In 2003, Australian woman Ingrid Poulson (pictured) faced a reality all women pray they will never have to face – she lost her two young children and her 60 year old father at the hands of her estranged husband. Remarkably, since the event Poulson has gone on to complete a master’s degree in cognitive science and has written a book on resilience, called Rise. She spoke with Julie McCrossin at the recent Happiness and Its Causes Conference in Sydney – Lisa Saremel reports.
“At the point of that loss I was thinking – why am I still here? This shouldn’t be happening in any kind of sense,” she told Julie MCrossin. “What really struck me about that experience was that things continued to happen. The world continued to turn, there were other people going through their own things, and I was doing them too. I’d go and stare in the mirror and say ‘what are you doing?’ You’ve survived this and perhaps you shouldn’t have.”
Poulson met her ex-husband, Phithak Kongsom, known as Neung, in Thailand. After Poulson fell pregnant they settled in Sydney and had two children, Marli and Bas, aged 4 years and 23 months. After the birth of her second child the marriage began to falter and when Neung started acting violently, Poulson left with the children.
Neung became increasingly threatening towards Poulson, breaching an apprehended violence order she had taken out against him to protect her and the children. Tragically, while Poulson was reporting a sexual assault that had taken place the night before, Neung found the children being looked after by their grandfather Peter, and attacked all three with a knife. He then fatally wounded himself.
It’s an unimaginable scene, but rather than portraying herself as a victim, Poulson went on to assist police to develop better practices in dealing with domestic violence. Now though, she chooses not to discuss the events of that day.
“Its part of the self imposed therapy that I decided to practice, which was that I don’t need to re-experience that event, I don’t need to go through what I went through again, I don’t need to recall it,” said Poulson. “I don’t see that it’s had any negative impact on the way that I’ve come through, I think it’s been one of the positives.”
She points out that practicing resilience is not about denying the reality of the loss.
“I’ll be aware of anniversaries. I’ll be aware of happy events such as Christmas being not so happy, so I’ll protect myself and I’ll buffer myself. I might say to myself I need to not have a lot of people around me this time, I might need a doona day, or I might need lots of people around. The dark side is there, the unhappiness is there and I think if we are continually just trying to reach for the bar of happiness we deny ourselves the ability to go through those negative emotions.”
“When we do go into those negative emotions we start to think there’s something wrong with us or that were failing in some way because were failing to be happy. What I found in resilience is that it’s different from strength. Strength is this idea that you’re stoic and that you keep going, whereas resilience allows you to go down.”
Poulson is aware that the fact of her existence can be vital for women who have experienced a tragedy in their lives.
“I have had, sadly, other women who’ve experienced something similar. They ring me and say, ‘I just want to know that you’re real’. I don’t have to say anything – I just have to stand for something that can survive. So in a way, it is important to have role models.”
In her book, Rise, Poulson offers coherent advice for anyone going through adversity, outlining that support played and continues to play a large role in helping her to survive.
“I have a wonderful mother, I have an amazing sister and I certainly had a lot of support, and I do refer to myself as a very lucky person because I recognise that the amount and quality of the support I got in this first period was so fundamental in how I came through,” she says. “The capacity and ability to reach and accept support at that time is incredibly important.”
Identifying the values she had before the tragedy, such as those of love and compassion helped her strengthen her will to carry on. It is the four components of resolve, identity, support and an everyday plan that comprises Poulson’s model of resilience in the book.
Now she continues to help others through her own business Steadfast Training, which runs workshops on resilience, emotional intelligence and stress management for people in the workplace.
At the core of Poulson’s resilience lies a resolve to survive and to find meaning in the present.
“We are brought up with a very entrenched view of right and wrong, so that when something goes wrong, we start to look for why. I must be to blame in this cycle somehow, because this huge cataclysmic event has happened to me, so I must have done something wrong.”
She explains that the wrong question is why. “Actually, we don’t have to attribute meaning to this – the event does not have a meaning, what has meaning is what I make of this, what I do now.”
“You can be in the worst kind of emotional state and make that decision and externally, it looks like you’re still the same, but you’ve made that decision in yourself and it’s that decision that will actually guide you forward.”
About the Reporter
Lisa Saremel is a teacher and freelance writer from the Blue Mountains, NSW. Lisa has journalism credentials from the University of Technology Sydney and this is her first piece for Australian Women Online. For more information visit Lisa’s website lisasaremel.weebly.com