After sustaining a beating from his alcoholic father, Sonny Teio gave up on life and followed a downward spiral into drugs, alcohol and street crime that brought him to the brink of suicide. He spoke to James Addis about finding a new life.
My parents are Cook Islanders, but I was born in New Zealand and grew up in Manurewa. My dad was a diesel mechanic but he had no formal qualifications. My mum was a factory worker. Education was not that important to our family. The expectation for me and my brothers was that we would just finish school at 15 and find a job. But I had other ideas. I was always the rebellious one, trying to do my own thing. Academically I wasn’t stupid. I was always in the accelerated classes. I wanted to be the best. I was a driven kid. But when I was 11 things went wrong with my dad. He was an alcoholic and could get abusive. One day, my dad came home from the pub and he was really upset. He started beating me up. That was the last straw. I decided I’d had enough of the beatings and walked out of the house. That’s when I lost hope. I did not want to go to school, I did not want to have anything to do with my immediate family. I went across the road to live with my cousins and uncles. I would still come home and sleep in the garage. I saw my father but we had no connection at all. If I sat down for a meal, he would get up and walk away. We did not speak to each other for years.
I stopped going to school at 13 and started hanging out with some of my cousins. We hung out on the street making bad choices – stealing, getting drunk, doing drugs, fighting. Sometimes there would be about 10 of us and we would go into a big shop in a mall with separate entry doors. We would run through one door and out the other grabbing anything we wanted as fast as we could. There was nothing the store staff could do. By the time they reacted, we were out the door. Stealing cars was easy in those days. You just needed a fork or screwdriver to jam into the ignition. We’d go for a joy ride and then abandon them. One time I was a passenger in a car. A cop car came up behind us and the cop told us to pull over. We took off and ended up being chased through Mangere. There were about eight cop cars chasing us and the helicopter above us. We got caught when we crashed into a power pole.
By the time I turned 18 I was drinking heavily nearly every day. One night I got angry with my girlfriend, and I wanted to give her a hiding. I realised I was becoming more like my dad. I decided I had to get away, so I left New Zealand and went to the Cook Islands. I stayed with this family who were really kind to me. It was quite a cool lifestyle. We would get up early to work in the garden and then go fishing to get lunch. All the same, I didn’t fit in. I was still drinking and smoking pot, even though I was trying to get away from it. The family never said anything about my behaviour. They just accepted me the way I was. They were a Christian family but it was different from what I had experienced of Christianity before. The traditional church my mum had taken me to when I was little was all about, “You can’t do this, and you can’t do that.” But this family were not like that. Even so, I could not find a job and was running out of money. My girlfriend wrote, hurt that I had left her. I wanted to give up on life and commit suicide.
New Year’s Eve came around. The family asked me to come to church and I thought, ‘Yeah OK, then afterwards I will slip away to a bar.’ I went to the service. It caught my attention. Everybody was happy and joyful and there was this peace. Afterwards, I went to the bar but I kept thinking about what happened in the service. This beautiful girl approached me. I said, “Listen I’m not interested” and she said “C’mon.” She really wanted to go with me that night, but I kept saying I was not interested. When she left, I thought, ‘What the heck is wrong with me?’ I left and went home and reflected on everything that had happened. And I prayed, “God if you are real, show me.” That’s when I felt his presence in the room. I just really felt that God was there. I cannot explain it, but I cannot deny it either. I woke up next day with a different expectation in life, I had a sense of hope and a sense of purpose. I felt like I did before the falling out with my father. The desire to succeed was given back to me.
A few months later it was my birthday, and I thought I must speak to my dad. But he wouldn’t even come to the phone. So I wrote to him and apologised for everything I did wrong and I said that I forgave him for all the wrong he had done to me. A week after posting the letter my mum phoned. She said,
“Your flight is in three days. Pack your things. Dad wants you home.” I learnt that my dad bought me the ticket back to New Zealand straight after reading my letter. He picked me up at the airport, and I hugged him. We didn’t talk about the past, but he was so happy that I was home.
I settled down, got married to a girl called Nina and found a job as a teacher aide. I started working with a kid called Gavin. He reminded me of myself. He had a reputation for violence and had tried to stab his previous teacher aide with a pair of scissors. Gavin was interested in computers. I said here’s the deal: “You help me learn about computers and I will help you with your behaviour.” That turned out well for both of us because after a few years Gavin went back to mainstream classes, and I developed an interest in computing. I saw a job advertised for an IT technician, and I thought I want to be that person.
I applied to various places to study. The only one that responded was Otago Polytechnic, so Nina and I went to Dunedin so I could study for a Bachelor of Information Technology degree. It was a scary thing.
There were 50 students in the class and only four Polynesians. From the first day, I wanted to quit. The course was difficult, but I resolved to just keep asking the lecturers for help. Gradually all the other Polynesian students dropped out. I was all by myself. But I could not quit now because Nina was pregnant. I had to press on. I finished the year as Most Promising Student.
After graduating, I started working full time at the polytechnic. I put together a proposal to set up a student IT service desk on campus. We offered all kinds of technical support for students and fixed their laptops. We also established a phone service for overseas students to help them too. Around 2011, I returned to Auckland to take over the family home in Manurewa. Later, I was offered a job back at Otago Polytechnic, this time at their Auckland campus. I am now the IT and facilities manager there with a staff of four. At the beginning of 2016 our family moved to Snells Beach. Nina has family out here, and I was keen to get out of south Auckland. It’s a rough place for kids, and I wanted to give them a better lifestyle. I love the environment here; I love the friendly people. It’s like going back in time. You can talk to people walking past on the street and they will say “hello”. They will stop and talk to you.