Welcome to It’s Complicated, stories on the sometimes frustrating, sometimes confusing, always engrossing subject of modern relationships. (Want to share yours? Email pitches to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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My hands shook on my keyboard. I’d been searching relentlessly, a seemingly hundred different ways, for any proof that Ryan was real, because the alternative — that he didn’t exist — was something I refused to acknowledge as a possibility.
And yet here I was, staring down the unavoidable truth: I had been catfished.
My friendship with Ryan started quickly, but not remarkably: Last January, a friend of mine posted a screenshot of one of our text conversations on Twitter, and one of his followers thought I was funny. He hit follow and started replying to my tweets. I followed back. Eventually, we started DMing, and then texting. I’d made friends from Twitter before; for me, this wasn’t anything out of the ordinary.
He was older, married with two kids, a baseball writer for SB Nation and a few other places. He offered a man’s perspective into my tumultuous dating life, supported my writing endeavors, laughed at my jokes. I helped him find gifts for his wife and shared the music I was listening to. We became close, though always platonic. At its best, our friendship gave me a cheerleader for every aspect of life.
At its worst, though, I felt like I was riding a beast I couldn’t see. Ryan was unpredictable. Sometimes he would turn on me, growing mean and manipulative, and I’d pull away. Inevitably, he would come back, pleading for me not to cut ties, sometimes sending me gifts or money on Venmo. I liked talking to him, but increasingly, these abrupt fights — and the apologies that followed — made me uncomfortable. Slowly, I started to distance myself. I was never able to get very far.
Often, he would send me angry texts: I should just push you away before you push me away. Some day you are going to realize you don’t want to be my friend.
Each time, I felt the strange pull to placate him, to reassure him I wasn’t going anywhere.
By early November, I’d finally managed to disentangle myself from our friendship a little bit; Ryan and I were talking less, which seemed to help with my anxiety. Until the day when, for the first time in what felt like weeks, texts from him began appearing on my phone screen — and then didn’t stop. I read message after frantic message: He was quitting Twitter. One of his misogynistic posts (there were many, a fact I tried to overlook in our early days) had finally pissed off enough people. Women started talking about how they felt harassed online by him. The baseball blogs he wrote for, his source of income, started letting him go. I felt bad, kind of, but I felt more of a kinship with the women he’d wronged. I didn’t send him the reassurances I thought he was looking for.
The next day I received a text from another Twitter friend of mine. He and a few others wanted to track down Ryan’s wife. They were worried for her and their kids, and wanted to make sure she knew what was going on in his online world. I agreed to help them look for her.
Between the five of us, it didn’t take us very long to realize that we were not going to find Ryan’s wife. After a few hours, we realized we weren’t going to find Ryan, either — because Ryan, we discovered when we finally confronted him, was a 21-year-old woman who had first created this fake identity eight years ago. She wanted to write about baseball, she said, and all the bylines she saw at the sites she read belonged to men older than herself. So she became one. We had all fallen prey to a long con.
What followed felt almost like a dream. I messaged a few women I knew who had similar relationships with Ryan so they wouldn’t be blindsided, then I posted something on Twitter about how this baseball writer I’d befriended had been a figment of someone else’s imagination. The retweets started off slowly, and then became a hurricane. My DMs filled with publications reaching out for interviews. I chose to do one, with Deadspin, because I trusted the writer. I began getting emails from producers at the show Catfish.
Things died down soon enough, and so did my anger and my hurt. Processing my own emotions was difficult. I felt an unbelievable sense of loss. I also still felt a strange loyalty to my friend, an inability to fully cut our relationship out of my life. I missed it. Eventually, I worked up the nerve to send “Ryan” a text. Music was one thing we’d often discussed early in our friendship, so I started with an easy opener:
“How did you like the new Taylor Swift album?”
And then we had a conversation, our first real one.
When I went through a bout of acid reflux a few weeks later, I sent “Ryan” another text: What was the stuff she had once recommended I take for it?
We don’t speak nearly as often as we used to, and I still tread carefully in our interactions, constantly questioning what’s real and what’s not. But much of our friendship, I’ve found, was always genuine. I got along with “Ryan” because I get along with the woman pretending to be him.
My new friend feels a lot of guilt and remorse for what she did to me and to so many others, but she also feels relief. Relief that she can finally be herself. She says she’s going to therapy. People always ask me: How do you actually know? How do you know she isn’t still fooling you? The answer is that I don’t. But sometimes what you need after an experience as strange as this is someone to talk to about it, someone who knows exactly what happened. She’s the only one I have who does.