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A dark journey to finding bliss…

By Kristen Holzapfel — August 21, 2013

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.


About Author

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.

(15) Readers Comments

  1. Michelle Sultana
    Reply →
    August 21, 2013 at 7:35 am

    Hi Kristen,

    What an amazing story. So raw and real. Congrats for putting your story out there to help others. You are so strong and I admire you.

  2. Silverdragon
    Reply →
    August 21, 2013 at 8:25 am

    Thank you for sharing so honestly, Kristen. Every day I see people who have chosen caring professions struggling with mind health. Many of them come from far less stable backgrounds than you and have their own demons to slay as well as dealing with what comes their way each day from clients or patients. I can’t wait to read your book, you have wonderful insight and wisdom. So glad you reached out for help, it’s a lesson we all need to take on board. All the best with the publication of your book. :)

    • Kristen Holzapfel
      Reply →
      August 21, 2013 at 10:05 am

      I am really touched by the fact you have taken the time to send me notes of such warmth and support. I’m so encouraged to hear my social worker stories are stories shared by so many other helpers out there! My book still has a long way to go (currently 50,000 words and counting!) but, rest assured, I’ll keep you posted on further progress. Sending positive thoughts out to you, and all those suffering from ‘helper fatigue.’ Xoxo

  3. Jay Channells
    Reply →
    August 21, 2013 at 9:34 am

    Hi Kristen, please do share with us when your book is released, it is an important story that I really want to read. I am impressed by your courage and your strength, and very grateful to have learnt about your journey. Thank you for sharing, Jay

  4. Joanna
    Reply →
    August 21, 2013 at 9:39 am

    Thanks for sharing – this is a very important that we need to have as a community. Best of luck with your book and journey to recovery.

  5. Maree
    Reply →
    August 21, 2013 at 9:48 am

    This is a powerful story, and written beautifully. Thank you for sharing.

  6. Laurin
    Reply →
    August 21, 2013 at 9:57 am

    I worked as a case worker for a long time and ended up with vicarious trauma too.. Four years later and I’m still fighting mental illness. Just wanted to say thank you for sharing your story. I hope things continue to improve for you, it sounds like you have a good network around you.

  7. Sonja
    Reply →
    August 21, 2013 at 11:37 am

    Thank you so much for sharing your story. I think sometimes we all take on too much responsibility and this causes unimaginable stress which is shown through our health and how we care for ourselves. Keep up the good work with the book and I look forward to reading it :-)

  8. Susan
    Reply →
    August 21, 2013 at 6:18 pm

    Hi Kristen…. I am not a professional social worker but I can definitely relate to your story. I would love to read your book when it is released. Thank you for sharing your story. Much happiness to you. :)

  9. Sera
    Reply →
    August 26, 2013 at 2:37 pm

    Thankyou for sharing this.
    I know so well that feeling of “I’m a social worker, I should have the answers”. I’m very lucky in that my workplace is not one that punishes if you are brave enough to identify those demons of blurred boundaries and hyper responsibility. We must recognise that we, just like our clients, are human beings and prone to emotional peaks and troughs. Its only by reading stories like yours – and how you overcame it – that we uncover the serenity within.

  10. Yvonne
    Reply →
    August 26, 2013 at 3:29 pm

    I really appreciate your brave choice to go public with your story. Like others who have commented, I too work in the mental health field and somedays are worse than others, walking the tightrope that is boundary. None of us are immune from falling off the tightrope. But for the grace of god go I was and still is my catch cry.
    My favourite part of your post above is this ….

    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.

    I wish you the very best :)
    I look forward to reading your book.

  11. Melinda
    Reply →
    August 26, 2013 at 8:43 pm

    I have always thought that social work, psychology and counselling would be a very difficult job for the reasons you have given. Thankyou for sharing your story. I wish you all the best in your recovery and am looking forward to reading your book. Where will be able to purchase your book from?
    All the best

  12. cHa
    Reply →
    August 26, 2013 at 8:53 pm

    This is an amazing story.

    Tough one! Really, I can understand where she is coming from…and what she has been through in her life.. I was also a Social Worker previously …so, i know so well how she feels…,She is A strong woman to overcome this kind of difficulties and struggles on her innerself.

    But it seems that Through that traumatic work experience she had in the past , this was the way that brought and led her to find her own happiness…the passion of writing. Writing Her own story would be a very helpful for the healing process on her life journey. I bet that would be her cup of tea and she would be really good at it.

    • cHa
      Reply →
      August 26, 2013 at 9:03 pm

      Goodluck to her life that is full of lessons. She is an inspiration… Lets all remember that we, people are human..we are not robut or machines;, we have feelings and emotions :) We are important…Our well being should comes first at all time. Take good care of ourselves.

      I cant wait to read your book.

  13. Kate
    Reply →
    November 7, 2013 at 10:17 pm

    I have just felt like i’ve read a reflection on myself, my life…and the way in which my journey is going. I am a lot younger, and am currently trapped in a 10yr battle with my own ED. The fight is huge, and i too have the amazing GP, Psychologists, Social Workers and Dieticians. They’re a determined team supporting me and ill forever be thankful.
    Thankyou so much for sharing your experience. And i too, so look forward to reading your book when its released. I really feel like I will resonate and find so much comfort, encouragement and motivation from it.

    I wish you all the very best as you continue along your path of recovery, wellness and discovery!

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