I was dying; my kidneys and heart were failing - then pole dancing saved my life
At her lowest ebb Amber Harkin, from Londonderry, was so ill with anorexia that she weighed just five stone, couldn't stand upright at her uncle's funeral, and wasn't expected to live another year. Amazingly, she says, developing an interest in pole dancing and the aid of a cognitive behaviour therapist has put her on the road to recovery.
A young Londonderry woman whose weight dropped to just five stone as she battled anorexia says that pole dancing saved her life. Amber Harkin (26) was diagnosed with the illness in 2014. As the eating disorder took hold, her kidneys and heart failed and her heartbroken parents were told she wouldn't live to see her next birthday.
But the feisty Creggan woman fought back. Fate brought Amber and Karen Baldwin, a pole dancing instructor and expert in cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), together. She fell in love with pole dancing and is now firmly on the road back to recovery.
Amber's battle with the eating disorder started in her teens. At school she would throw the lunch her mother had prepared for her in the bin. Her mum began to notice her losing weight and brought her to the family doctor. And so the young woman began an almost-fatal battle with anorexia.
"I always struggled with the way I looked and with my body," she says.
"I always struggled with food. When my mum noticed that I was losing weight and not eating she took me to the GP who then sent me to Oldbridge House Clinic here in the city, where I stayed for two years.
"I got very ill. I weighed five stone. My body was basically eating itself. My kidneys were failing. My family were told that I wasn't going to make it to my next birthday they were so bad. My heart was also failing. I had osteoporosis. My hair was falling out. I had a rash all over my body and I couldn't walk unaided. I would either have to be carried or helped to walk. I couldn't walk for six months.
"They told me that I would end up in a wheelchair. I didn't go out of the house.
"When my uncle died of cancer I couldn't walk at his funeral, my daddy had to carry me. He had to hold me up as I placed a flower on his grave. I felt so helpless. I think that was my lowest ebb."
Amber says that she hopes people understand that her condition is a complex one.
"People would always say to me that I should eat something," she recalls. "They would comment on my pictures on Facebook that I needed to eat 10 burgers. Telling someone with an eating disorder to just 'get over it' is like telling someone with a broken leg to walk it off.
"I don't think that people understand how much you have to hate your body to starve it, to withdraw something that your body needs to live."
In February last year, as Amber was still struggling with the condition, she spotted a pole dancing photograph on social media that was to change her life.
"I was still very sick," she says. "I was around six stone so my weight had increased a little. I was on Facebook and on the Pole Infinity page I saw a photo of a woman doing the extended butterfly move. Somehow it made a connection with me, it inspired me.
"I was always told by the doctors and my old therapist that I wasn't allowed to do anything.
"I wasn't allowed to walk a certain distance, or to walk upstairs, or do any exercise at all. I got very fed up being told what I could and couldn't do. I said to myself: 'I want to do that'. So I got in touch with Pole Infinity - and the rest is history."
At first, Amber says, she was extremely shy and withdrawn and didn't want to practise her moves in front of the class.
But after private lessons and much encouragement from Pole Infinity owner Karen, she joined in the class, came out of her shell and since then has danced in front of hundreds at charity events. She credits her pole coach with saving her life.
"When I told the instructor about my history she put me in touch with Karen, who is a pole instructor as well as a cognitive behaviour coach. She took me for one-to-one coaching sessions. I loved it and couldn't wait to go back every week.
"Karen taught me to focus less on the food and focus more on the move. So I trained very hard and learned how to do the moves. Before long I could do the splits on the pole, the machine gun and the extended butterfly and all these other brilliant moves. I absolutely loved it.
"Now I am working on my 'rainbow'. It is a very extreme pole dancing move. I love that so much that I'm going to get it tattooed on my back. It reminds me that I have to get through my storms to get to my rainbow. Karen and pole dancing saved my life, there is no doubt about it. I would not be here today if it wasn't for Karen. I owe her so much."
Karen Baldwin (43) has used her experiences as a CBT therapist, specialising in post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and all anxiety disorders, to develop 'The Recovery Programme', an innovative course combining CBT and pole fitness. She teaches clients psychological tools and concepts to help them deal with difficulties and to understand how to manage their mind.
"Amber says I saved her life and that is a really big statement to make," says Karen.
"It makes me feel on top of the world to have been able to have had that impact on someone and to be on their recovery journey with them. She did all the hard work. She is such an inspiration and she has made me very proud. It hasn't been an easy journey but she is on that road now to overcoming her hurdles and the change in her over the last year has been incredible."
Amber says she still struggles with anorexia every day, but having a focus and a goal really helps.
"My body has put on weight but it still has a long way to go. I still struggle to eat but I take supplement drinks and I take all the medicine the doctor gives me. I still struggle to eat solid foods.
"It is something that I want to be able to overcome. You have to be strong to pole dance. You have to have real upper body strength to do it. That's why I really want to push myself, but there is only so much my body will take. I have to work really hard to get my body better.
"It is so hard to look at the photos of myself from when I was at my lowest ebb," she says. "It brings back horrific memories for me, of what I came through. I remember everything like a terrible nightmare. It has taken me a while to feel proud of myself, but I realise now how far I've come.
"I'm only a year in recovery and I'm still fighting but Karen has helped me to take my focus off the food part and taught me to put my focus into something I loved which is pole.
"I honestly wouldn't be alive today without her. Pole dancing is what I live for today. Karen is just the most important person to walk into my life she has such special place in my heart."
- Amber and Karen will be taking part in the American Fistful of Steel documentary which starts filming in Northern Ireland in June. It charts the emergence and evolution of contemporary pole dance, as told by the people who have shaped the industry.