I was leaving the house one day, aged about 14, when I bumped into my friendly neighbour. He gave me a smile, and we walked up to the tube together chatting about our holiday plans. When we parted ways, he leeringly asked me for my number. Not my neighbour then, but just some other older man with a shaved head – although he did tell me that he walked his Rottweilers past my house all the time…
I mainly play my face-blindness, or prosopagnosia, for laughs with stories like this – cases of mistaken identity where the fact that I can’t recognise people means that I make a fool of myself, or get myself into awkward situations. It’s all you can do, really, when you have to introduce your brain condition into conversation with most of the new people you meet. Nobody’s keen to hear a sob story from a near-stranger. But because of that defence mechanism, it has taken me a long time to realise the toll the condition actually took on me, particularly when I was younger.
Because, I mean, look at the story above. It is funny – at least, people laugh when I tell it – but it’s also very frightening. Like many 14-year-old girls just edging into womanhood, I was terrified of the attention I was suddenly getting from men. Groups of them would shout at me in the street and I’d crumple inside; older men chatting me up made me panicky. The world was suddenly both hostile to and desirous of me. Of course I didn’t feel safe. And there I was, walking blithely along with a strange man who turned out to own some very scary dogs.
My prosopagnosia isn’t the worst, but it’s pretty bad – the scientists who officially diagnosed me as a child put me in the bottom 0.01th percentile of the general population, but only because the scale didn’t go any lower. I can recognise people after I’ve known them for a while – after perhaps six months for close friends, and a year or two for other friends and acquaintances. I’m lucky – some people have it so bad that they can’t even recognise their own family members.
Coping mechanisms help me to navigate the world and keep track of people, but they’re not foolproof. I’ll memorise a list of someone’s characteristics so that I know who they are – something like: the ginger guy with the square-ish nose and the weirdly-shaped mole who I see at X’s parties. But all it takes is for one element of the list to change and I’m completely lost. Some people, often the attractive ones without prominent features to memorise, I never manage to recognise at all.
Evie as a baby.
So yes, prosopagnosia has had a huge impact on my life, and one which I’m only just getting to grips with now. The first instance I can remember clearly was when I moved primary school at eight years old. Of course I recognised no one, but I was aware that there were two short blond boys in my class. One was sweet to me – he gave me a Pokemon card on my first day (Evee, to match my name). The other was aloof, the son of the headmistress. I owed gratitude to one; the other I was slightly afraid of. I can’t describe to you the stress of not being able to tell them apart.
It was even worse going to secondary school. Not knowing who your friends are is an intensely isolating feeling, particularly when you’re a paranoid pre-teen. Every kid worries about what other people think of them – I didn’t even have prior experience to let me know what people were like, or what they thought I was like. Not knowing who to smile at in the hallway, who to talk to in breaktime, which classmates would be kind to me and which would call me desperate behind my back for acting like I was friends with them – it left me veering between extreme confidence and being utterly withdrawn.
In some ways I suppose the experience did help me. As a young teenager I never went anywhere without a book, for fear of that moment when you don’t know who to talk to and everyone can tell you’re left out. When you’re reading, at least it looks deliberate. These days I don’t need that crutch, but the love of reading it fuelled has stayed with me.
Conversely, I think I can credit my prosopagnosia with helping me become more socially at ease as an adult. When I did manage to speak to people as a child, I was forced to blunder through, to act as though we were friends without any real idea whether that was true or not. Although as a young teenager I’m sure that bombastic confidence was abrasive, it laid the foundations for the person I became. These days I’m often in similar situations – talking to someone at a party with no idea if we’ve met before or not – but over the years I’ve cultivated a kind of friendliness which can be interpreted either way. Maybe I know you; maybe I’m just a slightly overly-friendly stranger. And maybe I’ll never know which – but we’ll be having a good time either way, so does it really matter?
When I reached university, I was determined to take control of my prosopagnosia. In my second term, I started writing a weekly column for the university newspaper, and face-blindness featured in most of my articles. Suddenly, everyone knew. People were introducing themselves to me every time we met, or coming up to me and immediately letting me know we hadn’t met before. It was heaven. For the first time, face-blindness wasn’t holding me back.
And I haven’t let it hold me back since. As an adult, I’m always forthright about prosopagnosia, and I tell people about the condition whenever I’m worried I’ll offend them. I also spread the word as much as I can in articles like this, and interviews online. I’m no longer afraid of being ‘that face-blind girl’. At least it’s better than being ‘that rude bitch who always blanks me’…
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