Goulburn Writers Fest Masthead

Selfless: A Social Worker’s Own Story of Trauma and Recovery

Georgia Mackay

There is this preconceived idea that Social Workers are the strong ones, the ones that don’t need help.

Kristen Holzapfel, author of Selfless – A Social Workers Own Story of Trauma and Recovery, is out to set the record straight on selfless professions and the pressures those in the industry can feel.

In 2007 Kristen Holzapfel had been in her dream profession of social work for six years but at the age of 30 she found herself in a work place that she was terrified of. As a result, Kirsten started assuming responsibility for what she thought were her failures at work and started refusing food.

“I know there are many, many other exhausted and traumatised social workers out there like me. I also know they’re not speaking up, because helpers are excellent at advocating for others and not for themselves,” says Kristen.

Kristen’s research for her book Selfless, published by Collaborative Publications, started when she was looking for memoirs about adult-onset anorexia and couldn’t find one.

“The books that I did find told me the risk factors for eating disorders; a focus on others rather than self, highly sensitive personalities, non-assertive, hard-working, perfectionism. These were also common amongst those in helping professions,” says Kristen.

Kristen hopes Selfless becomes both a warning and a beacon of hope to those who dream of being in a selfless career.

“I’m really just your average representative of the helping professions – a young woman with a strong sense of social justice who wants to make a difference in people’s lives. I don’t want to dissuade anybody from entering the helping professions. Social work is an awesome profession,” says Kristen.

In the process of reading, writing and talking Kristen discovered that what occurred to her was a response to trauma, in her case the response was Anorexia Nervosa.

In a previous post on HerCanberra, Kristen wrote about how incredibly addictive starving oneself can be. Having spent 30 years eating perfectly well and having no close friends or family with an eating disorder, Kristen says she knew very little about the nature of the beast that is Anorexia.

“I was a 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? Kristen wrote.

“[I believe] there is a taboo and I’ve found it to exist in the workplace, the community and amongst helpers themselves. Helpers, especially, need to feel they are safe to tell their employers their difficulties without fear of reprisal,” says Kristen.

When asked whether writing Selfless was cathartic or difficult, Kristen was honest and said that parts of it were agonising.

“The process of writing down my experiences and thoughts, however, played a major part in helping me to understand myself and my body. That was a big thing for me. I felt my body had betrayed me. It was as if my brain wanted to continue doing what needed to be done, but my body replied with a big, fat “NO”,” says Kristen

“It took four years for me to write this book and I needed a lot of support. Thankfully, I have a brilliant psychologist and GP and they have helped (and continue to help) me through”.

“Despite how hard it was to write down my experiences, the process has – in the end – been a precious gift. I’ve made sense of what happened and why I responded the way I did. I have a much clearer view of the person I was and how much I’ve grown since that time.”

Selfless is Kristen’s story of a time that saw her give up the career she had dreamed of since childhood. However, Kristen doesn’t regret her choice to become a social worker and encourages others to enter the helping profession.

“I use my social work every day so, in many ways, I don’t feel I’ve entirely let my career go. I have accepted, however, that frontline social work positions consistently trigger trauma responses and are unsafe for me.”

Kristen believes employers need to implement active practices to minimise burnout and trauma in the workplace.

“Rather than relying on employees to recognise their own symptoms and independently seeking assistance, employers need to be more proactive in this process.”

As for Kristen now, along with the imminent release of Selfless, she has begun to build her own pet sitting business, ‘Canberra’s Friendly Petsitter’, which she describes as hard work but delivers her an endless supply of animal therapy.

Selfless will be available for purchase on 8 March 2016, but is available for pre-order now.

Image of ‘stressed…‘ via Shutterstock

Georgia Mackay

Georgia has just completed her degree in Communications and is excited to have the opportunity to intern with HerCanberra. Georgia was born and bred in Canberra and has a passion for all things fashion, beauty and lifestyle. She also, like many of the HerCanberra girls, enjoys great food and coffee and loves discovering new places to eat and drink in Canberra! Georgia is a true Canberra advocate and is excited about, among other things, the development of the creative scene in our capital. She believes Canberra is an exciting place for people of all ages to be at the moment and thinks it is only getting better. More about the Author

  • Bree Wyeth

    Having met Kristen and read this book I am so pleased to see someone is trying to bring light into this area. Helping professionals are so reluctant to seek help and raise this issues in real time in the workplace. I think Kristen bravely sharing her story is one important step in breaking down the stigma of vicarious trauma and mental health problems in the helping professions. Well done Kristen and thank you for sharing your story.