Movember is here again, and I hate it. For those of you who don’t know what Movember is, it’s the challenge for men who do not usually sport one to grow a moustache during November to help raise money for men’s health charities. Why do I hate it? It’s not because I’m too miserly to give to charity (I’ll happily give), or because I don’t approve of the cause it raises money for (it’s a great cause), or because I don’t like wacky money-raising ideas (I think they’re great). Instead, it’s something more personal.
I have prosopagnosia, a condition also known as face blindness. The chances are you have never heard of it, and even though I have it, I only I found out it existed a couple of years ago. It is a weird condition that can sometimes stretch peoples’ credulity to the limits and it means that I don’t recognise or remember faces. I’m fine with everything else, it’s just faces I have a problem with. It seems I’ve had it since I was born (as do about 1% of the population), so to me it’s normal not to recognise people by their faces. In fact, I’m so used to it that it wasn’t until I was in my late thirties that I discovered that this wasn’t what everyone did. At that point, I had myself tested for prosopagnosia (I turned out to be at the moderate to severe end of the spectrum). Suddenly, a lot of things in my life fell into place.
I struggle with films, especially when the lead characters change how they look (such as dyeing their hair or changing its style), and if I meet people I know out of context, I won’t recognise them. An example of this occurred a few years ago (before I knew about face blindness), I was asked to pick up a friend’s daughter from school. She was five or six at the time and while I’d known her since she was about eighteen months old, I’d never seen her in her school uniform. When the end of the day came, I sat outside the school and was faced with a hundred little people running out towards me, all dressed pretty much identically. I was suddenly struck by the terrifying realisation that I couldn’t tell which of them I was meant to be picking up. Luckily she recognised me or it could have got very awkward.
Once I found out I had prosopagnosia, I mentioned it to my brother. He wasn’t surprised. Over the years, he’d repeatedly seen the blank look on my face when I met people who I should clearly have known. My best friend, who I’d known for twenty years, dismisses it as me just not putting in the effort, and I can’t really blame him. It just sounds so bizarre to say that you cannot do something that everyone else around you takes for granted. My girlfriend is very supportive and puts up with me leaning over and asking in a hushed tone who people are, whether they are ones in our social circle or actors in movies (and it can be several times for the same character in the same movie!). She also has to put up with the fact that I can’t always pick her out of a crowd if I don’t remember what clothes she’s wearing on a particular day.
There’s another side to this though. I now realise I tend to primarily recognise people by their hairstyles and I’ll confuse very different people who wear their hair in a similar way. There have been several times when I have been confidently speaking to someone who I thought was one person only to work out from what they’re saying that they a completely different person. As yet, I’ve never put my foot in it too badly when I’ve done this (or at least not as far as I know), but I’m sure one day I will.
Each day I’m faced with people who I don’t recognise when I should, and others who I think I might know when I don’t (because they have similar hairstyles or facial hair to people I do know). My strategy to avoid offending people is to smile and nod at pretty much everyone, just in case. If it’s someone I know, they won’t be offended. If it’s not, they’ll just think I’m being friendly (hopefully).
So where does Movember fit into all this? Well, because of Movember, at this time each year, people start sprouting all sorts of weird and wonderful facial hair. It’s great for the cause they’re raising money for, but is a nightmare for me because it means I’ll no longer recognise them. And it’s not just other people. When I first grew a beard, it took about three years before I could recognise myself if I unexpectedly caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror. So, if you know me and you’re participating in Movember, I’ll applaud (or laugh!) at your effort, I’ll give you money for the cause, just don’t get offended if you pass me in the street and I ignore you. It’s just with that new moustache, I won’t recognise you any more.
For more about prosopagnosia, visit: https://www.faceblind.org/research/index.html
From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in the UK. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more.