Overcoming obstacles with Optimism

Posts tagged ‘defense mechanism’

Noticing Your Eyes – As Altered By Prosopagnosia

Thank you MorgueFile and S. Liddell (http://www.scottliddell.com ) for the use of this photo.

Last week, I wrote about facial expressions being as readable since acquiring prosopagnosia as they were when I could still identify faces.  Other nonverbal clues, I now readily observe, required developing more attention to specific details.  By looking at eyes of people passing by, I can learn a significant amount.  Some people will flat out ignore me.  Others will intentionally avoid eye contact.  This is most often noted when people are looking in my general direction.  Once they are close enough to make out my frame, they look away and keep their eyes diverted while we pass each other.  These people, I often think, are either shy or maybe nervous or have another reason they would want to avoid any potential conversation.  Most people will at least glance at a passing person.  When someone does not know me, they look my way and generally nod their head, saying a quick hello, and then find another object to look at as we pass.  Their walking pace neither slows down nor hesitates.  It remains consistent.  If someone does know me, I find they usually raise their chin a few millimeters, slow down their pace and engage with eye contact for an extended time.  At this point, I realize a connection has been made.  We exchange a hello.  If nothing more is said on their part, I begin seeking verbal clues.

With face blindness, I still see a complete face.   I can see all the details the same as anyone else.  The difference is I have no ability to remember whose face I am looking at.  I need to gather extra information I never before would have taken time to notice.  Finding clues has now become the main technique I use to recall someone’s identity.  It has been proven when we lose one sense our remaining senses become stronger to help compensate for what is missing.  I have come to believe this is true about memory also.  I lost the ability to remember faces.  I compensate by being able to notice and remember smaller details now.  I take note of what previously would have been thought of as an insignificant detail: There is one girl I see who tilts her head down and lifts her eyes up any time she speaks to an adult.  There is a receptionist I often see sitting at her desk who starts speaking to people before she attempts to make eye contact.

Details: They hold clues allowing me to compensate for not knowing your face.

Defining Communications – As Altered By Prosopagnosia

When I was twenty-seven, I acquired prosopagnosia.  Prosopagnosia is the inability to recognize faces of familiar people.  This condition is also known as face blindness.  While growing up, I was always able to identify familiar people walking towards me.  Unfortunately, at twenty-seven, I lost the ability to be able to identify my family, my friends and even my own reflection.

I lost my ability to know someone when I looked at them, but I became better at picking up cues from emotions people display on their faces.  Though I maintained my ability to communicate, I began to depend more on recognizing clues I observed while I was speaking with individuals.  With these clues, I am aided in recognizing familiar strangers without needing to depend solely on recognizing their faces.

Communication is a word we all use.   Everyone knows its meaning, but we often forget about the simplicity behind the definition.  Communication is when a message is sent by someone or something and received by at least one person.  Upwards of 97% of what we communicate is done not through spoken words but how these words are received.

Think of this sentence: “Yeah that was interesting”.  Four simple words which are often said.  Take the time though, I dare you to even look at yourself in the mirror, and try this.  First, say those words while thinking of something disgusting like eating repulsive foods on a national television show.  Now say only those words while having admiration for the young genius that can recite pi far beyond the thousandth digit.  Again say only those four words while thinking of your boss saying half of the employees are getting a substantial pay raise next week and you are among that half.  Now say these words as if you just walked past a group of kids cussing profusely.  In every scenario, your tone has changed greatly.  The expression in your eyes will be altered.  The four words never changed.  However, the tone that was used and the response in your eyes offered a very telling clue to what was being said beyond the words.  Same as when people communicate with you, a lot can be heard beyond specific words that are spoken.  Once this is understood, you can learn to tell so much about the message a person is conveying to you.

With prosopagnosia, I may not be able to recognize a face, but the emotional characteristics held in that face are recognizable.  I still can read the tears and frown as sadness.  I still can be aware if there is deep rage within someone’s eyes and know that they feel anger.  Recognition skills are still available for emotions.  Auditory skills erase any doubt I have of possibly mistaking the visual clues of emotions being felt.  The sudden gasp of air along with the mouth shaped as a tight, round circle indicates surprise.  The fast chatter, raised pitch of a voice, and eyes moving quickly along with the eyebrows slightly raised will tell me that someone is anxious or excited.  Even though I may not have the recognition of who the face belongs to, there is still a message being conveyed to me that is demonstrated by the face I see.

A Frightened Stranger In the Mirror

This week a near run-in with a lady made me gasp as I stepped back in surprise.  I was polite and apologized for our near collision.  She reacted exactly as I had.  I noted fear in her eyes.  We had not expected to be so close to each other as we rounded the corner.  Her hand slid to her mouth quickly like mine had.  I knew she was attempting, as was I, to conceal a small startled sound from escaping her lips that would draw attention.  There we were nearly nose to nose.  We jumped, we locked eyes and there was identical fear that could be noted between the two of us.  Not fear stemming from anticipated harm, but fear developed from nearly running into each other in the compact store aisles.

Twice now I have written about being shocked by a female unexpectedly invading my body space.  Once was a situation I wrote about face blindness to display humor.  This week I write about it to display how even though I am constantly aware of my condition, prosopagnosia, images of a stranger can still create surprise, humor and fascination.  The woman this week, as I went around a pillar in a shop, was not a stranger at all; rather, the lady was again my reflection in a very tall, wide mirror.  I did not apologize to a stranger that was as startled as I was.  In this store I, yet again, made an apology everyone could hear to my own reflection.

I assume you are curious how I could not know myself and how I came to realize this was my own image.  I do not keep a record of every time this happens to me.  Trust me it is often: my image has been a stranger many mornings in the mirror, in unfamiliar houses where I believe a stranger is near me as I pass a mirror I never knew existed or as I try on new clothes and do not connect this face attached to the newly outfitted body as the person I had just seen.  I never maintain a memory of what I look like.  When I do have the expectation of a female with similar characteristics to be looking back, I have no doubt it is me.  In the mall, there are many mirrors in unexpected places.  These are the times I truly realize the extent of prosopagnosia and how it has taken away a significant part of my memory of how I appear.

This week was one example of how my reflection becomes a complete stranger when an unexpected female surprises me.  I saw her eyes.  She registered surprise instantly.  I understood the discomfort she felt considering how close we had come to running into each other.  I next noticed her glasses.  I wore similar glasses that day.  They were a narrow, gold frame.  I quickly glanced down to see how close our feet had brought us to colliding.  Her shirt was a black sleeveless blouse.  Her shorts were a tan material.  By this time, I had already said how sorry I was.  Then everything started to register.  I had tried on two different tops that morning.  I decided on the black sleeveless blouse.  This day, I wore shorts rather than jeans because of the high temperatures.  Wait, we were wearing identical outfits and had the same style of glasses.  All of these thoughts, all of this processing, were completed within a few seconds.  I knew this stranger.  I did not know her appearance, but I knew the surprise and shock she felt instantly.  We had the same haircuts verifying it was me!  I turned away and quickly glanced around to see if others had watched this awkward exchange.  I laughed not a quiet laugh but more of my cackle relieving my embarrassment and expressing humor I truly felt.

Every day I see myself I am a familiar stranger.  I do not see the visual resemblance between the memory of what I look like and reflections from the passing mirror.  I do comprehend what this reflection feels.  There is confusion, uncomfortable humor, amazement and fascination with the reality she is me.  All of my life I have had mirrors.  Most days I notice my reflection as I style my hair and put in contacts.  The person in my mirror is someone I should know.  A reflection I knew for twenty-seven years.  This reflection is now a stranger.  I have no doubt several people in the busy store saw me apologize to the mirror.  I have no doubt their curiosity was raised.  So is mine when I, once again, come to understand this familiar stranger is me.

Ball Cap, Dark Sunglasses, & Defense Mechanisms

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.

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