Lowering the glass shield

(above) Her: Spike Jonze, 2013

rene-magritte-the-lovers-iv-1928

The Lovers (IV): Rene Magritte, 1928

Dating: a term that strikes dread in the heart of any millennial.

Although we live in a time when we are more connected than ever, it also ironically often leaves us disconnected and alone, watching the world pass us by behind our glass screens.

Walk on any college campus, and you’ll see thousands of youth walking in herds, eyes glued to their phones: sunglasses on, headphones in. Everyone lives in their own world and bubble.

While technology has created an age of free information, with that information comes an incalculable price: that our selective exposure can divide us from those in immediate proximity, and connect us to those eons away.

How can you connect with that cute boy in your class, when you can’t tell if he’s a Republican or not? Better yet, why should you when there’s a cute stranger on the internet who mimics your political beliefs but lives in Canada?

Our connection online could be argued as more authentic. Online dating apps, e-mail, social media, video chatting, text messages, phone calls, have all adapted how we meet and interact with others, dare I say, even how we fall in love.

But what do I know about being in love? I only know of an intense emotion that might have been close to it, that only existed here: in the digital world. But it was fraught with tension… distance… Expectations versus reality.  Feeling like you know someone very well, when truthfully you have no idea what their day to day is like.

And although the internet can be a beautiful, wonderful place where humans can find connection and community, and even someone new to love, your love cannot live here forever.

The first boy I felt this way for would tell me in text messages for months that he loved me and I was beautiful. The first time we met in person, he brought his girlfriend to my school play and made out with her when the scenes changed.

The second, told me he was infatuated with me and wanted to see me when he came home, in a cyclical text message exchange that amounted to nothing but empty words for 4 years.

Recently, I felt a connection with a man online similar to the ones above.

We talked about shared interests, what we wanted to do with our lives, our imaginings of the future and who we were, all in a matter of hours over text message. We sent each other selfies and photos over snapchat, mirroring images of ourselves to foster a sense of connection.

I was afraid that my fantasies of him would get away from the reality we could share, so I wanted to meet as soon as possible. I wanted to change the cycle I knew I fell into.

But when the day and time came, I was terrified. As I slowly showered, and applied my makeup, I could see a thousand different scenarios playing out in my head. One where I found him repulsive. One where we had sex. One where we couldn’t speak. Every scenario I saw in a film strip above his head; a kaleidoscope of all the different realities we could become. It was simultaneously beautiful and terrifying.

How could I pick one? What if I was wrong?

And in that moment, I realized why the two before had seemed so appealing. During my parent’s divorce, dating was impossible; so my romantic relationships mostly consisted of fantasies in my head. At the time it was the only option that was safe, and comforting; but it colored my idea of love and connection in the present.

And it wasn’t real. Sure, it was real in a hyperreality sense, in that presented with so many simulations of what was once an authentic sentiment, one is bound to resonate with us.

But these boys I had known did not love me. They did not even know me. They only saw a mirror image, a digitized representation of a person. They were fantasy relationships, between two personas that existed in the digital world.

And living in that world was depriving me of the opportunity for genuine human connection. Being present with another person. Being present with myself, who I was, and what I really wanted.

That was not how I needed to live my life anymore. I no longer need to escape into a fantasy because I have no control over my reality. I could create what I wanted in front of me.

And at a certain point, you’ve just got to stop living in the realm of possibility, and pick a narrative.

So, we met. Although it was a nice evening, upon meeting him I saw a mirror of myself and was taken aback. We were ultimately too similar for romantic chemistry to develop, so I let him know. He said he’d want more if we were friends, and that it was nice to meet me. And that was it. So it goes. My fantasies of him were gone.

Yes, intimacy is hard. And it’s even harder to connect with people when we all go through life, digital shields up. But what we have to keep striving for is the people who are willing to put down their phones, and meet us face to face. So we can read them as they are, and not as they seem to be. Engage in honesty, presence, and reciprocation: the foundations of intimacy.

And you should only give your heart to those willing to show up.


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Girl Before A Mirror

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Girl Before A mirror: Pablo Picasso, 1903


I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.

Whatever you see I swallow immediately just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.

I am not cruel, only truthful– the eye of a little god, four-cornered.

Most of the time I meditate on the opposite wall.

It is pink, with speckles. I have looked at it so long.

I think it is a part of my heart. But it flickers.

Faces and darkness separate us over and over…

Mirror: Sylvia Plath, 1963


What do you see when you look into a mirror?

Do you see yourself for what you are? Do you see your best? Do you see your worst? Or do you see something in between?

In 2016 I had written about my sexual assault for the first time in a column: an event that had left me unable to face myself in the mirror. Incapable of recognizing who I’d become.

Once I was able to find a narrative and come to terms with what happened, I was able to face myself and found myself able to write again. Write in journals, write stories, like I hadn’t since I was 14. I wrote obsessively, pouring myself out onto page after page.

With this change I knew I wanted to see someone else in the mirror. I began 2017 determined to become this version of myself: a girl with short hair, an honest mouth, and a passion for creating.

And just like that 7 inches of my hair were gone; one of my most prized possessions reduced to a relic of my past.

For a time, it worked; I liked the person I saw in the mirror. Her make-up was fierce, her hair was distinct, and she wore what she wanted, without fear of judgement.

But it was not so easy to be different, when inside I could still see a heartbroken girl, wasting away with long, straggly hair and bruises inside and out. A girl that wouldn’t disappear, even with wine lipstick and slick cat eyes, violet hair and empowering Beyoncé tees.

She was afraid of everything. That nothing I ever did would be good enough. That even if I poured everything I was into my work, I would still not be successful. That I needed a relationship with a muse, in order to tell any story at all. That my beauty and presence as a woman was more valuable than my artistic abilities. That change meant the rug being swept out from under her the second she got comfortable.

I had to face that sad, sweet girl and tell her that the things she was afraid of were lies.

What mattered was if I kept working at what I loved I could take criticism as areas to improve upon, and failure as an opportunity to grow. What mattered was if I did the things I loved because I loved them, my improvement could act as a reward. What mattered was that I learned to write for myself, and not for anyone else. What mattered was my soul and heart; not my outward appearance. What mattered was that change often times showed progress.

There were many a night I saw her again, tears streaming down my cheeks. And as my past self took over with worry, fear, and self-loathingI had to hear her, and work to calm her storm.

Because of her, there were two other stories I was drawn to obsessively; one about my parent’s divorce and it’s subsequent fallout, and one about a boy who I thought I was meant to be with someday.

I tried to write them both into some kind of coherent narrative. Some kind of story that I could draw a moral from, something that would make sense in my head; but all I could see was an angry series of scribbles that hurt to work with. These two stories kept mingling, inseparably intertwining, until I realized that they were one and the same. And that my fixation was a symptom of my trauma.

No matter who I saw in the mirror, it did nothing to show what was going on inside of me. My current self and my past self battled it out in a war of self-loathing that left me unable to face myself yet again. I gained weight, I spent days in bed, I self-medicated, I did anything I could to deal with what I’d been avoiding and keep going.

Before my parents divorce, I journaled often; writing and drawing in books upon books to keep track of my days, my thoughts, my feelings. All that was lost in my parents divorce; and with it, my sense of self.

I couldn’t remember a time before that day, 8 years ago; when I came home, one stormy Halloween afternoon, and my world fell apart. An event that made everything before pale in comparison, reduced to abstract films and photo galleries I feel no connection to; and that has coloured my world ever since.

I’ve been obsessively writing about it for the past year and a half, searching for some meaning to the pain my young heart and mind had undergone, because I had been unable to before. Searching for a way to comfort the sobbing child I still felt in my chest.

I had ran away from her for so long that I pretended she did not exist. I had worked hard to keep going, running with the clock I heard ticking in my mind, because I was afraid that if I stopped for a moment and looked at myself in the mirror and saw who I really was, I would not be able to continue. That I would fall apart and fail.

But we can only run from our past for so long until it catches up with us. And I have cuts on my heart that I’ve been picking at for years.

I no longer wish to look at my scabbed, beating heart with disdain. I no longer wish to conflate true love and happiness with the fantasies I escape to in my head. I no longer want to feel self-loathing when I see my body, tiger stripes down my skin.I no longer want to run as fast as I can, to keep going and be successful while ignoring what I feel.

The end of 2017 brought me face to face with everything I’d been running from. All the pain and misery I’d shoved down to be busy and successful hit me in the face, and I was forced to look at who I’d become. I’d stopped taking care of my mental, physical, and emotional health to be successful in school and work, and it had taken its toil.

My family called me a chameleon; something that transformed to suit the environment it was in. I was accused of having no sense of grounding or self, and changing constantly. I didn’t know how to explain that I’d felt that way for years, and I was just now trying to find that self.

And the self I found in the mirror was heartbroken, and there was not enough makeup, jewelry, or clothes to hide it anymore.

The swirling black hole I felt in my chest could no longer be ignored. My disassociation could not be shrugged off any longer.

So, on the first day of class, I went somewhere I hadn’t been in a long time. I sat down with someone I didn’t know, and told her this.

That my name was JoAnna Brooker. And since I was 14 years old, the very bedrock of who I was was shaken by the chaotic divorce of my parents.

That I was in and out of therapy in middle and high school, because when my therapists started to tell me that I shouldn’t live with my mother because she was emotionally abusive I stopped going. That I had lived with depression, anxiety, and self-harm, and had attempted suicide when I was 17. That I had been coping with self-medication and romantic entanglements, often times both, which came to a head with the sexual assault that constituted my ‘first time’ when I was a sophomore in college.

And that I was tired of running from myself.

She said that individual counseling would be the best thing for me. I started 2 weeks ago. And it’s something I’m not doing for anyone but myself.

In 2018, I want to become another version of myself; one that has made peace with her past, that has embraced the heartbroken girl she sees inside, and lets her know that she is loved and she is enough.

I want to be present in this world, healthy, and trust that everything is precisely where it needs to be at this moment.

I want to incorporate all the versions of myself into one, to make peace with the multitudes within me, until they are a symphony.

I want to see someone in the mirror who may make mistakes sometimes, and fail; but is worthy of love all the same, in every version of herself, simply by being.

This is where I’m meeting myself. It’s nice to meet you, too.