A Light at the End of the Rabbit Hole Nicole Scott Free Inquiry

Confessions of a Recovering Conspiracy Theorist

I was deep in the rabbit hole.

For years, I was a true believer in conspiracy theories1 and alternative facts. I could offer several examples of wild claims that caught my attention at various formative moments, but the truth is that I was always intensely interested in conspiracy theories. I had already been dancing at the edge of the rabbit hole for most of my life.

As a young child, I read voraciously about lost civilizations, archeology, UFOs, ghosts and hauntings, cryptids such as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, and psychic phenomena. I would read and reread Reader’s Digest and Time-Life compilation books all about “the unknown.” It would take decades for me to realize it, but this was my soft entry into the world of conspiracy theories.

By “soft entry,” I mean that these subjects aren’t necessarily conspiratorial. Many people like to read and learn about ghosts, psychic powers, and other mysteries, and they never become serious believers. But these fictions also have a particular appeal to people who are already primed to fall into dangerous conspiracy theories. A person who is fascinated by tales of hauntings is more likely to be drawn into other realms of magical thinking.

These soft entry points appeal to a sense of curiosity that is quite prevalent in conspiratorial minds. We all have curiosity, of course. Something about the unexamined life and all that. Asking questions to understand real events is perfectly normal and fundamental to the human experience. Human beings also have a natural tendency to question the legitimacy or veracity of the events they experience. It goes hand-in-hand with our curiosity and is fueled by it. Being skeptical helps us survive in an uncertain world.

But what happens when our questioning and curiosity go too far? That’s when any of us can fall into the trap of conspiracy theories.

A person who is not merely interested but actually believes in tales of hauntings is also more likely to ascribe extraordinary explanations to certain (and often tragic) public events. The path from belief in ghosts to fear of our reptilian overlords usually has quite a few intermediary steps, but those steps are easier to take for a person who already believes in ghosts.2

Feeling the Pull of the Rabbit Hole

My immersion in this magical world was essentially a lifelong one, but it waxed and waned through the years. My personality is inclined toward obsessive, hyper-focused bouts of interest in specific topics, so these obsessions come and go. A particular interest may be relegated to the background of my attention, but it is always somewhere in my mind.

I recall purchasing my first book by conspiracy theory guru David Icke, Children of the Matrix, around the time that my mom passed away unexpectedly and traumatically on March 7, 2003. In its tagline, the book promises to disclose “how an interdimensional race has controlled the world for thousands of years—and still does.”

I bought it because it looked fun and even ridiculous. Then I read it, and I began to believe in some of the things discussed in the book. I never fully believed in reptilians from space, but I was remarkably open to the possibility.

Using a peer-to-peer file sharing program, I began downloading conspiracy theory videos by Icke, Alex Jones of Infowars, and others. I purchased another David Icke book, this one specifically about the 9/11 attacks.

This interest faded after a while, but around 2014 I saw one of the pseudo-documentary Zeitgeist films by conspiracy theorist Peter Joseph and became convinced of the claim that the World Trade Center was destroyed not by the impact of hijacked airplanes but by controlled nanothermite demolition. In other words, the claim that the 9/11 attacks were an “inside job.”

I did not realize it at the time, but this “documentary” was also trying to shove Sovereign Citizen propaganda down the viewers’ throats. Sovereign Citizens not only disavow all federal authority, but they believe that names written in all capital letters on government documents actually represent our false “corporate shell identities,” also known as the “Straw Men.” While I managed not to be indoctrinated into this ideology, I did buy into the claims about the 9/11 attacks.

I remember feeling a rush, a high, a flash of excitement when delving into these false theories. That was the dopamine, I would later learn: my brain’s reward for making connections. It’s a very pleasurable experience, and, much like with a drug, once you become used to it, you need to find different sources that will continue to trigger it. When the soft conspiracy theories aren’t doing it for you anymore, well, you increase the dose or switch to a different drug.

Beguiled in Bethlehem

I have no doubt that I was primed for this leap of fantasy by my life situation at the time. When I got hooked on 9/11 conspiracy theories, I had been living in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. I only had a few friends, and there weren’t any places for me to get out to meet people with whom I had things in common—beyond conspiracy theories, that is. I was bored and stressed, and because most of my friends lived about fifty miles away in the Philadelphia area, I couldn’t find a fulfilling social life.

My obsession with conspiracy theories persisted even after I moved to California in May 2015. Living in a new area provided more opportunities for social interactions, but by then my outlandish beliefs had already begun to socially isolate me. I didn’t feel as if I had anything in common with others because they didn’t share my beliefs. By now, we’ve all heard stories of how people lose friends over their dedication to baseless conspiracy theories. I was already short on friends, but even when the opportunities to build new friendships became more plentiful, I was already withdrawing.

Partly this is because conspiracy theories teach us that there are no coincidences; random chance does not exist. It creates a feeling of learned helplessness, and I figured it was not worth the effort to try to make friends, because when I did, it always failed. I was unable to read social cues, had poor self-esteem, and felt like I always made people uncomfortable. While these things may sound like elements of an undiagnosed disorder or a place on the autism spectrum, it is important to point out that all this got much better after my recovery.

When we are in the rabbit hole, self-realization is difficult to attain, and self-improvement is nearly impossible. How can we take an honest look at ourselves and fix our problems when we can’t even look at the world honestly? When I hear stories about so-called “Karens” and other types of people who default to an oppositional, defiant manner, I am looking at a former version of myself.

I later learned that one of the hallmark traits associated with conspiratorial beliefs is that of an outward locus of control. An example scenario that reminds me the most of myself goes like this: The alarm goes off, you hit the snooze button, and now you’re running late for work. Driving to the office, it seems like everyone is driving slowly that day, and you are angry at the slow drivers. They are the ones making you late! This would be the reaction of someone who feels that they have no control over anything; they bear no responsibility for hitting that snooze button and not getting out of bed on time.

With that as my mindset, I felt like nothing was in my control. I wasn’t taking responsibility for my own errors, at least not in a healthy, logical manner. I avoided a lot of my duties and responsibilities and came up with all manner of justifications. Those with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) share some behaviors in common with those who believe deeply in conspiracy theories. (I had been misdiagnosed with BPD.) They share an impulse toward self-insulation, in that the disorder or belief system does not “want” you to get better but is rather fueled by the sense of alienation. You become stuck in a loop in which everything is your fault, yet you are somehow also not responsible.

Stephanie Kemmerer.

The Lure of Special Knowledge

This is something we are seeing more and more today, particularly with those who took part in the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. These were people ready to fight to the death over a ludicrous belief about the 2020 presidential election, but then when they had to face a judge in court, they refused to take responsibility. They often fell back on excuses and claims of privilege.

For some people, there may be preexisting traumas or mental health issues that pull them down into the rabbit hole. Once inside, these issues are exacerbated. Others may not have these issues to start with, but inside the rabbit hole they are exposed to traumas over and over again and may begin to develop paranoia and depression.

Everything feels hollow and terrifying in the rabbit hole, and as angry and miserable as we might be, we think there’s nothing we can do about it. That being the case, why bother fixing ourselves when the world is under the control of evil forces?

Commonly, conspiracy theorists feel that there is something meaningful missing from their lives. For some, it’s healthcare; for others, it’s financial security; and for others, it’s disillusionment with the status quo. Conspiracy theories invite the believer to fill those gaps by partaking of secret knowledge and feel empowered with that knowledge, even to feel special. Dopamine is a hell of a drug.

Because we are rewarded with dopamine when we make connections, we begin to require ever more intense stimuli to get us to that high. That’s why you see people gravitate toward increasingly outrageous belief systems such as the flat earth and QAnon conspiracies. We seek the information that appeals to us, and in turn receiving that information rewards us for our quest. Information that contradicts these beliefs, however broadly accepted it may be, is rejected with amazing feats of mental gymnastics.

Election “trutherism” is part of the main platform of many Republicans running in the 2022 midterms. I now lean to the political left, but at one time I leaned to the right, and I understand the “punk rock” appeal of personalities such as Donald Trump and their wreck-the-system antics. So it isn’t so much about right and left as it is about right and wrong. Right-wing ideology is supposed to be focused on self-determination and rugged individualism, but recently it has become a fount of perpetual self-victimization and self-pity. It’s that external locus of control.

Those on the left have their own conspiracy theories, of course, and 9/11 trutherism can be a left-wing or a right-wing conspiracy theory—each with its own set of alleged villains. The problem is that if one travels too far into the right, they can emerge into the extreme left and vice versa. It’s more like a circle than a line. The anti-vaxxer movement merged with “Pastel QAnon” (QAnon beliefs targeted at women through wellness culture) during the first wave of COVID-19 lockdowns. People were stuck in their homes, lonely, confused, and scared, and the internet was there with answers. A lot of awful answers. The anti-vaxxer movement represents a definitive blending between left- and right-wing ideologies. Despite being an atheist with leftward leanings, it isn’t at all unheard of that someone like me could get sucked into this world.

Scores of lives have been snuffed out or destroyed over the past ten years alone because of these beliefs and the viral intensity and values-affirming nature of social media bubbles. Just recently, a forty-two-year-old man who had taken part in the January 6 riot, convinced that the FBI search of Trump’s Mar-A-Lago estate warranted a violent response, attempted to break into FBI headquarters in Cincinnati, Ohio, armed with an assault rifle. The man died in a shootout with FBI agents.

Look at Matthew Coleman, a QAnon follower who took his two kids to Mexico to murder them with a spear gun because he believed they had reptilian DNA; or Buckey Wolfe, a member of the Proud Boys white supremacist group who beheaded his own brother for a similar belief; or Igor Lannis, a QAnon devotee who on September 11, 2022, shot and killed his wife and dog and shot one of his daughters, who might now be paralyzed.

Would any of these people have committed the acts they did without the influence of conspiracy theories? We can’t always know for sure, but, for example, Coleman didn’t get the idea that his kids were part reptile from nowhere.

Climbing toward the Light

What does recovery look like? What is it like to heal yourself from the injuries incurred from those mental gymnastics? It can be difficult for someone who has recovered to discuss that process because of the accompanying sense of shame. I am ashamed of my former beliefs, but I am not ashamed to admit that I held them. We have to normalize our recovery so that others feel comfortable to do the same.

My recovery began with a visit from two of my friends in California. I had made a remark about the Sandy Hook massacre in 2012, in which a shooter took the lives of twenty young children and six adults at a Connecticut elementary school, and one friend told me they had worked with one of the young victim’s parents. I still shared the view propagated by Alex Jones and other charlatans that the massacre had been a “false flag” operation, a hoax staged by shadowy Deep State operators.

I had two options at that moment: 1) Open mouth, insert foot. I could tell my friend to their face that I didn’t believe them; or 2) Apologize and critically examine my values and beliefs.

I chose wisely. And then the real work began.

The harsh, painful realization that I was one of those people who literally hit the snooze button and blamed being late to work on others came as a jolt to me. When I heard that example, I said, “That’s me. I don’t want to be like that anymore.”

It took time, but I started to see things differently. I was able to make social connections and meet new people. I was able to function in social situations without being oblivious to the discomfort of others because I was better able to critically view myself. I no longer presumed that I was the smartest person in the room, imbued with secret knowledge.

I made a few posts on Facebook apologizing for my previous conspiracy posts. This led to debates with people who were still posting on those topics, but I didn’t feel drawn into actively fighting. During the COVID-19 lockdowns that began in March 2020, I saw so many people—many I knew personally in real life—sharing conspiracy theories online, and that was when I began to speak out about my own experiences. But it felt like no one wanted to listen.

I began writing for a true crime podcast, and it provided a platform through which I could begin to share the truth. Right before the 2020 election, I wrote a two-part episode on QAnon so people could be better informed. The research I did for that episode opened up a doorway for me, a kind of calling.

My advocacy work has still not yet reached the two-year mark. I am connecting with more recovered conspiracy theorists and offering support and comfort to people who are just beginning to heal.

One by one, the more people who speak out, the more will speak out. It is better to normalize being a former conspiracy theorist than to submit to the current climate we are living through, in which ideas that once seemed too extreme even for the staunchest of partisans and ideologues are now part of the mainstream discourse.

My recovery was a long and painful process, and it’s not over. There are times when I still have to fight against the urge to make connections that aren’t really there. But mostly, I’m now focused on being a better, more compassionate, and empathetic person.

Looking back on my years in and out of that awful, slimy stew, I see a person who was lost and scared and hating themselves. And I see the same thing in so many of these blustery, bloviating fearmongers such as Alex Jones and his ilk. When I see them, I think, That’s how I was. Then my stomach turns.

Some who are still residing in the rabbit hole might call me a “shill,” a “liar,” or an “agent provocateur,” because anyone who speaks out against these sheltered and destructive echo chambers are obviously Deep State operatives. It’s exhausting.

But it is far more exhausting in the rabbit hole. We can’t pay for every mistake we have ever made, but out here in the light, where reality is reality, we can take a long, hard look at ourselves and evolve as individual human beings.

It’s far too dark in the rabbit hole for such growth.


1. A conspiracy involves two or more people who seek to circumvent the official legal processes to achieve a goal. A conspiracy theory is a speculative idea that such a plot took place. The most pronounced difference between the two is the existence of legitimate evidence. The insurrection of January 6, 2021, was a conspiracy to overthrow the government and overturn the election. The idea that the Capitol riot was perpetrated by AntiFa is a conspiracy theory with no supporting evidence. All evidence shows us that January 6 was an actual conspiracy.

2. “Accumulating research has revealed that a reliable predictor of belief in one conspiracy theory is belief in another conspiracy theory.” (Roland Imhoff, F. Zimmer, O. Klein, et al., “Conspiracy Mentality and Political Orientation across 26 Countries,” Nature Human Behavior, March 2022. Available online at https://www.nature.com/articles/s41562-021-01258-7.)

Confessions of a Recovering Conspiracy Theorist I was deep in the rabbit hole. For years, I was a true believer in conspiracy theories1 and alternative facts. I could offer several examples of wild claims that caught my attention at various formative moments, but the truth is that I was always intensely interested in conspiracy theories. I …