‘I quickly fell in love with the lover behind my screen.’: Woman warns of online predators after childhood catfishing scare

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“When I was eleven years old, something completely unexpected happened. I still haven’t told my parents about it. I don’t know if I ever will. All I can say if that I’m forever grateful to live to tell the tale.

I was an only child back then and my parents weren’t home often. They were out working day and night, seven days a week, always trying to make ends meet. When they’d leave me on the weekends, they’d always say, ‘Windows. Doors. Leftovers.’ This meant to make sure the windows were secured, the front and back doors was locked, and that whatever two-day old scraps I could find in the fridge would be rationed for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. With a kiss on the forehead, they’d be gone in a flash. By the time they’d come home, I was either asleep or on the brink of it.

One particular school year, I remember feeling so lonely. My family was often gone and all of my friends at school were dabbling in their young romances. Every one of them had a boyfriend besides me. Our friend group slowly broke apart. In no time, I started to believe that there was something wrong with me. I couldn’t get a boy to like me and I couldn’t make my parents stay. It was like I was some sort of human repellent. Or so it felt.

At the time, instant messaging was just beginning to blow up in popularity. I didn’t have a cell phone yet, but after school I’d go straight to my desktop and message my friends. We’d talk about boys, homework, and more boys. It was a great way to pass the time and ease the pains of loneliness. But as my friends dwindled down, so did the messages. My inbox was dry, my life even drier. I had no one.

To my surprise, one day, I received a message from someone new. I didn’t recognize their username but was so excited to finally talk to someone. I practically jumped with excitement at the opportunity. I remember immediately asking something like, ‘Who is this? Do I know you?’ It was a boy. He didn’t tell me his name, but he told me he went to my school and was in one of my classes, though he wouldn’t tell me which one. He was shy and just wanted someone to talk to. As someone who could relate to this heavily, I didn’t question it.

As the days passed, we got to know each other more and more. He loved soccer and video games. I told him about my love for books and painting my nails different colors. His favorite subject was history. When he asked what my favorite subject was, I told him ‘recess’. He thought I was funny and would constantly compliment me. I was beyond flattered. Maybe I wasn’t a human repellent after all.

I asked for his name a few times, but he refused. He was shy. I, too, was a bit shy myself, so I respected his privacy. Within a matter of a few weeks, we progressed from talking about our likes and dislikes to talking about how we felt about one another. He said things to me like, ‘you’re the best person I’ve ever met’ and ‘I’m so glad I found you’. I blushed and returned the compliments.

Then, one day, about a month and a half in, he said the g-word. ‘Girlfriend.’ It came so casually. I didn’t expect it, but I accepted it. Was he my boyfriend? Sure, we hadn’t met yet. But he was so nice. And if all my other friends could indulge in their young romances, so could I!

My parents never found out about my boyfriend. After all, they were never around. They were also never the type of parents to monitor my internet activity. They trusted me. I was a good kid.

A few more weeks went by and I felt like I was floating on a cloud of love! This boy made me smile, laugh, made my heart flutter and skip beats. I felt so appreciated by him and loved the attention he gave me. When I admitted to myself that I liked him (like, really liked him), I begged him to reveal himself to me. From the start, he had told me he was in one of my classes and I was slowly torturing myself trying to figure out who. Was it cute Ryan that sat behind me in math class? Or was it Trevor in english? They were both so cute! I was seriously so desperate to know.

I told my friends all about my new boyfriend, thinking I could finally be back in the loop. But all they said was ‘good for you’ and went on about their lives, completely occupied by their own boyfriends. I reverted more and more into the lover behind my screen.

He kept telling me he was too shy but promised me that one day he’d reveal himself and confess his feelings. He just needed time. And I gave him that time. Finally, that day would come.

One Saturday morning, he told me it was the day. I told him it was perfect because my parents would be away working. He first asked to come to my house, but I knew better than to let a ‘stranger’ into my house. But that’s just it. He didn’t feel like a stranger to me. He was boyfriend and I was his girlfriend. We were in love. So, I agreed to meet him at the park by our school at nighttime, three hours before my parents would return.

I remember feeling so nervous that day. I had real butterflies. My palms kept sweating. I put on my favorite t-shirt and jeans and even stole some lip gloss out of my mom’s drawer. I wanted to look the best I possibly could.

Even though I knew my parents wouldn’t be home, I still twisted the doorknob and crept out, terrified they’d catch me sneaking out at night. But then I thought to myself, ‘Windows. Doors.’ They told me to lock them to keep strangers out, but they never said anything about me not leaving the house! Phew. It was a loophole I could use if they ever caught me.

I walked about six blocks and arrived at the park. It was dark. No one was around. I twiddled my thumbs. I reapplied my lip gloss. Tussled my hair a few times. I wanted nothing more than to see his face!

Then, suddenly, I saw something at the corner of my eye. I looked to my right and ignored it. It wasn’t him. It was some older man. I sighed, starting to believe he had stood me up.

Then, it got closer. The shape in my peripheral vision. The man. Something inside me screamed to turn away and walk back, so I started to. Just then, he arrived behind me. ‘Mary?’ My heart fluttered. And not in the good kind of way I expected.

I whipped around, confused, terrified. ‘Who are you?!’ I slowly started to inch away backwards.

‘It’s me.’

I stared back at him, expressionless. Just blank and empty.

‘Oh, come on. It’s me, Mary. Your boyfriend?’

Suddenly, I felt like I could throw up. I felt like all of those butterflies inside me were now sloshing around, trying to escape.

‘You…you are not my boyfriend.’ I took a good look at him, inching away some more. He looked about forty-five. He had a dark black beard and weighed what looked about 350 pounds. He had small-framed glasses resting on his nose and a torn t-shirt on.

‘Yes, I am. Mary, I love you!’

‘You are NOT my boyfriend.’ I turned quickly and bolted away. He chased after me and pushed me to the ground on a patch of grass. I began to sob.

‘Please don’t cry, Mary. Please. I love you.’

All I could make out through the tears was, ‘You lied to me. You don’t go to my school! I don’t know you! Get away!’

He looked distraught. ‘I do go to your school. I see you walk in sometimes in your adorable backpack. The pink one is my favorite.’ He smiled. The moments before this, I felt like I was in shock and couldn’t speak. My tongue felt paralyzed. But after he said this, I screamed as loud as I could. He begged me to stop and latched onto my leg as I tried to crawl away.

I shook him off and kicked him in the head and then ran as fast as I ever had in my life. He ran after me for about a block before stopping when he noticed a few groups of people planted on the sidewalk. I rushed back home. ‘Windows. Doors.’ I said this out loud. I made sure everything was locked. I went into my computer and deleted his messages to hide the evidence. I was terrified.

When my parents came home, I acted like everything was normal. They were surprised to find me still awake, but I told them I just wasn’t feeling sleepy that night. I literally didn’t understand how to verbalize what had happened to me. And I was scared of telling them the truth out of fear of getting in trouble.

Much to my luck, I never ever saw this man again. About three months later, my family and I also moved out of state, which made me feel that much more secure. For years and years, I looked this man up online and faced much difficulty. I didn’t have a name and so I couldn’t exactly search for someone I didn’t know. One day, seven years after the incident, I found him. I never forgot his face. He is now a registered sex offender in the state of Pennsylvania convicted of brutal and violent rape.

But even now, so many years later, I still find myself looking over my shoulder for that Led Zeppelin shirt. I am so thankful to God or luck or time, or whatever it was that got me out of that situation. I owe my life to it. Luckily, I have lovely and supportive friends who have loved me through the trauma and pushed me to therapy even when I was scared to speak a word about it. I am forever grateful to them.

Today, I can say that I am in a very good place in my healing journey. I spend my free time teaching kids about internet safety. I never want someone to experience what I went through. Not in a million years. If this can help even one child or mom out there, then I know it’s all worth it. Internet safety matters, and it is so, so important.”

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by a woman from Connecticut that wishes to remain anonymous. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.

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