I’ve decided to spread a little awareness. This is partly due to the fact that my boiler has died and it’s 15C (59F) in the warmest room in my home. I plan to spend the day hibernating under blankets – and a blog post seemed more sensible than blowing my wages on internet shopping! So yeah. I have prosopagnosia.
You may have heard of this by its nickname – face blindness. Put very simply, you all look the same to me. Some people acquire this through injury, I was born with it. All of my other mental processes are normal. (I think!) I had an inkling during school that maybe I was a little different. In my early 20s, I was mugged and first heard the term ‘face blindness’ when I was asked to sit with a police artist – and I was of no help whatsoever. “Describe his eyes.” “Erm… he definitely had two….” It wasn’t until I was in my 30s and braved this internet malarkey, that I discovered Prosopagnosia and realised that I had an actual ‘thing’.
I’m lucky. Some people have it worse than me and can’t recognise themselves in the mirror, or even their children. If you put those people at 100% on a scale, I’m only at about 68%. (According to tests.) I’m actually part of 2 studies at the moment. Not so much as one of the participants, but in helping fine tune slightly ambiguous questions that are asked during tests.
I won’t go into the technical stuff. There’s a Wikipedia page for those interested. This post is how it affects us and the implications it has on life. The easiest way to describe it, is like the Matrix film. Imagine living in a world of Agent Smiths. What this means in reality, is if you’re out and about and someone walks up to you and says hello, you freeze and your brain goes ‘Oh crap.’ Then you go into overdrive. Some people seem to work from a mental list that groups people into places – and they try to initially work out which group you belong in and then narrow it down. I seem to do this the other way around. I get a sort of mental list of everyone I’ve ever known and start deleting people to narrow it down. And bear in mind that you have to try and do this while you’re having a conversation with someone that you’re not sure who it is – and try and ensure you seem ‘normal’.
Things that make life extraordinary difficult include hats and sunglasses. Hairstyles and facial expressions get hidden which can be huge things to clue us in. The same goes for hoods in the winter and scarves pulled up high that muffle voices and possibly hide an easily identifiable scar or mole. (I can’t spot a good friend in a roomful of strangers. But I could draw a pretty accurate map of freckles for anyone I interact with regularly.) The other is seeing someone out of context. If I’m working in a care home with 28 residents and 8 members of staff – during that shift, I’m only running those names through my head. However, when you see a colleague in the supermarket, you are so screwed. A real life example of an out of context situation. I went to my nan’s house. There was a man there, working in the garden. I assumed he was a friendly helpful neighbour. 20 minutes later I discovered it was my cousin who I usually only see about twice a year. A cousin in my cousin’s house is easy. A cousin in my nan’s house, not so much!
You learn coping mechanisms. Some people learn to became fashion gurus and identify people from clothes. This never really worked for me, because in the UK all schools have uniforms and then I ended up working in Healthcare, which is also a world of uniforms and hair tied back. I have become a bit of an expert on the way people move. Everything from the way people walk (trust me – you all do it differently!) to the way a woman fiddles with her hair and uses her hands as she talks, or the way a guy fiddles with his trousers! Next on my list is voice. Not just your actual voice, but your speech patterns and the phrases you use. And one of my best tips if you’re still stuck after a minute or so, is to ask ‘how’s the family?’ Because usually a name will get mentioned that clues you in.
You can come across as anti-social as you shy away from social situations. You will always choose a girlie night in at a friend’s house over a night on the town. You want to slap women that change their hair regularly and men that regularly change facial hair. You dread going into town alone. Especially as you have to wear a permanent cramp inducing smile on your face as too many times you have been confronted with “What’s up? I saw you the other day and you blanked me.” Which now means that slightly undesirable characters will stick to you like glue. You know there’s always that one strange person on the bus? I am a magnet for those people because I’m the one that smiles at them. You end up in your family’s bad books, because you reluctantly attend weddings and funerals, but always find a way to immediately leg it after the service and not stay for the after party.
A lot of films are a pain in the butt and hard to follow – as the buggers change clothes regularly. And if it’s a military uniform film or a martial art film where they all have scalp locks or shaved heads – just forget it. Your husband can only handle you saying ‘Is that Jet Li?’ about 20 times before he gets a pained expression on his face and sighs a lot.
Sometimes things happen though, that you can giggle about later. A couple of years ago, I bumped into my vicar while I was walking my dog. We had a chat and said our goodbyes. A couple of months ago, I again encountered my vicar on a dog walk. Only, after blurting out that I was sorry I’d been absent from church for a while but life had been mad etc…etc… It turned out to be a mate on his way home from a fancy dress party. You’d think a cassock would be an easy clue – but apparently not!
But then something happened and life got so much easier. If you have prosopagnosia, do this. If you know or suspect someone has it, tell them to do this. It’s so simple, but boy, does it make life so much easier.
Tell the whole bloody world – and tell them via Facebook. Do a ‘coming out’ post. My friends have been so awesome. They now greet me with “Hi Sam, it’s ‘x.’ ” I cannot properly express how much difference this makes to daily life. Or the tears of joy when I finally agreed to go to a staff party after working there for 15yrs – and found they’d all made name tags. And doing it via Facebook has an added benefit. When you’re in a supermarket or something and stuck and the person doesn’t introduce themselves, you can immediately discount everyone on your friends list while running mental inventory. And people will also express relief as they ‘thought something was wrong’ but now they understand that I just didn’t know it was them.
So yeah. That’s prosopagnosia. And bloody hell – it’s so cold in here!