'It was like I had been hit by a freight train when I remembered abuse'

He enjoys a fulfilling career, is married to his childhood sweetheart and is father to a beautiful little girl, two-year-old Nora – in short, life is good for Robin Grace.

But things weren’t always this way, as following a triggered memory of childhood abuse, the 36-year-old went through several years of anguish as he tried to come to terms with the reality of what had happened and the memories he had repressed since he was a child.

However, having been in the depths of despair, Robin, who works for An Garda Síochána, turned his misfortune to good use as not only does he draw on his experience to help others who are suicidal, self-harming or are fellow abuse victims, but he is also in the process of developing an app called ME which will allow vulnerable young people to seek help, support and protection at the touch of a button.

In his role, he has seen the ever-growing need for a simple, easy-to-use support mechanism which would be accessible 24/7, particularly as his own darkest moments came in the middle of the night.

“When I was 22, Hannah, who is now my wife, and I had been travelling and were staying in a hotel in Delhi after returning from Africa,” he recalls.. “She was asleep, and I was watching Oprah on TV as it was the only English-speaking programme available. The topic was sexual abuse and several people were talking about their experience of it. I found it captivating but wasn’t at all affected until she turned to the camera and said, ‘It’s also important to remember that females can be abusers too’.

“I felt like I had just been hit by a freight train as I was suddenly overcome with a flashback from my childhood and remembered that on several occasions I was sexually abused [by a trusted female non-family member]. I broke down and cried for hours as the memories came back but once I spoke to Hannah about it, I felt as if that was enough and I should just put everything back in its box and put the lid back on.”

But despite trying to ignore the reality of what he had endured as a child, it wasn’t long before the impact hit him with full force.

“I tried to repress the memories for a few years, but I just couldn’t escape from it,” he says. “It really began to affect my life and my behaviour. I started drinking heavily and pushed everyone away from me as despite the fact that none of what happened was my fault, I was filled with feelings of guilt and shame and couldn’t ask anyone for help, so I distanced myself from everyone around me. I felt so alone and unloved.

“Then one night I reached rock bottom and, with a knife pressed against my wrist, I posted a cryptic message on Facebook. It was 2am and I bargained with myself that if no one contacted me, I would end it all. But Hannah, who wasn’t with me at the time as we were temporarily apart, saw my message and told my mother, who rang me.

“I said I couldn’t deal with the pain anymore or undo the experience and she said she would drive straight up to me to Dublin, where I was living at the time. I managed to convince her not to come up that night as it was enough that she had listened and was there for me at that crucial moment of my life.”

Following the vital intervention from his mother, Robin began trying to rebuild his life by attending therapy for two years and confronting his abuser.

“While I was in therapy, I learned how to face the negative feelings and how important it was to have someone who would listen to me when I felt bad,” he says. “My therapist also said that facing my abuser would be healing, so I went to her house and she invited me in for tea. I declined and I told her what I was there for and that I had remembered what she had done.

“She got angry and asked me to leave and I told her that I had lived with guilt and shame for years but now I was passing all of that on to her. This was very healing for me. I felt empowered by the very fact that I had handed all the negative feelings to the person who caused them in the first place.”

As Robin gradually rebuilt his life, his career path instinctively drew him to caring roles as he learned how important it is for people to have someone to talk to.

“I wanted to turn my experience into something good, so I worked in youth services for a long while as a youth advocate and then became a Garda four years ago,” says the father-of-one. “One of the reasons I joined the force is because I wanted to try and help others in a similar situation to me. As a first responder to people who are suicidal or in crisis, I am perfectly placed to help them. They usually trust me because I am in a uniform, but I will confirm that trust before continuing, then I will ask if it’s okay to talk to them and to call a family member or friend.

“This is part of the job, but I am also bringing myself to the table as I have lived it and know what they are going through. I would say 100pc of people I have met who are suicidal really want someone to listen to them. And it was this knowledge which prompted me to create the app.”

ME is a private social network app which allows users to be instantly connected to supports and also to educational tools which help those who may be concerned or anxious about aspects of their lives.

“My aim, when I decided to develop the app, was for support to be available for people 24/7,” says the Garda. “So, for example, imagine a child or teenager seeing something online, like a photo which they or someone else shared and it has garnered abuse or negative comments – this is enough to really upset someone, particularly if they are young. So now imagine a button labelled ME which is brightly lit up on the home page. If the person is feeling distressed, they just press it and immediately, they can send a message to their pre-chosen support group, which may be friends or family, to say they need help or someone to talk to.

“While they are waiting for their supports to respond, the post will be temporarily blocked and the user will be taken to a ‘safe place’ of their choice; this could be a music selection, favourite game or even photo library of happy pictures which will allow them to remember good times while replacing the bad stuff.

“Then, if someone is in extreme distress, there is also an option to contact emergency supports such as ourselves at the Gardai, the Samaritans and other frontline services.”

As well as dealing with situations when they arise and facilitating round-the-clock support, the app is also an educational tool which aims to teach children about online safety – to know what bullying and predatory behaviour looks like and when to seek help.

“Considering most children get their first phone between the ages of eight and 13, there are many situations which they have no experience of,” says Grace. “So there will be a built-in educational facility to help young people to learn about what is acceptable and what isn’t. Through the guise of illustration and audio text, they will learn to recognise bullying and other situations and know how and when to seek support or help.

“Of course there are other educational tools out there such as websites and phone lines but sometimes these are too cumbersome for a child to manage at the precise moment they need advice. And some of the information they might be given at school will inform them of the dangers of the internet and almost encourage them to avoid it altogether, which can cause them to switch off from helpful advice.

“Our app will be very easy to use, age appropriate and doctored to suit the needs of each user – so when it is being set up, the user will be asked firstly to key in their safe list and then some information about themselves such as what their likes are; this will be used to prompt them to engage in something they enjoy, which will be uplifting and help to avert a feeling of crisis.”

According to Robin, the app is “slick and easy to use” but it is still at the demo stage and he is currently trying to raise funds to get the project off the ground and make it freely available to all youngsters around the country.

“I came up with all of the ideas for the project as I feel it is really important to have something like this available for young people, but it is being developed by a company in Galway called App Design [appdesign.ie],” he says. “The plan is to raise €75k to enable us to build it up, bring in specialist artists and to help promote it.

“It will be free to download and there will be no advertising or sponsorship allowed as I don’t want it to be clogged up with adverts. I would love to see it eventually built into phones as standard because I know from experience how important it is to be able to find help and support no matter what time of the day you need it.”

For more information visit meapp.ie. If you are affected by these issues call the Samaritans on freecall 116123 or for Pieta House text HELP to 51444

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