Out of the wreckage, a school bullying victim's life rebuilt

Tom Tehan and his mother,  Amanda Wallace.
Tom Tehan and his mother, Amanda Wallace. Photo: Jason South

"I wasn't trying to kill myself," Tom Tehan says matter of factly across the timber cafe table. "I was just trying to stop feeling. And Panadol is to stop pain, that's how it worked in my head."

The thing is, Tom downed several packets of Panadol in his attempt to numb his pain. He ended up needing his stomach pumped and spent three days in hospital when he should have been out enjoying the spring racing carnival with his girlfriend and friends.

Instead at 19 he was having a breakdown; the result he says of being bullied at school three years earlier.

It's rare to gain an insight into the long-term impact of school bullying. Now and then incidents pop up in the news. Sometimes they are even accompanied by a video shot on a student's mobile phone. Principals, parents and psychologists have their say. And then everyone moves on. Except not everyone can.

Tom couldn't. His years of school bullying culminated in receiving a letter containing a bullet and a death threat at his home. "Bang bang Tomas" the computer-printed note read, misspelling his name.

"I just remember breaking down in tears," he says. "It was confirmation, after all the verbal and physical taunts and the times I was excluded, that I wasn't liked."

TEAROUT: Xavier student sent bullet in the mail. Byline: Bridie Smith. [The Age, p.3. 14-04-2007]. ID: mls.

Though he was never identified by name, Tom's experience was one of those that made headlines in 2007: "Xavier student sent bullet in the mail". Now, more than a decade on, Tom wants to tell his story. It's a story about the car crash that can follow school bullying – and how one man emerged from the wreckage.

At 19, Tom had left Xavier for a new school, finished year 12 and started university. Summer was on the way and things appeared on track. But his bullying burden was always there in the background, unresolved.

His stint in hospital brought things to the surface, but he soon suppressed them. He wanted to move on. After being discharged from hospital, Tom deferred his studies at Deakin University and started working in nightclubs.

He was smoking a bit of marijuana, which became a daily habit. He was going out. Lots. Spending more than he was earning. An unsolicited offer of a bank credit card was accepted and before he knew it, he had a $7,000 debt.

His family intervened. His dad Peter's cousin offered him a job laying fibre optic cables in the Northern Territory. Arnhem Land. It was as remote and removed as 20-year-old Tom had ever been.

"It was the best thing that ever happened to me at the time," he says. "I had no phone. I was up at 5am every day and working until 6pm. I got to experience Aboriginal communities and hear stories about their Dreamtime from elders."

Tom while working in Arnhem Land.

Tom while working in Arnhem Land. Photo: Supplied

He returned to Melbourne clean: mentally, physically and financially. He was loving life again.

But looking back, Tom concedes Arnhem Land was a Band-Aid. Just as Carey Grammar was – the school he went to after Xavier, where he was part of the successful school hockey and athletics teams.

"I was still in emotional pain, but because I was happy, I could mask it," the now 28-year-old says.

Tom running for Carey Grammar.

Running for Carey Grammar. Photo: Supplied

He resumed smoking marijuana and working in bars and nightclubs. His nocturnal existence saw him graduate to ice, which gave him supreme confidence. He started to deal in ice to supplement his own habit and mixed with people who used guns to get what they wanted.

Being bullied had made Tom feel he wasn't tough enough to stand up for himself. Ice made him feel that he could handle himself – and that felt good.

"I lost all my inhibitions. I could talk without being inside my own head, if that makes sense," he says.

Tom was on ice for years and, according to his mother, Amanda Wallace, he became psychotic. He had "Moses" tattooed on his right arm, painted his car a matt black using spray cans and wrote what he believed were inspirational sayings on the rear window in permanent gold pen.

His memories of this time are hazy – isolated fragments come back. He remembers talking to a neighbour whom he believed was God and apologising to a street tree for the harm humans had inflicted on Earth.

In the early hours of January 17, 2014, he was driving down Burke Road, Malvern, on his way to see a friend.

He believed the best way to get there was to put his foot flat on the accelerator and close his eyes. Police estimate he was travelling at 122/kmh when he crashed into two power poles and several trees.

Tom's car after the 2014 accident.

Tom's car after the 2014 accident. Photo: Supplied

How he survived the crash, no one knows. Tom suspects closing his eyes saved him because he became "like a rag doll" as he was ejected from the car, landing bruised and broken on the asphalt. He nearly lost his right leg. Every bone in his right foot was smashed up, he had a ruptured spleen and broken ribs. He spent three months in various hospitals, which in hindsight was like rehab. It got him off ice, which he hasn't touched since.

Tom in The Alfred's intensive care unit.

In The Alfred's intensive care unit. Photo: Supplied

When he was discharged, he went to his mother's house. He says that after the crash he had no desire to use drugs. But while ice was behind him, a week later he sniffed butane gas and released a guttural scream. It freaked him out enough agree to a phone conversation with a family friend, who suggested he try an addiction program. 

That call started his slow turnaround from the self-destruction he believes was triggered by the 2004 bullying at Xavier.

Having lost his licence for two years, Tom was driven to his first session by his mother. She didn't trust that he would go in, so she waited and watched him in her rear-vision mirror. He did. He went every day for three months. He eventually ran the Wednesday night meetings.

"It gave me confidence in myself because someone had entrusted me to do something," Tom says. "I'd lost trust from a lot of people in my life and that was a way to re-grow it and start again."

Slowly, he rebuilt his life. The love and loyalty from his parents and four siblings never wavered. Neither did the support from his Old Xaverians hockey team, who late last year honoured him with the club's Smithy Medal recognising his against-the-odds return to the sport. It's what got him through; it reminded him how lucky he was.

He has had 10 operations in the three years since the accident and remains in pain due to nerve damage. He sees a psychologist regularly and works in hospitality. He has twice spoken to school students about addiction, hoping his warts-and-all story will strike a chord and make someone think twice before taking a similar path.

 What he has learnt from all of this is that everyone makes choices.

 "As much as I could put it all back on bullying, I made choices to do the things that I did," Tom says. "Whatever was driving me, I was still at the wheel." 

Tom Tehan talking to students about addiction.

Talking to students about addiction. Photo: Supplied

This year he will return to uni to study sport coaching at Victoria University. He is moving on but has undertaken not forget the lessons his past has taught him. These are lessons he wants to share and hopefully, in the process, reduce the social stigma around drug addiction.

"One article isn't going to change how society sees it," he says. "But it just might make one person see that completely normal people get into cycles of addiction." 

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