I used to be strong. As a girl, I was a fast runner and skilled tree-climber who took pleasure in stunts. At age 12, I was the strongest jumper in my ballet company, leaping so high that I fell behind the beat of the music, still falling to earth as the other dancers rose into their next jumps. My high-school senior track season, I ran nearly 700 miles. I competed in 10k road races, a half-marathon, and two marathons. In college I taught aerobics and took up powerlifting, usually the only woman in the weight room. I loved to say to my lifting partner in that casual-tough voice, "Gimme a spot?"

After an ice storm, a disabled student who lived in my dorm asked for help crossing a treacherous street; I carried her through the frozen slush with no effort. It made me feel like a hero. I could feel the pulse beat of my youth and strength. I could save the world.

Or at least I could eat anything and everything—downing four plates of food in an hour of continuous eating was not an unusual event. After college, a weightlifting coach tried to recruit me to a natural bodybuilding team. From childhood through my 20s, I was a formidable athlete who made all-you-can-eat buffet restaurants quake at my approach.

Now, after four major surgeries and myriad health issues, I can raise my left arm with difficulty, have many allergies, and frequently face nausea, sinus problems, fitful sleep, and fatigue. When I tell my students that I used to be a powerlifter, they glance at my skinny arms in disbelief.

A Crucifix of Sorts

Tears of agony rolled down my cheeks as I hung with outstretched arms from the lat-pull machine, trying to break up the scar tissue immobilizing my shoulder. It felt like my bones were breaking. When I described to a colleague ...

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