In 2007, I had been working as a Social Worker for six years. The helping profession provides the most wonderful highs but, over the years, I ventured too deep and took on my clients’ monster-sized traumas, shouldering increasingly darker and lower lows. The lines between me and work and life were increasingly blurred. For this, I was ashamed. This shame was driven by ‘should’s.’ I should know how to manage my emotions. I should have practised better self-care. I should have stood up/backed down/listened more/challenged more…
At the age of 30, I found myself working in a workplace that scared me, was terrified of my own clients and, overnight, I assumed responsibility for these failures by refusing food. Yes, overnight.
I found it immensely hard to maintain boundaries between me and my clients, particularly boundaries related to responsibility. I couldn’t discern between the responsibilities of my client, my supervisor, my workplace and my community. As far as I was concerned, everything started and ended with me, the Social Worker. And it seemed this was something vital for others to know. I needed others to see my gaunt frame and see the evidence I took responsibility hard.
I didn’t know why I felt this and was overwhelmed with what I believed to be unspeakable craziness. I also didn’t know how incredibly addictive starving oneself can be and from that very first night, I was hooked. And so work became something inextricably mixed in with bodies, minds, money, illness and three meals of scariness served up on a plate every single day.
Having spent thirty years eating perfectly well and having no close friends or family with an eating disorder, I knew very little about the nature of the beast. I was an adult. I had a web of amazing family and friends and, more than that, I was Social Worker. I should know better, right? Social Workers are meant to be the steady, wise and helpful ones people rely on in times of crisis, right?
Today, I continue to talk back to the voice in my head telling me an empty belly will somehow shield me from the traumas of work and life. I have accepted a truckload of assistance from my family, friends and the world’s best GP. My current psychologist practises a combination of CBT and EMDR techniques to addresses my ongoing nightmares and work-related fears. There is also a psychiatrist, a dietician and, of course, Emma from Worklifebliss. With all of these people, I have gradually managed to unknot work from everything else that makes me me.
I have spent the last eighteen months writing my story, reading prolifically and consuming more research than I can hold. And I find that the very thing that attracts those to the helping professions is the very thing that places them at risk of trauma. All literature reiterates the fact that trauma is best prevented by the implementation and maintenance of strong boundaries. The same boundaries these experts concede are challenging for many, if not all, of us.
The bottom line seems to be that boundaries are easier to implement when one has a solid sense of Self; an appreciation of you and your worth. I gave so much of my Self away, whatever little was left was lost to me. And this is why I call my book ‘Selfless: A Social Worker’s Story.’
If I had to give you all one suggestion it would be to learn; about yourself, by yourself, for yourself. Learn to be your friend. Look to the past for cues. What do those close to you have to say? Ask the hard question but also be gentle. Be still and listen. One day, a storm will take you by surprise and at this time it will be near impossible to reach out. Start practising now.
It is still hard to admit I am unwell and that this journey has left me tired. But my story remains and I can’t change it even if I wanted to. We have come a long way in addressing the stigma of mental illness. Let’s keep up the momentum and admit that when we are vulnerable and need help, those that provide it are at high risk of mental illness. And that’s okay.
As hard as ‘coming out’ to you all is now, I hope it will be useful to us both. My dearest hope is that my conversation begins hundreds more conversations about work and life and finding your bliss.
Kristen has bachelor degrees in Social Science and Social Work and spent eleven years in a range of 'frontline' work and policy/research positions. In 2012, she completed a Graduate Diploma in Professional Writing and has spent the last eighteen months researching and writing her book 'Selfless: A Social Workers Story.' in between writing, she spends her days dogsitting, being a doting aunty and indulging a relentless Facebook addiction.View all Kristen Holzapfel posts.