Power, although I have been very much a skeptic at times in my life. This is why I couldn’t be an atheist. However, I believe in the right to decide for oneself what one believes. I have a healthy respect for science and do believe in the Big Bang Theory and Darwin’s theory of evolution. I like to think that these theories and the existence of God are not mutually exclusive…science can explain the literal workings of our multiverse but it is plausible to me that God caused these processes (i.e. evolution) to happen according to Their design and desires. Oddly enough, it was working at a Catholic institution that helped me consider that science and God are not enemies, especially after some discussions I’ve had with coworkers and priests — these interactions helped me shake off a bit of my fundamentalist leanings from before.

        I’m enjoying this discussion. I have more to say about the subject, but I think that will happen in a future post. Thank you for commenting and for your thoughts. 🙂

        -Nicole

  3. Hey, Nicole!

    I like to read about conspiracy theories too. (Because they’re weird, not because I believe them.) I also have a special interest in one particular epoch in American history: the mid-20th century. I find it amusing to discover conspiracy theories from that era still active today, in somewhat mutated form.

    (I am coming to believe that the Cold War never ended, that Russian communists are still the bogeymen everyone is convinced is lurking in their sock drawer.)

    My other special interest having to do with conspiracy theories is Bizarre Autism Hypotheses. I collect these. They make me laugh.

    (DID YOU KNOW that Betty Friedan had a sort of twin to the Refrigerator Mother theory of autism, that she spelled out in Chapter Twelve of The Feminine Mystique? She was sure that mothers were making their children autistic, but she blamed the housewife role for making them think that they had to hover over their children 24/7. That brought me up short the first time I read that book, I tell you.)

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