A Dorset man who suffered a massive brain injury after taking ‘legal highs’ has built a new life as a gardener for the charitable housing association BCHA.
Tom Fraser from Poole was 21 when he collapsed after ingesting a shop-bought plant food used as a ‘legal high’.
He stopped breathing for eight minutes and fell into a coma.
He then spent two months in hospital, learning to walk and talk again.
Now, 32 and a father-of-four, Tom knows he is lucky to be alive and says his job as a gardener for BCHA has given him a future.
Tom explained: “I started taking drugs seriously around the age of 18 - amphetamine, cocaine and a lot of legal highs such as mephedrone which is marketed as a plant food but which you could buy in shops locally or online for as little as £20 for 1g.
“Over the course of three years my use of legal highs escalated until the day before Christmas Eve, 2009, I collapsed after a night out and suffered a massive hypoxic brain injury.
“The doctors said the legal highs were to blame and my life had only been saved by my age and strength.”
The brain injury left Tom with lasting short term memory loss. But there were a lot more bad things to come.
He was out of work for over a year. He lost his driving licence and he says he was stopped from seeing his daughter.
He recovered enough to take a few short-term care jobs. But the problems from the brain injury and a messy break-up led to a sharp decline in his mental health and he was sectioned and spent three and a half months in the psychiatric unit at St Ann’s Hospital in Poole.
While in St Ann’s Tom was taken to visit BCHA’s New Leaf allotment in Throop, to aid his recovery. The allotment offers accredited horticulture qualifications and has helped many people with poor mental health find a sense of purpose, qualifications and even new careers.
Tom didn’t know it then, but gardening would go on to play a huge part in his life.
“After leaving St Ann’s I was given a place in supported accommodation at Millennium House by BCHA,” he said.
“I went in with huge debts, but I did gardening jobs, took training courses with BCHA’s help and when I moved out and got a flat I was debt-free and volunteered with the brain injury charity Headway.
“I then met my wife and had the first of our three children together.”
When Tom saw a job advertised last year with BCHA’s New Leaf Company, which provides residential and commercial repairs, as well as gardening, he remembered the help BCHA had given him and applied.
He said: “Getting that job has changed everything. I now work 8am-5pm, Monday to Friday as a gardener and it’s the best job I have ever had.
“Sometimes I come into contact with people who are obviously going through things I have and I want to reach out and tell them there is a way out from addiction.
“I also worry terribly about my own children and addiction.
“Legal highs were supposedly outlawed in 2016. But there are loopholes and you only have to see the amount of discarded bottles around our streets to see they are still a huge problem.”
He continued: “You don’t know what is in a legal high. It could be anything. The risk just isn’t worth the half hour of effect they can give.
“I hope I can continue to work for BCHA for many years and I also hope eventually to play some part in mentoring others who are dependent on drugs but want to rebuild their lives like I have.
“BCHA has given me a second shot and I’m not going to waste it.”