Book review: ‘Grace, Under Pressure,’ by Sophie Walker
Special to the Daily
“Do I have to clean my teeth tonight?” is how Sophie Walker’s heartfelt memoir, “Grace, Under Pressure: A Girl With Asperger’s and Her Marathon Mom” begins. It was those daily repetitions and the ensuing battles that inspired Walker to search for a balm for the stress of raising an autistic child. Grace, Walker’s vibrant and sensitive daughter, was diagnosed with Asperger’s at the relatively late age of 8, and both before and after the diagnosis, navigating the daily traumas and dramas about nearly everything became overwhelming.
Walker found herself sunk into a pit of despair, and popping anti-depressants, until she was barely able to manage her own daily life — including a career as a journalist for Reuters — let alone provide the immense amount of support her daughter needed. Walker balked at the concept of medicating herself in order to cope, and she was determined to find another way. “I didn’t want pills to make me numb. I wanted to feel the fault lines fracturing my chest.”
Yearning to maintain the mental and emotional presence needed to help her daughter, but still longing to find a way to relieve her own mounting stresses, Walker decided to revisit running, something she had dabbled in during her pre-parenthood years. In her desperation for a fix, she set her sights high, making her goal the London Marathon, tying her attempt to a fundraiser for the National Autistic Society. Once the donations began to funnel in, she realized there was no turning back, and a brief panic followed, but she soon found that the planning and the prepping provided additional motivation.
“Grace, Under Pressure” is part training log and part family journal, detailing both Walker’s race preparations and the journey of discovery with Grace throughout the process. Having never run more than 3 miles, training for a marathon was a daunting endeavor, but, so, too, was raising a child with autism, and it was Walker’s hope that weaving the two processes together would give her a sense of structure in an endless series of seemingly ungovernable days.
Walker discovered that the time spent running was like a therapy session with herself as both patient and analyst, and many days she returned home tired, sore, but reinvigorated. But just as often, the schedule of training became nothing more than another item to cross off her already exhausting to-do list. She realized, though, that the runs of ever-increasing mileage were not steady paths of improvement, but laborious trials filled with pitfalls and utter collapses, which she sensed were a lot like her life with Grace.
Walker relates an emotional recollection of the days and weeks immediately following Grace’s birth, when her daughter already seemed to be pulling away from the world and turning inward. After Grace was finally diagnosed, Walker beat herself up for not having noticed the many clues that something was not right, and with this hindsight came awareness of past moments which should have been classic red flags, if she had known what she should have been looking for, but the life of a new parent — even with a healthy child — can often be frightening and isolating.
For years, Grace had been suffering extreme bullying at school, and Walker hoped things would improve with the diagnosis. But she also feared the label and the connotations and assumptions that accompanied it. She struggled every day between the urge to “smile and nod” when people said Grace was just going through a phase and choosing a confrontation that could turn away once loyal friends.
Many who have a family member with Asperger’s push back against the belief that they have to be cured, and Walker wonders that instead of trying to correct the notion that a person would be normal without the Asperger’s label, perhaps the definition of normal should be shifted. As she ran and mulled her situation, Walker was inspired to try to stop analyzing the whys and whats of Grace’s diagnosis and focus, instead, on supporting the person inside.
Coinciding with the months of race training was the arduous process of getting Grace placed in a school setting that could accommodate her needs. Walker paints a very clear picture of the crushing bureaucracies that govern the care and attention that Grace was mandated to receive by Britain’s inclusive health care system. She discovered that the process to get Grace that care was more overwhelming than the marathon training.
Undoubtedly, running a marathon is a taxing experience, and finishing a race is an accomplishment, but Walker reminded herself that the suffering and mental and physical exhaustion she navigated to complete her goal was nothing compared to her daughter’s struggle to get through each and every day. There was no daily finish line for Grace, only another cycle of misunderstandings, isolation, despair, as her daughter coped with the day-to-day awareness of the “wrongness that hovers over some of her actions.”
Walker ran to better understand and respect the challenges her daughter faced, and the journey she captures in “Grace, Under Pressure” is captivating and brimming with insight into one family’s experience with the overwhelming realities of autism. The author’s devotion and fierce love for Grace are woven into every page and every mile, and her book serves as a testament to the healing power of empathy and the power of living compassionately.
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