Updated: Jun 24
| This is the 512th story of Our Life Logs |
“I love you,” he says as I look into the honey pots he calls eyes. I can’t control the smile stretching across my face; for the first time in my life, I’m genuinely in love with someone. In this moment, I find myself looking back on a road that almost broke me and amazed that I’m still standing. Not only standing but thriving. Let me tell you how.
My name is Olivia Renecke, although Renecke is an adoptive last name. You see, my mother had been married and divorced before she met my father. When my parents had me in 1984, my father didn’t want anything to do with me and quickly abandoned us. So, we kept my mother’s previously married name. Knowing that my father wanted nothing to do with me hurt deep in my heart. But this would only be the first of many rejections in my life.
Not long after me, my mother had my little brother, and she tried her hardest to provide for us on her meager income. We lived in West Johannesburg, South Africa, but it took years before we had a place to call home. We jumped from one extended family’s house to another at a drop of a hat. I learned to never get attached to anything, because as soon as I would, we’d move again. In time, I stopped unpacking my suitcase.
We finally settled into our own government-owned flat when I was nine. My 19-year-old half-brother, my mother’s son from her first marriage, joined us in the new place. He said he wanted to develop a better relationship with my mother. She agreed to let him stay as long as he kept an eye on my little brother and me while she went to work.
At first, my half-brother seemed okay. He was nice and liked to joke around. But after a few weeks, the jokes got weird, and the looks lingered too long. He started taking baths with me and wanting to play games I didn’t like. These “games” ultimately led to five years of sexual and physical abuse. Sometimes the game would be just to use me as a punching bag. These kinds of beatings instilled a fear in me not to tell anyone. I was terrified what he would do if I snitched.
To make matters worse, he would trick me into believing that things hadn’t happened. He would tell me my bruises were from falling or bullies at school. A child’s memory can be malleable, and he made me say things until I believed them.
The years of abuse passed in a blur. I don’t remember every single day, but I remember the many devastating moments. I remember the day we came home from school to him shouting inside the apartment as he was losing a video game, and the wild look in his eye when he realized we were home. I tried to slip into my room as quickly as I could, but he stormed in after me, his fists connecting with almost every part of my body. After a few minutes I crumbled to the floor, struggling to breathe. I’d never experienced pain like that. I remember being unable to cry because I’d felt so broken. He left the room and I thought this was it for the day, but he returned to molest me the rest of the afternoon.
That particular day stands out not only because it was by far the worst, but because it was the exact day I deemed myself worthless.
The abuse lasted until just after my 13th birthday, but by then I was severely traumatized. I thought I must have deserved what had happened to me. I was so emotionally broken that I struggled to make friends and connect with my peers. My shyness made me a target, and I began getting bullied for my lanky appearance. I would also get teased for wearing a boy’s uniform—they didn’t know how badly I wanted to hide my body because I was ashamed. Sometimes teasing turned to physical attacks, but I never stood up for myself. I just took it. I would hide in the bathroom during breaks and try my best to get through the day so I could be away from everyone and everything. It got so bad that I considered killing myself more times than I’d like to admit.
As I got older, I managed to put the abuse out of my mind, but the feelings lingered. They remained an inhibitor in my life. I couldn’t really date because any physical contact felt disgusting to me. I would push the person away until they finally left. That, or I would go for emotionally unavailable men who treated me badly. I thought I deserved it, and I found myself angry all the time. I was a short fuse and would go off on my mother for the smallest of things.
The horrible memories of the abuse came flooding back one day when I was 21. My half-brother still lived with us. One afternoon while I was in the kitchen doing dishes, he walked up and touched me inappropriately. It was like a switch had been flipped and all the terrifying thoughts I tried to repress surged. I angrily pushed him away.
He laughed and said, “Don’t act like it’s a problem now.”
A mixture of shock and anger took over me. I knew then that if I continued to keep my mouth shut, the abuse would never stop. Now older and braver, I finally told my mother the big secret that had been weighing on me for over 10 years. The next thing I knew, my half-brother was kicked out and told if he ever came near us again, we would press charges.
Although the monster was gone, the hurt stayed and left a deep scar that didn’t want to heal. Despite this, I did my best to try and move on. I wanted to have a normal life. I started working in a call center to help provide for my family.
I tried not to think of the past. But there were always triggers, some bigger than others. I was working the night shift one day when a colleague came up behind me and stuck his hand down my pants. I was completely caught off guard and mortified. The assault brought me right back to the helpless feelings I had growing up, and I began to cry. The colleague tried to pass it off like it wasn’t a big deal. But I’d learned from the past that I needed to report these acts of aggression immediately.
Unfortunately, the company did not take the matter further than asking the man to apologize. An empty apology over something I knew in my heart he would try again, if not on me, on someone else. I was disgusted, even more so when women in the office began to turn on me for causing “trouble.” I was tired of being the victim, the girl who let people walk all over her. So, I went to the police, pressed charges, and handed in my resignation letter.
Two weeks later, I found another job at a bank. This new role felt more like home, and I met wonderful people, including Mechel Nesser who, after learning my background, made it her mission to get me to value myself. She was one of the many strong women at our bank who challenged me to stop being a wall flower.
For the next five years, I tried my very best to fight the demons of my past. I worked hard and managed to go up in my career. But I still wasn’t connecting well with people. I still found myself having dark thoughts and falling into old habits. I still carried a lot of anger and shied away from men—if I’m being honest, I shied away from healthy relationships in general.
At one point, I was chasing a dead-end relationship with a married man. It was like I was sabotaging myself. My mother didn’t approve my choice, but my rage with criticism led to a lot of fights. I was taking all my pain and frustration out on my poor mother. She didn’t deserve it, but I didn’t know how to properly cope. I would go into this reclusive bubble where all I wanted to do was be alone.
One day in 2013, I came home in this state, and my mother asked, “What’s wrong?” I refused to answer, not knowing what to say. She kept asking, trying to get me to talk. That struck a fuse, and I just exploded with rage. After that moment, my mother was fed up. She gave me an ultimatum: get help or move out.
I didn’t want to move out, so I went to see a therapist who put me on anti-depressants. But the pills weren’t very helpful as I wasn’t really addressing the root of my pain. After the horrible withdrawals (that literally had me shaking on the bathroom floor) were over, my mother suggested I see a counselor in July 2014. I wouldn’t say the sessions helped because it felt like I was being forced to talk about the trauma. They weren’t helping me deal with it and move on; they just had me dredge it all back up.
By December 2014, the pain of my past left me suicidal again. It seemed my suffering was never going to end. When my mom asked what was wrong on New Year’s Eve, I was candid this time, “I don’t think I’m going to make it to 2015.”
We were never a religious family. I had always rejected the idea of God and church. I felt that if there was a God, he had turned his back on me many years ago and he was no savior of mine. Yet at my words, my mom said, “Come on, we’re going to church.” It felt like I had nowhere else to turn, so I decided to trust my mother. I simply nodded and got ready. We went to the New Year’s Eve mass at Rhema Church.
As we entered the church, I could feel a calming energy emerging all around me. It made me feel safe, a feeling I’d almost forgotten. I can’t explain it, but in those holy walls, all my internal walls started to break down. The sun came into my darkness. As the mass went on and I knelt to pray, tears began streaking my cheeks. Finally, I didn’t have to hide my pain anymore.
The priest approached me after the service with a kind smile. At his words, I broke into tears again, spilling out all that I had been battling with. When I was finished, he gave me another kind smile and encouraged me to attend counseling through the church with my mother. In that moment, something shifted. Instead of going to counseling because I was told to, I actually wanted to. I wanted to change, open up, and try.
Counseling through the church opened me up enough so I could start to heal. All my life, I had kept myself closed, not wanting to get past the surface of my abuse. Through their kind encouragement, I learned to forgive and heal. Through God, I found hope and purpose again.
The peace I found changed my life. I stopped seeing men who mistreated me. I started focusing on my career in full force and got a promotion. In time, I even found my soulmate in 2018. I had finally overcome the trauma that had held me back for so many years. When the pain of my past stopped weighing me down, I felt so much lighter. I felt like I could finally begin my life anew.
Talking about abuse is never easy, but if I had just told one person sooner, my life could have been different. I want other little girls to know that the clichéd “it’s not your fault” is actually true. Look past the current darkness, and I promise it gets better. You need to hold onto faith and fight. We all have the power. You just have to tap in and find it. It took me 34 years and what feels like a century of heartbreak, but I’m healed, happy, and thriving.
This is the story of Olivia Renecke
Olivia currently resides in South Africa where she is trying to get through the country’s lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For five years of her adolescence, Olivia was molested and abused by her half-brother, which broke her mentally as she grew up. This led to a lot of self-hate, rage, and depression. It wasn’t until she was on the brink of suicide and her mother chose to bring her to church that she found the light to completely open up about her trauma. She has learned to forgive and move forward. Olivia works at a bank in South Africa and plans to embark on a new journey in digital marketing and media in the future. Her mother unfortunately died in 2017, but Olivia has found comfort through faith to get through the grief. She has happily been with her boyfriend since July 2018 and enjoys relaxing at home in her free time.
This story first touched our hearts on March 30, 2020.
| Writer: Olivia Renecke | Editor: Kristen Petronio |