Muscle is Recovery

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“I give both Karen and pole a lot of credit for my recovery journey, because before I started pole, I never believed in the word “recovery.”

Amber Harkin

Activities: Pole Fitness and Dance

I learned about Amber’s story from a video United Pole Artists posted on Facebook. When I watched the video, I was truly moved and knew she would be the perfect person to help relaunch the MCBMI blog. Her story is one of graphic pain, hope, and inspiration, it’s a story of a young woman learning to love herself, her body, and realizing what is truly important.

I initally planned on posting her interview May 7th, not realizing the importance that date held for her, and then I realized May 8th, would be a better date to  post, because it is her birthday! So HAPPY BIRTHDAY Amber, this day is a blessing for you in your journey and I pray you celebrate many more birthdays! Thank you for sharing so much detail of your life with me.

Q:  Tell me a little bit about your early years. Where were you born and what was your childhood like?

My mom is American, she was born in New Jersey and my father was born in Londonderry, Ireland. He came to America when he was younger, and that is how he met my mom. I was born in Florida. After my birth, my father didn’t want to move back to New Jersey, so we all moved to Londonderry.

As a child, I was outgoing, I loved to laugh and joke and I ate a lot but my childhood  was always very hard. Being brought up around drink (alcohol) I never really knew what every night had in store.

Q:  Do you have any siblings? If so, how many, and where do you fall in the order?

I have one brother called Daniel, he is the oldest at 31. I also have two sisters, Katylyn who is 29, and Ashtyn who is 27. I am the youngest, I will be 26 on the 8th of May.

Q:  Were you active as a child? Did you play any sports?

I was active. I loved sports, I was always running. I was a sprinter and high jumper.

Q:  How old were you when you were diagnosed with Anorexia? Prior to the diagnosis, when did your struggle really begin?

I was 22 when I was officially diagnosed, but I had been struggling with it for years. I was around 14, in Secondary school, when I started throwing my lunch away and stopped eating. My mom was the first to notice. Things really became difficult for me once my family found out I had Anorexia and was in severe starvation mode. I felt when they found out, I got such pressure from everyone to eat and get better, just like that, but it was never that easy and still isn’t for me.

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Q:  Four years after your diagnosis and you say it still isn’t easy for you to “just eat.” Why?

It’s hard because now, even though mentally, I know what I should do, physically it is difficult. The hardest part of my condition, is not being able to do what I know I should… eat. Holidays are especially hard because there is so much food, and everyone is eating, and I can’t.

Q:  At the height of your struggle, what were you going through physically and mentally?

At the height of my struggle, I woke up with a rash all over my body called Eczema Craquele. I spent six months in bed, unable to walk. My body was eating itself to stay alive, and it felt like I was actually on fire. I don’t know how I survived that pain, I would scream in agony and was hospitalized twice because of it. None of the doctors or nurses had ever seen anything like it before, they didn’t know what it was. My kidneys were shutting down, Osteoporosis was setting in, I was having heart problems, Diabetic comas, and was wheelchair bound because I couldn’t walk.

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During this time, my uncle, with whom I was very close, was dying of cancer. I will never forget him grabbing my hand and smiling at me, as he passed. It felt like he felt my pain. I will never forget the pain of not being able to do anything as he was passing, and how helpless I felt. I was unable to walk and had to be driven around at his funeral. My dad had to carry me so that I could leave my flower at his casket, it is a pain I will never forget. Till this day, I am still trying to figure out what caused the eating disorder, but I know this was what I was going through at my lowest weight and my worst.

Q:  I think the thing most people have a hard time wrapping their minds around, is, why does it happen and why is it so hard to get over, when all you have to do is eat. Can you explain it, from your point of view?

This is something I actually ask myself everyday in my journey, why is this happening to me? Sometimes, things like this happen in life to challenge us, and our strengths, and this is mine. They say sometimes you have to lose yourself, to find yourself, but I personally think if it was that easy, I would have never had to experience what I have, with my eating disorder. I wouldn’t have had to listen to my family being told, I wouldn’t make it to my next birthday, because my kidneys were failing. I would have been able to walk at my uncle’s funeral, but unfortunately, it isn’t as easy as people think it is. All of my life, I have had people make comments like, “just eat anorexic bitch, you need 10 burgers…” People leaving comments like, “you are too skinny…” but not really knowing how much you have to hate yourself, to deny yourself the most important thing it needs to survive. It is extremely painful having to wake up everyday being controlled by the same demons as the night before. It is a constant battle, a constant struggle… There is a quote I have always loved, “Telling someone with an eating disorder to just let it go, is like telling someone with a broken leg to walk it off.” – to me, it says it all.

Q:  Tell me how you started Pole Fitness?

I always wanted to try pole, I had seen videos of competitions and routines. No one wanted me to try, because they thought it would be too hard for me. I reached out to a local studio called Pole Infinity, and they put me in contact with one of their instructors, Karen Baldwin. They set me up with Karen because not only did she teach pole, she was also a Cognitive Behavioral Therapist (CBT). Karen agreed to work with me and I’ve never looked back. That was a year ago, without pole, I wouldn’t be here.

Q:  You give pole a lot of credit in your recovery journey. Why?

I give both Karen and pole a lot of credit for my recovery journey, because before I started pole, I never believed in the word “recovery.” I had spent most of my journey in hospitals, having my family told I wouldn’t make it to my next birthday. My body was shutting down, my kidneys were failing. I would fall asleep every night holding on to my Holy necklace that my sister got me, to keep me safe. I spent my journey in the clinic and at doctor appointments, three times a week. I had always wanted to try pole, but I was always told what I couldn’t do. I couldn’t walk to the store, couldn’t exercise, couldn’t walk my dog, I wasn’t allowed to do anything at the clinic I was in. I had planned a trip to America with my sister and was even told I couldn’t go because I was at high risk of going into cardiac arrest. I remember just being fed up with being told what I could and couldn’t do.

I was always amazed by the pictures I saw on Pole Infinity and Beyond Gravity Yoga’s Facebook pages. I decided I wanted to try it, and wasn’t going to let anything stand in my way this time. I remember telling my parents I was going to go against medical advice, and do it. They looked at me with fear and said I wasn’t strong enough. Now they say it’s the best thing I have ever done.

I first started the clinic May 7, 2014 and was discharged May 7, 2016 for no improvement. There is no feeling as scary as the one of having no therapist, no help. I think that was the day I accepted that I wasn’t going to survive, and my eating disorder was going to take my life. I was in severe starvation mode and left with no help at all. Karen took me on for a private pole lesson and that is when I found out she was also a CBT. I always remember her telling me to take my focus off the food part and put it on something I love, that love became pole for me. She offered to take me on as a private patient, and I can’t even explain the relief I felt. I remember my parents saying, “Amber please take it, and listen to everything Karen tells you, this is your last chance. She used the thing I loved most to help me in my therapy. Pole saved my life, so I will never be able to thank this woman enough for everything she has done for me. I would not be alive today without this woman, and pole fitness. She saw in me what no one else did and believed in me, when everyone else had given up on me. She came into my life and saved me. My mom and many other people tell me, meeting Karen has been the best thing to ever happen to me. She has been a light and strength I had never experienced. She is the most beautiful and special person to come into my life, and walk with me every day on my journey. I always refer to it as “our journey” because it is a journey I would have never seen, let alone been able to have a chance at starting, without her, and there is no one I would rather walk my journey with. She is my teacher, my role model, my strength, the person I look up to the most, she is the world to me.

Q:  Prior to pole, what treatment did you receive and why do you think it was not successful?

Before I started pole, I was attending a clinic in Ireland called Old Bridge House. I went three times a week for two years. I also had doctor appointments where I would review my charts and progress with the doctor every month. Nurses would also check my blood, ECG’s, and weight once a week. I honestly think I didn’t progress, because the focus was on how much I weighed and what I was eating. To start therapy with a weigh-in, set the tone for the rest of the session. Because I wasn’t gaining weight, it just created more anxiety. I remember the therapist telling me how bad I looked. One week in particular a therapist named Angela, actually said, “I looked like someone with cancer.” Every week I felt worse, they would come to my house and weigh me and at one point, my nutritionist made a bowl of pasta, set it in front of me, with a fork and said she wasn’t leaving until I tried it. I just broke down and cried. The focus at the clinic was food and numbers, Karen’s focus was completely different.

Q:  I first saw your story on a video released by UPA (United Pole Artists) on Facebook. How did the video come about?

When I first was released from the clinic, before I met Karen, I was looking for something to help me. I searched for video to encourage me, to give me hope, and I couldn’t find anything. That always stuck with me, so I decided that I wanted to create something to encourage and help others who may be struggling with Anorexia as well. I started the video two years ago. It was a very difficult video to make because of the memories it brought up, but it was well worth it. I was able to share my true recovery process. UPA came across the video through a partner of their’s who shared my story. They contacted me on Facebook wanting to help my story be heard and they made the most beautiful video. They put it out for the world to see and I am truly thankful. They are the most inspiring, special and amazing people and I am so lucky to not only have them as a part of my life, but also a part of my story as well.

Q:  Karen started a  program called The Recovery Program. what is it, and how did it come about?

The Recovery Program is a unique program that was designed by Karen, to help women who suffer from severe psychological difficulties. It combines Pole fitness with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and was created through Karen’s inspiration from working with me and a woman called Marianne, and watching our progress.

The program is set up with each class being two and a half hours. The first hour is Cognitive Behavioral  Therapy, where you learn psychological tools and concepts to deal with various difficulties and help you manage your mind. The second hour and a half is pole fitness where you learn how to become empowered women doing the impossible. So the program promotes both mental and physical strength.

Q:  Who is The Recovery Program for, and how many participants do you have?

The program is for ladies who suffer with psychological struggles such as, but not limited to: Depression, Anxiety, Low Self Esteem, Confidence Issues, Eating Disorders, Insomnia, and Stress. Each course capacity mas is ten people.

Q:  I know you work with many of the Recovery participants, how did that come about?

After sharing my story and Karen putting her idea for the program into action, she asked if I would like to be a part of it. She wanted me to share my story and be involved with the pole fitness part of the program. I was so honored that she asked, and it’s been the best thing. I love being part of the group.

Q:  What is the biggest thing Anorexia has taken from you, that pole has started to give back?

My self-esteem and confidence is something Anorexia took from me, that pole is giving back to me. Pole has been my reason to fight, my focus, my strength. It gives me a reason to challenge my body to the extreme. It gives me a place of happiness, a place to feel free. It is what I live for, it has saved my life. I would not be alive today without it and Karen.

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Q:  Give me one word to describe how you felt, the first time you tried pole?

The first time I tried pole, I was scared. I was afraid of everyone seeing me. I used to struggle to do moves in front of everyone.

Q:  What do  you feel now when you pole?

I feel free, it is the only place I can go and all my worries, everything disappears. It is a love, a feeling I have never felt and the most amazing feeling as well.

Q:  How many days a week do you train and what keeps you going back?

I train two days a week and I also help with the pole portion of the Recovery Program two days a week.  What keeps me coming back besides the love and feeling of being free, is the Pole Infinity staff, they are family to me and it is truly a special place to be because of them.

Q:  What has pole taught you about yourself?

Pole has taught me that I never appreciated my body enough for what it could actually do, not to focus on what it looked like or the number on the scale. It has shown me that I am not afraid to push my body to extreme levels to achieve moves like the Rainbow Marchenko, because no pain will ever hurt me like my eating disorder. I has shown me my body can do more than I ever realized and that I have to get through my own storms to be my own rainbow.

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Q:  You have come a long way in a year both physically and mentally. Where do you see yourself in the near future (3-5 years) from now and the distant future (7-10 years) from now?

Thank you very much. I would like to take pole dancing to a professional level in the future. Being able to do what I love and inspire people just like me. I am inspired everyday by all the amazing pole dancers out there. It would be a dream, but one I feel I can achieve

Q:  Has everything you have been through, and are currently going through, put life into perspective and if so, why?

I would say it has, because I am in recovery and that is something I would have never done a year ago.

Q:  What advice would you give someone coming to you in the early stages of Anorexia? Would the advice be different for someone at the peak of Anorexia?

I would say, I was someone who didn’t believe in the word recovery once, as well as I was someone who shouldn’t be alive today. If I can start my journey, you can start your journey too, I do believe this. I would also say recovery is extremely hard, but it isn’t as hard as living with Anorexia. You have the power to say, this isn’t how you want your story to end. I know it may not feel like it, but it’s true and recovery will feel like you are dying a million times and every inch of you  will scream to STOP, to go back, to stop fighting, but don’t give in. There is so much life waiting for you- you are stronger than you even know, and you deserve recovery. YOU are here for a reason.

Q:  Why did you agree to be a part of MCBMI?

I agreed to be a part of MCBMI because it is an inspirational blog helping women to become more active by sharing other women’s stories. I decided to be a part of it because sharing my story, may help someone else see there is hope and that is all I ever wanted to come from sharing my story.