Overcoming Fear

You may be wired to worry, but courage can be learned.

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Stranger Danger

Safety concerns, strategies, and choices in a faceless world.

Growing up in a world of strangers puts a bit of a different spin on the idea taught to children in modern times. Children are forever warned, "Don't talk to strangers." However, the usual case is that children, if they are going to be harmed, are more likely to be harmed by people they know than by strangers.

Dr. Marilyn Heins has spent some time quantifying her thoughts on the idea of stranger danger. I find her particular take on this topic to be very refreshing, particularly in light of the "fear anybody who even looks at you" mentality we seem to have in this country, one which I agree with her is both unhealthy and potentially harmful. She does provide some no-nonsense advice and statistics, and one statistic I found particularly striking was this:

"About 200 to 300 children are abducted and about 50 children are murdered by a stranger each year."
(Web site of Dr. Marilyn Heins, M.D., accessed on 12/26/2010 )

Dr. Heins further went on to describe that the greatest danger to children, by far, is either a family member or another "trusted" individual.

This data is echoed by the National Center For Missing & Exploited children. According to their web site, accessed on January 9, 2011, in a one year period, 797,500 children younger than 18 were reported missing, 203,900 children were the victims of family abductions, 58,200 children were the victims of non-family abductions, and only 115 children were the victims of "stereotypical kidnapping" where the kidnapper is a stranger to the child. 

Well, okay, but what if everybody you know is a stranger to you? Who can you trust then?

This is no simple question, but neither does it have a simple answer. In fact, I have lived the better part of my life in fear of people, both known and unknown, because for me as a person with prosopagnosia, they are all "unknown". I have trained myself to be intensely alert to my surroundings, even as I may not know precisely where I am due to my substantial difficulties with creating mental maps of and between locations. Nonetheless, I am able to employ some methods of coping that are successful strategies to make sure I can keep myself safe.

I don't look at people until I am spoken to. I know, I know. This is considered a grievous social mistake, or alternatively a sign of weakness or sketchiness, but the truth of the matter is that I am not going to be able to recognize people, or understand the potential significance of a person who might be standing in front of me. For example, before takeoff of an airline flight in January of 2007, I unwittingly shook hands with former US president Jimmy Carter while traveling from Atlanta to Boston. I had been reading a newspaper when a man came through the aisle shaking hands with all of the passengers as a few people trailed behind him. It was not until after he had gone a safe distance away that I asked the passenger sitting next to me who the man was, and only then did I realize the people trailing behind him must have been Secret Service personnel.

Had I been able to observe the interactions of the other passengers and the facial expressions they had shown, I might have picked up the notion that there was a celebrity on the plain.  However, I am oblivious to many facial expressions.  As a result, I am frequently surprised at a verbal greeting which can follow what Nancy Mindick has called the "hello look" in her book Understanding Facial Recognition Difficulties in Children: Prosopagnosia Management Strategies for Parents and Professionals (JKP Essentials).  I tend to walk with my face pointed towards the ground. This makes it all the easier for me to appear distracted in my thoughts and to provide me with yet another excuse for why I might not have seen somebody I should have recognized. It also requires that if such a person wishes to engage me in social banter, they will have to take the initiative to achieve that. Since I am typically much more comfortable responding to somebody else than initiating, that works out. The drawback, of course, is that I will also have less social contact with people.

This is, perhaps, the one thing I find most frustrating about my prosopagnosia. It tends to drive me into isolation. I feel much more comfortable alone. It is far easier for me to be alone than to try and navigate my way through a sea of faces I will never be able to comprehend. In fact, I find such an experience overwhelming.

Additionally, I have also suffered from depression. A lot of what I have learned about depression is that it tends to feed endlessly on isolation. Is it any wonder, then, that I have also been depressed probably for a good portion of my life?

The good news is that I have found coping strategies to help me ease the social isolation and depression. Many of these strategies involve activities I can spend hours of time doing alone. Certainly, the advent of the internet was a dream come true to me. Finally, I could communicate with other people in an entirely faceless environment, one which I find to be a social equalizer.

This, too, has its pros and cons. The good news is that you can be whoever you want to be online. The bad news: so can everybody else. As a result, one must become a very discerning reader to safely interact with people online. What you choose to disclose to people about yourself, and what they choose to disclose to you, can sometimes become a game of "Truth or Dare", and the consequences of failing to know when to say "dare" can be pretty high if you miss the opportunity as any number of sobering news headlines has revealed.

I've found both good and bad people online. I think that my unique communication style and the coping strategies I have always used have served me well in keeping me safe in a digital world. I have met a number of people in person whom I originally met online. Others I have discovered very quickly I would never want to meet in person. The truly important thing is that I understand the difference, and the warning signs to look out for on the negative side.

I am not so naïve as to believe that everybody is who they say they are. I think having prosopagnosia alone has taught me this lesson very clearly. More often than not, I really don't know who I am talking to. Whether I meet people in person or online, most people are unaware of the mental gymnastics I must go through in order to achieve a successful social interaction. Since all interactions are with strangers, at least initially, every interaction requires a fair degree of risk. Even with "friends", such interactions can be fraught with risk.

This leaves me with two basic choices: I can either live life in fear, or I can take the bull by the horns and hold on for the ride. If I am to live life instead of be afraid to live it, at some point in time, I must decide that some risks are worth taking. At the time of this writing, I am now 33 years old, and in the past 4 years, I have begun to take some social risks I was always afraid of taking before. I am proud of myself for the progress I have been able to make here. The good news is that I am still around to write about the risks I have taken, so they must have turned out pretty well so far.

Life will always consist of a world full of strangers for me. It's a lonely world out there. Nobody knows that better than me. Even so, it is nice to have people in my life I can trust. Even though every person may look like a stranger to me, those who are my friends will always find me. They know I can't find them. I trust them implicitly, and they both know and appreciate the enormous risk I take personally in doing so.

In truth, however, nobody understands those risks like I do. I have spent hours upon hours assessing the various social risk factors in my life. I do not make any social decision without an extensive collection of thought and planning. When I do make a decision, and it can take me years to do so some of the time, I know I have weighed all of the pros and cons to come up with a decision that feels safe.

Those decisions are what life is all about for me. If I failed to make them, isolation and depression would always stay my best friends. Combine those with prosopagnosia and you might be able to imagine how easily I could fall into the depression abyss. I want more for myself than that. Like Rapunzel said, I want to explore the world. It has taken me years to get this far, but I am ready now. The world awaits me.


©2011, Glenn Alperin

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Overcoming Fear