Well…me. Sort of. I have direct experience of it.
I’ve always said I’d write about Hideous Ex, but lo and behold – 18 months after commencing my writing here – I never have. Well, here you have it. Münchausen by Internet. That was him.
People who have forms of fictitious disorders (the present name for that which was previously more commonly known as Münchausen) generally crave attention and, at times elaborately, fake illnesses in order to get it. In proxy cases, the individual in question fakes or induces illness in someone else (and is therefore justly regarded as an abuser in light of same). On the internet, obviously, lies about having an illness using chat, social media, or whatever. Whether or not fictitious disorders are even real ‘illnesses’ is kind of unimportant (as it happens, I think they can be – but just because they can be doesn’t mean that they always are). What is important is that anyone who is woven into a Münchausen-based ‘lie’ is an innocent in the whole matter, regardless of whether the disordered person can control his/her behaviour or not.
I was 14 when I met him online. What shall we call him? Something shit, something very shit, methinks. His actual name was quite shit anyway (he was gratifyingly ashamed of it), so it’s not just about my internal bitterness. OK, lets go with Mike Hunt. He shall henchforth be known as Mike Hunt. If that seems rather innocuous to you, try saying it out loud.
I met Hunt via AOL messenger; after all, it was almost compulsory back in 1998 that your inevitably primitive access to the internet was facilitated by this then-monopolous service. I was 14; he was 20. Before you start thinking it, no – this was never a sexual relationship. It was romantic, yes, but never sexual.
A message from him popped up one day when I was pissing about on the AOL service, at the time finding it wondrous and new. It’s funny how much so many of us take the internet for granted these days. My 14.4K modem, which didn’t even perform at that speed, would be reviled and scorned by me and just about everyone else now. I worshipped it then.
As I recall it, Mike Hunt got in touch because I was fairly local to him. Through the course of several conversations online, we grew to learn of common interests too, and so it predictably progressed. We chatted on the phone, and before I knew what had hit me, he had suggested meeting. I agreed in principle, but for whatever reasons we ended up not getting around to making the arrangements at that particular juncture, so this odd friendship continued to develop in what seemed to me to be a different plane of reality. Again, this is normal to me now; I form friendships online, and don’t think anything of it (other than to be grateful for it). But it really wasn’t as standard then; it’s funny how much things can change in a decade.
I was sitting minding my own business one afternoon when the phone rang. It was my old childhood friend, Louise (about whom I wrote here), who had been off school that day. She was phoning to explain why; she was frequently ill, and in routine searches for a diagnosis, she had been subject to many tests. One to do with her white blood cells had come back as abnormal, leading to extensive fears that this meant that she had leukaemia. I remember that she cried down the phone to me, something she had never done before. I sympathised with her as much as I could, but then this is one of the reasons I so hate the phone. It is such an inherently false construct; if I had been with her I could have hugged her or something, but as it was all I could do was offer my support verbally, meaning that it sounded like little more than platitudinous space-filling.
Mercifully, though, a few days during which we kept in contact passed, and she finally phoned me to tell me that the cancer scare had been merely that – a scare. As one might imagine, relief flooded all concerned.
At the time, as the internet was billed on an extortionate pay-as-you-go tariff, I would only go online three or four times a week (!!!). That particular week, when I ran into Hunt on the AOL messenger thing, I told him of Louise’s cancer scare, and of how grateful I was that she didn’t have that most feared of illnesses.
After voicing his own gladness that she wasn’t suffering from the big C, Hunt wrote, matter-of-factly, “did I ever tell you that I have bone cancer in my right foot?”
He hadn’t, so cue horror. OK, so I hadn’t met him, but aside from the fact I would not wish cancer on anyone, I had developed a relationship with this man, and I cared about him. It was a nasty, sobering, heart-breaking moment. I feel disgusted by this admission now, but just as it had with Louise, the revelation made me cry. Why did such awful things have to happen to good people?
I don’t see much point in describing the finer points of the relationship. We met. We got on extremely well, we were attracted to each other, it became a romance. I foolishly believed myself to be in love with him. For his part, he also charmed my mother and grandfather. We did normal things – went for drives (in his car), watched telly on the sofa (in his student house), went for pizza. It was satisfying, but delightfully ordinary.
The only problem was that, since I had met him, he’d moved from his local-ish-to-my-house abode back to his family one which was a lot further away. He had the student house which was fairly close to me, but it was by this time the summer, so he was living at home, unable to afford the student-house’s rent without his two house-sharing mates who had gone God knows where over the summer. This had the effect that if he was coming to see me, he had to drive a considerable distance, which aggravated the pain the cancer caused in his foot. I felt dreadful that I was responsible for exacerbating his pain, and said so many times – but he insisted that it was more important to see me than to worry about “a little bit of pain.”
One afternoon in early August he phoned me and, salutations completed, asked if I was sitting down. I hadn’t been, but did so upon his utterance of the question – no one asks that if there isn’t something bad on the way. Hunt explained that he’d been to see his consultant that morning, only to learn that his cancer had “gotten considerably worse.”
“What does that mean?” I asked him, a feeling of physical dread developing in my stomach.
He sighed deeply, and appeared to be composing himself. Eventually he replied, “it means intense chemotherapy – or, quite possibly, amputation.” He sounded simultaneously terrified and defeated.
How is one meant to respond to that? For a few seconds, I simply didn’t. I sat there in a state of mute, all-consuming horror, wishing I was with him in the same way I had wished I was with Louise when she had feared she had leukaemia. I think eventually I must have said that I didn’t know what to say, other than that I was so, so sorry.
He rang off briefly, as someone was at the door. He called back 10 minutes later and asked if I was OK. Of course I wasn’t OK; I had just spent the past 10 minutes bawling my eyes out like a fucking baby, wondering how I would be strong enough to support him. But survival mode kicked in, as it always does in times of (other people’s) crises. I made myself into a talking cliche, and said, “we’ll get through it.”
It was the August of the Omagh bombing. Hunt and I watched the coverage together, united in our complete disgust and despairing sadness. His compassion for those affected by the bomb despite his own considerable adversities impressed me – well, of course one doesn’t need to have a perfect life to appreciate the suffering of others, but I suppose he seemed selfless in general. He dealt with his illness quietly, though he limped a lot. My mother once had a go at me for allowing him to drive so far to see me when I knew he was in so much pain, but as I’ve said, he claimed to feel that it was more important to see me than to avoid that discomfort. a How charming the sentiment seemed.
Things began to change in late September. He became distant, withdrawn, lacking in interest. He was back at university by that time, and initially I thought the combination of being ill and trying to study full-time was just getting on top of him – but as time went on, it became more and more apparent than he genuinely had lost interest in our relationship. It was, in de facto terms, over. I hid it well, I think, but I was devastated – particularly because he was cowardly enough not to contact me at all, leaving me to finally end things ‘officially’.
In response to my letter ending ‘it’, he wrote back thanking me for the good times etc etc, and stating that he was going into hospital in October, and that he had “never been so scared in all [his] life.” I didn’t want to intrude upon his privacy when he had clearly didn’t want to have a relationship with me anymore, but nevertheless, I did want him to know that I would ‘be there’ for him, if he wanted, though this most trying of times. I wrote back to this effect. I received no response.
The date of his admission arrived, with both my mother and me chomping at the bit with worry and fear. He may no longer have been my boyfriend / her not-quite-son-in-law, but you don’t just turn off caring about and being concerned for someone. The day after his admission, she all but begged me to phone his parents.
I’d never met any of Hunt’s family; indeed, I was pretty certain that they didn’t even know of my existence. As I understood it, they would have been disgusted by the age difference, and thus I could understand his reluctance to introduce me to them. To that end, I was deeply, deeply reluctant to phone them. I even said to my mother, as it turns out prophetically, “but what if it’s not true? What if he’s not even in hospital?!”
She was enraged by my comment and gave me a right bollocking. Eventually, I relented through a combination pressure from her and my own concern, and dialled the number. Hunt’s brother answered.
“Hi there, this is Pandora, I’m a friend of Mike’s,” I said, uncertainly. ”I’m sorry to bother you, but I just wanted to see how he’s getting on in hospital.”
You can guess how this went, I’m sure. The brother said, utterly perplexed, “sorry?”
I repeated my inquiry.
“Um…Mike’s not in hospital,” he replied, clearly still confused. ”Where did you hear that?”
I knew. I just knew. I could feel my reaction to that knowing begin to build somewhere in the pit of my stomach, but still I played the game: “maybe I got my dates confused. I thought it was yesterday he was being admitted, but maybe I was wrong, sorry.”
“Admitted for what?” the brother asked.
“Chemotherapy. For the cancer in his foot.”
To say that Hunt’s brother was genuinely stunned by this statement would be a gross understatement. He had absolutely no idea what I was talking about, and I think his first reaction was that I was completely and utterly off my rocker. Eventually he said, “look, I need to discuss this with my parents. Can I ring you back?”
I cannot describe the type of feeling that goes with uncovering this type of lie. Think of your worst anxiety attack, your angriest self ever, the worst instance of shock you can imagine (the sudden death of a loved one possibly excepted). Think of it all welling up inside of you into one unquantifiable morass of complete horror and infuriated disbelief. Then multiply it by about 500. Perhaps then you have a tiny modicum of understanding as to what it was like. I have never experienced a sensation like it, either before or since.
As per his word, Hunt’s brother rang back – between the two phone calls, though, the father had called Hunt himself to ask him what the fuck was going on. Apparently Hunt broke down and admitted his elaborate lies to his astonished parent. The brother said that they were all outraged and could only offer their sincere apologies to me. I remember telling him that I knew it wasn’t anyone’s fault other than Mike Hunt’s himself, but beyond that, I have no recollection of how the conversation ended.
My first reaction was to call a friend who had also sort of known Hunt online, though had never met him. I told her what had happened, and she initially thought I was taking the piss – this. could. not. be. true. (Do you see a pattern here, readers? That I’m always seen to be the bullshitter?!). But I went through it with her point by point, instilling in her a similar though clearly less severe revulsion to the man and what he had done.
At some point – whether it was the next day or that evening I’m not sure – I checked my email to find a message from Hunt. He was begging for my forgiveness and said that he sat in horror at what he had done and who he had become. He wanked on pointlessly about how God would judge him at the gates of Heaven or some such religious drivel. Curiously, he’d never manifested particular interest in Christianity prior to that. A fine example of using the concept of God to assuage your own sense of guilt and self-disgust, I should imagine.
I don’t recall my exact response, but I do remember that it was laden with disappointment and disgusted pity, rather than out-and-out fury. That wasn’t necessarily an accurate representation of how I felt, but I figured it was the most appropriate reply; anger could, perversely I suppose, have made him feel slightly vindicated. I didn’t want that.
I do remember signing off by saying, “I thought I had mental health problems, but my need for professional help pales into insignificance beside yours.” It might well have been true at the time – but being put through the experience he put me through really, really fucked with my head and although as far as causation goes he’s only partly to blame for my mentalness, he was probably a strong catalyst for its somewhat dramatic development at the time.
The next day in school I was still shaking. Those of you that have read my accounts of therapy with C may remember references to my holding my hand out in front of me to see how shaky, and therefore mental, I was. This dates to that day, that horrible day after I found out what Hunt had done. I was sitting in English thinking about what had happened, when a girl with whom I didn’t even get on well asked if I was alright. I lied and said that I was – why was she asking?
“I’ve never seen anyone shake like that,” she said, nodding towards my hand.
I followed her gaze. It was really bad; it looked like I was insanely waving at something, except that the movements were vertical, not horizontal. I had clearly unsettled my schoolmate with this, and frankly I was kind of disturbed myself.
It was a difficult rest-of-year. Other revelations about Mike Hunt emerged (as if the cancer one hadn’t been enough), our dog had to be returned to the animal sanctuary, Grandpa was ailing notably (he died the following February), and I was beginning to realise that what happened with Paedo was actually sexual abuse, rather than some sort of everyday event that is a norm between uncles and nieces. I was in despair at school too, but that’s still not a topic I’m willing to think about too much, because it was so empty and lonely, despite the existence of several friends. I can’t bear the memories of it. Just…it was a pretty dreadful few months.
The wonders of magazines, TV, DI Google and the advent of so-called Web 2.0 have enabled me to find out a few things about Mike Hunt since my last contact with him. To my considerable regret, he won some prestigious award (along with a group of classmates) at university. They invented some clever medical device, apparently, which I found vaguely ironically amusing. If his lies tempted fate, at least he can maybe try to save his own life. Also, he and his Dad were on some local bullshit do-something-daft-and-win-something show, wherein they were successful in their bid to win a holiday to New York. This grated on me considerably, both because of the undeserved holiday and also because Hunt’s father had not disowned him entirely after his web of callous deceit. I suppose I couldn’t reasonably have expected that, but still. Anyhow, the next thing was that he got married to some innocent looking girl – I wonder did he ‘fess up to her? – but is apparently having an affair now, having been unhappy for some time. Oh, and he’s a fanatical Bible-basher. Riiiiiight.
Oh, and for the record. Although Hunt fits the concept of Münchausen by Internet quite classically, whether he was thus ‘afflicted’ or not is irrelevant. You don’t need to have a ‘disorder’ to do something like this. You just need to be a cunt.