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$300 loan.

It was supposed to be our dream vacation. My husband and I were in Hawaii, watching surfers defy physics on Oahu’s North Shore waves.

But multiple recurring injuries and chronic pain had changed my body and my weight, and thus my abilities. In my heart, I was still the active, lively person I’d once been: a dancer, a command-post controller in the Air Force, a go-getter. I wanted to grab a surfboard and rush into the ocean, but all I could do was watch from the sand. In that moment, it was clear my life was passing me by.

Soon after, I cried out one morning, asking God to help me or take me, because I couldn’t keep living this way.

A Vicious Cycle

My chronic pain started 17 years ago, when I was pregnant and on bed rest for nearly the whole nine months. Then, just two months after my daughter was born, I had to resume my military training at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia, even though I was not yet recovered from my difficult pregnancy. Whether it was wartime or peacetime, my job required that I be in top shape, and training involved strenuous fitness drills, running, and carrying heavy weapons. I told everyone, including my commander, that I was in intense pain, but they didn’t take the time to see if I needed help.

I soon injured my wrist and back. Then my neck and shoulder began to ache. I felt intense pressure from my superiors to lose weight, because I had to be ready to deploy at any time. So, on top of all my painful training, I began starving myself.

A year after my daughter was born, my enlistment ended and I returned to civilian life. My whole body felt sore and fragile.

Even with the burden of my military demands lifted, I continued to struggle at home. Motherhood was often stressful and exhausting. I developed a taste for banana-split breakfasts and frequent slices of cake — I figured that if life had to hurt this much, at least it should taste good.

I felt so guilty that I couldn’t be the mother I thought my daughter needed. Even something as simple as running to grab her before she toddled into the street would send me into spasms of pain. I couldn’t play with her at the park.

In fits of inspiration or desperation, I sought help from doctors, massage therapists, physical therapists, and personal trainers. Most of them offered the same advice: Live with the pain, work harder, or take more pills. Any of those “treatments” could have been a defining moment, but I found them unacceptable. I’d recover enough to join a gym, only to feel an old injury flare up. The cycle continued for years, but I refused to give in.

The memory of what it felt like to be in shape — the rush of endorphins, the blissful feeling of strength — was always with me. Deep down, I knew I needed that release.

Ready for Change

Then, four years ago, my husband, daughter, and I moved to Arizona. My grandparents had both been diagnosed with cancer and needed help. The irony wasn’t lost on me: I couldn’t take care of myself, and here I was, supporting them.

But I was driven by love. I was very close to my grandparents as a child, and I missed out on many years with them while I was in the military. I wanted to do this for them. After my grandfather died, and my grandmother moved to an assisted-living facility, I realized I could not take care of one more person until I started caring for myself.

After the Hawaii trip in 2014, I finally got inspired to make some healthy changes, starting by revamping my diet. I knew, given my voracious sweet tooth, that I needed to cut back on sugar. My veggie smoothies didn’t taste great at first, but I soon began to enjoy them. Gradually, I started to lose weight.

Because I was eating better, I had more energy, so I started swimming in an outdoor pool. It was soothing, and it made me feel like a kid — plus, it was gentle on my body. But even in Phoenix, I didn’t want to swim outside past November.

I joined the local Life Time Fitness, just so I could use the heated pool. I’d found a form of exercise that was sustainable and pain-free, and I didn’t want to branch out and risk injury. But when the manager learned about my situation, he was genuinely concerned and suggested a personal trainer who could help me focus on truly healing. I decided to give it a shot.

Within a week, I started working with trainer Gavin Woodland. He prescribed various strength and stretching exercises for me — both in and out of the pool. Some of them were so gentle, I wondered if they’d work. The years of suffering and poor guidance had left me jaded.

A New Hope

Thanks to swimming, nutrition changes, and Gavin’s help, I started making slow progress. Instead of fighting through the pain, I was developing the strength I needed to heal. It was like building a firm foundation after years of putting fancy trim on a crumbling house.

Gavin never pushed too hard, but he did lead me forward. I was soon able to trot on a treadmill for the first time in 15 years. I even forgot I was running: I just got lost in the music in my headphones. The pain was gone.

He also suggested I try Pilates, and though I was intimidated at first, I quickly realized it was the missing puzzle piece. The exercises were gentle, but they targeted all of my weakest areas. I had to fight back tears — not because of fear, but because I knew it was going to work.

I’ve followed my new regimen for almost a year now. I’m on a low-glycemic diet: no starches, no bread. I listen to my body and go to the gym when I feel like it, which is most days. I attend Pilates class three times a week, swim, and do functional exercises.

I feel inspired to do more. I work at a ballet school, an atmosphere where nothing seems impossible: The kids can raise a knee to their ear as casually as you might raise your hand. They believe they can do it — and they are onto something.

I want to start dancing again. I want to go back to Oahu and surf. I want to hike and roller skate and do everything I missed doing with my daughter when she was young. I wonder if there were things I could have done before my injuries but never attempted because they seemed impossible. I want to try it all.

I’m not a cynic anymore; I’m a believer.

Success Summary

Meet: Kristina Bonnici, 39, admini-strative assistant at the School of Ballet Arizona. She lives in Phoenix with her husband and daughter.

  • Big Achievements: Never giving up hope, even during her darkest days, and working through nearly 20 years of chronic injuries to find a fitness routine that worked for her.
  • Big Inspiration: Finding a personal trainer who understood her situation and was able to help her design a sustainable workout regimen that she says “transformed my hope into certainty.”
  • What Worked: Listening to herself and her body. “If my motivation was based on my looks, I was always disappointed. My inspiration had to come from within,” she says. She couldn’t measure her progress against any rules, social norms, or her past self.
  • What Didn’t Work: Not prioritizing her health and hanging on to the cynicism built up after years of shoddy guidance. “Basically, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” she says.
  • Words of Wisdom: “Everything you give up, you will gain a hundredfold,” she says. “It’s like buying a lottery ticket for a dollar and winning a million dollars. The cake you gave up is junk, and what you get in return is so amazing you cannot possibly imagine it. I can roller skate; I can do an arabesque. Those were some hallelujah moments.”

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