As psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross says, “The most beautiful people… are those who have known defeat, suffering, struggle, loss, and have found their way out of the depths.” These words ring especially true for Tessa T., who at 23 years old, sits tall with confidence as she shares her story. Tessa looks back without judgment at the girl she once was, knowing that without her past, she would not be who she is today.
LIFE AT SCHOOL
As a child, Tessa struggled academically and socially. Her academic challenges were first identified at the age of seven, when she required additional support in subjects like math. At 12 years old, Tessa faced relentless bullying and often sought refuge in the school counsellor’s office. “I had a really hard time socializing in a way that people would describe as typical. Connecting and making friends was difficult.”
School was not something Tessa looked forward to as a child, or as a teen.
In high school, Tessa recalls, “The bullying got worse, the older I got. It never let up.” At 16 years old, Tessa endured a traumatic event involving an online predator. With her mental health in jeopardy and the situation at school worsening, Tessa felt alone and misunderstood. “There were days that were just really dark, where I didn’t want to be here anymore.”
In class, I had a moment of clarity where I thought, ‘This is the right path.’ I got butterflies. I’ve never felt so sure of a decision in my life.
Neither Tessa, her teachers, nor her family suspected she was on the autism spectrum. Given the limited awareness of autistic behaviour in females, it wasn’t easy to recognize the signs. “With women on the spectrum, a lot of the traits are different. Most of the research was based on diagnosing men.”
At 20 years old, Tessa’s life changed when she learned that she was neurodivergent. With an official diagnosis and specialized support from a psychiatrist, she finally understood herself. “I was relieved to get my diagnosis because I always knew something about how I experienced the world was atypical. Nobody had the right word for it, which meant other labels, often very hurtful ones, would take its place. When I finally learned the correct word for what I was experiencing, I remember crying and finally feeling like I could accept myself. I wasn’t any of those awful things… I just had needs and abilities that a lot of people would consider ‘different.’”
With a newfound self-awareness and perspective, Tessa also found the will to change her life. “I realized no one’s coming to save me. I will have to do this myself.”
Tessa sought the guidance and support of a professional counsellor, but she had to do the work. As a true alchemist, Tessa used her pain and uniquely beautiful attributes to soar. Inspired by her own personal transformation, she sought to share her experience with others and enrolled in the Counselling Therapist program at Stenberg College. “A lot of my differences became my strengths as I learned to embrace them instead of being ashamed.”
Her pain gave her the ability to empathize with those who have faced similar challenges in life. “In class, I had a moment of clarity where I thought, ‘This is the right path.’ I got butterflies. I’ve never felt so sure of a decision in my life.”
A lot of my differences became my strengths as I learned to embrace them instead of being ashamed.
LOOKING FORWARD TO SCHOOL
This time, school was different. “I loved the connections I made with my peers. I had a really hard time fitting into a school environment before, and the difference was unbelievable. I’ve never felt more welcome in a classroom.” Tessa graduated with an inconceivable 99% grade point average in her program. Clinical Counsellor and instructor Benjamin Wong, RPC, says, “Tessa first impressed upon me through her earliest written assignments and journal entries, in which she would carefully compose honest reflections, opinions, and queries. This level of dedication is extremely rare. And right off the bat I knew Stenberg was blessed to have crossed paths with a learner beyond responsible, intentional, competent, and resilient.”
Her instructor Rosemary Fromson, RPC, MPCC-S, and former president of the Canadian Professional Counselling Association (CPCA), adds, “Tessa is brilliant… and has chosen to work with folks who have developmental disabilities…She will be fantastic with this demographic.”
Now, I look at myself and think, ‘you’re a strong woman. You’ve accomplished so much.’
Tessa says that her diagnosis has been a gift throughout her academic journey. “I truly believe that it helped me do so well in my program. The way my brain works is that when I’m passionate about something, it becomes my whole world.”
During the program, Tessa was able to apply her extensive knowledge and experience in her practicum. “I supported individuals with developmental disabilities and had the best time of my life. It was an opportunity to connect with people who have had similar experiences to mine. I was able to use my lived experience and insight in ways that could help them.”
Inspired by those she supported, Tessa plans to adapt the modalities she learned in the program to be better suited to the needs of neurodivergent individuals. She is working towards joining the CPCA and opening her own private practice. “Because I’d been a client, I knew how important that help was for me, and I really wanted to be the best counsellor possible for others. That motivated me to keep going. I found so much joy and passion in the work I was doing.”
Because I’d been a client, I knew how important that help was for me, and I really wanted to be the best counsellor possible for others. That motivated me to keep going.
CONNECTED AND HEALED
Today, Tessa has a strong support system she is grateful for – her peers, instructors, fiancé, and family. From co-organizing hikes with her colleagues to exciting marriage plans, Tessa has created profound social connections. But more importantly, Tessa is healed. “Now, I look at myself and think, ‘you’re a strong woman. You’ve accomplished so much.’”
And although life hasn’t been easy, Tessa is grateful for both the good and the bad, recognizing that all her experiences have shaped her. She is now exactly who she wants to be: a strong woman, an advocate for neurodivergent individuals, and an inspiration to others. “I hope my story helps other people accept themselves.” She continues to grow every day with compassion for her past self, driven by her mission to make a difference. Through adversity, Tessa has prevailed.