Walking through the doors of the local Westfield where I worked, the wave of cold air conditioning was a welcome relief.
It was February 2009, and for the past week, Victoria had been hit with a severe heatwave.
By 11am that morning, the temperature was already nearing 40 degrees.
Six weeks pregnant, I’d been experiencing morning sickness every day and the heat certainly didn’t help.
With high winds sweeping the state, the premier warned it was perfect conditions for a bushfire, but there was no indication that we were under threat.
As the day wore on though, customers visiting the shop were updating us on blazes that had erupted across the state.
We’ll be fine, I told myself, trying to stay calm.
But within an hour, our customers were becoming more panicked as the fires grew closer.
Then, one person revealed it had reached the mountain near Flowerdale where I lived with my partner, Paul.
Phoning him right away, he confirmed he could see the flames from his parents’ house in Whittlesea, on the other side of the mountain.
I need to leave work, I thought. I had to rescue our two dogs and cat!
But by the time I reached Paul, 40 minutes later, the road to our home had been blocked off. Instead, we were forced to take cover at his parents’ house where we watched the mountain burn in front of our eyes.
As thick smoke filled the air, it became harder to breathe but, feeling shocked, I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the tragedy unfolding before me.
Soon, the whole mountain had gone up in flames and we had no way of knowing whether our house was still standing.
Then, at around 2am, we received a phone call from our neighbour who confirmed it was gone.
Numb, we went later that day to the place we had called home for the past
10 months and where I’d envisioned our children taking their first steps. But all that was left was a pile of smouldering rubble.
Our belongings had perished, our pets had vanished and our lives as we knew it had been destroyed.
We had nothing left but the clothes on our backs.
It became known as the Black Saturday bushfires, one of the most catastrophic disasters in Australia.
Thankfully, we were able to stay with Paul’s parents while our home was rebuilt.
Determined to stay strong for my baby, I tried to remain positive and refused to let anyone see how stressed I felt on the inside.
When Ciarah was born in October that year, she was a beacon of hope. But by keeping my emotions bottled up, I soon began to unravel and suffered anxiety attacks.
Three months later, I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from the fires, and was placed on medication.
I’d struggled with my weight my whole life, but eating to cope with the stress, I was soon tipping the scales at 133 kilos and wearing size 24 clothes.
Miserable, I was desperate to make a change, but even when I cut down on my meal sizes, the medication I was taking made it difficult to lose weight.
So, I went to see my doctor who referred me to a specialist to discuss gastric sleeve surgery.
I need to make a change now, I thought, desperately.
I signed up for Weight Watchers, where I learned about portion control and setting goals for myself each week. By eating smaller meals and cutting out junk food, I noticed a difference in my energy levels.
I also started going for daily walks and doing workout videos at home while Ciarah napped.
Better still, when I moved my body, my anxiety seemed to just melt away, and in time, with the help of counsellors, I was able to come off my medication.
Then, 12 months after my first appointment with the specialist, I received a letter saying my surgery was approved if I wanted to proceed.
But by then I’d already managed to shed 20 kilos, so I threw it away.
I can do this on my own, I vowed.
Incredibly, two years later, I’d lost a whopping 70 kilos naturally and was wearing size 8 clothes.
After having my second daughter, Indie, in 2015, I was able to lose the baby weight myself again. But the weight loss had left me with loose skin.
So, in November last year, I underwent a lower body lift to remove the excess skin.
Sadly, Paul and I have separated.
Nine months on, I feel confident in my body. Training almost every day, I’m proud of how I’ve transformed my body – and my mind.
I’ve been able to inspire others on my Instagram too, @fitandhealthychantell_.
But the best part is knowing what a great role model I am for my daughters, Ciarah, now 11, and Indie, five. They are my driving force to be the best version of myself I can be
Chantell's day on a plate
Breakfast: Eggs on an English muffin or overnight oats.
Post workout: Chicken and rice.
Lunch: Salad with salmon and avocado.
Afternoon snack: Rice cakes with ricotta.
Dinner: Lean meat and vegie stir-fry.
Dessert: Dark chocolate or low-calorie ice-cream.