“And you stand in your permanence, my name unwrapped on your tongue like an awkward gift when I haven’t got you one.” Prosopagnosia, Ros Barber

Cluedo has always been one of my favourite games, and a game I came to be quite good at. Over the years, however, I’ve found myself playing a different kind of Cluedo. Embarrassingly, I seem to be losing the ability to recognise faces, so have had to decipher who someone is using some quite round-about ways. This strange disability, which I’ve found difficult to talk about, is something that’s landed me in several awkward situations these last many years. There was the time I met a tech savvy man at a filmmaking workshop and he offered to fix my film’s volume for an upcoming festival we were working towards. We exchanged email addresses and communicated a fair bit online before the festival. However, as the day of the screening got closer, I became more and more anxious as I knew I would struggle to recognise and therefore acknowledge him at the screening. A lot of people can sympathise with anxiety over public speaking, work pressures or social events in general, but I have met no one else who’s had to deal with the added anxiety that comes with not being able to recognise/process faces.

This week I was admitted to hospital to address some other issues I’m having but my “face blindness” is causing me so much strife I’ve been aching to write a post about it. There are a couple of patients who make a lot of noise outside the rooms, and yesterday I got out of bed to approach them about this. Unfortunately, being a clique of women who have been at this hospital much longer than me, they had the upper hand. The patient making the most noise was a brat and did not have any compassion or capacity for empathy. When my nurse came to my door I broke down, but while I could tell her what happened, I would not have been able to identify the bully patient. In my overwhelmed state, this group of patients were all one huge blur. Thankfully the hospital staff knew these patients and had a word to them.

I’ve been avoiding the commune areas as I don’t want to see this nasty patient again, and yet I don’t really know which one she is. It has dampened my whole experience here, especially as I expected us patients would look out for one another, as has been my experience at a different hospital. Today my nurse took me out of my bedroom hideaway and into the dining room for lunch. When I entered, a person sitting at one of the tables erupted “Hi Zoe!” It was another one of those awkward moments where I’m meant to know this person and yet I can’t “see” them, so end up treating them like a stranger. I could make out that this person was a girl and she was wearing glasses. That was it. I coldly murmur “hi”, and then flee with my plate of food back to my den. It was only afterwards, once I was alone and could think clearer, that I figured out who it might have been. Later today I checked the whiteboard which lists the current nurses and their patients to see if I could see the suspect’s name. Indeed, there was a “Sarah” on the list.

Donna Williams, one of my favourite artists, paints people without faces in her art. Some of her paintings can be found here. One of my favourites is about being an outsider, which Donna writes about here. Blurry faceless figures are what we see through our lens. Donna keeps a blog and a YouTube channel where she says “face blindness” is a common trait amongst people with autism, something a number of therapists believe I have (though “high functioning”). The brain is not able to filter out stimuli, resulting in a bombardment of incomprehensible information (often this is why it is hard for people with autism to make eye contact). Of course, this is something worsened by stress and trauma. I recently watched a touching film called “Cries from the Heart” (1994) about a young autistic boy learning a new method to communicate with the world. In the movie he had to testify in court. There was a moment in court where he was asked to identify his perpetrator, during which all the different faces watching him bled into one huge swirl and he ended up having a meltdown. He had to complete the testimony on camera in a smaller room. I felt such a kinship with this character and this moment of overwhelm. It is like drowning in the ocean, eyes open and unable to see.

At this moment, it is dinner time but I can’t get a foot out of my bedroom. Luckily I came to this place prepared and packed a food stash. It is hard for someone like me to be in a hospital. I wish there was a hospital for highly sensitive people.