Thursday, February 7, 2013

When Acquaintances Become Strangers

Today, we had to drop out of a group of couples from our church that meets every month because it's too stressful for Chuck to participate in these gatherings, even though it's a friendly crowd. Sometimes I think a "mixed" group of strangers and friends is more difficult for Chuck than a homogeneous bunch of strangers -- "Awesome! I don't know anyone!" -- or friends -- "OK, everyone here knows me so I'll have to mind my manners."

Over the past few years, this stepping back, or dropping out, socially has become more common. It's been nearly 20 years since Chuck's surgery, representing two decades of meeting people for whom he can't form a "picture" of each face in his mind. Although a few close friends greet him EVERY time by introducing themselves by full name, most people think, "Well, even though he can't recognize my face, he should know me by now." For the most part, that's completely wrong. He is blind.

In fact, Chuck has lost much of the context for the closest friends and family members he knew before prosopagnosia. They've aged, or moved, or died. For other acquaintances, he confronts a jumble of "Where did I meet them?" "How do I know them?" "What do we have in common?" when he encounters them. I sometimes see these questions play through his head as he struggles to use the available cues -- voice, gender, size, sometimes age -- to try to determine someone's identity. Doing this in a crowd, and then trying to remember what everyone is wearing so he can tell them apart after the initial greeting, is exhausting. And stressful, sometimes prompting a seizure. When that happens, the gathering is over for us. So, sometimes, it's easier not to attend in the first place.

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