Gym Rat Project: How would you describe your childhood and your relationship with your parents growing up?
Oaklee Friedman: Growing up I was mentally and emotionally abused from different angles. My parents were divorced and they always talked bad about each other and would put me in the middle of it. But it wasn’t just that,each one treated me differently in their own abusive way. My mother was almost too involved, manipulative you can say, where she didn’t want me to be independent in any way. It always felt like it was a catch-22 with her because she would not want me to know how to do things but then at the same time she would get mad when I didn't know how. My dad was always forced me to workout and tell me that I was obese or would say something negative about my body when in reality I was a normal sized kid. I was never allowed to express my feelings because when I did, they would make me feel bad about it or would make me feel that I was the reason why something bad happened. I would try so hard to make sure I was perfect and a good kid, so I could finally win the approval of my parents.
GRP: How was being treated this way affect you?
OF: It was affecting me more mentally but it also affected me physically. I had extremely low self esteem. I would walk around all the time almost in fear of other people. I would think that I didn't deserve anything. I had no sense of self. I also developed an eating disorder. Eventually, the way I started thinking about myself led me to think that I was not physically capable of much, and moving became very painful.
GRP: For a long time you thought that being treated that way was normal. How did you come to the realization that it wasn’t normal.
OF: To me, living that way was so normal because it had been going on forever. I thought life was supposed to be miserable all the time. I started talking to friends and I would see their reactions. They were so distinct and extreme that it allowed me to open my eyes. I started reading online about abuse. There were a few websites that were explaining the different kinds of mental and emotional abuse. Reading them helped me see it in words, and that helped me understand better what was happening to me. I was also privileged enough to be put in therapy because my parents thought I had issues. I cycled through a few therapists. Each time I would tell them what it was like for me and they would be astounded by the things I said. A few times I managed to have sessions where each parent came in separately and had the opportunity to speak. Of course they never took responsibility for anything, and it would end up in some sort of argument. But at least my parents were hearing it from someone other than me about the real issue.
GRP: Were your friends and others around you aware of what it was like for you?
OF: They didn’t really get what was going on until I got to high school and I started talking about it. They were very surprised because they had no idea. They never really saw how my parents really acted, especially when it came to my mother. My mother was very different in front of others. She would be angry and yelling at me in the car one minute, and the next, we would get out of the car and she would act like nothing was wrong in front of everyone else. It was nauseating to watch, it also made me feel like I was a brat because people would see me keeping to myself and not socializing, but they didn’t know it was because I was getting yelled at just a minute ago. She would get mad at me because I was making her look bad.
GRP: What were your coping mechanisms, how did you manage to escape?
OF: Talking helped a lot, even though it’s hard to do. Even to this day, it is still hard to talk about it because it’s such a painful memory, but every time I talk about it, it gets easier. I also discovered that dancing was very important. I managed to put my energy into it and it helped me to keep my mind off of things. Being at the studio and not having to be at home was my way of being able to escape it. I think in a way, the things that my parents suppressed me from were the things that allowed me to rise above it. I was always kind of silenced. When that happens you become more of an observer. I was an observer for most of my life and I eventually used it to watch other people and I took in what was going around me and it gave me a view of what happy was and that was what I wanted. I then came to the conclusion that I needed to get out. I knew I wanted to dance and I had fallen in love with NYC when I came once before, so I applied to schools that could take me there.
GRP: You mentioned there was a time that you almost felt that moving around and doing basic tasks was too painful, can you explain how this came to be and how you conquered it?
OF: I was so depressed and stressed out that my mind took over. I started believing that I couldn't move. It felt like I had tendinitis all over my body. I wasn’t sure what was going on. It was something that developed over time but It was triggered because I had hurt my right Achilles, and I decided to stop dancing for short time to give it time to heal. I took the time off and that was when it felt like it was getting worse and spreading through my body. I was able to move but it was very painful. In reality taking the time off took me away from my only outlet and my depression just got worse to the point that it affected my body. My mom took me all kinds of doctors, not realizing that she was a big source of the problem, so that just fed into me thinking that there was something wrong with me. One of them was a physical therapist who did a lot of myofascial release at the same time as she would be talking to me, she figured out that my body would react differently, in a positive way, when I would talk about dancing. I would explain to her that I felt like I was a bird trapped in a cage that wanted to get out but couldn't. She helped me notice that I needed to get back into dancing and start moving.
GRP: Once you managed to start your life in NYC free from all the abuse, what were some of the biggest challenges for you?
OF: I was very excited when I first got here but I also was very confused because I was getting a lot of attention. In the past I never felt like I was attractive, mainly because of my dad. He would tell me that unless I lost weight that I would never find a guy or that I wouldn't get hired by anyone or be able to get a job. Also in my home town being skinny with no curves, blond hair, and blue eyes was the epitome of being beautiful. So coming here was very different, I couldn’t understand why I was getting so much attention and my new friends would be confused because they didn’t understand that I didn’t see myself that way. Dating was really stressful to me because I felt like they would never be interested in me. It took a lot of work, but eventually my confidence, mental state, and happiness improved. My eating disorder was still something that I had off and on for a couple more years. I feel good about myself now, like I’m the way I'm supposed to be. I’m vegan because of my own personal reasons and I no longer binge. I’m always looking to get better but that’s where fitness comes in.
GRP: We know that dancing played a big role in you surviving, can you tell us more on how dancing and fitness has a positive effect on your life?
OF: Working out and dancing has helped a lot. It’s not about the way I look, but more about having a sense of accomplishment. Just getting better at something and realizing what I’m capable of makes me feel like I have a lot going for myself. I dance because I love it, not because I want to look a certain way. Of course it wasn't always like that.
GRP: Now that you are older, how is your relationship with your parents?
OF: I still have a relationship with them but it’s different now. I learned that people have to have their place in your life. I realized that I can only talk to my dad about certain things and I have to have boundaries that I can’t let him cross. I’ve learned that when he mentions anything about my body or fitness, I just tell him that we can't have that conversation. My mom has a place too.
GRP: What advice would you give to anyone that is in a similar path?
OF: I think the first step is recognizing what’s going on and what’s happening to you, because for a long time my issue was that I didn't know what was happening to me. Talking to my friends helped me to see that there was something wrong. Therapy helped me a lot too. They should find something that they care for to put their energy into, like I did with dancing. Also, removing yourself from the situation if it’s possible.
GRP: Psychological abuse is a subject that rarely gets talked about. Most people don’t know what it is, don’t understand it, or might even think it’s not real. Anything you want to say to people that are having a hard time understanding that it even exists?
OF: Yes, it goes unnoticed a lot. I think most people can tell physical abuse but they don’t see that there are other types of abuse because it’s not as visible. The individuals that are going through it can feel like they are the crazy ones, because others don’t understand. But the thing it is that this is really happening to them, and it affects them in more ways than one. I think people reading about it is very important.