Like most people — though perhaps not enough — I spent my July 4 weekend indoors rather than in the open air blowing up fireworks like I ordinarily would. Which meant I spent part of my July 4 weekend with Melissa Rein Lively.
You may remember Melissa Rein Lively, though you likely know her from her online moniker: QAnon Karen. Rein Lively is the Arizona woman who went into her local Target and destroyed an entire rack of masks, yelling things like, “I’ve been looking forward to this shit all my fucking life” and “I was hired to be the QAnon spokesperson” and “Call Donald Trump and ask him if you don’t believe me.” The video of her screaming at Target employees, and the ultimate arrival of the police, went everywhere that weekend, to your phone and my phone and everyone’s phone. We all snorted and shook our heads: People are losing their damned minds. What’s happening to this world? And then we went on to look at something else on our phone. Oh look cute dog.
Rein Lively was walking around the earth long before she got my phone’s attention, however, and she continued to do so after my phone and I moved on. Before her Target outburst, she owned a marketing company in Scottsdale with clients like Hyatt and the restaurant Nobu. But when the pandemic hit, according to a terrific NBC News piece in August by Ben Collins, she lost much of her business and began to spend all her hours indoors, alone, staring at her phone. Rein Lively, who has since gotten medical help and disavowed QAnon, had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder the previous year, she told Collins, and had grown increasingly paranoid and terrified before her “manic episode” at Target. And she believes it all resulted from being alone. “Literally all I did was doomscroll all day,” she said. “There’s just such a lack of human connection right now. I just completely went off the rails.”
Not all of us are cracking up so much that we are trashing a Target. And it would very much be overstating it to argue that all incidents like Rein Lively’s are the inevitable result of extreme isolation. Many of these outbursts are simple extensions of antisocial, cruel and, yes, flat-out racist behavior exhibited long before anyone ever heard of Covid-19.
But it is undeniable that, in our own ways, we are all cracking up. And loneliness — physical, emotional, spiritual — is very much at the center of why. At the supermarket the other day, I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen since before the pandemic, and before I realized it, I had been yammering to him about everything for five full minutes. (Loudly, too: I spoke like I had headphones in my ears.) I called my middle school biology teacher a Fascist on Facebook a few weeks ago, and I honestly do not now remember why. The other evening I caught myself falling down a rabbit hole of YouTube mudslide videos for no reason whatsoever. I am acting, like many of us, not like myself.
And I’m lucky. I live in a house with my lovely wife and two happy (if increasingly antsy) children to keep me company. I know many people who have spent the last six months alone in an apartment, or thousands of miles away from their loved one. (One friend started a new job in a new city on … February 24.) Even people who have loosened up their personal restrictions as the months have rolled along, who have felt more comfortable, say, eating indoors, or meeting friends, are still spending more time alone than they ever have. And alone is a scary place to be in the world right now — particularly when your phone is your only constant companion. It is perhaps not a surprise, then, that people are turning to fringe, nonsensical movements like QAnon, or getting lost in Facebook conspiracy theories. They may have nowhere else to turn.
This is not only leading to isolation and fear. I’d argue it’s making us feel even more stuck in this than we really are. The dullness that you’re feeling, that sense that time is moving so slowly, is in part a result of the sameness of your surroundings. A French study last year found that people experienced the passage of time differently based on external stimuli; when you were exposed to just one object in a room, rather than several rotating ones, it made time seem elongated. It felt like you’d been in the room longer than you had. Variety isn’t just the spice of life; it’s what allows you to truly appreciate it.
I try to think of Melissa Rein Lively when I see someone lash out in public, or an otherwise-normal friend goes on a social media rant, or even when I do something that seems out of character. (I apologized to the biology teacher.) This is not a natural time, and this is not a natural way to live. We are social creatures, and even the most dedicated homebody cannot stay indoors forever without lasting effects. This is not to say that we should just throw caution to the wind and just start all gathering like everything is normal. Everything is very much not normal, and acting like it is will only make this last longer and cause more pain.
The key, it seems then, is to remember that everyone is going through this, that everyone is suffering, that everyone is just trying to make it through each day however they can. The key is remembering how hard this is … and maybe just trying to give your fellow human a little bit of a break. No one is at their best right now. We’re all going through this together. But we are also all very much alone.
Will Leitch will be writing multiple pieces a week for Medium. He lives in Athens, Georgia, with his family, and is the author of five books, including the upcoming novel “How Lucky,” released by Harper next May. He also writes a free weekly newsletter that you might enjoy.