Penguins are not good role models

Luis Alejandro Bernal Romero/Creative Commons

I’m hyperventilating. I can see flashes of white crisp sheets and a folded comforter laid around him as he smiles, with his white teeth baring and his arms, inviting me to enter that life — that embrace. Instead I see my knees on the cold, white, tile floor; scrubbing harder and harder. The white hot bleach is attempting to sear through years of dirt and damage. I see his emptiness — no, I don’t quite see it, but I feel it. I feel his dead weight. I feel my muscles pull on the sinew and tissue in my arm as I try to erase years of damage. I wonder if I can erase the years of damage on my face, on his heart. I can’t breathe. He’s sitting in that bed somewhere, our bed, the one we were, are, will, can, share but I’m here, on this cold bathroom floor scrubbing. Erasing. Hyperventilating.


It takes a second for me to realize where I am. I’ve been scrubbing the tile floor so hard that my knuckles have turned white. Why am I here? Where am I? Where have I been?

Those are the questions I asked myself. It’s been more than a year and I still look back on those memories and shudder. My relationship wasn’t one that was mutually beneficial. It forced me unto bended knee and left me crying in residence hall showers, hiding from my friends and roommates.

Everyone has their problems. Everyone has their bad days, but when days turn into years, you realize something has gone wrong.

I wonder where we went wrong.

Maybe it was with the penguins. Did you know that penguins mate for life? Over 8,000 miles away, at the edge of the world, you will find in a most unforgiving landscape the most formidable of bonds.

As silly as it sounds, I used to look to them as foundations for my belief in the idea of true love.

Their perseverance and optimism in the face of a cold, stark future is fueled by their love for another of their kind. They endure weeks apart, traveling hundreds of kilometers, through harsh blizzards and barren landscapes to find enough sustenance to support their small family. At the end of these perilous journeys they return home and search tirelessly for their partner, only to spend a short period of time together before they do it all over again. As long as they have the other, the strife, the pain, is all worth it.

“Did you know that penguins mate for life?”

I used to think my relationship was like the one the penguins had — an instant connection leading to a lifetime of love. The hardships, sacrifices and time spent apart meant nothing in comparison to our love story.

People tell you long-distance relationships are set to fail, but I knew that couldn’t be true. We were penguins after all, we’d fight for this love – and we did.

I fought with everything I had. I fought against the world, I fought against time, I fought against my friends and I fought against myself.

It turns out I didn’t do enough research.

Did you see that penguin video that went viral recently? It had everything a good drama needs. Blood, passion, a love triangle and a tragic end.

Talk about a cold dose of reality.

Turns out, penguins do mate for life … unless there are issues. My hopeless romanticism created a fantastical notion that animals were actually attached to ideas of loyalty.

Loyalty, such a compromising trait to have. I was always loyal in the end, to a fault. Too in love and too loyal to notice that my relationship was tearing down my self-esteem, changing my moods and behavior, turning me into a machine whose primary goal was to keep our partnership functioning because in my mind, I was that penguin, fighting to stay alive in the cruel Antarctic.

No one tells you that emotional abuse sometimes doesn’t feel like abuse at all. Manipulation manifests itself most strongly hidden among words of love.

“Turns out, penguins do mate for life … unless there are issues.”

Writing this, I feel like a broken record, reciting the patterns we’ve all heard before.

In the beginning, it was nothing but joy. Even when there were arguments, I never second-guessed this selfless, giving love. It was the love that inspires you to create, to write, to paint, to find the tallest building and shout out to the world your happiness. I was convinced there would never be a love like ours. It was a dream come true, until it wasn’t.

I was his everything, and he raised me on a pedestal that was too high for air. I choked on the love that he suffocated me with, his insecurities manifested themselves onto me as candy-covered chains: too sweet to break.

There’s a misconception that when you’re in this situation, you’re weak. People think that in toxic relationships you’ve fallen ill to the trappings of abuse; you must have other issues, right? Something deep inside you would have to be broken in order to bend at the whim of another.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

When you passionately love something, you will passionately hate to protect it.

In the trappings of my young mind, I see the flashes of torment and darkness that surrounded my relationship, but I also see its light, feel its warmth.

Imagine sitting in a dark room made of slatted-wooden planks. The sunlight from the outside manages to peek through in between the planks, showering the room in golden streaks. You’re so focused on these sun beams that you notice the tiny dust motes, caught up in a beautiful disarray. You notice the way they catch the edge of the air, jumping, twisting, spiraling in a chaotic grace that is completely entrancing.

In your distraction, you’ve forgotten about the darkness. You’re so enraptured by the warmth and the light that the small room affords you don’t notice that there is more outside of your walls, until one day the wood starts to rot.

For years, I made excuses. I made excuses for the constant mood swings. I gave explanations for his insecurities. I defended the outbursts. After all, no one else could understand — he just cared too much.

“Relationships are about sacrifices.” That mantra repeated itself over and over in my mind. I ignored my friends, stopped going out, did my best to do as he wished because I was convinced that any love worth fighting for wouldn’t be easy.

Where was that sunshine, that light that I cultivated? When it was gone, I was desperate to find it again. When it reappeared, I was in awe of its glow.

I fell in love at 17. I grew up attaching myself to ideas about love that were far too immense and tragic for my small heart to endure.

I watched as the person I fell in love with fell time and time again into a dark hole of depression and anxiety. I dug down into this well of darkness, sacrificing my body as a ladder, clinging to shreds of someone I loved.

I canceled on my friends to see that smile again. Wore the right clothes to feel that warmth. Changed my behavior so that the contorted face of the person I love turned itself into a smile. Every move, every word, was a tip toe in one direction, hoping it was the right one.

Sometimes my decisions weren’t my own. I silently and willingly followed a path that had been carved out, and I completed actions in repetition without thought. This is what most would characterize as “emotional abuse.” At times, I received outright degradations and commands. At other times, I made my own decisions, compelled to make this relationship work.

I was loyal to a love I never wanted to lose, but lost myself in the end. I ignored the constant advice from my friends to leave. How do you give up a rainbow, after enduring the thunderstorm? When you’ve worked so hard to build someone up only to watch them tear themselves down, can you give up so easily?

No one ever told me that sometimes it’s safer to be selfish. That I wouldn’t have to feel the pain of his jealousy, burning his brand, searing my cheek like I was cattle.

No one ever told me that emotional abuse is sometimes a secret, kept closely by your best friend.

Each of his words marked me, changed me, erased me, scarred me, until the parts of me that were always my own became his. No one could tell that the person I truly was was shrinking because I only shared those deepest parts of myself with him; believing I could trust the cracks and crevices of my conscience in a broken safe.

Emotional abuse isn’t always so obvious. In the manipulation and the cries for help, he planted weeds that broke down the garden we had built. He wanted me to stay stagnant, to stay his, unchanged forever.

To this day, I am asked why I stayed for so long. To this day, I still don’t have an answer. It’s impossible to articulate the mental circles I ran, and at the end of the day as I lay breathless trying to figure out why I expended so much energy for the same result, the answer was always the same — for love, for comfort, for happiness, for stability.

“No one ever told me that emotional abuse is sometimes a secret, kept closely by your best friend.”

No relationship is perfect, and I still hold onto those precious memories spent in the sunlight. The bad times don’t invalidate the good ones, and vice versa.

It wasn’t until I looked in the mirror and saw a stranger that I realized we were toxic. I was attracted to the intensity of both his darkness and his light, so much so that I was blinded in the process.

There is no excuse for disrespect. No excuse for hours spent arguing over which pair of pants to wear to dinner. No excuse for 18 texts in 18 minutes asking you to leave a party and go home. No excuse for the constant attack on your friends.

I wanted to be loyal like penguins and fight for us. In the animal kingdom, loyalty is based on survival; the idea that two is stronger than one. When two is no longer stronger than the one, animals will abandon the other in order to survive on their own.
I needed to survive, now I will thrive.

Contact Elaina Provencio at [email protected].

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