With constant stories in the media of trolling and abuse on social media sites - I've decided it's time to tell my story of how I got caught up in a dark and elaborate 20 month long hoax at the hands of one twitter follower.
Loads of people contact our radio station every day wanting shout outs and dedications for their loved ones. So when 'Marcus' contacted us asking to come on to tell his girlfriend Lucy that he loved her, we thought nothing of it. A few days later I then got an email from 'Marcus' (the inverted commas will become clear a bit later) thanking me for what we'd done. He explained that it was particularly poignant because his beloved 19-year-old Lucy had just been diagnosed with a rare form of leukaemia. I have often questioned whether I was wrong to reply to that email. But what half decent human wouldn't reply to an email of that nature to show some support, sympathy and kindness? So that's what I did.
'Marcus' then started emailing me regularly - updating me on Lucy's condition. Some I replied to, some I didn't - keen to keep some distance. Lucy then started following me on twitter. And gradually I noticed her circle of friends did too - 'Abbie' and 'Marcus's' sister 'Siobhan' or 'Shiv', and 'Shiv's' cousin 'Niamh'. Lucy seemed like a normal teenage girl to me - she tweeted about music and reality shows she liked, mixed in with some sad ones about chemo and her time spent in hospital. She also tweeted about her love for her job - a nanny for a rich couple with two children. She chatted away to her best friends 'Abbie' and 'Shiv' and their conversations were fairly amusing to watch. There was nothing extraordinary about any of it - apart from the fact that this pretty young girl was quietly living with a deadly cancer.
All of them would tweet me regularly - to tell me that they were listening to my show, to ask for songs played for Lucy, and just general chit chat. This was probably my downfall. I am quite a prolific tweeter. I also like to reply to people who bother to listen to my radio show. It seems like the polite thing to do - and I am always grateful for people bothering to get in touch. So reply to them I did.
Lucy's condition then rapidly worsened and she fell into a coma. I knew this because 'Marcus' and 'Abbie' and 'Shiv' kept me up-to- date with tweets and emails. And I was devastated for them - who wouldn't be? And then everything just spiralled. I was told from tweets and emails and facebook posts that Lucy wasn't expected to live. The next twist was that 'Marcus' had got so desperate he took his own life -unable to imagine living without his beloved Lucy. I felt desperately sad, but kept a respectful distance - after all I didn't really know these people. I just observed endless outpourings of grief on Facebook and twitter from a far.
And then Lucy woke up. Defying everything that doctors had told her friends and family - the girl woke up, to the news that her boyfriend had committed suicide. I later got a private tweet from Lucy in the hospital asking if she could have my personal phone number to call me. You live and learn. I am now VERY cautious about anyone having my number. But I gave it to her - the girl was grieving, and if I could help in any way - I wanted to.
I recall having a long conversation with her as I sat in a coffee shop in Bluewater. She sounded like a very shy and quiet girl. She whispered to me about her devastating loss and thanked me over and over for the support I'd given them all. I didn't feel like I'd done much - but sweet of her to say so all the same.
So the relationship continued. Tweets moved into texts and pretty Lucy with her big innocent eyes (I'd seen lots of pictures on twitter) would often message me from her hospital bed. On so many occasions I wanted to end the contact. Something inside me told me I shouldn't be involved - but I am a caring person and I believe if you can help - you should. My parents taught me to not just cross over the road.
As Lucy made a steady recovery - I agreed to meet her, for a coffee. And there she was, just as she'd looked in her pictures - pretty, young, wide- eyed and vulnerable. We sat for ages chatting over a latte. I gave her some presents I thought she'd like and I tried to help her talk through her grief.
Over the next few months I spoke to Lucy on the phone - often when she was extremely distressed, at a loss as to what I could and should do. It became part of my life that weighed heavy on my mind all the time. Looking back, as much as I hate to admit it - perhaps it fulfilled some need in me. Maybe I liked to be wanted? Perhaps I enjoyed feeling like I was helping someone? I just don't know. Friends, my parents and people close to me at the time all reassured me that I was doing the right thing - just that I should keep a safe distance.
I agreed to meet Lucy one more time when she was feeling really low - at her friend 'Abbie's' house. Everything checked out. Lucy had a big bandage on from recent surgery, and was very tearful and emotional after being told her prognosis wasn't good. I talked to her and hugged her and tried to be there for her.
Then the next day I was given the shocking news that she'd also taken her own life, unable to cope anymore.
I broke down. It was just too much. I went for a really long run to clear my head but I just couldn't shake the feelings of guilt. I was the last person to see her alive - was it my fault? Could I have done more? Did I say the wrong things?
As the months passed those feelings never left me. I got on with my life but thought about it all the time. Sometimes I would cry. I was invited to Lucy's funeral but was on holiday so couldn't go. But I joined a memorial website with thousands of beautiful tributes from her friends and family that included pictures and recordings of her singing. I left my own personal message - and received one back from Lucy's 'Dad' - thanking me for looking out for his daughter. I received numerous tweets from her friends 'Shiv' and 'Abbie' and I watched their exchanges as they tried to live a life without their darling friend. It was horrendous. I was immensely touched by the pictures and videos they shared of their 'Lucy' day when they all got together and let balloons go into the sky - to remember their tragic friend.
Then months 12 months later I saw her. Lucy. Dead Lucy - alive and well on Facebook - bold as brass in her profile picture, posing with a celebrity. And my heart stopped. At that point I knew that I had either been caught up in an elaborate hoax, or that someone was sickeningly pretending to be a dead girl. I prayed it would be the latter - but as I messaged Lucy - the girl I thought had taken her own life, I just knew inside.
She replied straight away. According to Lucy it was a dare gone too far. She got caught up in the wrong crowd who made her do it and it just spiralled. She also admitted that she got addicted to the attention I gave her, and she liked it. 'Marcus', 'Abbie' 'Shiv' and all the others never existed. It was all Lucy, orchestrating a completely fake convoluted life - all for me. The numerous twitter and facebook profiles, the relationships, the stories, the phone numbers - NONE of it was true.
I felt hurt, violated, confused and utterly distraught, barely able to believe that I - a grown (and like to think) and fairly intelligent woman had been caught up in such a web of horrible lies. Just like the victims on popular MTV show 'Catfish'.
Lucy begged me not to ruin her life by telling her family or going to the police. I did speak to the police who told me that because I was never threatened, no crime had been committed. To this day I wonder if I have a responsibility to tell her family so she can get help. Perhaps I will send them this article.
All I know is that Lucy took away something that I prided myself on - a genuine desire to have time for people and help, regardless of who they are. I am now overly cautious and fearful of anyone who approaches me through my job or on social media. I liked the fact that I wasn't a cynical person - but cynical I now am. I got well and truly burnt. I gave 20 months of my life to a girl who was just having me on - and completely reeled me in.
I've now got to a stage where I feel more pity for Lucy than anger. After all, anyone that feels the need to fabricate a deep web of very dark lies to get the attention of a Radio Presenter, must have some very deep issues.
But I want teenagers who find themselves at the end of online pranks/trolling/abuse/bullying to know that it can happen to ANYONE. It's not just a problem confined to the teenage years. Please don't take it personally. Or let it ruin your life. It's the dark side of the internet. Social media has left us wide open to be violated in this way. You do live and learn. I have.
I just hope that long-term, I don't choose to ignore someone who may genuinely need my help.