It’s the first weekend in August, 2013. Ten miles from Inverness, a dozen music fans have turned their Belladrum Festival of bands and beer into a friends’ reunion. Matching T-shirts, silly headgear and facepaint feature heavily. Among the group is Tom Fraser, a gregarious 19-year-old who also went to RockNess two months earlier. Now living in Glasgow, he spent most of his teenhood in the Highland capital after his family moved there from Lewis when he was 12.
At 2pm on Sunday, August 4, Tom hugs his hungover pals at Inverness railway station as they go their separate ways. They assume he is getting the train back home to Glasgow. Instead, he vanishes. For nine days, his whereabouts remain a mystery to everyone who knows him.
The Belladrum connection made it a story that resonated with the thousands of people in Scotland who attend summer music festivals, and social media posts quickly spread photos of Tom and a description of the clothes he was last seen wearing – a green parka, dark jeans, fur hat and sunglasses.
Thomas Fraser my son has been found safe. Thanks to everyone for their support spreading the word we are overwhelmed
— Marina Fraser (@marinabarrs) August 13, 2013
Several days after he was reunited with his family, Tom was curious to find out how the internet had reacted to his disappearance. He read his mother’s desperate appeal on Twitter, retweeted almost 10,000 times; he looked at the intensive efforts of his friends to raise awareness online; he saw his own image smiling back at him on the Facebook walls of concerned strangers.
News of Tom’s safe return was widely shared on social networks and typically greeted with a mixture of delight and relief, yet those responses aren’t the ones that linger with him.
“Not all of them were positive,” says Tom, sitting across from me in a city-centre bar. “There were strangers commenting on something they didn’t know about as if they did, writing things like, ‘What a stupid boy for leaving his parents feeling all worried’. One guy on Facebook said I was ‘swanning around in London’. Someone had responded: ‘You never know the circumstances under which people go missing.’ I clicked ‘Like’.”
Those circumstances, until now, have only been known to his family and friends, but Tom hopes he might be able to help others going through similar struggles by speaking out about what he went through and what compelled him to take the extreme course of action he did. His is a story that shares many elements common in missing person cases, a complex phenomenon that is often starkly different from the popular media perception.
No details about Tom’s return were made public other than that he was found in London. To understand how and why he ended up there, you could go back nine days or two months or four years, depending on where you want to be in this chain-reaction of events.
Let’s start at June 2013. Enrolled at Glasgow University in an undergraduate course designed to mould him into a high school technology teacher, Tom opens a letter informing him he would have to repeat the placement part of his programme. He had received an identical letter 12 months previously. Embarrassed and ashamed to face his parents, he decides to delay telling them until he feels ready. But as days turn into weeks, that task becomes tougher, not easier.
The moment he had spent two months dreading arrived when he least expected it, 160 miles from home.
“My parents called me when I was at Belladrum,” he recalls. “They’d found the letter at my flat. They were disappointed I hadn’t told them, but I couldn’t find a way to. I didn’t have the courage to tell anyone I didn’t want to be on this course. The thought of coming home to face that again, and redoing the schools placement of a course I absolutely hated, pushed me over the edge. That’s when I cracked.”
Like the majority of people who end up reported missing, Tom embarked on a route that wasn’t pre-planned.
“I got an overnight train to London, straight down,” he says. “I guess I chose London because no-one knew me there. The intention was…” Tom pauses and takes a breath. “What was going through my head at the time were suicidal thoughts.
“It wasn’t something I planned at all, it just happened. I can’t really trace the thought pattern, it’s a blur. I wasn’t myself, I just snapped. I have a lot of problems dealing with anxiety and that was building on top of me. I didn’t feel I could talk about it, so I kept everything inside and inevitably collapsed. The next thing I knew I was on the streets of London.”
With his phone lost in a campsite in the Highlands, the only possessions he had when he arrived in Camden were his wallet, the sleeping bag he used at the festival and two books – World War Z and A Song of Ice and Fire.
“I was mugged on the first day,” he reveals matter-of-factly. “I didn’t know where I was and I walked into the wrong place. I didn’t really care.”
With no money and no friends in London, Tom’s new dwelling place became a supermarket car park, his bed fashioned out of discarded cardboard.
“I met a few others who had been sleeping rough for quite a while,” he says. “They took me in, they taught me how to survive. It sounds bad to say, but I was trying not to think of people looking for me, I blocked that part out. In a way it was liberating because I didn’t have to deal with the things that were causing me anxiety. But it was replaced with other forms of anxiety such as, ‘Where am I going to get food today?’”
Almost without realising it, Tom’s original focus of going to London to end his life was gradually being superseded by the necessity to learn how to stay alive. It dominated his thoughts, becoming a daily challenge that gave him a renewed sense of purpose.
“At Camden Market, quite a lot of people throw out full containers of food, still hot,” he says, genuinely delighted at the discovery. “And at 1pm, a van run by the Hare Krishnas would come round handing out free food. When my shoes broke, I found a pair that fit. I was getting used to it, but it wasn’t a good thing to get used to when you wake up and you’re face to face with a rat.”
The majority of adults who go missing in the UK do so because of stress or trauma rather than anything suspicious, and almost 90% return within a week. Tom, however, had been gone eight days.
“It started to sink in where I was, what was going on, and the fact I was sleeping in cardboard outside Sainsbury’s,” he says. “I realised I wanted to go home but I was terrified to do so. I was scared about coming back and seeing what my parents had been through, how worried people were.”
By luck, a homeless outreach team came across Tom and, after some encouragement and reassurance, he found the courage to tell them he no longer wanted to be a missing person. They took him to a local hospital for health tests before he was transported to Gartnavel Hospital in Glasgow, where a police officer was waiting with one question for him.
“Yes,” replied Tom.
As an adult who had chosen to disappear, the authorities needed his consent to let his family know he had been traced alive. The next morning he was reunited with his parents.
“I felt really guilty and I told them I was sorry,” says Tom. “I put them through a lot. They just said, ‘Don’t worry about it’.”
Tom was kept in at Gartnavel for four days. Within weeks of being released he began volunteering at his local Shelter charity shop.
“I felt I could relate,” he says, a smile beaming across his face. “Occasionally you get homeless people coming off the street asking if I can give them a jacket. It kills you to say it, but you’re not allowed to.”
Now aged 20, Tom receives professional support for anxiety and depression. He has applied to return to university in 2014 in the hope of pursuing a new career path in media or graphic design. Back living in the family home, he is already feeling the benefits of being more communicative about his emotions, his well-being, his life.
“I’m getting a lot better and my relationship with my parents is a hundred times better,” he says proudly. “Most of the problems I had revolved around me not telling them anything. Like the fact that I’d failed my course, and them having to find out. My parents could see I’d been getting more distant with people, but whenever anyone brought it up I would get really defensive. If they said I’d been acting oddly or whatever, I just shrugged it off and denied it.”
Tom has been trying to cope with mental health problems since he was 15 or 16, and attributes his previous reluctance to seek help on the feeling that he didn’t “deserve” to be depressed. Such a sentiment is commonly expressed by sufferers of this illness, and sadly it often means they struggle alone without the care that is available to them.
“I come from a family who supports and loves each other – I couldn’t complain about the life I have,” says Tom as he tries to explain his thought process. “There are people with so much worse lives than me, yet here I am feeling like crap. But everything that happened with me could have been easily prevented if I put aside that feeling of ‘I don’t deserve to feel like this’, and just asked someone for help.”
How do you feel when you read about others who have gone missing? “It makes me feel not alone,” replies Tom. “But not all of them have a happy ending like I did. Hopefully my story might encourage other people in the same situation I was. If they hear someone who’s been through it say, ‘Go get help’, maybe they will.”
© The Pop Cop