Mental instability, a lack of access to psychological healthcare, alien abduction theory and the cultish personalities who exploit it all
I grew up hearing stories about abductions. UFOs, abduction theory, and all of the conspiracy theories revolving around the government covering it all up for various reasons. You see, it’s not something I like to share freely about my late mother, but it feels as if enough is enough, and I must come into the clear about what she believed in and how absolutely fucked up the outfall of it all is.
She was a firm believer that she had been abducted by aliens and experimented on, on several occasions. She believed that it had something — or everything — to do with the numerous miscarriages she had had before having me (she was eventually diagnosed with endometriosis, a tearful event I recall vividly). She believed they were communicating with her, sometimes hearing metallic, distorted, nonhuman voices, pumped straight into her head. So I grew up with her recounting these tales, and with her addictive desire to research abduction theory. Copies of such classical books on abduction theory and on personal experiences such as the early Communion: A True Story by Whitley Strieber lined her bookshelves. She listened to a late-night talk radio show on shortwave called Coast to Coast AM with Art Bell and later on George Noory, religiously, almost every night. At 10 P.M., I would hear the intro music, the thunderclap that came with it, and then, discussion of all manner of convoluted things ranging from ghost stories and investigation, all paranormal phenomena whatsoever, UFO sightings, abduction stories, and government conspiracy. It was a hub for all who wanted to have their stories and voices heard, no matter how strange, who longed to and were desperate to come into the clear about inexplicable and insidious occurrences.
Almost every night with her, I would hear folks calling in, usually almost sobbing and on the brink of a breakdown, desperate for explanation and a willing ear to hear their plight from traumatic experiences. I would grow afraid of the nighttime and the dark, and sometimes begged her to turn it off, to no avail. She was addicted.
Listening to it now, and remembering back, I can hear the troubled voices, the trembling, the sobbing, the brink of tears and loss of control, the panic and the pain (I will warn you now, the recording linked here for example is really quite disturbing in psychological terms; a legitimate live broadcasting for gain of a mental breakdown). And now I can see quite clearly now — these may not be stories of paranormal experiences so much as them reaching out, for once, for help with their internal pain. You can hear schizophrenia. You can hear vastly, unimaginably deep depressions. You can hear panic attacks and anxiety.
And with these, you can hear Art Bell and George Noory, egging them on, assuring them that their fears are warranted, urging them to live in perpetual fear of the government, the sky, the night, and opening up to one another.
We joke about them, the believers, of all manner of strange things: truthers, as some might refer to them, populate YouTube and the internet with a vast amount of compiled information, haphazardly connected events, and intricately interwoven conspiracies. (Why would anyone spend time in covering things up? The funny thing about conspiracy is that they do exist, but they are so blatantly out in the open that people fail to critically analyze and recognize the weight of them. The Panama Papers was just an extension of what we already knew; no shocker there.) They are the objects of ridicule in countless comedies and popular culture. They are taken lightly as a non-threat, harmless, yet intensely naïve and comical phenomenon — and often, alluded to as mentally ill.
Mental healthcare and wellbeing is a no-fly topic in the United States; at least, it has been for the most part since the nation’s inception. With the rise and the anchoring of Neoliberalism as the presiding philosophy in Western government and economy, the spectre of stigma over all talk about psychological health was concreted. It is only a natural extension of the Protestant work ethic of the Anglo-Saxon men who once dominated the United States, after all, that anyone not able to cope with “basic human function” (i.e. the ability to provide ceaseless, tireless labor) is simply not fit for survival. And, coupled with the Neoliberal and Capitalist distaste for public healthcare, let alone public psychological healthcare, this has built a system in which those citizens suffering and in need of help and healing are truly left for dead — quite literally, and often at their own hands.
In a sort of unfortunately meta move, the bandits of unfettered Capitalist ideology who also happen to have a distaste for both universal healthcare and the governments which they suspect are weaving an intricate web to cover everything up are there to publish books, create events, and broadcast talk radio about all things controversial and conspiratorial. And there is no question that they are making a killing — Coast to Coast AM is the most listened-to in its time slot, with about 2.75 million unique listeners every night. And luckily enough for them, those who believe in conspiracies do not seem to be content with one, and it is far more likely for them to believe in all of them. Where does this propensity for naïveté and persuasion come from? Is it a symptom of an evil empire, or is it a natural following of a confused and frustrated public?
The idea that finding outlandish explanations and developing fears for things that are beyond our control and comprehension as a rather fundamental trait is certainly not new. As far back as 1919, psychoanalyst Viktor Tausk, a pupil and colleague of Freud himself, published On the Origin of the ‘Influencing Machine’ in Schizophrenia. Wordy text lay ahead, but I believe it contributes greatly to the discussion and argument at hand. The paper itself is a summary of a series of experiments made using an artefact of “the influencing machine”, a common theme amongst schizophrenic patients, which Tausk himself had built (it truly is just a ridiculous machine made to create a big show with various levers, wires, and pulleys only proclaimed to the patient to have mystical powers with which it will affect them):
The machine serves to persecute the patient and is operated by enemies. To the best of my knowledge, the latter are exclusively of the male sex. They are predominantly physicians by whom the patient has been treated. The manipulation of the apparatus is likewise obscure, the patient rarely having a clear idea of its operation. Buttons are pushed, levers set in motion, cranks turned. The connection with the patient is often established by means of invisible wires leading into his bed, in which case the patient is influenced by the machine only when he is in bed.
However, it is noteworthy that a large number of patients complain of all these ailments without ascribing them to the influence of a machine. Many patients consider the cause of all these alien or hostile sensations of physical or psychic change to be simply an external mental influence, suggestion or telepathic power, emanating from enemies. My own observations and those of other authors leave no room for doubt that these complaints precede the symptom of the influencing apparatus, and that the latter is a subsequent pathological development. Its appearance, as many observers state, serves the purpose of an explanation for the pathologic changes that are felt as alien and painful and dominate the patient’s emotional life and sensations.
According to this view, the idea of he influencing machine originates in the need for causality that is inherent in man; and the same need for causality will probably also account for the persecutors who act not through the medium of an apparatus but merely by suggestion or by telepathy. Clinical psychiatry explains the symptom of an influencing machine as analogous to the ideas of persecution in paranoia (which, it is known, the patient invents in order to justify his delusions of grandeur), and calls it “paranoia somatica”.
The notions of paranoia arising from constant fear of an external, oppressive, unstoppable and mystical force are certainly familiar. If not in individual cases of schizophrenia, it certainly illustrates an essential human function, fallen apart into an instinctual, feral frenzy of finding any and all explanations for pain — and in a society such as this, many fall back upon finding mystical explanations for the seemingly infinite amount of pain we experience from being a part of a system that just doesn’t work.
With this, I do not wish to falsely identify or diagnose these entire communities with schizophrenia or act the psychoanalyst to millions. And I absolutely do not wish to marginalise these voices as mentally unstable or ill — really, on the contrary, I wish to approach these troubled voices with a caring hand, taking their worries seriously.
Perhaps we must approach those conspiracy theorists who believe in outlandishly insidious dangers lurking in every corner of the world with caring, understanding eyes. We must not diminish their plight. We must not sweep aside the obvious fixation and obsession that is overtaking peoples’ lives as something to laugh about (though I have no problem with the theories themselves being a source of comedy). The pain of millions is certainly just not funny, no matter how the pain manifests.
What is even less funny, is that there are people who will perturb others’ worries and fears into disproportionately large conclusions about being essentially doomed and fated to torture for the rest of their lives by external threats. Not only this, they do not work as activists to uncover truth — they simply talk about it, and feed each others’ worst fears. An echo chamber at its purest. But whether they truly believe in the theories or are simply acting in order to gain listeners (which I do not for a moment disbelieve — the act of being observed pressures the ones talking to perform and exaggerate beyond any reasonable scale what they originally came to proclaim as truth), it is, to me, unacceptable that they are allowed to continue to do such things as Art Bell sitting in his home, confirming the tortured caller’s fears that he has not much time left on this planet because of the systems built to silence them — and, arguably, serving to fulfil the fear of not having much time left, fanning the flames of anxiety and fear that drive many millions of human beings to suicide in order to release themselves. The thought makes me so indescribably heartbroken and angry, it often gets me to the point of seething.
I am not certain my mother was schizophrenic, or had any other heavier mental illness, but I do know that she was tortured, in pain, and severely depressed. For a multitude of reasons, such as buying into Neoliberal ideology, being consumed with Catholic guilt, and just simply for being so poor we couldn’t visit even a normal physician, she never sought help for her pain. She self-medicated. She drank heavily. She took pills, and attempted many times to take her life while I was young, and eventually, she did. And I do know, too, that listening to and becoming involved with these kinds of personalities certainly did not help, and only made it less likely for her to seek help.