‘Job left me anorexic and homeless’
HOMELESS and sleeping on a sofa bed in your office at the age of 40 isn't the life most young professionals picture for their future.
But Kristen Holzapfel's unexpected slide into anorexia as a result of her traumatic work in child protection left her jobless, penniless and on the brink of taking her own life.
"I thought anorexia was for 13-year-old ballerinas, not someone in their late 20s," she told news.com.au. "It really blindsided me.
"I was surprised by how quickly it took hold. It's insidious. It took years and years to recover."
Her problems began in 2006, when Kristen began to feel highly stressed by her job and worried that she couldn't do enough to protect her incredibly vulnerable clients.
"I was too burnt out, damaged, fatigued," she said. "I was worried I'd do the opposite, end up hurting them and leave them in more precarious position.
"I wanted to hide away, disappear into a darkened room, not see anyone, talk or eat.
"The world felt like a very scary place, I think my behaviour reflected that. When you're surrounded by clients telling you awful stories every day, it does colour your view of the world. It feels like child abuse is everywhere."
Kristen, from Canberra, was haunted by the injuries she had seen and the voices of the children who begged her for help. She lost her appetite and interest in food, dropping 10kg in the space of two weeks.
"I was too afraid to eat," she said. "In retrospect, it had a lot to do with trauma. The feelings were strong enough to make me panic I was not going to do enough of a good job."
Kristen took 10 days of sick leave, but continued to slowly lose weight and had to leave her job in 2007. She started her own pet-sitting business, but making money was a struggle and the illness had taken hold of her. Within two years, she was hospitalised for her eating disorder.
"My recovery has been up and down," she said. "Not having any money conspired to make me feel the future was hopeless, it was not enough to make ends meet.
"It was one of the really dark times in my life. In 2015, I walked into [the] emergency department and said: 'I've been stockpiling medication.'
"Recovering from an eating disorder is one of the hardest things I've ever done. All these feelings of 'catastrophe will happen and the world will kill me if I eat'."
Kristen moves from home to home caring for pets, and in between, sleeps on a sofa bed in her office.
"It's quite gypsy-like, I move every seven to 10 days," she said. "It's hard, sometimes I feel more homeless than others."
But she said she's "in a good place at the moment", finally feeling safe and that she's a "good person". Kristen was one of many readers who contacted news.com.au after reading our series on Australia's workplace mental health crisis, which looked at why 20 per cent of suicides are linked to work.
Eight Australians die by their own hand every day, six of them men. Many are in high-risk industries that involve elevated stress, shiftwork, lack of control, poor job security or trauma. They include child protection, medicine, firefighting and construction.
Kristen's story fits a pattern. Her job was extremely stressful, she was overworked and dealing with distressing tasks. "We're biologically designed to want to protect children," she said. "Any abuse is bad but it gets to your gut when children are in distress."
Looking back, Kristen wishes there had been more support at the child protection agency, or that someone had noticed something was wrong before it was too late.
There weren't enough resources, and staff were too stretched to help all the desperate families who needed support.
Employees were supposed to have weekly supervision sessions, but she didn't have one for at least a year. Kristen believes there needs to be more support for "frontline health professionals" who deal with trauma clients and crisis.
The pet-sitter still doesn't make much money and sometimes feels as though she abandoned her old colleagues - but says being around animals is far better for her mental health. "People say, my cat stopped me killing myself," Kristen said.
Her goal is now to make the business successful enough to afford somewhere to live.
"I want to have my own home, be in one place. It feels like that would solve a lot of problems," she added.