PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Ceally Smith spent a year down the rabbit hole of QAnon, devoting more and more time to researching and discussing the conspiracy theory online. Eventually it consumed her, and she wanted out.
She broke up with the boyfriend who recruited her into the movement, took six months off social media, and turned to therapy and yoga.
“I was like: I can’t live this way. I’m a single mom, working, going to school and doing the best for my children,” said Smith, 32, of Kansas City, Missouri. “I personally didn’t have the bandwidth to do this and show up for my children. Even if it was all true, I just couldn’t do it anymore.”
More than a week after Donald Trump departed the White House, shattering their hopes that he would expose the worldwide cabal, some QAnon adherents have concocted ever more elaborate stories to keep their faith alive. But others like Smith are turning to therapy and online support groups to talk about the damage done when beliefs collide with reality.
The QAnon conspiracy theory emerged on fringe internet message boards in 2017. At root, the movement claims Trump is waging a secret battle against the “deep state” and a sect of powerful devil-worshipping pedophiles who dominate Hollywood, big business, the media and government.
It is named after Q, an anonymous poster who believers claim has top-secret government clearance and whose posts are taken as predictions about “the plan” and the coming “storm” and “great awakening" in which evil will be defeated.
It's not clear exactly how many people believe some or all of the narrative, but backers of the movement were vocal in their support for Trump and helped fuel the insurrectionists who overran the U.S. Capitol this month. QAnon is also growing in popularity overseas.
Former believers interviewed by The Associated Press liken the process of leaving QAnon to kicking a drug addiction. QAnon, they say, offers simple explanations for a complicated world and creates an online community that provides escape and even friendship.
Smith's then-boyfriend introduced her to QAnon. It was all he could talk about, she said. At first she was skeptical, but she became convinced after the death of financier Jeffrey Epstein while in federal custody facing pedophilia charges. Officials debunked theories that he was murdered, but to Smith and other QAnon supporters, his suicide while facing child sex charges was too much to accept.
Soon, Smith was spending more time on fringe websites and on social media, reading and posting about the conspiracy theory. She said she fell for QAnon content that presented no evidence, no counter arguments, and yet was all too convincing.
“We as a society need to start teaching our kids to ask: Where is this information coming from? Can I trust it?” she said. “Anyone can cut and paste anything.”
After a year, Smith wanted out, suffocated by dark prophesies that were taking up more and more of her time, leaving her terrified.
Her then-boyfriend saw her decision to move on from QAnon as a betrayal. She said she no longer believes in the theory, and wanted to share her story in the hopes it would help others.
“I was one of those people too," she said of QAnon and its grip. “I came out on the other end because I wanted to feel better.”
Another ex-believer, Jitarth Jadeja, now moderates a Reddit forum called QAnon Casualties to help others like him, as well as the relatives of people still consumed by the theory. Membership has doubled in recent weeks to more than 119,000 members. Three new moderators had to be added just to keep up.
"They are our friends and family," said Jadeja, of Sydney, Australia. “It’s not about who is right or who is wrong. I’m here to preach empathy, for the normal people, the good people who got brainwashed by this death cult.”
His advice to those fleeing QAnon? Get off social media, take deep breaths, and pour that energy and internet time into local volunteering.
Michael Frink is a Mississippi computer engineer who helps administer a QAnon recovery channel on the social media platform Telegram. He said that while mocking the group has never been more popular online, it will only further alienate people.
Frink said he never believed in the QAnon theory but sympathizes with those who did.
“I think after the inauguration a lot of them realized they've been taken for a ride,” he said. “These are human beings. If you have a loved one who is in it, make sure they know they are loved.”
QAnon supporters will respond in different ways as reality undermines their beliefs, according to Ziv Cohen, a forensic psychiatrist and expert on extremist beliefs at Weill Cornell Medical College of Cornell University.
Those who only dabbled in the conspiracy theory may shrug and move on, Cohen said. At the other extreme, more militant believers may migrate to radical anti-government groups and plot potentially violent crimes. Indeed, some QAnon believers have already done so.
In the middle, he said, are those who looked to QAnon “to help them make sense of the world, to help them feel a sense of control." These people may revise QAnon's elastic narrative to fit reality, rather than face up to being hoodwinked.
“This isn't about critical thinking, of having a hypothesis and using facts to support it," Cohen said of QAnon believers. “They have a need for these beliefs, and if you take that away, because the storm did not happen, they could just move the goal posts.”
Some now say Trump's loss was always part of the plan, or that he secretly remains president, or even that Joe Biden's inauguration was created using special effects or body doubles. They insist that Trump will prevail, and powerful figures in politics, business and the media will be tried and possibly executed on live television, according to recent social media posts.
“Everyone will be arrested soon. Confirmed information,” read a post viewed 130,000 times this week on a popular QAnon channel on Telegram. “From the very beginning I said it would happen.”
But a different tone is emerging in the spaces created for those who have heard enough.
“Hi my name is Joe,” one man wrote on a Q recovery channel in Telegram. “And I’m a recovering QAnoner.”