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The Psychology of Hope

Mara Tandowsky

Mara Tandowsky (Psychology, ’14) makes a difference for women in need with her knowledge of how the brain works.

 

 

The woman came into treatment in an almost hopeless situation: homeless, raising a child alone and expecting another, in denial about her problems with drugs and alcohol.

Today she is confident and an inspiration to others. She’s pursuing housing, and she’s taking classes that will help her become a better mother. She’s passionate about her recovery and the person she is becoming.

Mara Tandowsky has been a big part of this transformation.

Tandowsky, a 2014 psychology graduate, works for Eugene-based Willamette Family Treatment Services, which provides mental health and substance abuse/addiction care for men, women, youth and families. She’s a women’s residential counselor assistant, but mostly she is a teacher—she teaches a class on coping with post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse to 20 women each week.

“We cover all sorts of topics—healing from anger, healthy boundaries, healthy relationships,” Tandowsky said. “It’s really about giving them the tools to make a change for the better.”

One of the biggest lessons that Tandowsky stresses is simply being able to ask for help. Women who were abused, who have become isolated, need to hear—week after week, Tandowsky said—that being able to ask for help is a crucial first step toward recovery.

Once that hurdle has been cleared, Tandowsky can provide to her clients an array of self-help psychological tools, from anger management to self-care to coping with addiction.

A lot of it is Psych 101, Tandowsky said—or, in her case, 201, which is the introduction to psychological science in her major. That’s where Tandowsky started to work with ideas about the brain’s function and how it relates to behavior; she learned about consciousness, perception, memory and cognition, and how experiences influence thoughts and actions.

“Working with people is so much basic psychology,” Tandowsky said—“anger as a defense mechanism for pain, for example. It’s all information that you can use in real life.”

In upper-level courses, Tandowsky became fascinated with the concept of “neural plasticity”—in essence, the notion that the brain can be reprogrammed throughout one’s life. It’s an idea she never envisioned needing outside of the classroom—but now she finds herself offering it up to her clients as a source of motivation.

In the major, Tandowsky also studied child development, age-appropriate expectations—should a 5-year-old be able to do the dishes?—and counseling skills. Never start a difficult discussion with “you always do this” or “you always do that,” she advises—better to begin with an “I” statement such as, “I feel disrespected when …”

In fact, even courses outside her major are serving Tandowsky today. That’s the benefit of the liberal-arts education, she added—you pick up job-ready skills even if the subject itself isn’t something you plan to pursue.

“Being able to express myself eloquently and with a really good understanding of the topic,” Tandowsky said, “was definitely enhanced by my well-rounded education.”

Granted, Tandowsky’s work today is not all rainbows and puppy dogs. Her job is emotionally and physically exhausting: every week, 20 women share heartbreaking stories of frustration, confusion and pain.

But every week, there is growth, as well.

“It’s incredibly inspiring to get to see the transformation over the time that I have them in my class,” Tandowsky said. “Week after week they show up to class, and it’s, ‘oh my gosh, you’re a completely different person.’ When a client is able to connect the material to their life, I get emotional sometimes. It’s humbling.”

 

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