This is a true story, like everything I share with you here!
It happened to me within my first three months of joining an online dating app called Skout, international in reach and tawdry in nature. It was my first introduction to disingenuous behaviour and outright lying or gameplaying. I was pretty naive and had never heard of catfishing back then. It was a baptism of fire and the unresolved nature of what happened still hurts me now – and it makes me feel angry and confused.
Johan was the first man who taught me about ‘that feeling’ – the fast-beating heart, the racing pulse, the slight flush of the face and big flapping butterflies in your stomach.
It’s that feeling we all want. It’s that feeling you can trust, but not for the right reasons.
You can trust that you are seriously, genuinely attracted to this person. You can trust that he and his energy – or his face – are really doing it for you. There’s no question of the sexual attraction, unlike with the countless men where I dilly-dally around wondering whether I actually like them, or fancy them. You know when it happens because the attraction is undeniable.
And Johan was one complete bundle of Button-Pressing Gorgeousness to me: sexy brown mysterious eyes, full luscious mouth, handsome elfin face and a subtle eyebrow piercing. He was tall, slim and toned. He said he was 32 but his profile said 30. He lived in another city but was planning a work-related move to my city in five weeks’ time. Like so many things, all this may or may not have been the truth.
At the time, I thought everyone else had been a practice run. That’s what a handsome face can do for this cougar’s grasp on reality.
His first message on Skout was a variation on ‘trust me, I’m not like all the others’. Within a very few interactions, it felt slightly dangerous, out of control. He’d surprised me with his cheeky fun and gentle flirting. I could sense that he was intelligent and different from the usual circus of dimwits on that app. Indeed, we bonded over grammar and witty wordplay. Within an hour we moved to kik, which I’d learned to postpone until I was reasonably sure I liked a guy enough to make the effort.
It didn’t take long for Johan to declare his serious interest in me – as blatantly and boldly as that. He used a clever analogy about books. I’d questioned whether he was like a book being offered all over town to multiple readers and he’d shot back that he was a limited edition, mint condition item, just waiting to be reserved by me.
Of course, I did ‘reserve’ him and before long our connection had escalated to messaging from before six in the morning until late at night. I’d wake to a passionate message from him, sent before getting up for work, about how he longed to be making love with me, spooning me, kissing and caressing me.
“I will be your lover as long as you want me,” he said. “I want you more than I’ve ever wanted anyone in a long time. I really like you, babe. I have butterflies.”
Such was the intensity that I’d think about Johan constantly, fantasising about him, wishing away the time until he arrived in my town.
This had never happened to me before – it was the first time I couldn’t actually just arrange to meet someone I’d been talking to online. Such was that first 48-hour bliss that I overlooked a few minor red flags. Even now, it’s hard to focus on them because they could have meant nothing, or they could have meant something.
The first red flag was that on the second night he was busy doing ‘admin’ work for his job. I worried that I’d imagined the previous night’s intimacy and excitement. The next morning my phone chimed at 6.30am. “Can’t get you out of my mind,” Johan messaged. “You’re amazing. Be mine.”
We chatted for most of the day; it was ‘hyper-real’ in a nutshell and very addictive. “I really need you,” he said. “The connection I have with you is amazing.”
“I’ve invested everything in you. And I want to invest more.”
“I respect you very much and I always will,” he said. “I’m not your regular guy. I’m not pushy and I never want to be.”
Towards the end of that dizzying week, I confessed to Johan that I was feeling very smitten. It wasn’t as if I’d been reserved before, but this was a blatant statement that left me nowhere to hide.
“I guess I should back off. After all there’s several weeks to wait until you get here,” I said. “Please don’t,” he responded immediately, with multiple hearts and kisses. “I love it. The feeling is very mutual. I’m very drawn to you. In fact, I crave you. If you are ok with my age, I’m committing myself to you.”
It was hard to fathom how someone could ‘commit’ to a person they were yet to meet, but I overlooked that, and the fact that he hadn’t asked me much about my life. He did seem genuinely interested in my writing and I was torn between wanting to share but not wanting to reveal my identity so early.
It’s easy to overlook these ‘flags’ in the first flush of developing a connection. It’s only now when I look back on it that I start to wonder whether he was getting off on the emotional and sexual connection rather than actually wanting the reality.
He regularly expressed his longing for the time to pass until we could be together, and his desperate need to be in my bed and in my arms. We’d swapped a couple of semi-naked images after he’d sent an unsolicited dick pic. It was a bit of a shock, although he had a gorgeous body. I’d reciprocated with my first ever boobieshot and he’d been stunned and appreciative.
The emotional yearning I felt from him seemed tangible, almost as if he was clawing reciprocity from me. “Go as deep as you want with me. Tell me how you really feel. I’m not going anywhere,” he declared.
Now we’ve come to the hard part of the story where, after an evening of emotional intensity, declarations and confessions, Johan ‘disappeared’ for two drawn-out days. It was the weekend and, if Scenario One in my unpicking and questioning of motivations is correct, he would have been with his girlfriend/wife/partner.
He’d already told me that they’d broken up just over a year ago after being together for four years and “falling out of love”. She’d transferred to London and they’d willingly parted ways.
Later I came to wonder whether she was there all along. It might explain his impassioned voice message – a husky and confessional whisper that astounded me with its emotional intensity and what I perceived as authenticity.
“I’m already lost in your beautiful eyes, I think you know that already,” he said in an east-coast Australian accent. “I’m absolutely crazy for you.” I must have replayed that message a dozen times.
During these two days of the weekend I was baffled and wounded by his sudden absence. I’d had a week of being steadily drip-fed affection and then – nothing. Saturday night he messaged me sweet nothings and told me that he was at a barbecue. We texted for a while and he said he wished he could be with me. My heart leapt and I tried, in vain, to lower my expectations. I knew I’d invested too much in Johan. The next morning there was silence again on kik.
The day dragged though I busied myself with other things until I decided to open our Skout thread. I saw immediately that he’d put up a photo; previously his profile had been blank, with no image. Having a photo could only mean one thing: he was still looking. And then I noticed that in one day, seven women had favourited him. Dread swept through me.
I stewed this over and then decided to trawl the internet for information. I didn’t know his surname but I knew the suburb where he lived and he’d told me that he worked as a massage therapist for a famous Sydney football team. After an hour of searching I’d not come up with anything: no Facebook, no photos, no entries, nothing. That was unusual but his connection with the team made it probable that he’d have cropped up in a determined search.
I brewed a fear that quashed my former confidence and budding trust in him. I wasn’t a complete innocent, though I knew I’d been foolish in getting involved with someone outside of my state. I recognised the danger but I was too far gone to back out. I needed to give him a chance.
By the time Johan messaged me on Sunday evening – another whole day having passed in silence – I was both grateful and poised on the brink of explosion. I calmly asked if we could chat later, after I’d put my children to bed. He apologised for his absence and said he’d enjoyed an impromptu day out with friends on Sydney Harbour and had left his phone at home.
While I was busy being Mum, I plotted my plan. I wanted him to understand how confused and worried I was. Johan knew that authenticity was paramount to me and that I wouldn’t tolerate dishonesty. And so I wrote a story to describe my predicament, delivered via kik in a long stream of words:
“Once there was a woman who, though happy and content, became enamoured with a beautiful man who showered her with compliments and made her laugh. He seemed genuine and sincere and though he made impulsive claims and pledges, she was thoroughly smitten so she wanted to believe him. She fervently hoped he would not lose interest in her in the time before he arrived in her town. She shared with him things personal and meaningful to her. She accepted his offer of commitment and other heartfelt declarations.
“And so, she felt a cold burn of dread when she saw that seven other women had named him ‘favourite’ and he had chosen a photograph to entice more. She feared that she had been played, that he had not been authentic and honest with her at all. She never expected his declarations but once given, they could not be unsaid. Unless they were part of a game to snare as many prey in his web as possible.
“If only he had not made a point of first stressing that he was ‘not like all those other lying scumbags’. She could not help but wonder if he was saying the same honeyed words to others. She was not asking for exclusivity. It was honesty that mattered most to her. Now she is full of doubts, but she hopes she was wrong because she likes him an awful lot. The end.”
I could almost feel Johan’s shock from a thousand kilometres away. Within a couple of minutes, he messaged back:
I explained that I didn’t expect him not to talk to other women, but that I wanted him to be honest about it, not tell me that no, he wasn’t on Skout when I clearly saw that his ‘green light’ was on.
“No, I am not talking to anyone else,” was his blunt response and then he disappeared for the night. I didn’t get much sleep, again. It had been a restless week, on the whole, since Johan had entered my life. Being obsessed with someone is draining and all-consuming. Being besotted is not a state I enjoy, deep down, because I feel powerless and at the mercy of the object of my desire.
At around six the next morning, he messaged me again. I’d left him with a brief text message the night before explaining that I hadn’t meant ‘the end’ exactly, that it was just the end of the story and that I hoped it was just the beginning for us. I also said that I hoped that he would forgive my fears, which grew from the depth of feeling I’d already developed for him.
“My baby, I’m sorry that you felt that way. I want to kiss those tears completely away, my love,” he replied, before telling me in French that lying naked next to me was the closest thing to paradise he could imagine. He said that I was amazing, and that he really wanted to be there with me, so badly.
“I love your passion. Commitment, intelligence, beauty – you’ve got it all.”
I was filled with a warm, tingly excitement. Gradually over the next day (a Monday), Johan reassured me that this was, indeed, a relationship of substance; that I could rely on him and he wasn’t playing games with me. He mentioned that he might have to fly down to see me because neither of us felt we could wait the four more weeks until he arrived.
(Him) My day is always better when you’re here
(Me) I’ll talk to you any time, you know I’m mad for you
Johan asked to video chat but the timing was wrong that afternoon for me and so we decided to do it the next day. That night we messaged lovers’ talk – a lot of it in French – and he told me he’d deleted his profile photo on Skout. We ended our conversation on a completely normal note. I passed a tumultuous night as a result of my anxious and over-stimulated brain.
When I woke the next morning there were no dawn messages on my phone. I noted it and tried to dismiss my insecurity. Mid-morning, while sitting at my desk at work, I opened our thread on kik.
Right before my eyes, his name disappeared, and then his photo turned black. What did it mean?! I’d never seen that before but I feared the worst – that he’d closed his account. I sat frozen as my mind raced through the options. I quickly switched to Skout. The evidence was clear – his photo was gone, as he’d said, but in its place there was a question mark that signified his account had been closed.
My mind churned through possibilities for the rest of the day. I gritted my teeth and drew on reserves of strength to stay calm, even if just on the surface. Over and over I said to myself – he wouldn’t do this to me, he wouldn’t be so heartless, there must be a mistake! I cursed that we hadn’t yet swapped mobile numbers or full names. I raged against him before convincing myself that I needed to give him the benefit of the doubt. Give him a week to contact me before I would know for sure.
That I had been played like a harp.
But for what reason? For what gain, what purpose? Perhaps he needed to feel powerful and desired, wanted it so much that he didn’t care about the cost to me. And maybe others. Of course I questioned everything he’d told me, and whether there were kernels of truth or the whole truth, or a mix of lies and truth.
I wondered how someone who’d seemed so benevolent could swing the pendulum towards the opposite end.
Again, I played his voice messages that I’d just saved to my phone. I could not believe that anyone could be that skilled an actor. I looked into Johan’s deep brown eyes in his photo, that beautiful smile and his guileless expression. Between the bouts of tears, I wondered why he’d done this terrible thing to me. What had I done to deserve it? Had I been gullible and ridiculously trusting? I wasn’t clear what I could learn from the experience except the old adage that if something seems too good to be true, then it probably is.
A couple of weeks later, an opportunity came up. A health industry friend, on my behalf, made professional enquiries about ‘massage therapists’ working for the famous football team that Johan had cited as his employer. My friend shared a few photos of Johan and asked around his professional contacts, one of whom genuinely was contracted to the Sydney team.
They’d never seen Johan before or heard of his distinctive name.
I licked my wounds and moved on, but I didn’t forget him or what he’d done. I couldn’t make sense of it, and that was the most terrible thing. Not having closure made me doubt everything and assume the worst.
About six months later I was contacted again on Skout by a guy using pictures of ‘Johan’ but looking several years older. They spelled his hometown as ‘Sidney’. Even more peculiar, the profile said he was younger than the age he’d initially told me. I breathed deeply and politely asked his name. With no trace of recalling me at all, the person messaged me, ‘Johan’.
“I can’t believe you’ve got the gall to contact me again, you low-down piece of scum!” I spat, my fingers racing ahead on the keypad to express my vitriol and rage. “Get a life and don’t you ever come near me again!”
Of course, ‘Johan’ denied knowing anything about it but proceeded to block me anyway. I kept the screenshot remind me that, though I may never understand what happened, at the very least I got to express my opinion.
What is catfishing?
Much later, I read about ‘catfishing’ and realised that I’d probably been a victim of this seductive and manipulative technique where someone deliberately sets out to ‘make a person fall in love’ with them – and then ‘ghosts’ or disappears.
My experience also fits the description of an even newer term that has arisen mostly out of online dating: love bombing.
According to Elephant Journal, love bombing is usually directed by sociopaths or narcissists and follows three main phases – idealisation, devaluation and discarding. It involves “lavish demonstrations and constant bombardments of attention and affection in an attempt to gain control by moving the relationship forward quickly.”
“Love bombing is initially carried out through excessive phone calls, text messages, emails, the desire to be ‘connected’ at every moment of the day,” Suzanna Quintana writes. (Suzanna Quintana ‘Understanding the Language of Narcissistic Abuse’ Elephant Journal October 2015)
After they have lured the unwitting victim into their online lair – in the process feeding the perpetrator’s fragile ego and desire to feel powerful and adored – the pattern continues until the abuser becomes bored and then usually begins the ‘devaluation’ phase.
Thankfully I did not experience this cruel and deliberate behaviour where the abuser systematically begins to ‘tear down’ the object of their game.
Another writer on the topic, Alex Myles, says, “the abuser will do this by becoming emotionally distant, withholding affection, blaming their partner for the downfall of the relationship, using the silent treatment, moods or even temper tantrums to cause emotional torment.” If the victim becomes wise to the game or attempts to leave the relationship, the abuser “will not be able to bear it before they have declared the game over… as their ego will be irrevocably dented.” (Alex Myles ‘Love Bombing: A Seductive and Manuiplative Technique’ Elephant Journal Jan 2016)
The origins of the name ‘catfishing’ are said to come from an American TV show:
“They used to tank cod from Alaska all the way to China. They’d keep them in vats in the ship. By the time the codfish reached China, the flesh was mush and tasteless. So this guy came up with the idea that if you put these cods in these big vats, put some catfish in with them and the catfish will keep the cod agile. And there are those people who are catfish in life. And they keep you on your toes. They keep you guessing, they keep you thinking, they keep you fresh. And I thank God for the catfish because we would be … boring and dull if we didn’t have somebody nipping at our fin.” (from Catfish: The TV Show, an American reality-based docu-series television series about the truths and lies of online dating (2012-2015)
Personally, I think that’s a fairly revolting analogy that does nothing to validate the genuine complexities of people’s feelings and motivations (both victims and perpetrators) in this behaviour.
Over the years, the show has examined various examples of catfishing, the most prevalent being false identity or even false gender, usually created by a person out for revenge, or so uncomfortable with their real-life body, face or appearance that they created a new image and used that to attract a mate. Common examples were grossly obese people, people with agoraphobia or people considered ugly.
The show attempts to humanise the perpetrators so that we as viewers get to see their vulnerabilities and a possible justification for their appalling behaviour.
The same cannot be said if you are unfortunate enough to be catfished in real life.
It is rare to have ‘closure’ or any type of explanation. At its extreme, catfishing is a good example of how a person who is a moral vacuum, or who has serious mental health issues, can use technology for their own suspect and narcissistic ends.
Postscript: In June 2019, a fascinating and tawdry case came to public attention in Australia. It involved a jail term and conviction for a young woman for stalking (catfishing), emotional manipulation and abuse of at least three other young women over a four-year period. It is a genuinely appalling and shocking case on many levels. If you’re interested read one lengthy report here, with links to others from the original article.
Late addition: I found out about this docuseries called LOVE FRAUD, which focuses on an unlikely alliance formed by several American women who were conned by their supposed online ‘boyfriend’. He was an average American Joe who got his kicks from manipulating and love-bombing women – and it wasn’t even really about the (smallfry) money. Check out the article if you’re interested or look for it on Stan.