Welcome to our next ‘campfire’ story.
Campfire for the Heart is a collection of inspiring stories of
Although every story is unique, they all highlight our ability to adapt positively to bad experiences and showcase our indomitable human spirit.
If you have an inspiring resilience story to share, or know someone who does,
please contact Natalie through www.stockdalewellbeing.com.
“No one is immune from the prospect of homelessness.
It can happen to anyone when the fickle finger of fate
points in your direction.”
My life pre-homelessness revolved around my family, music, academia and fighting for the rights of the underprivileged. I grew up in Scotland and worked in the police force for a while. I’ve been on a podium with the Duke of Edinburgh and have shared meals with Prince Phillip, but for most of my life, I have been a professional musician and student of Sociology and Social Policy - for which I now have two master degrees.
When I lived in London during my thirties, a family tragedy left me broken inside long before my physical and mental health declined. There were a few incredibly dramatic events in my life that made me think I had been singled out for God’s wrath. It seemed to be a repeating cycle. Ben gets happy and successful, then ‘wham,’ he gets knocked down and rebuilds. I struggled badly, but always ended up back on my feet and never gave up.
In addition to the tragic events, I became physically unwell in my fifties. What you don’t appreciate at the time is that when you pull on those loose threads of your life, other people’s lives start unravelling too.
One morning I woke up to discover that I had a central nervous system problem which paralysed my left arm. My career as a musician was over. In fact, my career as just about anything was over. I fell into a state of depression while doctors tried figuring out what was wrong with me. After several years with no progress, I lost my ability to support my family. I wore a splint which forced my arm outward and my hand was permanently gloved with moulded, rigid plastic to stop the veins, arteries and nerves from perishing.
Finally, a doctor suggested elbow surgery which I tried, but my arm still felt trapped and immobilized. It threw me into a deeper depression and I felt I was piling misery on my family. I blamed myself for all the things which were bedevilling us at that time. To spare them, I headed off to live on the streets. I slept rough in South Bank for several weeks, under the bushes if it was raining, on a bench if it was dry. It was an irrational and desperate move, but it highlights how distressed I had become.
I was finally offered a place in a homeless hostel and my naivety was such that I figured this would be a step up. I quickly learned that homeless hostels are places of violence, where you are constantly on edge guarding whatever meagre belongings you have. At night most folks would sleep with their belongings belted to their legs to prevent them from being stolen.
A hostel is a volatile mix of former criminals who have now been released but with nowhere to go, people on probation, drug addicts, gambling addicts, alcoholics, the poor, the mentally ill and of course the ordinary person who, through no fault of their own, has found themselves homeless. The rules of the hostel were simple - find somewhere to live within three months or you’re back on the streets.
Eventually, my arm began to slowly move again. It was still wrapped in bandages but moving. After a few weeks, sensation returned to my fingers. I struggled to hold a cup of tea, and yet when I picked up a guitar, unbelievably I could play chords in an instant. Muscle memory? I was so grateful to be able to play guitar, so overwhelmed by the joy that I sat down and wrote the first song I had written in ten years - Higher Ground.
When I was busking on the streets one day, an ABC presenter heard me and asked if I could play live on the radio the following morning. I agreed. A lady approached me and said, “Was that man bothering you?”
I explained that I’d been invited to perform on radio the next day. An hour later she returned with a brand-new shirt, pants and shoes for me. I warmly thanked her but pointed out, “It’s radio, no one will see me.”
“You will,” she replied with a smile. I could have broken down in tears right there and then.
The next day, I played Higher Ground flawlessly and explained that even though I can do that, I can’t tie my shoelaces or hold a cup of tea. An anonymous person contacted the ABC to tell them she had paid for six months of a new and revolutionary type of physiotherapy for me.
And so I would go to physio two or three times a week. Astonishingly, they got my arm moving wonderfully again. They tortured nerves in my neck and ‘voila’ my fingers were almost perfect again. It wasn’t an instant ‘voila’. In fact, it took three years. When the donor’s money had run out, the physio team decided to make me their ‘pet project’ and treat me pro bono.
The donor and the physio team could never know the level of gratitude I have for them. What they did was life changing and I am humbled by their dedication and commitment. I still tear up thinking about it.
I was able to go out onto the streets and busk to pay my rent, put food on the table and generally raise my standard of living. It was there I met some of the most wonderful people in existence. The kindness of strangers, of anyone, should never be underestimated. It was a huge motivating factor in making me determined to claw back my life.
I found a wonderful warmth in the people of Brisbane, a generosity of spirit. When people see you trying to climb out of that dark hole, they extend their hand to you willingly. Aussies appreciate you making the effort and will meet you halfway. They won’t ignore you.
Homelessness is the epitome of hitting rock bottom. You can’t fall much further. It’s important when you’re at the bottom of the heap to look for the positives you can take from it. There is no direction other than upwards from there. Unfortunately some people end up ‘stuck’ at the bottom, but this is where human resilience, spirit, fierce optimism and determination play a huge part.
Never give up! Remind yourself constantly that this is not who you are and that a horrid set of circumstances has led you there. No one is immune from the prospect of homelessness. It can happen to anyone when the fickle finger of fate points in your direction. You might argue that they brought it upon themselves with their behaviour or addiction, but even if they were a victim of their own self-destructive nature - they’re still a victim.
There’s a unique, underlying problem in everyone who is homeless and only by addressing and solving that, can stability be introduced into their lives. ‘Curing’ homelessness with a roof and a bed does not cure the causes of homelessness and so the cycle continues.
The ABC started asking me on regularly, more so when a famous pop or rock singer died. They would want me to talk about and sing one of their songs. I was genuinely concerned for a while that I would become known as ‘that dead singer guy’! My music is now available world-wide and on every platform under my stage name of Ben G.
My commitment to bettering myself and making the lives of the marginalised more tolerable remains unwavering. I am now the Director of a charity called Community Friends which feeds and clothes almost 500 homeless and marginalised people. What pleases me most is that many of the volunteers there were once beneficiaries of the charity. They just want to give back like so many of us do.
I was recently given an Australia Day honour for my services to the poor and am in demand as a motivational speaker. In truth my award and recent success was earned by everyone who helped put me back on my feet again. The award was their moment to shine not mine. The people who helped me up when I was down have never been forgotten.
There are still parts of me that hurt inside that are probably broken but hey, I’ve learned to go easy on myself, to forgive myself and to not be so harsh when I fall short of my own expectations.
It’s a chequered life, but my chequered flag is still flying.