As you get older, there seems to be an invisible line that you cross. Deep, dark, shameful things you did as a kid or teenager somehow become funny, and those hidden secrets are pulled out as entertaining stories at parties. The secrets you once hid in in horror become a punch line of sorts.
A few weeks ago at dinner, I was warning a friend about meeting up with a guy she met on Tinder.
“Meet him in a public setting,” I told her. “If he refuses and only wants to meet in private, that’s a bit of a red flag.”
My other friend chimed in. “You never know when you could be catfished,” she said. I nodded.
“Hey, did I ever tell you guys about how I catfished someone when I was 14?”
Suddenly it was out there. It just popped out, my brain suddenly deciding that this was a perfect time to reveal the secret I had kept for almost eight years.
To be honest, I had mostly forgotten about it. It wasn’t something I actively thought about, until sophomore year of college when I came home one day to find my roommate watching MTV’s “Catfish.”
In most of these cases, someone has fallen in love with a person they met online and started a relationship. These people often have fake social media accounts, and fake Facebooks full of pictures of someone else. They feed people lies. The reasons vary, but the result is always the same: Someone falls in love with a stranger, and ends up getting betrayed.
“This is so sick, Hope, seriously. How does someone do this?” my roommate asked me. As I watched the show, my stomach dropped in horror.
I had done this. I was one of those people. I grew distinctly uncomfortable. I had to stop watching.
It all started innocently enough. I was 14, not yet in high school. I attended a very small private school where I was currently experiencing severe bullying. I was a weird kid, I had no friends in my class at all, and almost no friends in general. Of the two people I connected to, both attended different schools, and one was only accessible over the Internet.
I met Mina through an online Harry Potter community. At that time, I was using the named Charlie for two reasons: I was unwilling to use my real name on the Internet, and I believed a name with male connotations would not make me a target for creepy old men. And I had just finished “The Perks of Being A Wallflower” and was enamored.
Whenever I talked to people online, I always declined to provide a gender. I would give out my fake name, information about myself, etc., but I always avoided the topics of gender and location. Internet safety 101.
Mina was a lot like me. Around the same age, (though I had rounded mine up to 15), problems with bullies, and pretty isolated from other friends. We had a lot of things in common, and we became fast friends. We talked a lot via email. I used an old email address, fight.the.foo.fight (because I had a serious obsession with the Foo Fighters). We eventually graduated to AIM. At that time, I was using a fake screen name as a precaution.
So for a long time, Mina knew me only as Charlie, or JohnnysGotAPRBLM (a rip off of the D.I. song “Johnny’s Got A Problem).
We talked. A lot. Almost every day after school, we would talk for hours. She became one of my closest friends. When she started cutting herself, I was always there, willing to talk to her for hours if necessary. She told me I was her crutch.
And then one day, Mina told me she loved me.
My fingers literally froze on the keyboard of my old Gateway laptop.
“What?” I asked her.
“You’re not like any guy I’ve ever met. You’re always there for me, so caring. You get it. You’re my best friend.”
You’re not like any guy. You’re not like any guy. You’re not like any guy.
My 14-year-old stomach dropped, my heart started pounding, I felt like I was going to puke. My mind raced back over everything I had ever told her. I told her about how I loved to play guitar, how I wanted a dog, how I was excited for high school, how I loved punk music and drumming… but I never told her my gender.
“Oh, fuck,” was my first thought.
It occurred to me then, that I had never paused and taken a moment to tell her I was a girl, just assuming that she would figure it out along the way. I hadn’t realized she was operating under the assumption I was a guy.
Logically speaking, of course she was. I had really masculine interests and hobbies. I was into punk music. For Christ’s sake, I was using a male name.
I should have stopped and apologized and explained it to her. But I didn’t, because I was 14.
Instead, I signed off, made a new email, made a new screen name, and never talked to her again.
For months I felt horrible. What if she started cutting herself again? She probably thought I hated her. She lost her best friend and crutch. I was riddled with guilt.
But then high school came and I forgot about her. And then I got a boyfriend and it was like none of it ever happened. And then I got another boyfriend, then another, then I graduated and went to college and made friends and lived my life and never thought of Mina again until that night sophomore year.
I know there are differences between myself and the “catfishers” you see on MTV. I didn’t create a fake Facebook or MySpace or try to engage in a false relationship with someone. But I still accidentally led this poor girl on. What I viewed as taking precautions on the internet inadvertently made it look like that is exactly what I was doing.
Let’s look at some of the “warning signs” that you are being catfished.
1. They never want to talk on the phone/Skype/meet in person.
I definitely avoided any form of phone/texting/Skype/face-to-face interaction. I did this to protect myself—I didn’t know if Mina was actually a 45-year-old guy. Sure, I was talking to a stranger on the Internet, but I was trying to be safe about it.
2. They make up strange excuses as to why they don’t want to call/Skype/meet in person.
Instead of bluntly saying “Look, Mina, I think you might be a 45-year-old man and I don’t want to take that risk and Skype you,” I would create weird excuses why I couldn’t call. My mom was using the phone. I was grounded. I didn’t have a webcam. I didn’t have a cell phone. The excuses piled up.
3. They never send picture of themselves, or send pictures where you can’t see their face.
I definitely did this. I sent a few pictures of dogs where you could see my Converses in the corner, or pictures of my drum set, but I was incredibly careful to never send pictures where you could clearly see my face. I thought I was being safe, but now I realize it kind of looks like I was avoiding revealing my gender.
4. You live in the same area, but have never met.
Mina eventually told me that she lived in the D.C. area, and I, with great excitement, went, “Me too!” But despite her requests to meet up in DC or arrange to be in the same place at the same time, I always denied. I used the “45-year-old man?” logic, and also I didn’t want to explain to my mom that I was going to meet someone I met on the Internet.
5. They are vague about their life.
I was definitely vague. I knew everything about Mina and her life, and aside from my hobbies and interests, she knew little about mine. Not my last name, or my school, or my family’s names. I didn’t tell her my friend’s names or the area I lived in. The conversation and flow of information was definitely slanted on her side. At times, I wondered if she was lying to me because she gave so much information—but in retrospect I think she was just less concerned with privacy than I was.
Looking back now, my story is kind of funny. It always gets a laugh out of people. But when you stop and think about it, it’s actually horrible. You place your trust and affection in someone only to find out it was all a lie. For Mina, she never even got the closure of finding out I was fake. I just disappeared.
People do it for loads of different reasons—I asked my Facebook friends if anyone had ever been Catfished and the amount of responses I got were ridiculous.
“My mom dated a man over the Internet for about a year. One day she got a bunch of emails from a hospital in Africa (where he was allegedly living) saying he had been in an accident and needed $15,000 for treatment,” one girl told me. “Research revealed that the hospital didn’t exist and (in all likelihood) neither did he.”
A friend of mine from college was Catfished in middle school as a way of bullying.
“It was nice to feel that connection, but sucky when I found out it was two girls who were supposed to be my friends taunting me,” she told me. “I think it’s made me more apprehensive and it has made me not trust people in general.”
The fact that these deceptions drive a popular show on MTV shows how prevalent this is in our culture. And it’s fucked up. Like dating isn’t hard enough, let’s add an entirely different layer of deception to it.
So Mina, I feel like it’s time to come clean. If you’re reading this, my name is Hope. I’m a girl. I’m sorry I never spoke to you again. I didn’t mean to Catfish you. It just sort of worked out that way. If you ever read this, email me sometime! I would love to know if your hamster ever overcame its cancer.
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