Kristen Holzapfel is a long-term Canberra resident and author of“Selfless: a social worker’s own story of trauma and recovery” (available at www.kholzapfel.com)
I had a podcast conversation with Kristen earlier in the year, and it’s a pleasure to host this piece on my blog.
In addition to being a Social Worker, she has a Diploma in Human Resource Management and a Graduate Diploma in Professional Writing.
One of the insidious effects of Vicarious Trauma is a growing, sickening feeling that the world is an unsafe place.
This change in world view is reinforced by the stories you hear every day from the survivors of crime and trauma who struggle to regain their footing after experiencing horrendous physical and emotional injuries. Hearing these stories every day, it’s hard not to feel that the world is overpopulated with dangerous criminals who apparently lurk around every corner.
In 2006, I’d been a child protection officer for three years and, throughout every one of those 1095 days, I worked hard to slough off the hardened, cynical coating that threatened to encase me.
Yes, I experienced Vicarious Trauma. In my case, this manifested as a serious eating disorder, for which I was hospitalised in 2009. It would be years, however, before I fully realised the extent of how the Trauma would impact on my relationships with others.
In 2010, I was thirty-three and had resigned from child protection services. Now, I was a social worker in a small team analysing cases of completed suicide from a nominated community group. I looked for anything that may have increased or reduced the risk for these people and whether there were any common triggers. What could we learn from these deaths?
Considering the range of data before me, I realised that almost every single person in this study who had completed suicide had been affected by a recent relationship breakdown. The most common contributing factor in all the deaths was a broken heart.
Barely a year into my recovery, it was understandable that such emotive research had the potential to de-rail me. But I was full of bravado and a commitment to paying my bills and getting on with life. Underneath the bravado, I was searching for evidence to support my view that, for everyone’s safety, it would be best to lock myself away from the world.
In my traumatised mindset, I found plenty of evidence. As a child protection worker, I’d spent years listening to survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault tell me about the full impact of their experiences. Reflecting on their horrific stories (and the research right in front of me), it was easy to believe that falling in love was indeed a dangerous proposition.
So, I quit love. For the next seven years, I remained single and concentrated on me and my own recovery.
After two, three or four years, I could have shaken myself awake and reminded myself that some risks are worth taking. But, then my anxieties would surge and I’d think about…
those horrific client stories.
the possible rejection.
the flashing red lights that went off in my head, shouting “Danger! Risk! Go Back The Other Way!”
And I continued to choose the safe option.
By the end of 2017, I’d have loved to share my life with someone, but had been out of the dating game for so long I’d resigned myself to the single life. There was (is) nothing wrong with being single. It was (is) a good life. My physical and mental health was stable and I was enjoying the freedom of living my come-and-go lifestyle. My confidence was building and, for the first time in a long time, the future was beginning to feel rosy.
That’s when I met a boy and we – oops – began dating. Still believing myself to be a romantic liability, I blundered my way through the early months of our relationship. I made him do all the work (sorry, babe!) and struggled to believe that someone could want to be with me, just as I am.
But he does.
I’m immensely grateful for the time I spent as a single person.
I’m immensely grateful to be in love with an amazing person.
I’m immensely grateful for the career that has provided me with opportunities to grow into a bigger and better person.
I’m immensely grateful to live in a wonderful world populated by amazing and beautifully complex human beings.
It’s all been worth it.