A BUSINESSWOMAN has told how she became brainwashed by QAnon – leaving her in a downward spiral that sent her to rehab and almost destroyed her marriage.
Melissa Rein Lively bravely opened up to The Sun Online about her hellish experience as she was sucked down the rabbit hole of the violent conspiracy theory which continues to spread online.
The 35-year-old, from Scottsdale, Arizona, explained how a decline in her mental health linked to the pandemic became horrifically intertwined with QAnon.
And it all ended with her suffering a highly publicised breakdown in a local Target store.
Melissa, who owns PR firm The Brand Consortium, became labelled ‘QAnon Karen’ by cruel trolls as a video of her attacking a face mask display went viral last July.
She told The Sun Online this was the day she hit “rock bottom”, suffered a manic episode, and had no choice but to check into rehab.
Her meltdown was in-part triggered by a last straw row with her husband Jared in which he told her to try to come back from the conspiracy spiral or he would have to file for divorce.
“I checked myself into the hotel and over the next three days I completely mentally imploded,” she told The Sun Online.
“And that ended up with everybody seeing what happened on July 4 at Target.”
The now-heartbreaking video shows her screaming at store staff, and other footage has her confronting police as she claims to be in direct contact with then-president Donald Trump.
Melissa saw herself become vilified online and her life was in pieces – so she checked into a rehab facility in Wickenburg, Arizona.
QAnon has been linked to violence, murders, misinformation and the storming of the US Capitol which left five people dead.
Conspiracy theories may be common online, but few have as many believers or as much power as the cult-like phenomenon of Q.
It is a twisted, violent and baseless theory which claims a Satanic child-eating cult runs the world and is doing battle with Donald Trump.
You are living an apocalyptic nightmare, it's a sad, lonely place
Thankfully, Melissa managed to rebuild herself, repair her marriage and now she seeks to tell her story to warn of the very real dangers of QAnon.
And she recalls the whole disturbing saga was triggered by one image.
Melissa saw meme showing a picture of Holocaust victims being loaded onto trains with the caption: “First they put you in the masks, then they put you in the boxcars.”
The accompanying caption went on to lay out the baseless theory that Covid was a manmade disease being used by a powerful cabal to commit worldwide genocide.
With her mindset already fragile due to fears over the pandemic and long term family trauma, Melissa started tumbling down the rabbit hole – with Covid conspiracy theories propelling her into the wider narrative of QAnon.
So what is QAnon?
QANON is one of the world’s most dangerous and widespread conspiracy theories.
It alleges a worldwide network of celebrities and politicians are part of a child sex-trafficking ring which is doing battle with Donald Trump.
The cult-like belief spawned out similar viral conspiracy theories such as Pizzagate and historic hoaxes about cults linked to Satanism.
“Q” is the central anonymous figure of the theory, who was claimed to be a high-ranking government official inside the Trump administration.
Posts began to appear on internet forum 4Chan in June, 2017, before starting spread across social media.
Q would drip feed various pieces of information detailing a grand plan in which Trump would defeat the Satanists in an event called “The Storm”.
It was claimed thousands of suspects would be rounded up and arrested before being executed.
Q created an alternative reality as supporters shunned mainstream news outlets, instead feeding entirely on a stream of false information and bogus predictions.
The conspiracy theory began to gain more mainstream attention and QAnon supporters began appearing at Trump rallies.
Numerous events then started unfolding linked to QAnon, such as domestic terrorist Matthew Phillip Wright blocking the Hoover Dam with an armoured truck while armed with an AR-15 in June 2018.
Crime family boss Frank Cali was then allegedly murdered by Anthony Comello, who is claimed to have been a QAnon believer who thought Cali was a member of the “deep state” in March 2019.
And then Jessica Prim was arrested carrying several knives as she livestreamed her attempt to “take out” Joe Biden.
QAnon activity exploded during the coronavirus pandemic, with reports of posts tripling on Facebook and Twitter.
Both social media giants tried to take action, but struggled to police the spread of misinformation.
QAnon was reported to be in disarray following the inauguration of Biden, but the army of conspiracists now appears to be regrouping and refocusing their narrative.
Melissa told The Sun Online: “I started clicking around on different things, I started getting links sent to me from all sorts of different people.
“I looked at everything and somewhere along the way I clicked my way into the algorithm that pulled me into the centre of QAnon.”
She ended up dubbing herself the “QAnon Spokesperson” online, descending into the twisted world which left her lonely, isolated, paranoid and suffering self neglect – losing almost 10lbs.
“You think everyone is lying to you, every day is Judgement Day, and you are living an apocalyptic nightmare. It's a sad, lonely place,” she told The Sun Online.
Her belief, she said, was fuelled by online spirituality and yoga communities which appeared to be hijacked by the conspiracy theory.
'DEPRESSION, ANXIETY AND FEAR'
QAnon elements seeped into seemingly harmless wellness content – drawing a new wave of people into the cult-like belief system.
“It didn’t take long for me to become fully immersed it in it, I would spend six to eight hours a day just doom-scrolling on my couch,” she said.
“I am a type A, very busy person normally, but as I had nothing going on workwise, and I was dealing with one terrible bit of news after the other, the depression, the anxiety and the fear set in.”
With her business on the rocks due to the pandemic, her mindset only worsened as she said she “couldn’t stop” going deeper into QAnon.
“I was consuming information all hours of the day, I wasn’t eating, I wasn’t sleeping well, and when I did sleep I would have horrific recurring nightmares where I would wake up gasping for air,” she said.
“I became increasingly mentally unhinged and angry as time went on.”
Melissa felt like she was being driven by “the mission” of QAnon as she started spreading and preaching the conspiracy theory using her social media presence thanks to her role in public relations.
“It was frightening people and worrying people, but then I had some people who were already ‘radicals’ who were egging me one,” she said.
“I felt like I was doing the right thing and letting people know what was happening – that this genocide was being brought against us.
"It scared me to death.”
Reflecting on her behaviour, she likens the QAnon to a “choose your own adventure” game or “live action role play” as it encourages you to go deeper and deeper into its twisted world.
“I was freaking out,” she said.
Her husband Jared tried to provide a ballast of reality for her as he tried to reassure her and pull her back to the real world – but things blew up between the two before her episode at Target.
After going through rehab, the couple have repaired any fractures in their relationship caused by QAnon and Melissa said she’s managed to come to terms with her own “trauma and demons”.
‘QAnon took over my life’
LEILA Hay told The Sun Online she had always had a passing interest in wacky conspiracy theories.
But she never considered herself someone with a “tin foil hat” who could be drawn in – until she stumbled across QAnon.
The 19-year-old, from Hull, explained it was the theory’s scale and the convincing rhetoric which grabbed her as she went down the rabbit hole.
Spending six months living in a world of Q in the first UK lockdown, she said it stole her identity as it warped her worldview.
QAnon left her feeling hopeless and insecure, and caused her to become withdrawn even from her own family.
She no longer pursued hobbies such as listening to music and watching films, instead spending hours absorbing online content.
“It is not a normal conspiracy theory, it consumes your life like a religion,” Leila told The Sun Online.
"I lost a lot of myself, I almost forgot who I was as my whole personality was consumed by QAnon.
“I felt I wasn’t my own person anymore, I was just developed around this conspiracy theory. I dropped my identity so I could focus on QAnon.”
The student would save pictures and videos of QAnon content on to her phone as a constant reminder of “what was going on”.
It started taking a toll on her mental health as she explained the theory was constantly on her mind leaving her “miserable”.
And she only managed to escape when she finally realised the damage the theory was doing to her and sought help.
“The world is dark enough – but with QAnon everything is worse than you could possibly imagine,” she said.
“You feel like you have been exposed to a new world that no one else knows about, it makes you feel like you are important, like you are unique and special.”
‘I wasn’t in control under QAnon ‘
JITARTH Jadeja told The Sun Online he felt like he was stuck on autopilot when he was sucked in by QAnon.
He described himself as in a "conspiracy black hole" when he first encountered the twisted theory on YouTube in 2017.
Jitarth, from Sydney, Australia, found himself hooked as the tendrils of the theory drew him in and completely shifted his mindset.
"[I was] frenetic, agitated, anxious, scattered, impatient and sometimes I even felt like I was just not in control or able to exert control over my actions and words," Jitarth told The Sun Online.
He explained how he would launch into a "keynote speech" when having conversations with others – berating them with his thoughts on QAnon.
"I knew it was happening and the thought to rein in and alter my behaviour was clear and present in my head, but I just could not," he said.
"It’s like I was a plane stuck on autopilot which wouldn’t disengage."
Stuck in the depths of theory, Jitarth explained it "destroyed" most of his relationship with others – leaving many "simply just irreparable".
He credits "luck" for allowing him to escape from QAnon, saying "it just kind of happened slowly over time, there was a reduction in my social isolation and an improvement in my mental health".
Jitarth added: "It’s like I was a pinball just bouncing around and by sheer luck managed to squeeze directly in between both paddles and escape."
And he described the thought of people dying for the conspiracy theory as "nauseating" and leaving his soul feeling "hollow" – adding most people in the QAnon community don't even believe those who died are real.
"These people who died for their cause, who at the very least should be exulted as martyrs, they were even denied that, that small, pitiful mercy. They could not even give them that, and similarly I have no words to describe that," he said.
He credits QAnon with helping create common themes of Trump's false stolen election narrative – such as the Dominion voting machine conspiracy theories – and said its "concerning" that Republicans seem to be "falling prey" to Q.
Jitarth told The Sun Online: "They have no idea who these people are, or what they want, they let them in for political purposes and by the time they figure it out it will be too late. They are the architects of their own demise."
After being thrust into the spotlight by the “QAnon Karen” incident, she now uses her platform to speak out against the “cult” and has even written a book on her experience – You Can’t Cancel Me – The Story of My Life – which will be released this summer.
And the conspiracy theory is more on the spotlight than ever after it is believed to have helped fuel the Capitol riot and with Republican congressman Majorie Taylor Greene facing scrutiny for her previous endorsement of QAnon.
“I feel empathy and sorry for these people, they have been duped. I was heartbroken by what I saw at the Capitol,” she told The Sun Online.
“I know how easy it is to get ensnared and radicalised by this and how it makes otherwise normal, healthy, well adjusted, law abiding people, lose their grip on reality.
“Target was my Capitol moment, it was so far from who I am as a person it's shocking and it's hard to watch.
"QAnon replaces your worldview wholesale, everything changes, it rewires your brain.”
She said politicians choosing to “make enemies of the media” by crying fake news are partly to blame for people remaining trapped in these alternate realities.
Melissa urged people not to mock QAnon believers as they have got themselves in a position where everyone they see is an “enemy” – instead calling on people to reach out to loved ones trapped in the conspiracy black hole.
“A lot of them are normal, vulnerable people who get the wrong message at the wrong time,” she told The Sun Online.
“Sit them down, let them know how much you miss them and how much you care about them.
“Try to level with them to some degree, figure out what is motivating these irrational fears and find common ground to agree on before you then try and dispel some of the more absurd conspiracies.”
She added separation from technology was a key thing to help her rehabilitation, along with reconnecting with spirituality and things she enjoyed such as yoga and meditation.
And she urged people to take the time and energy they spend diving into online conspiracy theories to instead try to volunteer with organisations to help combat real issues.
“If everyone can make their little corner of the world, wonderful, lovely, happy and safe you can make the world a little bit better for other people," Melissa added.
"If everyone did that, we could move forward in a productive way."
QAnon has been previously labelled a “domestic terror threat” by the FBI over its tendency the inspire violence.
Trump never explicitly endorsed the conspiracy theory, but was repeatedly accused of spreading it via his Twitter.
He often retweeted messages from accounts linked to QAnon – including while spreading false claims of voter fraud.
The former President refused to condemn it during an NBC town hall on the campaign trail, saying “I don’t know about QAnon".
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QAnon appears to be reforming its central narrative despite failing to make good on various promises that somehow Joe Biden would be stopped from taking office.
It is now reported believers are focused on the date of March 4 – with bizarre claims the US will revert back to its "original form" and all laws passed after 1871 will be wiped away, making Trump the "19th president".
And the Democrats are focusing on Republican congresswoman Majorie Taylor Greene,a freshman legislator who has previously seemed to endorse a slew of conspiracy theories.
Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell stopped short of naming her, but took aim at the trend of "loony lies" taking root in the party – describing them as a "cancer".
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