Not so BREAKING NEWS: I have prosopagnosia. I live with face blindness. It was acquired from a stroke. For twenty-seven years, I knew my friends, my family members and my own reflection upon first glance. I no longer have the ability to recognize any of these people.
I was walking my daughters to school today. I let them get a block ahead of me. When I turned the corner, they were farther ahead than I had expected. And now, there were four blond girls instead of two. As always in situations like this, there was a note of concern. The usual familiar situation had changed. The automatic response of relief knowing I was looking at my daughters was replaced by confusion hoping two of the four were my children. Their bags were swinging in front of them. They all had on blue jeans. The profile of their faces was the only clue left for me. The characteristics I am able to recognize were suddenly of no use to me. Adding to the stress, there was a lady walking between me and the girls.
I looked to the ground and noticed wet foot prints on the cement coming from a house half way up the street. Two small separate sets of prints cut close to the grass. A larger print made a wide turn from the driveway to the sidewalk. This house was where my girls’ friends lived. Their two daughters attended school with my children. They rarely walked. Usually their mother drove them. This mother was close to my height and built with a larger frame than me. These clues came together, and I was confident my daughters were within that group of girls. Then sound of laughter fluttered through the air. I knew two of those giggles belonged to my children. It was a beautiful sound offering joy and relief from my concern.
As I caught up to the slowing mother, I called out her name. Generally, this is an event that makes me feel uncomfortable. It is another time I quickly fill with dread. What if the clues did not lead me to the correct conclusion? What if this unfamiliar face is not someone I know, but I have called out the wrong name to a complete stranger? I got lucky this time. I was correct about who this lady was. After chatting for a while, she again mentioned her amazement about my complete lack of facial recognition. She explained, yet again, how hard it is for her to understand how I cannot recognize people but so easily call out a name.
I explained the foot prints left by the morning dew. I explained laughter that flows from my children. I explained habits and the concern when people deviate from these patterns. I tried to make her understand anyone can do this. I never would have believed it either. Before I lost this ability, I always took recognizing faces for granted. Back then I used to focus of fleeting glimpses I could see of friends passing by. Now I focus on more detailed clues like the backpacks my children carry and footprints that offer direction of who also left their house so early on a school morning. I do have face blindness. I do not recognize the faces of friends or family. I do not even recognize myself. Yet I now pay close attention and try hard to notice the clues a person’s habits or patterns provide, cues I see within body language and other news I can gather together that will hopefully help me call out the correct name of a familiar stranger.