Walking into a meeting room at Pan McMillan’s offices in Sydney I am greeted by a very healthy and vibrant looking woman in her mid-thirties. As I fumble through my large handbag looking for my cassette player unable to think of any suitable small talk, she is the one who puts me as ease, asking about my bracelet and telling me she used to do a lot of beading. As she talks I get the feeling that this is something she has become very accustomed to doing, because most people are at a loss for words when they first encounter a young woman whose husband murdered their two small children and her father, before killing himself.
The introduction to Ingrid Poulson’s book Rise starts with an account of these horrific events which occurred in 2003. But the book itself focuses not on what happened to her, but rather the tools which have helped her deal with this situation.
‘When I started to write a book about my experience I always had to emphasise not what happened to me, because that would be a sob story and I never really wanted to write a sob story. I wanted to write a story about how to cope with adverse events and everyday common stresses,’ she explains. After this devastating event she found plenty of literature about awful occurrences in people’s lives, but not a lot about how to survive.
One of the issues which has been huge for her is guilt.
‘Losing a child is like this primordial guilt. It’s something you almost don’t have any control over. It’s like you’ve failed in such a fundamental way to continue life, as you have this parental responsibility to rear your children and look after them,’ she says. This guilt surfaces constantly, Ingrid continues, but she has chosen not to succumb to it, and instead to be as happy as she can.
Giving herself permission to be happy and live a full life has been another big step. After the event she realised that it would be quite acceptable for her to never recover and just give up, as society would actually condone behaviour of almost any form given what she had been through. However, Ingrid made the more difficult decision choosing to get up again and keep going.
One of the causes she contributes to her phenomenal resilience is the suicide of her brother – almost exactly ten years prior to when she lost the rest of her family – when she was twenty-one.
At that time she learnt about the unpredictability of friends.‘You would swear that certain friends would stand by you and they just can’t, whereas other people who are side line to your life become amazing in that period of time.’ From this experience she understood that she could not afford to take other people’s reactions personally, realizing that if she thought that they were no longer talking to her because she was a difficult person this had a very detrimental impact on how she viewed herself.
Prior to writing the book she had already set up a business training people in resilience skills. Initially she targeted people who had experienced trauma themselves, but now she is working more with corporations with the realization that resilience is a skill that can be used in many everyday situations.
Rise stands for Resolve, Identity, Support and Everyday, which Ingrid believes are the four most important aspects of resilience. Resolve she sees as about promising and giving yourself permission to survive and move forward. Identity is emphasizing the aspects of your character which have resilient qualities such as flexibility or empathy. Support is realizing that you need the support of other people whatever inner strength you may have, and everyday is about eating healthy food, exercising and getting enough sleep.
One of her big lessons has been the discovery of how simple the mechanisms are to get through dire events and also that they are the same strategies that are needed for getting through a bad day. What she admits she finds hard is persistently taking the necessary small steps such as looking after herself and keeping promises to herself.
However, Ingrid has followed her own advice, and her life today is evidence of the positive choices which she has made. Now five years after the fatal event she explains she is very excited because she has just bought herself a unit. She is also in a relationship, and when asked if she would consider having more children replies:‘It’s a scary thought, but I am not going to deny myself all the good things in life because of what’s happened to me, and one of those good things in life is children.’
This 36-year old woman’s strength and resilience and her decision to cherish and enjoy the life she has been given, in the face of such adversity, is a true inspiration.