Why I Miss My Catfish, And Probably Always Will
For someone who spends a decent chunk of time writing about living with chronic pain and mental illness, it’s kind of funny to realise that sitting down to write about the experience of being catfished makes me nervous.
I think it’s because where all my health problems feel like something that happened to me, that I had no control over, this experience is one where I feel stupid, like I should’ve known better, like I got got. But I guess I should start at the beginning.
I met Alex in a Britney Spears fan forum back in 2007 (is this cause enough for embarrassment? You be the judge, dear reader!)
At the time, both of us were trying to quit smoking. He posted something about quitting, I replied, and after a few more exchanged responses, we moved our chat over to MSN.
This was the start of a decade-long friendship that held romantic undertones. Although it was very briefly an online relationship, it never really evolved beyond the admitting of mutual feelings for one another and vague plans to one day meet up and pursue something real.
He lived in Norway, and with me in Australia, we quickly realised that this was simply not feasible and went back to being friends, although for years afterward would often discuss the “what if” of it all.
Of course, I write all of this as though it were fact, when the reality is that I have no idea what was really true or not. Looking back, I now have to question everything, from his name and location, to how he felt about our friendship, who he really was, what his experiences really were. I spoke to him on the phone, but who knows if that was really him? Nothing in this story is set in stone, which is one of the most frustrating things about it.
Alex and I hit it off immediately. Long before there was any hint of romance between us, we could chat for hours about our shared interests in music, movie and television, and we eventually drifted into more serious topics.
We spoke online about our relationships, families and friendships, we opened up to one another about things that at the time we couldn’t speak to anyone else about. Or at least, I did, and I thought he did as well, but again, the only person who knows for sure is Alex.
Alex had posted photos on the forum, as I had also. In a time before Instagram and Facebook ruled the world, it was proof enough for me, and we laughed together with a group of mutual friends when another member was exposed for faking their identity. “How ridiculous,” we laughed at the time. “What an insane situation this is”.
He seemed like a normal person, and over the 10 years we were speaking, he never pushed for any sexually explicit material from me, and never sent anything of the sort to me. Hearing his voice over the phone was extra confirmation that he was who he said he was.
As the years went on and the age of the fan forum lost its war with stan Twitter -- with most of the forum members migrating over in 2009 and 2010 -- some questions popped up.
“Why didn’t he have a Facebook?”
“Why didn’t he have an Instagram?”
Once, he tweeted about accidentally uploading a photo to his Snapchat story instead of sending it to his then-fiancée, and along with a few of of mutual friends from the forum, I asked why we weren’t following him.
He said that out of the embarrassment of this incident, he’d deleted his account.
These questions sat quietly in the back of my head for years, but with the door to any romantic relationship firmly closed — Alex had found a long term relationship and had a child since then — I figured it didn’t really matter who he was. Our friendship and our bond was real, and he was someone I could talk to about anything, anytime.
On Twitter, Alex would post photos from time to time, and having seen every episode of ‘Catfish’, I would quickly download them and reverse image search them.
Every time they came back with no results, I would reassure myself that Alex was really Alex, he just didn’t like social media outside of Twitter, obviously! Things carried on like this until one day in August of 2016. He posted some photos of “him” and “his fiancée”, Sara, looking forward to the day they would get married.
I was due to go in for day surgery that day and was messaging him about it when I saw the tweet and figured I’d quickly search them before I left.
Bam. I got a hit.
As much as I’d been preparing for this moment the whole time, I was completely shocked to find that one of the photos led me to some European football player’s Instagram. I stared at the page in disbelief. What now?
Well reader, I confronted him.
“I really care about you. Just know that the friendship was real. 99% was real.”
Sending him the photos from the website I’d found them on, I wrote: “so, okay. I’m not mad, but do you want to explain this to me, haha <3”.
He replied quickly, as my stomach churned.
“I really can’t!” he wrote back, with a crying laughing emoji.
I didn’t know it then, but this was the beginning of the end of our friendship.
Over the next few days, weeks and months, we had many, many conversations about it all. Why he did it. How he felt. How I felt. Whether our friendship would survive this. Who he really was. What was real, and what was not. He sent me piles and piles of photos of the “real” him.
“All of that is real. Name. Age. Birthday. My job. Where I’m from. Interests/hobbies. It’s just the visuals…” he told me.
“It was an escape of some sort. I can’t explain it. I never planned on staying there for as long as I did, but then you happened. MSN… so instead of just posting shit on an Internet forum, things got personal and I started opening up to you, getting to know you and talking about my life.
And then Twitter came along. It just spiraled out of control and by then it was too late to do anything about it. In hindsight, it probably wasn’t, but that’s what it felt like.”
As I reassured him that if everything aside from the photos was real, it didn’t really matter to me, he thanked me for understanding.
Explaining that when he set up his original account on the forum, he was 20 and going through a lot of personal issues -- which he’d shared with me at the time -- he explained: “I didn’t want to be me. I wanted an escape from my life.”
He sent me photos of the the "real" him and he was just a totally fine and normal, looking guy.
We talked about how he would tell our mutual online friends. He decided he didn’t want to, saying that although he knew that it was “100% wrong”, it was “too embarrassing”.
“I’m not gonna ask you not to tell them,” he wrote. “If you feel like you should then that’s fine, there’s absolutely nothing I can do about it, but I don’t be here for the aftermath. I just can’t. I’m sorry.”
Faced with the possibility of losing someone I considered one of my closest friends, I became an accomplice in his secret, and told him I wouldn’t reveal the truth to anyone.
Still, despite saying he was “relieved” that I had found out, he struggled to move past it.
“I’m sorry that I’m not very talkative,” he wrote one day.
“I’m just so ashamed of myself and so embarrassed, and truly so sorry. I never meant to hurt anyone.
I did my best to keep people at a distance and over the years I’ve only made *three* friends on here, so it’s not like I was trying to take advantage of anyone, start fake relationships or get nudes. I don’t know why I did it, I have absolutely no idea. Again, I’m so sorry.”
One day in September of 2016, Alex decided it would be best for him to leave Twitter, writing me a long message.
“I’m not gonna delete my account or anything like that and knowing myself, I’ll probably be back at some point. But I just wanted and *needed* to say goodbye,” he said. “
Your friendship has meant the world to me over the years and I truly care about you, and I will miss you so much. I hope you can find some relief for the chronic pain hell you’re living in. You don’t deserve any of that. No one does, but least of all you. And I wish you all the best in the future.”
We talked, and Alex explained that while I’d basically moved on, he wasn’t having such an easy time with it.
“I think about it all the time,” he wrote. “Whenever we talk it’s right there in the back of my mind and I’m still ashamed and I feel bad. I don’t wanna throw this away like it was nothing.
I mean, it’s the last thing I want. I just don’t know what to do. Maybe if I left you’d be over it after a little while, then tell the others everything and have a good laugh about how pathetic I was. I really can’t picture you ever doing that, but hell I’d deserve it.”
We chatted online some more, and eventually he decided to stay, promising that this was the end of the “I’m leaving!” drama.
Somewhere in the midst of this, I mentioned his tweet about Snapchat. “I really did stop using Snapchat after dickgate, which *was* a true story lol, but I’ve been thinking about going back because prior to that it was a lot of fun and now that you know the real me I’d definitely add you,” he said.
Alex never did add me on Snapchat, or any other social media, but our friendship went back to normal over the following months. The conversations about catfishing stopped, and we went back to online chatting about our lives, our interests, and whatever else was going on.
There was some residual distrust, but for the most part, I accepted that what he’d told me was the truth. I’d reverse searched every image he sent me, and found nothing. And besides, it didn’t really matter, as long as the friendship was real, right?
Throughout 2017, Alex was preparing for his upcoming wedding. We messaged about it, the stress of organising everything, as well as where he was going on his honeymoon.
In late July, he messaged me the day before his wedding, before going offline for a month.
Thanking me for sending him a message on his birthday, he said that we had “a lot of catching up to do”.
“I'll message you next time we're both on,” he said, before going offline for more than two weeks.
“I've been really busy lately, but also having a hard time getting into tweeting again after being away for awhile,” he explained.
That was the last time I ever heard from him.
It’s been 18 months since I last heard from Alex, and over the months, I’ve only developed more questions, rather than any sense of closure, or getting over it, as he’d anticipated in 2017.
Now, I wonder if he really did get married at all, or if he just sent me a pile of someone else’s photos in an attempt to keep up the lies.
I wonder if he was always planning to leave for good. I wonder if something happened to him, because I would have no way of knowing. I’ve googled his name, but who knows if that really was his name. I wonder if our friendship was actually real, whether he misses it. I know I do.
It's weird, to miss someone you never met, to be hurt by and angry at someone while also realising that maybe you never really knew them.
The lack of closure hurts like an open wound, but within that is also a deep sense of loss at what was, at one point, a friendship that held a special place in my heart.
I should probably be angry -- obviously, someone who could a friendship in this manner doesn't deserve to be missed -- but after a decade, and with the desire to be an empathetic person who doesn't hold anger in their heart, all I can do is try to move on.
To be grateful for the friendship I had with my catfish, even if it wasn't real for him.
Feature image: Getty Images