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woman reading feature

Monday Moment: I read my friend’s harrowing book and I cried…

Emma Grey

I started reading Kristen Holzapfel’s story, “Selfless“—an account of trauma, Depression, Anorexia, self-harm and recovery—over my scrambled eggs on Saturday morning. I planned to indulge in the first few chapters, fold the washing, write my newsletter and see if there was something I could take the kids to for the Canberra festival.

I was one of Kristen’s elder sister’s friends at school and we’ve forged our own friendship as adults. I knew much of what she’d been through already (and found myself appearing as one of the characters in the memoir, with the pseudonym “Anne”, with an ‘e’ I noticed, which made me smile).

What I wasn’t prepared for was the way Kristen dragged me into the pages and engulfed me in the red-raw anguish of her 30s, leaving me barely able to breathe. Hours passed. The book was devoured. The washing and festival plans were discarded. Kids and husband were snapped at for squawking around me like a brood of needy seagulls while I was desperately trying to get through the searing pain of Kristen’s experiences and make it safely to the ‘good bit’. The bit where my friend fought her demons and won. Where she recovered.

I’ve read books on people’s personal traumas and battles with mental illness before. They’re harrowing. Strangely compelling in a ‘There but for the Grace of God go I’ kind of way.

Reading your friend’s personal story of trauma and mental illness is another beast altogether. Her fear and panic, the anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts, the agony of disordered eating—it’s brutal.

As “Anne”, I found myself popping up in the pages in a supporting role I was glad to have played. The reminder that I’d been able to drop everything a few years ago and run to her when she needed a friend most made me grateful I’d done that. But what of all the other times? Reading the entire ‘unplugged’, unabridged, uncensored version of the tortured tale—I wondered if I could have done more.

At the same time I know I couldn’t have. Commitment to my family, work, health, extended family and other friends stretches me already. Kristen’s descent into mental illness was as a result of burnout and what’s known as ‘vicarious trauma’ through being a helper in her social work. Of all people, she knows how important boundaries are, and would never have expected more from any of us.

Throughout her story there’s a painful sense of ‘drifting’. Of feeling a failure. Of not ever really finding a career to which she feels truly suited. There’s a strong theme of always falling short, professionally—as front-line social worker, support worker, team leader, Human Resources officer, admin assistant…

But the more pages I turned and the faster and more deeply I fell into her agonised, brilliantly-articulated world, the more obvious the answer became.

Kristen, you’re a writer. You have a gift. You write the kind of words I read and think, “I wish I could write like this”.

Your book is complete but your story isn’t finished. Your battles may not be over. Your strength and tenacity and powerful vulnerability is astonishing.

You quote Sean O’Casey, “All the world’s a stage and most of us are desperately unrehearsed”. You speak of your body “leaking stress”. You talk of feeling “mad”.

You say that writing wasn’t cathartic. That it was ‘exquisite agony’. You talk of sharing the draft with your family and having them read it until there were no secrets left. Writing didn’t fix anything. It didn’t undo anything. But your closing line, given all that comes before it, is one of the most powerful I’ve ever read: “Nothing anybody else says or does can make me less worthy”.

To finally feel that way is a triumph. It’s miles and miles and miles away from where you were the day “Anne” dropped everything and held your hand while you sobbed in a cafe. You have come so far, and I am indescribably proud of you for “reaching into the thick, black hole of your memory” and finding the courage to tell us about it.

Selfless: A social worker’s own story of trauma and recovery is available here. Kristen will be interviewed at the next Canberra Wise Women event on 5 April.

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Emma Grey

Emma Grey is the Canberra-based author of ‘Wits’ End Before Breakfast! Confessions of a Working Mum’ and ‘Unrequited: Girl Meets Boy Band’. She’s director of the life-balance consultancy, WorkLifeBliss and co-founder of a fresh approach to time-management, My 15 Minutes. She lives just over the ACT border with her two teen daughters and young son. More about the Author

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