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In a Cosmo exclusive, women on both sides—the former believers and the doctors they’re turning to—show us what it takes to escape.
For Ceally Smith, it felt like she was suffocating. The 33-year-old holistic health entrepreneur would spend hours consumed with conspiracy theories—about sex trafficking, children secretly being sold on a furniture website, the multimillionaire pedophile Jeffrey Epstein. There was always another video to watch, another media lie to investigate, another stranger to enlighten. Things that once fulfilled her—exercise, her meal-prep business—no longer seemed to matter. Instead, she dug deeper and deeper into the horrors the internet presented her every day, feeling obligated, as a sexual abuse survivor, to “be the adult I needed as a child,” she says.
For Anna*, a 23-year-old pharmacy student in Pennsylvania, it felt like being trapped in a vortex of fear. “I had feelings of hope, but at the same time, I was incredibly scared, distressed, and anxious and even had panic attacks,” she says. She spent as many as eight hours a day poring over feeds on Telegram and Gab, listening to fringe podcasts. “Doing just about anything else,” she admits, “was really hard.”
Another person compared it to a “monster gnawing away at me.” On a message board this summer, they wrote, “My mind keeps circling back to it, no matter what I do. I don’t want this to happen, I’ve seen what it does to people, but I just can’t shake it off, I’m losing my goddamn mind, I can’t focus on anything and my anxiety keeps shooting up, this isn’t who I am.”
“It,” for all three, was QAnon, the infamous and violent pro-Trump conspiracy theory whose followers mushroomed during the pandemic to include suburban moms, yoga teachers, grandmas, and seemingly half of your Facebook feed. The movement was so easy to get into—a provocative post by an acquaintance, a few clicks, a video that rang true, which then surfaced other videos—but would prove to be much harder to get out of.
After the 2020 presidential election, followers disillusioned by Q’s false predictions of an overwhelming Trump victory flocked to Reddit message boards like QAnonCasualties and ReQovery, their posts tinged with vulnerability and desperation. They swapped articles, books, podcasts (commonly the New York Times’ Rabbit Hole series), and tips on how to let go of conspiratorial beliefs. They numbered more than 200,000.
Theirs is the QAnon story you haven’t yet heard—the one about the people left struggling and psychologically vulnerable in its wake. Who can’t move on. Who feel duped, angry, and confused. “How do I recover from Q?” wrote a Reddit user in June. “I just don’t know what to do anymore can someone help I have tried everything.”
Conspiracy theories have been around as long as America itself, but last year’s particular combination of social unrest, social isolation, and pandemic-related fear created the perfect conditions for them to flourish, says Diane Benscoter, founder of Antidote, an organization that works with people who have been psychologically manipulated. Q was the first internet super-conspiracy, rising from arcane origins on 4chan to achieve mainstream popularity on social media and morphing as it went from a specific story about Donald Trump saving trafficked children into an accumulation of anxieties about vaccines, lockdowns, anti-racism, and the government in general. “It feels grounding in an unsettling time to have a simple answer and a clear enemy,” adds Benscoter. “Those wanting control can create a sense of community around mistrust and hatred of ‘the other.’” Once someone is hooked, the feeling of knowing a secret truth “can trigger the brain like a drug,” says Rachel Bernstein, a licensed therapist in California. “The high they get from this is very much like an addiction.”
Cue the brutal comedown, or “hangover of paranoia,” as Bernstein calls it, which many former Q followers are currently experiencing. Of course, some hard-core believers have only doubled down since the election, shifting their attention to the government’s alleged COVID-19 lies (in their universe, the Delta variant is the “scariant,” a ploy to trick more people into getting vaccinated, aka microchipped) or to new dates on which Trump will supposedly reclaim power. They repeat the kind of clichés commonly used by cults to discourage critical thinking, like “trust the plan” and “all will be revealed.”
But plenty of others have struggled to reconcile the things they were led to believe with the things they’ve seen unfold with their own eyes: Trump’s loss, the certification of the election on January 6 (despite the violent storming of the Capitol), Biden’s inauguration. Yet they “can’t just flip a switch and go back to their life unaffected,” says Benscoter. Q was much more than a hobby or an internet fixation. It was (and is) a support network that isolated followers from friends and family, becoming a close virtual community and impenetrable echo chamber. “You have to rebuild your entire identity, so it’s a psychological, emotional, and oftentimes interpersonal crisis.”
Extrapolate that to hundreds of thousands of distraught former acolytes, and we may be facing “the next public health crisis,” Benscoter warns—one that could lead to the rise of new conspiracy theories and even more violence. “People are focusing on the problem of QAnon but not on the solution,” she says. “We’re in the forest-is-on-fire kind of situation.”
Bernstein and Benscoter are part of a small but growing vanguard of mental health professionals and organizations that are rushing to help. Bernstein has specialized in treating Q patients trying to leave the movement since 2018, using techniques similar to cult exit counseling to help them see how they’ve been manipulated and to explore the trauma or thought patterns that left them vulnerable to manipulation in the first place. The approach was developed in the late ’70s and ’80s as a gentler alternative to the more coercive deprogramming techniques that had been used to help people escape the Children of God, a religious group that was accused of sexual abuse. But this kind of counseling has always been a niche therapy with few trained practitioners. Fast-forward to the present, when social media has enabled psychological manipulation on a massive scale. “I don’t think there’s a widely distributed body of knowledge in the mental health community for when someone is leaving hate or violence or conspiracy theory thinking,” says Shannon Foley Martinez, a reformed extremist in Athens, Georgia, who helps people exit groups like QAnon. In 2020, Bernstein says her practice “went from steady to busy to overbooked at a very fast clip.”
Some experienced practitioners, like Benscoter and Foley Martinez, are drawing on their own history to help followers disengage. When Benscoter was 17, she joined the Moonies (formally known as the Unification Church), a fringe religious group that left her cut off from family and living out of a van. Her mother ultimately helped get her out, and Benscoter has worked ever since aiding others in rescuing loved ones from cult-like groups. (She famously helped film producer India Oxenberg escape NXIVM in upstate New York, as seen on HBO’s The Vow.) Benscoter now receives “thousands of requests for help,” often from loved ones of Q followers.
Some therapists assume these patients suffer from a mental health disorder and need meds or dismiss them as being “delusional or paranoid,” says Bernstein. Since the Capitol insurrection, media reports fed the narrative that Q followers have high rates of mental illness. But Bernstein says this is largely false: Often, conspiracy theorists are just scared or lonely, seeking validation or community. They have a need that isn’t being met, and Q presents itself as the answer. As David McRaney, author of the forthcoming book How Minds Change, recently explained on a podcast, “Conspiratorial thinking is something that all brains do…searching for patterns in noise, order inside of chaos, meaning within ambiguity is part of how brains make sense of the entire world.”
It all started for Ceally in 2019 when she met a guy who was cute and handy and happened to be deep into QAnon. Which, at the time, felt like whatever. She didn’t consider herself political back then. She hadn’t even bothered to vote in the 2016 election.
She was focused on holistic health and had been “vaccine skeptical” ever since her son almost lost his life, she says, after getting the MMR vaccine. (Serious allergic reactions to the MMR vaccine are extremely rare, according to the CDC.) When she learned that Q followers were also skeptical of vaccines, she started digging around online. Her research soon took on a life of its own, and eventually, Ceally was following every major Q account on Facebook, messaging with other followers for hours each day. She became obsessed with the idea that powerful people were trafficking children and that she could help bring these abuses to light by encouraging others to do their own research into the issue. But she had nothing to show for her activism except a deep and debilitating paranoia about the world her children were growing up in. “I felt like I needed to control the outcome they would be exposed to,” she says.
When she finally decided to quit Q, it was less about her actual beliefs changing than it was about a realization that she could no longer live this way. She had been happy once—and now she felt out of control and sad all the time. Her kids seemed listless; her grandmother told her she’d gone “to the loony-tune village.”
When she told the Q community she was signing off, she posted a picture of herself and her kids. “I’m taking a big step back,” she wrote. “I am realizing that I’m not focusing on what is important in front of me.” She said that some followers urged her to stay, but overall, “the community was really supportive. I mean, a lot of people even messaged me and were like, ‘We’re doing it too.’”
Ceally expected to feel better almost immediately, but after detoxing from social media for a month, she sank into a deep depression. What’s the point of living? she thought to herself. It was like her entire purpose had dissolved. It took her another several months to recognize that she needed help. That she couldn’t just quit her entire worldview without having something to replace it—or at least someone to talk to, someone who wouldn’t try to “throw their ideas onto me,” as she puts it.
Ceally had been taught by Q to mistrust therapists. “I was told how the medical system documents everything so they can use it against you,” she says. But without a strong support network of her own, she felt she had no other options. So she got on Google and called 30 to 40 mental health providers. “They were either so overwhelmed that you had to get on a waiting list, or the moment you told them you were coming out of QAnon, they wouldn’t take you,” she says. She finally got a recommendation from a friend.
That’s how, in March of 2020, she came to be sitting in her home office, preparing to log on to her first Zoom therapy session with a practitioner named William. “I was an emotional wreck,” she recalls. “I was extremely nervous.” Bernstein says this is common for Q patients. Imagine, she says, a toy car. “If you pull it backward a few times and then release it, it goes really, really fast. That’s how QAnon believers feel to me—wound up and spring-loaded. They’re expecting to have to defend their beliefs. This has been presented to them as a war.”
Ceally didn’t allow William to take any notes or record their session. He started slowly, asking her simple questions—about her business, about how she was raised—to gain her trust. Over a two-hour session, she felt herself starting to relax. “He never belittled, shamed, or blamed me. He never told me that it wasn’t right to feel or think a certain way.”
During weekly meetings, Ceally and William did breathwork and meditation and started examining the trauma that had caused her to find comfort in QAnon. There was, of course, the sexual abuse. Ceally had also seen her father incarcerated when she was 11. Then her grandfather died; shortly after, she was put in a treatment center after saying she wanted to kill herself. Then, in her 20s, she got divorced. “All of that caused me to have a lot of fear about the world I lived in,” explains Ceally. And fear is QAnon’s currency. “They want you to feel afraid of the system,” she says. “So afraid that you don’t seek outside help.” She started to understand that she’d used Q as a way to avoid her own trauma by keeping her focus on far-flung (or fake) atrocities. “I came to a realization that it was keeping me from myself and it was making me ignore these wounded inner parts of me that so badly wanted to be seen and loved,” she says.
Therapists who specialize in treating Q patients don’t often prescribe pills or rush to a diagnosis. Instead, they rely on three big tenets of cult exit counseling: building trust while not trying to convince the person to change their beliefs, exploring the life experience that led them to these beliefs, and supporting them once they arrive at the moment of realizing they’ve been lied to and psychologically manipulated. These methods have worked even with people who are initially dragged to therapy by their families and are agitated about being there. Mostly, though, they work when someone is just…tired. Like Ceally. “The people who aren’t finding any safety in the conspiracy theory, who are disillusioned, those are the people who actively begin to seek help,” says Bernstein.
In some cases, patients aren’t there because of their families but in spite of them. That’s how it was for Anna, the pharmacy student in Pennsylvania, whose mother is still deeply involved in the movement. Anna herself sought therapy after being turned off by Q’s anti-vaccine messaging. Her parents don’t know to this day. “I was worried if I mention therapy or anything, they will think I’m the brainwashed, indoctrinated one. That they made a poor choice letting me go to school, or worse, that the vaccine did it.”
Bernstein says some of her hardest cases involve people who use the Bible to justify their beliefs, since religion is such a core component of someone’s identity (and not something they’re likely to abandon in therapy). But even these patients “sometimes take what you showed them about how they may be being deceived and then go back to the group and see it for themselves,” she says, “which is optimal because then they feel like they got themselves out.”
After four or five sessions with William, Ceally started getting up in the morning and going for a run instead of reflexively checking her phone for the latest Q drop. She paddleboarded on the lake with her kids. Looking back now, “I could see that the whole lifestyle I had been living was toxic.”
For every Ceally and Anna, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of former believers who aren’t able to access quality care. Ceally had to pay $13,000 out of pocket to get her life back. “I feel concerned about the general lack of support for those who want to exit the rabbit hole and do not have a supportive community to return to,” wrote one person on Reddit recently. The poster went on to ask if there were any “Ex-Anon” support groups that existed anywhere but online. (Social media, they explained, was a huge reason they got caught up in the conspiracy in the first place.)
“There aren’t enough resources in this field,” Bernstein confirms. “I think this has yet to be seen as an issue that should be taken up on a grand scale.” She knows of just one master’s program in England that specializes in understanding coercion and manipulation techniques. She’s not aware of any professional development or continuing education trainings, although she would like to design her own.
Benscoter is also working to develop video educational tools, workshops, and webinars for therapists through her organization, Antidote. She wants to set up support groups and even put together an Al-Anon-type program for those with loved ones under the QAnon spell. “All of that is happening,” she says, “but I wish it was faster.”
There’s also promising research in the works. A deepening pool of studies by sociologists and organizations is attempting to understand how these movements and mindsets spring up, which may ultimately help answer the questions that society has so far been largely unwilling to ask: What should the public health response be to those who buy into destructive, even violent, beliefs? Is there more we could be doing to help people who feel lost in a world that is so confusing and hard? Could it have been me, or you?
In October, after eight months, Ceally stopped going to therapy. Not because she gave up but because she didn’t. “My therapist was like, ‘Ceally, you’ve got this,’” she says proudly.
“I still have moments of anger, disappointment, and confusion,” she adds. “There are things Q used to say that are becoming a reality, like forced vaccine stuff, and you do wonder, Oh no, were they right? But I haven’t felt the need to go down any rabbit holes. I’m so much happier, and once you start feeling good, that becomes your new thrill.”
Her meal-prep business is thriving. Her relationships with her kids have improved. They talk openly about how much their lives were impacted by the year they lost their mom to Q.
Ceally has deep compassion for everyone still glued to their screens, living in paranoia about the “deep state.” “You have to, because they’re truly just wounded,” she says. Many people have reached out to her privately for help or advice.
She’s even dipped her toes back into the social media waters, but “I definitely am in a different place now when it comes to what I choose to give my energy to versus what I don’t,” she says. She is, to borrow Q parlance, awake. She can see why she fell for it—but she no longer needs it. “It was a story,” she says, “and it was a really, really good story. I mean, it was, like, edge of your seat.”
*Name has been changed.