By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published November 13, 2014
ATLANTA—One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer. Even more astounding is that one in four will be affected by domestic violence in her lifetime.
Society talks openly about breast cancer; there are three-day walks to fight it, and many wear pink to raise awareness about the disease. When it comes to domestic violence, society is more silent.
Charmagne Helton, a parishioner at St. Brigid Church, Johns Creek, was once quiet about the issue, too.
Now, Helton speaks more openly to others about violence in the home and is a dedicated supporter of the shelter that served her family 11 years ago.
“It’s all kind of God’s master plan in a way. It’s nice to be on the other side of it,” said Helton.
“I had a horribly abusive marriage,” said Helton. Her husband had grown up in an abusive home, a fact she did not know when they married. “There’s no sign that says, ‘I’m an abuser,’” she said.
Helton was three months pregnant the first time her husband hit her.
“You’re so shocked by it,” she said.
During the violence, she suffered burst eardrums and a broken nose, and ended up in the emergency room.
“The abuse sort of continued from there,” she said.
Helton tries not to emphasize the incidents of violence.
“What I try to focus on is that there is a light at the end of the tunnel,” she said.
According to Helton, there is a misperception about abusers—that they just snapped.
“It’s a learned and calculated behavior,” said Helton.
Even Helton’s family had no idea of the physical abuse.
“I was a good cover-up artist. They knew my behavior was odd,” she said.
Part of the abuse, said Helton, included threats of violence and working to separate her from her family to be more “wholly dependent” upon him.
She decided to leave the marriage in July 2003 when her husband became angry and started choking her. Her daughter and son, now 14 and 12, witnessed the violence.
“My two children were sitting there quietly watching. They weren’t making a sound,” she said.
Helton knew she didn’t want her children to think that violence was acceptable. She went to a neighbor’s home, called police, and they pressed charges against her husband. Law enforcement had visited the home several times prior to that evening.
Helton, who graduated from John Carroll Catholic High School in Birmingham, Alabama, and attended college, said it was a combination of factors that kept her in an abusive relationship. Her husband controlled the finances, and she did not want to be stigmatized as a single, black mother.
“I am college educated. I’ve had a job every day of my life for 18 years,” she said.
Helton also told herself that she could help her husband.
“You can’t take love out of the equation,” she said.
Victims decide to stay for a variety of reasons.
“I think religion plays a huge role in people’s decision to stay,” said Helton.
‘It’s been an amazing journey’
Following her husband’s arrest, Helton called an employee assistance hotline and was directed to the Gwinnett County shelter of the Partnership Against Domestic Violence.
“Going there changed my life. They are trained to deal with people going through this situation,” said Helton.
PADV provides legal aid, housing support, and resumé writing assistance, among its programs.
“There is a camaraderie,” said Helton of the bond with other women. She even found the simple act of making supper at the shelter to be healing.
“Cooking helped me to get on the road to self-esteem,” said Helton.
Women staying at the PADV shelter cooked in teams of two, and for her first meal, Helton prepared fried fish and cornbread.
“It was the best meal,” she recalled.
Helton now volunteers there and has served on the PADV board of directors for two years.
“It’s been an amazing journey for me,” she said.
The kitchen of the new PADV shelter in Gwinnett, one of two locations, was named in her honor.
Helton works in communications for an Atlanta consulting group and is more active at St. Brigid as a result of participating in Christ Renews His Parish.
“It ignited my faith,” she said of the renewal program.
Shame had kept her from speaking about the abuse, and she swept it under the rug until participating in CRHP.
“I never talked about the situation,” said Helton.
She began sharing some of her experiences with her CRHP women’s group.
At a leadership breakfast, Helton found herself seated next to a PADV supervisor and thanked her. That conversation led to a more active role with the partnership, including volunteering and speaking engagements.
“It is our place to be involved. I hope my suffering helps others to suffer less,” she said.
The CRHP men’s group at St. Brigid eventually learned of Helton’s story and asked if members could come and help at the shelter. They were the first group to come and cook at the new kitchen. They hosted a Christmas party there and plan to do the same this year.
Helton said their involvement is wonderful because it shows the shelter clients that there are good men in the world.
PADV also has a shelter in Fulton County.
“We turn no one away. We never leave anyone in an abusive situation,” noted Helton.
The organization has a 24-hour crisis line and works with other shelters.
Helton’s children are doing well academically and socially.
“I’m exceedingly proud,” she said. “We talk about everything.”