“Every few minutes, I was gasping for air. I couldn’t slow my mind down. My thoughts were racing. It was like a panic attack on steroids,” Lively recalled. “I should have checked myself into a hospital voluntarily.”
Instead, she went to Target the next morning to buy a bottle of Fiji water, as if everything were normal. It wasn’t. The Scottsdale, Ariz.-based PR professional, a self-described “type A” personality, had spent the pandemic barely eating, barely sleeping, barely socializing with friends. Instead, “I was all consumed with doom-scrolling on the Internet. I was living in these conspiracy theories. All of this fear porn that I was consuming online was just feeding my depression and anxiety.” She had found comfort in QAnon, a loose collection of conspiracy theories that touch on everything from politics to covid-19.
En route to grab the water, she noticed a display of masks, the ones to help prevent the coronavirus. “The culmination of everything I had experienced, like all that energy, just zeroed in on the masks. And I just snapped,” she said.
She took videos of what happened next and streamed them on Instagram Live. They quickly spread to other platforms, reported on by publications such as USA Today. She was labeled a Karen — and far worse. She thought her career was over. She thought her marriage was over. She thought her life was over.
There’s an old bit of advice that the end of a story should be surprising yet inevitable. The Target incident almost perfectly encapsulates the adage, save for one important detail — Lively is adamant it wasn’t an ending. For 15 years, the 35-year-old worked to “put people in their best light, to put them on a pedestal.” Now she’s her own client. She has embarked on something of a media tour to tell her side of the story and is penning a memoir titled “You Can’t Cancel Me — The Story of My Life.”
She’s hoping to rehabilitate her own image, yes. This article, of course, is a part of that effort. But she also wants to help others who might find themselves in the same spiral.
You’ve probably seen the videos. According to Lively’s PR firm’s tracking software, more than 100 million people around the globe have. One version, which has more than 10 million views on Twitter, features a rack of facial coverings and Lively’s voice.
“Finally, we meet the end of the road. I’ve been looking forward to this,” she says, adding, “Target, I’m not playing any more of their games.”
As she tears the masks off the display and throws them at the ground, she repeatedly shouts expletives.
A later video shows her in the garage of her home, after her husband has summoned the police. She’s telling them that she’s the “QAnon spokesperson” and explains that she has been on the phone with President Trump “all the time.” They detain her to bring her to a nearby psychiatric facility, as she yells, “You’re doing this to me because I’m Jewish.”
What you probably didn’t see was everything leading up to that moment — and everything that happened after she became social media’s Villain of the Day.
As it has for so many, 2020 swallowed Lively in an “overwhelming tidal wave of loss and rage and grief and confusion.” It resurfaced trauma from her childhood in Denver that she had spent years hiding. She lost her mother at 14 to an overdose and her father eight years later, after he had a bicycle accident. But she never spoke about it, never went to therapy, never worked through it.
Meanwhile, work took a dark turn as covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, hit the economy. “These are big corporations I work with, having to lay off hundreds of people, and I have to look people in the eye and try to communicate that in PR jargon,” she said, adding, “It kind of sent me in a tailspin, searching for answers.”
She found those answers in QAnon, which she discovered through some of the natural wellness and spirituality spaces she inhabited online. She spent her nights, then her days, scrolling through them as her mind wandered further away from reality.
“It basically purports to have all the answers to the questions you have. The answers are horrifying and will scare you more than reality, but at least you feel oddly comforted, like, ‘At least now I have the answer,’ ” she said, adding, “They tell you the institutions you’re supposed to trust are lying to you. Anybody who tells you that QAnon is [wrong] is a bad guy, including your friends and family. It happens gradually, and you don’t realize you’re getting more and more deep in it.”
Kim Prince, the founder and chief executive of Proven Media, remembered worrying about Lively, who she knows through PR circles. Something seemed off.
“I observed a woman having some mental health issues,” she said, citing Lively’s strange online behavior. Later, when she saw the video, “I thought she broke. It was one foot in front of the other toward that. It wasn’t a complete shock. It was the natural progression.”
Lively remembers the lead-up, but she doesn’t remember what she termed a “mental breakdown episode” at Target, saying it was akin to being “blacked out.” Watching the videos now is an “out-of-body experience.” She has no idea what she was trying to say, either at the store or to the police.
“I was living in a fantasy land in my mind,” she said. “But I take full accountability. I know I scared a lot of people. I know I angered a lot of people.”
That anger became evident when she came home from a week-long involuntary hospitalization to hundreds of furious emails and phone calls.
“My messages would fill up every single day with people saying, ‘I hope you die. Please kill yourself. I’m going to come and kill you. I know you have two little dogs, and I just put a spell on them to make them die tonight,’ ” she said. “The most horrible things you can possibly imagine. I received instructions with pictures: ‘Here’s how you should kill yourself.’ ”
Her husband, her husband’s business partners and even her hairstylist’s husband were getting threats. She was too ashamed to be seen in public.
“Her blessing is her curse,” said Prince, noting Lively’s social media following. “If she weren’t such a great PR person, no one would have known about her breakdown.”
Ashley Anderson said she wishes the public knew more about her friend. When the investment banker first moved to Phoenix and didn’t know anyone, her son with special needs got very sick. Anderson had only known Lively for a couple weeks but asked for her help. Lively made several phone calls to doctors to get Anderson’s son seen quickly. During his three-week hospital stay, she frequently visited him and brought him gifts, Anderson said. “I barely knew this person, and that is how she treated my family, which I will never forget.”
But the public didn’t see this side of Lively. And she felt alone.
“You obviously learn who your real friends are fast. I found out that I didn’t have very many,” Lively said through tears. “This is why this whole cancel culture is so scary. What happens when a human being gets canceled? They don’t want to exist anymore.”
After trying to repair her marriage and figure out the help she needed, she attended an eight-week trauma program at the Meadows, a rehabilitation facility in Wickenburg, Ariz. She swore off QAnon. She sent an apology letter to the employees of Target. She started a YouTube channel to discuss topics like mental health and conspiracy theories. Finally, in mid-August, a former client called to hire her, the first since the incident.
“I was in bed, like not able to move. I had no reason to get up. Every day was Groundhog’s Day, with nothing going on,” she said. But after the call, “I got out of bed, and I was like, ‘There’s one person who still believes in me. I’m going to get up and put my shoes on and get my briefcase and go back to work. You can cancel me all you want, but I will not cancel myself.’ ”
She became a PR professional to help people get their voices heard, to tell their powerful stories. “Ultimately, it’s in my nature to be a helper, and in the business of PR you have to have the kind of personality that is always willing to think big, do more and push harder.”
Soon thereafter, she received a call from Doc Elliot, who runs the California-based Phoenix Training Group, which conducts de-escalation training. He wanted to hire her, too. He wanted her to tell her own story.
“When I watched the video of Melissa, instantly my heart was breaking. I knew it wasn’t a typical incident where a so-called Karen goes off the rails,” said Elliot, a longtime mental health advocate. “And that fact that she was [later] owning that was, to me, brilliant.”
“Now, she has really taken on a different professional role, speaking about the mental health crisis we’re experiencing right now … rather than trying to sell a magazine or a company,” he said. “I really have to applaud her for that. She’s followed through on her message.”
Lively suggests anyone who’s detaching from life, a sign of mental illness, seek help. And if anyone witnesses someone doing the same, consider reaching out.
“My downfall was so spectacular … jaw-dropping shocking,” she said. But not everyone has to reach that point. If they do, though, she wants to be living proof of hope. “If I can come back from this, anybody can come back from anything.”