According to Merriam-Webster a defense mechanism is defined as, “an often unconscious mental process (as repression) that makes possible compromise solutions to personal problems”. Defense mechanisms are not thought about or planned rather something that develops as a spontaneous reaction. I have become quite skilled at this. Recently I noticed I developed my newest defense mechanism: wearing a ball cap and dark sunglasses.
As I recently wrote, I am on vacation back in my hometown. I was concerned about how I would respond when familiar strangers approached me to pick up conversations we left off having years ago. I knew people would remember me. They would remember what we used to discuss or anecdotes regarding when we last saw each other. My reaction to these people would be a mix of confusion and quietness. This reaction could be viewed as a lack of interest. This though is very far from the truth.
Having acquired prosopagnosia, or face blindness, does not necessarily mean a person who used to be very social is destined to become shy and inverted. The need for social interaction, the desire, is still there for me. I still want people to visit with me. I am still excited to catch up with old friends and be introduced to strangers. There is an awkwardness that comes from being in a place where you are outgoing before prosopagnosia alters your life leaving you now unable to identify familiar people by facial recognition. Prosopagnosia, similar to epilepsy and the sight problem I have developed, are not noticeable to others that see me pass by them. According to the way they see me, I am still just a local girl that has moved away for an extended time.
And so, the awkward moments are inevitable. I become shy and unsure of myself when I know people will notice and remember me. I struggle with a way to tell people who have known me for twenty years that I no longer have a clue who they are. Anyone that has ever spent time in a small town understands when I say “everyone knows everyone”. They notice when a new person walks around town. They also notice when natives come back to town to visit family. People noticed me.
I came to town with questions and concerns filling my mind. How do I explain to people that I still think highly of them, I continue to carry great memories of them, but I apologize that I have no clue who they are. How do I tell people my memory of their faces is completely gone, but the memory of occurrences still remains strong? How do I not confuse people who just wanted to say hello and welcome back? How do I get close to familiar people when I can only see strangers? I had more questions than answers. Because of these lingering questions and concerns, I developed my most recent defense mechanism.
Several people came up to me at church and said they were surprised I was back in town. They questioned how I was and how long I would be back. I did not mind these questions. It was a comfortable environment. I remembered everyone in a small church, and I knew who usually congregated with whom. Some people even sat in the exact same spot they have for years! I laughed as they asked these questions delighted to see old friends. One person said, “Are you back with your kids? We could not help but wonder if that was you!” They explained they did not want to holler out though because they were unsure of whom the new person was in town out walking around. How did I not get recognized though they said several people had asked if my identity was known?
Every time before I stepped out of my parent’s house I made sure I grabbed a few important things. I always slipped on some dark sunglasses. I pulled a ball cap tightly down over my forehead. I did not think about how I never used glasses and a cap at the same time back at my own home. I did not consider how different I appeared when no one could see my face. Yet, I did use an unconscious mental process to solve my personal problems. I found a way to reverse how people appear to me now. I found a way to allow myself to become the familiar stranger walking quietly along my hometown sidewalks.