The Freak Factor

The Freak Factor is the name I’ve given to the stress that feeling profoundly different from other people causes me. I really feel it a lot talking as openly as I do about experiences such as dissociation. It’s a difficult issue for me to manage. It has roots in childhood bullying for me, where other kids found me different and weird, and I was often ostracised. Freak was a favourite insult and something I heard a lot of. In some situations like this people will shut down and become very compliant and try to fit in. In my case I couldn’t fit enough, nothing was going to get me accepted and there was no reward for shutting myself down like that. So I went in the other direction, and celebrated my independence. When the other kids are ‘normal’ and they are the ones who make you hate yourself, then you don’t much want to be normal.

I’ve found it really sad how many anti-bullying campaigns focus on trying to stop the current victims being targeted. Without a shift in the culture of the class, often all this does is changes which kids are the bottom of the heap. The fastest way out for me would always have been to join forces against someone else, or at the very least turn a blind eye.

So, I have an ambivalent relationship to the concept of being a freak. There’s a point at which I’ve taken on that identity, even found safety in it. When normality is presented as cruelty, indifference, conformity, loss, I’m proud to be a freak. I wore bizarre David Bowie type clothes to casual days, glued gems to my throat, wrote poems down my arms, loved my black lipstick, craved freedom and celebrated diversity. With an affinity for the theatre, the gothic, the circus, as someone who wrote poems, struggled with suicide, burned with loneliness and longed for a life with depth, meaning, and passion, freak was a word I reclaimed and wore with pride, the way some people have done with queer and mad.

But freak also touches some deep wounds in me. Finishing the last years at school I had several recurring dreams that haunted me. One of them was of me, standing alone at night in the school ground. The moon was bright and full and the white bricks of the buildings were the colour of fresh stripped bone. I had paint on my hands, crimson paint. On the long wall in front of me, is the word ALIENATED in red letters as tall as I am. I am stretch tall, starvation thin, legs and arms just skin over bone. In my chest is such hopelessness and rage. There’s paint on my hands that changes to blood and back to paint and back to blood again.

The humiliation and rejection were powerful. The need for acceptance, for somewhere I felt I belonged, something greater than myself I could be part of and give myself to, tore me apart.

Getting a diagnosis felt like ‘freak’ by another name. To stand up in front of rooms of people and talk about dissociation when it is so often feared, misunderstood, and sensationalised is to be hit with the freak factor in a huge way. It can feel like the things about me that are different obscure everything else, dominate my identity, overwhelm even the most basic level of shared humanity. The Gap opens under me and I fall into it. Alienation cuts deeps, and my response is suicidal distress. There’s a point at which I cannot bear any longer that the only acceptance I get is when people don’t know – or pretend not to notice – how different I am. There’s a point at which this ‘kindness’ is unbearably painful and I feel like I’ve got my wings pinned, my shape crunched into something unnatural for me. I crave flight, my own shape, my own name, the freedom to be who and how I am, and the need to be known and to be loved. Whereas talking openly often feels like a bug on the dissection table, pinned back as people investigate a curiosity that ceased to be a person the moment I held my hand up and took on the freak label willingly. People often don’t seem to realise that as strange as they might find how I function, for someone like me for whom this has been how I have always worked, I live in a world where everyone else at times is strange and confusing to me.

At the moment the freak factor is causing me a lot of trouble. I find it really destabilising. There’s a huge conflict in me between my desire to raise awareness, educate, and support people around these issues, and the inclination to never tell another soul, to stay home and lock the doors and paint. I’ve been trying to work out ways to reduce it. Bridges is part of this, having the opportunity to sit in a room of people and feel ‘normal’, in the norm, just one of them is so powerful and such a relief. It’s become part of my safe space, something I come back to when I’m exhausted and overloaded dealing with the freak factor and need to recharge. Mates who accept me, places where I feel I can be myself and accepted, instead of those two needs always being in conflict, acceptance always being the reward for keeping secrets and trying to blend in.

I’ve been thinking of doing talks and things like that as a trip into a desert. For a critter like a frog, that’s a lousy environment. I can handle it for a bit, but too long and I’m going to shrivel up. I need to head back to my pond and soak up some water, get my skin wet. I take that sense of being normal back out with me, of being okay, and try to share it for a bit, to help people see another way of looking at this, especially those who have these issues themselves and feel alone and afraid. Maybe I’ll get better at carrying it around with me. Maybe my pond will get bigger over time. Maybe it will always be this difficult. I’m not really sure. Some days I hide out in my pond and get away from the freak feeling and others I neutralise it by turning into something I value. In any case, considering that a lot of what makes me ‘different’ is about self expression and individuality, I’m certainly not looking to deal with the freak factor by turning myself into a ‘normal’ person. Normal has never been my goal. Healthy, functioning, authentic, passionate, genuinely alive, loving, these are the things I want, the growth I seek. I’m aiming a lot higher than normal.

The task is not to become normal. The task is to take up your journey of recovery and to become who you are called to be.

Patricia E. Deegan


7 thoughts on “The Freak Factor

  1. brilliant as usual, Sarah. Having found age 61 that neurodiverse traits/Aspergers’ strengths and weaknesses describe a lot of my oddities and social awkwardness, deeper than I thought possible, I am beginning to relax into being different, finally – instead of expecting to ‘recover’. You describe the tightrope very well. The only thing I’d like to add is – let’;s also talk HOW we are different, what it means – seeing differently, looking deeper and/or whatever. Personally, I found Sam Craft’s list of female Asperger symptoms very useful – beyond how I ‘fit’ – just as an acceptance of the human spectrum, not wrestling to fit into a dual frame – normal/weird or sensitive/boring… Who was it said ‘everybody is normal until you get to know them’ 😀


  2. Hi Stephen,
    Hmmm, I guess I would I say that I like to use visual ways to express the individuality of my personality and interests. 🙂 I agree, looking for common ground can be really helpful, and can help to balance the areas where we feel really different. Thanks for your thoughts and best wishes for your own journey in this area.


  3. Would I be correct in thinking that you show your individuality in visual ways?
    My individuality seems to be more in my personality and interests (which are generally different to at least 90% of people).
    It's a good question, am I different from everyone else or is everyone else different from me? Lately I've been favouring the latter perspective, although I'm trying to focus on what I have in common with other people for the purposes of being able to strike up conversations.

    Stuff like coming from a dysfunctional family, being friendless, depressed, on the verge of panic attacks has made me feel like a “freak” however.
    Other people's prejudices and lack of education can be tough to deal with, it has been a major problem for me and I have only recently started to get a handle on it. I don't base my self-esteem on what others think of me anymore but I am still working letting go of others' disapproval and not being annoyed by it.

    I think it takes courage to express individuality, I'm reminded that I recently made a minor breakthough with shopping centre anxiety by looking around in all directions like someone who's never been there before (my natural tendency), rather than suppress this and look directly ahead like I normally do (and cause myself anxiety).
    Supression is generally never good so I wish you luck with overcoming your fears of “freaking people out”. I think I'll wish myself luck while I'm at it.

    There's a quote I like on this subject “You laugh at me because I'm different; I laugh at you because you're all the same.” – Jonathan Davis

    I've mostly talked about myself but I hope this is somewhat useful.


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