4: Missing Faces

4: Missing Faces

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Recovering from Traumatic Brain Injuries

Missing Faces

Caress the detail, the divine detail.

~Vladimir Nabokov

My daughter and I bumped heads while we were roughhousing. The next day, I experienced a severe headache and dizziness and was diagnosed with a moderate concussion. Luckily my daughter came out of it perfectly fine, but for me this concussion was the last in a string of six or more that occurred within a five-year span. The repetitive injuries had a cumulative effect and I ended up with neurologic damage that far surpassed what one would expect from a simple knock on the head by a six-year-old.

I remember very little from my recovery period, but there is one thing that I have never been able to forget. On my first day back at work I went to pick up my daughter at school. As I looked at the group of twenty or so children, I became confused—I did not know which child was mine. I tried to think about the clothes she had on in the morning, but I remembered I had left home before she got up. I felt sick to my stomach and my hands started to sweat as I searched every face.

Thankfully my daughter came forward and said, “Hi Mom.” I acted as if nothing was wrong.

I mentioned this incident to no one because it frightened me. Was I losing my mind? Was there more wrong with my brain than I thought? How could a mother not recognize her own daughter? I expected the following day to be different, but it wasn’t. I was only able to recognize her because of what she was wearing and her hair, not because I knew her face.

Out of fear, I never did say anything to anyone about it and it never got any better. Over the years I experienced other problems, but no incident was ever as painful as that one. I noticed I had trouble picking people out of a crowd and I couldn’t follow movies with lots of different characters in them. I also had trouble at work since I couldn’t put names to faces even though I had known my coworkers for many years

Eventually I learned to cope with these problems by using social crutches so people would not know the full extent of my problems. I always asked people what they would be wearing when we were to meet in a crowd or I paid close attention to a person’s hairstyle, purse or favorite jewelry to help me recognize them.

If my daughter and I ever went someplace where we might be separated I dressed her in a bright color, usually lime green, so I could find her easily. When she began picking out her own clothes I just made careful note of what she had on before we got out of the car. Once I got a camera phone I often made an excuse to take her picture to have with me in case I lost her in a crowd.

Despite all this, life went on and I just learned to deal with my shortcomings. I never talked about it with anyone. I was too afraid it was a sign of something bigger being wrong and that I was the only one who couldn’t recognize her daughter, or her parents or even herself in a mirror.

It wasn’t until three years ago that I stumbled upon an Internet article about the rising incidence of prosopagnosia, commonly known as face blindness. As I read, I knew I had found my problem. I finally knew I wasn’t crazy. I devoured every word in the article and then searched for more.

I learned that face blindness is a brain disorder where the affected person can’t recognize faces the same way a normal person can. The brain functions normally in other ways, but the one area of the brain that controls the memory of faces has been damaged by injury or was malformed during development.

Humans are able to remember many more faces than they can other complex objects due to the way we piece the facial features together and see them as a whole. People with face blindness are unable to do this. They must look at each part of a person’s face and use other ways of matching the pieces up to recognize a person. Often a person with face blindness will rely on some other quality such as voice, hairstyle or gait to identify people rather than using facial recognition.

The day I read that article, a great weight was lifted from my shoulders. Finally I had some explanation for the problems I had. I wasn’t going crazy and I wasn’t alone. Although there is no therapy or treatment for the disorder, I was still left with peace of mind that it was a known problem and finally I could share it with others. It wasn’t just me.

These days I am very honest with folks about my inability to recognize people. I tell them straight out that they need to find me in a crowd and that they shouldn’t be upset if I don’t recognize them in passing. This is just how I am now. Most people find the condition fascinating and I’ve run into a couple of people who, upon hearing me mention it, have researched it themselves and have realized that they or a loved one also have the disorder.

You might think that there is nothing good about this story, but you’d be very wrong about that. I consider my face blindness a blessing because it has helped me to live a fuller life.

Before I had that last concussion I was a very shy person who never talked to strangers. I kept to myself and tried to blend into the background. I never went out of my comfort zone and I missed out on many things life has to offer. But now that I don’t recognize anyone, I consider everyone a potential new friend! I am more outgoing and eager to talk to people around me and become involved in life.

I’ve read that some people with face blindness go the other way and become scared to go out and suffer from anxiety and isolation as a result of not recognizing anyone. I can completely understand why that happens, but for me it’s been such a positive thing, such a liberating experience. I have so much fun talking to people and learning new things from them now that I can’t possibly feel bad about what has happened to me.

Every day is a chance for me to meet someone new and I think that is pretty great.

~Shawn Marie Mann

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