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The week before Thanksgiving the letter arrived from the doctor's office. Powell stared at the number, sure it was a mistake. Four hundred eighteen? Maybe it's the flu, he thought. The following week he drove to the clinic in Oak Park to have blood drawn. This time his CPK was 500.
It only got worse. By the end of the year Powell's CPK was back up to 1,000. In March the Huskies completed a triumphant season, once again finishing with the most points at the state individual tournament and making the elite eight of the team tournament. Two months later Powell's CPK was up to 6,800, and he could barely get out of bed in the morning. He sank into depression. He'd done his part. He'd researched and kicked polymyositis's ass. He was supposed to be healed, triumphant, on to the next chapter of his life.
He went to San Diego for a wrestling camp and realized he couldn't even demonstrate technique. He saw how the kids looked at him, with pity. Even worse was other people's reactions. "You don't look sick," they said, and that was the thing: He didn't. He was no longer muscle-bound, but neither was he emaciated. He looked like anyone else. Yet even on his best days he never felt as good as a regular person does on his worst. Everything was an impediment: a flight of stairs, taking out the trash, a routine train ride. He tried to explain it: Think about the sickest you've ever been. Now imagine that's how you feel every day.
It did no good. Just as only other wrestlers understand what it means to be on that mat, only other polymyositis sufferers comprehended what Powell was going through. He understood why so many sufferers retreated to their homes to live out their days.
"Every challenge in his life, he'd just worked really hard," says Ryan Casey, who wrestled with Powell at Indiana. "This was the first thing he couldn't outwork."
One thing Powell knew was that he couldn't face more of the prednisone, the corticosteroid he'd taken soon after his diagnosis; it caused him to gain weight and made his face break out so badly that he couldn't bear to look at his wedding photos. But the physical change had been nothing compared to the paranoia and rage the drug had caused. One day Powell had hunched in the aisle of a Whole Foods, sure an 80-year-old man planned to attack him. Another time he became convinced his wife was cheating on him. He roared at her, said things he could never take back.
During those terrible early days he'd told Elizabeth, "If you want out, I'll never judge you. I'll never speak to one person about what it was. I'll tell your parents that I broke up with you. If you don't want to marry me, I understand." She looked at him and frowned. "Shut up," she said. "Don't ever say that to me again."
Now he wondered, though. As he saw it, the Mike Powell his wife fell in love with was gone, replaced by a sad, tired man. One night in the summer of 2010 he sat on his couch and thought about killing himself. It would free Elizabeth from what lay ahead, free him from living this way, from feeling so lonely. He'd always assumed he was different from the others who suffered from polymyositis, that his energy and strength would win out, that he wouldn't be one of those who withered away, forever too tired to put up a fight.
He was supposed to be preparing to become the world's greatest dad, was supposed to be hitting his prime as a coach. What if he lived another 20 years and never again felt alive? How could he show the boys what it means to be strong? There would be, he decided, relief in a quick death.
What does it mean to be a man?