When heartbreak turns into healing. The Real Housewives of Atlanta‘s Shereé Whitfield spoke exclusively with Life & Style, and opened up about the daunting — but ultimately rewarding — task of telling her children about the abuse she endured during her seven-year marriage to their father, Bob Whitfield. Check out our interview with Shereé in the video below!

“It was a weight lifted. I feel like I’ve been harboring this secret for so many years and it was just a dark secret, so to be able to talk to my kids, which of course, was the hardest thing. These are the people who really matter and could have been affected,” the the mom-of-three — who shares son Kairo, 21, and daughter Kaleigh, 18, with Bob, 45, and eldest daughter Tierra, 30, with a previous partner — explained. “That was really hard for me, but it feels good and that was part of my, ‘I can do this. I feel free. I don’t care anymore. I want to be happy.’ I’m not living to make everyone else happy. I feel a new sense of freedom.”

As viewers saw on Season 9 of RHOA, Shereé was shocked when her former spouse, Bob, 45, made an insensitive joke during a group vacation to Hawaii about not choking her hard enough while they were married. The reality starlet — who split from Bob in 2006 amid cheating allegations and a painful custody battle — later elaborated on the abuse during a reunion taping, revealing that she also suffered emotional and verbal abuse from the retired NFL player.

Still, Shereé “didn’t go into too much detail” while discussing the abuse with her kids as not to taint their image of their dad. “When I had a conversation with the kids,” she said, “I didn’t want it to change their opinion of him.”

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While it was difficult for Shereé to share her story with her children, it was even more terrifying to let the world in on her “dark secret.” However, she has found solace in the fact that her honesty has seemed to help so many other women in similar situations.

“When I first talked about it, when I was in the grocery store or the post office — wherever I would go, people would come up to me and they’re like, ‘I just want to hug you. I’m going through the same thing,’ and I’m jus boo-hooing all over the place. I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh!’ It’s very emotional, but it feels good to really have people relate,” she told Life & Style. “And you feel like you’re able to help them with a situation, even just by telling my story. I never thought that would be the case. They’re like, ‘If she can do it and she did it, then I can do it.'”

These days, Shereé is using her platform to advocate for victims of domestic violence as an ambassador for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. According to the Wives, Fiancées, and Side-Chicks of Hotlanta author, she couldn’t be more thrilled to work alongside the organization. “Talk about it and find someone you can talk about it with,” she said of the advice she’d give to those who feel stuck in abusive relationships. “Go to an organization. Get help. Get out. It’s not your fault. Get help, and you deserve better.”

If you or someone you know is suffering from domestic violence, call The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE).

The Real Housewives of Atlanta airs on Bravo Sundays at 8 p.m. EST.