How do you recognise your loved ones? That probably seems like a daft question to many of you. Obviously you recognise them because they are them. They, you know, look like them. That’s how you know that they are them. You recognise them by their face, right?
It wasn’t until relatively recently that I realised that I don’t recognise my loved ones by their face, and that I’d never been able to really recognise people by their faces.
I’ve always found faces difficult. As a child I used to panic if I lost sight of my mum out shopping in case I couldn’t find her again. I could easily walk right past her, especially if she was trying something on and therefore wasn’t wearing the same thing as she had been earlier.
When people would say “ohhh, look at this baby. He looks JUST like his father” I’d be like “yeahhh, just like him” but my inside voice is going (it looks like a baby seriously. It looks like all babies. You’re making this up to make the parents feel better.) When people exclaim “oh, I knew this was your sister/brother/aunt/mother, there’s SUCH a strong family resemblance” I nod and agree and say “yeah wow” but my inside voice is going (Really? But they have different hair colour. How can you TELL??) When people I haven’t seen for decades come up to me and go “OMG it’s YOU! How brilliant! You haven’t changed a bit” I go “oh wow, yeah! Haha, nice to see you! How are you?” And my inside voice is going (seriously who are you please give me some sort of cue or tell me who you are and what do you mean I haven’t changed if you know me from school my hair wasn’t purple then WHO ARE YOU). When people say hi to me in the street, or look at me with that distinctive “I know you and you know me hello” facial expression and they aren’t people I know really well there’s usually several minutes of winging it where on the outside I am going “oh HIIIIIIIII! How ARE you? What are you up to today?” while my inside voice is frantically flicking through my internal rolodex of People I Don’t Know Well That Might Be In This Sort Of Place, in the sections marked Work People, People From My Local Community, Friends Of Friends and trying to put together the clues from what they’re saying as to who they might be.
As far as I am concerned, people being able to recognise other people’s faces is pretty much WITCHCRAFT and I could never work out how they managed it. I assumed everyone else saw faces the way I did, but were just much better at remembering them than me.
About 10 years ago I was at a wonderful production called “The Masque of the Red Death” by Punchdrunk Theatre company. It was a beautiful immersive theatre experience, where the stories happen around you as you wander around the performance space. All the audience members are handed, and instructed to wear, a full face covering mask as you enter the performance space, and large groups are deliberately split up upon entry. It was attending this performance with a group of about 15 friends where I had the revelation. As I moved through the space I kept encountering my friends. I knew who they were immediately. My friend C, because she has this way of standing just so, with her ankles crossed and her head on one side. My friend T, who has this habit of sort of rocking his shoulders when concentrating. My friend A, with her pale skin and habit of hunching her shoulders inwards a little when she doesn’t feel quite comfortable. With their faces covered, all of these gestures were so much clearer. And it struck me – for the first time in my life – that this is how I recognise people. Their faces are meaningless to me – as distinctive and recognisable as individual pebbles on a beach. It was physical cues, posture, gesture and style that I was picking up on, and deducing that that person was C, or T or A.
After this experience we all hit the bar for a few drinks and I studied their faces, now the masks were removed. I noted how distinctive their facial expressions where when talking, or listening. How unique their hand gestures were, how they held their bodies when they spoke. This was how I was recognising my loved ones.
The penny, however, didn’t really drop at this point. I just accepted at the time that I had a problem with faces, and got on with my life.
In the early days of my relationship with the former Mr RDP I told him I had a problem with faces, after an incredibly embarrassing experience where a good friend of his said hello to me and I blanked him – not knowing who he was and thinking he was some random dude talking to me. The ExMrRDP was really upset with me, and his friend was quite hurt. I explained that I really struggled with faces and had genuinely no idea who he was and apologised profusely. I don’t think either of them really believed me. Whenever we went anywhere that would involve meeting his friends, he was hugely frustrated that I wouldn’t enter the room/pub/club etc. without him. I explained that I was anxious that I wouldn’t know who his friends were, even though I’d met them. I think he thought I was just being a bit daft. A few years into our relationship he decided on a whim to shave his head. He went into the bathroom someone I knew, and came out a complete stranger. I knew it was him, of course it was. When he spoke, that was his voice. And those were his facial expressions. But they were coming out of a face I didn’t know, and it was genuinely terrifying. For months, until his hair started to grow back, I walked right past him in the street. I flinched when he went to kiss or hug me. I had a few panic attacks when I woke up in the night and in that moment of existential uncertainty you have upon waking saw a complete stranger in my bed. I had no idea that a mere haircut would produce such a profound effect on me; and I think he was very hurt by my reaction too – understandably so.
But again, the penny didn’t drop then either. I waited for his hair to grow back, encouraged him to wear hats as often as possible, and got on with my life.
When I gave up drinking, and my relationship with Mr RDP ended, I experienced Walking Into Places Alone And Sober. This brought home to me with a shock how much anxiety I had over not recognising groups of friends in public places. I realised that pre-heavy-drinking-days I had always made sure I arrived at the meeting place early, with a book, so that I wouldn’t have to find my friends; I’d already be there so they would see me and come to me. It occurred to me – genuinely for the first time – that a big chunk of my social anxiety was tied up in this fear of walking straight past my friends, of not knowing who they were, of looking foolish or thoughtless. That one of the reasons for my ‘power drinking’ before going out was so that I would have a drunkscuse for not recognising people. (LOL I walked RIGHT PAST you OMG I have been drinking ALL DAY).
Even then, the penny didn’t drop. Although by that point I had firmly grasped the idea that I Can’t Do Faces and Other People Can, I still hadn’t put it all together. Until earlier this year, when J, one of my oldest Internet Friends, who I’ve never actually met in person, shared a ‘face blindness test’ online, revealing that she’d got one of the lowest scores possible, and that she was mildly freaking out that most people could actually pass this test. I did the test too, and scored the same as her. We shared some of our embarrassing facial recognition fails. We shared our astonishment that other people genuinely could tell each other apart just from looking at their faces. And we discovered at the same time that there’s a very high likelihood that we both have a genuine condition called Prosopagnosia.
A million pennies, unknowingly stored up over my >3 decades on this planet, dropped all at once with an almighty CLANG. J and I scoured the internet for more information, and going OMG YES THIS IS MY LIFE and feeling a weird mixture of elation and fear (there IS something wrong with me! YAY!/There IS something wrong with me, OH SHIT).
We read that it was often hereditary, so I got in touch with Mummy RDP who immediately responded OMG YES THIS IS MY LIFE TOO. We both admitted that whenever anyone tells us how alike we look (I am informed that it’s a rather uncanny resemblance) that we just nod and go “yes, I know, amazing isn’t it” but actually neither of us are able to see it – unless we are wearing the exact same clothes and have the same hairstyle.
Now I know it’s there, I am able to spot all the little ways in which it affects things which perhaps ‘normal’ people take for granted. For example, as much as I enjoyed Orphan Black (spoiler ahead if you’ve not seen it. WHY HAVEN’T YOU SEEN IT? Go and watch it right now. NOW. Then come back and finish reading this. Ok. Are you done? Good isn’t it! Now carry on…) it took me most of the first episode to work out that the whole thing at the beginning was Sarah looks at the woman jumping in front of the train and recognises her own face. This was meaningless to me. As far as I was concerned they were completely different people. As I watched more of the showI had to work really hard to identify who were meant to be the clones. To me, they all have different hairstyles, different facial expressions and gestures (and this is a testament to how superb lead actor Tatiana Maslany is – WHERE ARE HER AWARDS) and therefore as far as I am concerned they don’t look alike. It makes sense of why I can pretty much never follow Thrillers, or James Bond Movies, or any movie which relies on someone turning out to actually have been working for the bad guys all along, or any movie with a really big cast. I can’t tell who all these people ARE. It explains my preference for Superhero movies, friends with coloured hair and piercings and tattoos. It explains why I tend to be attracted to people with unusual or striking faces. It explains why I can’t see myself in photos, why I prefer to have unnatural coloured hair (I have failed to recognise my own reflection on more than one occasion) and, of course, it explains much of my social anxiety.
While the initial revelation made me feel like everyone else had been walking around with a superpower (the power to recognise people) that I didn’t have, I am also realising what the benefits are of my brain compensating for my lack of magical recognition ability. I can read facial expressions, micro-expressions, emotional states and body language LIKE A BOSS. I often know how people are thinking or feeling before they even express it. (Which, I am told, is also really annoying sometimes.) It maybe makes me poor at initial meetings, but it’s helped me be a great communicator. It also helps me to be nicer to complete strangers. You never know, that person pissing you off on the tube might actually be the person who interviewed you for a job, so let’s maybe NOT call them a shitweasel.
Since the dropping-of-all-the pennies I’ve been much more upfront with people about my problems. Apologising immediately when someone says ‘’hi”, rather than making awkward conversation until I can work out who the hell they are and saying “sorry, I have face blindness and don’t recognise people well…” If anything, it’s a good conversation starter. If going on internet dates I message them before the date and ask them to come up to me and introduce themselves, because chances are I won’t be able to recognise them at all. It’s become an entertaining game to some of my friends – showing me pictures of people and going WHO IS THIS and watching me try to work it out.
I am learning that I am not a rubbish friend, or a bad person, for not knowing who people are, and my loved ones are getting used to the fact that I might walk past them in the street, and learning that it doesn’t make them any less loved.