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Living with prosopagnosia.

A Friend Among Strangers

A room of friends, or an isolation chamber?

I walk into the reception hall.  There are a lot of people there, perhaps as many as a hundred or so people.  These are all people I am supposed to know, each with a supposedly unique face.  Some of them, I probably do know, and yet, when I walk into the room, I feel as if I am the only person there, a friend among strangers.  After all, many of them greet me by name.  I smile, or at least pretend to smile, securing my nomination for an Oscar or Tony Award, if only the judges knew I was acting.

This is made even more exasperating since, at such gatherings, people are usually wearing formal attire, clothing which typically makes people look even more closely alike than they would otherwise appear to me.  Like a macabre science fiction story in which every person looks like an identical twin, my goal is to find just one specific individual which every other person present can identify so easily by their face. 

This is an especially painful exercise.  I can scan the room for hours in frustration, though usually I give up after only a minute or two.  My only salvation is that sometimes, the person I am searching for knows I might be looking for them, so they look out for me.  For example, my family has a whistle which dates back at least to my grandfather on my mother's side.  Rather than a socially awkward, "Hey Glenn!  Over here," the whistle allows me to hone in on the location of the person I am looking for.  Usually, that person has already found me, but if they have not, shortly after the whistle is released, we will be united.  That tool only works with family.  When trying to find anybody else, other tools are far less successful, far more cumbersome, and usually require that I receive substantial help from the other person to make such and interaction a success.

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A few years ago, I consulted for a lady by the name of Anna DeMers on a play which featured a character with prosopagnosia which she was both authoring and directing for a drama festival in Orlando, Florida.  I had the opportunity to go and see a live performance of Solo Face, and I was very happy with the result.  In order to get there, I had to take a flight and meet Anna at the airport.  Of course, she knew of my difficulties with prosopagnosia, so we arranged ahead of time that she would meet me at the airport with a giant size balloon in hand.  Sure enough, once I collected my luggage and went to the pickup area, Anna was a very easy person for me to spot. 

It is very rare that people are as accommodating to me.  I don't believe that is because people are unwilling to help, but I do think that such an unusual request as a reintroduction or a specific prop, whether visual or auditory in nature, is something which seems strange to most people.  This is especially true if I have already met them several times before.  Name tags are also a huge help for me, but many people seem to get annoyed with having to wear them. 

Since I don't wish to impose my needs on other people, it is very hard for me to feel included among any group of people, particularly if the group is a fairly unstructured social gathering.  Usually at such events, I try to bide my time with the young children.  They are neither aware of my challenges, as some adults may be, nor are they at all judgmental about my behaviors.  They become the focus of my attention, and they are perfectly content with that.  Meanwhile, the adults are happy that the kids are occupied.  At events without children, sometimes, I will take myself to the nearest corner and watch as events unfold from there. 

This is not a tragedy.  I am content as an observer.  Watching people gives me additional opportunities to observe behavior patterns, and if I happen to be able to recognize the person I am observing, all the better.  It also means I do not need to pretend to interact with people I can not recognize.  In some ways, I suppose this allows me to live vicariously through them by watching their interactions.  While this often brings me joy, it also occasionally brings me sadness when I realize that I am observing a situation I could never experience.

However, I try not to dwell on things I am incapable of doing or experiencing.  Instead, I prefer to focus on those skills for which I excel. 

People often ask me how I manage with such an extraordinarily challenging social difficulty as prosopagnosia.  My answer is always the same.  I have two basic choices.  The first choice would be to curl up and die.  The second choice involves understanding my limitations, and doing the best I can to work around them in a way that can make life meaningful to me.  I took the second choice, but I do not believe that really gets to the depth of what I have accomplished.

In Robert Frost's The Road Not Taken, a poem for which I have a deep personal affinity, Frost described two possible roads to take.  However, I did not take the road less traveled, because there was no such road when I came along.  Instead, I became a trailblazer.  I managed to create a road which other people could follow, a road which I hope is far easier for them than it was for me. 

I have made many friends along that road.  I still feel like a friend among strangers, but I am truly delighted by all of the people who choose to call me their friend.  That is what makes life worth living.

©2011, Glenn Alperin

Teaser image courtesy of PictFactory

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Glenn Alperin is a writer who has prosopagnosia.

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