‘One the happiest memories I ever have’
AFTER Ben Blacksell told his incredible story of recovery to over 500 people, there wasn't a dry eye left in the house.
It wasn't that long ago Ben was living out of his car, stuck in an endless cycle of drugs and booze - so low he was contemplating suicide.
But after turning his life around with the help of Anytime Fitness in Grafton, it wasn't long before people took notice and last month Ben was on Hamilton Island telling his story.
Out of more than 500 Anytime Fitness clubs Australia-wide, Ben was chosen as the winner of their 2019 #MYAF Journey award which was presented to him at their national black-tie event.
"Being up there was amazing, from getting up on stage and accepting the award to making the speech and everything that happened, it was just incredible," he said.
"It will be one the happiest memories I ever have in my life."
Despite some initial nerves, Ben said he "felt at home" telling his story, even after an attempt to find a calming influence in his parents didn't exactly go to plan.
"Whenever I get nervous I look at Mum, and when I looked down at Mum and she was bloody crying, and I thought - 'oh no'," he said.
"Then the next choice was Dad and he was not much better than Mum, probably worse.
"But I got through it and by the end of it everyone was up on their feet."
The event had a profound effect on Ben, with the "thrilling" experience of speaking and meeting others in the fitness industry leading him on a new pathway into personal training and motivational speaking.
After experiencing the loss of a number of friends to suicide over the years and then seeing how his story affected people, he wanted to make it his mission to "bring back anyone who might be in a dark place like I was.
"All you need is a bit of hope and sometimes it is best from a stranger," he said.
"If you have a stranger telling you, 'you are going to be OK', sometimes that is what it takes for the healing process to begin."
There is no doubt two of the most important "strangers" for Ben have been Jenny Ryder and Kathryn Langford at Anytime Fitness in Grafton, with the pair becoming instrumental in his healing process.
Ben's mum Jenny said despite his reluctance to walk through the doors, when he joined he was not only welcomed, but was "prompted" by the pair in ways which helped him grow in confidence and begin to share his story.
"It was hard. He would go to the carpark, wouldn't go in and then come home and you would ask, 'did you enrol?' and he would say, 'nah, I'll do it tomorrow'," she said.
"Then they cared enough when he walked in, they didn't judge him.
"He just became a part of something and found somewhere he belonged for once."
Jenny Ryder said they were all proud of Ben and the work he had put in, which had included losing almost 50kg just so he could have an operation on his knee.
She said Ben was chosen out of all the entries Australia-wide because his story was so "empowering and inspirational" and when he finished his speech at the black-tie event, "there wasn't a dry eye in the house."
"I felt really emotional because we had shared his journey from the day he walked through the door and transformed and turned his life around.
"(Afterwards) everyone in the room wanted to come and talk to him and he got job offers.
"People were just so touched by his story."
Ben was grateful to Jenny and Kathryn for everything they had done for him, especially enabling him to take both his parents to Hamilton Island to see him accept the award.
"To have both my parents there after I had put them through so much and they had seem me struggle," he said.
"It was such an honour."
Discussing the role everyone had played in his recovery, Ben recounted a saying he had first heard from his grandfather, someone who he still looked up to.
"A rose will only grow if it is in good soil," he said.
"I am growing and I don't plan on stopping, I have the best soil Australia has to offer - the amazing team here at Anytime and my family at home.
"Having them is helping me grow to where I want to be."