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The thing I wish I could ask no matter how long I've known you: Who Are You?

Facial Recognition Problems aren’t the same for everyone:

Q: Does facial recognition disorder mean you can’t recognize anyone?

A: No. I am able to learn people in set environments.

I live in a small town and interact with the same people on a regular basis. I am able to identify people in given settings with enough exposure.

You’d think this would be an advantage for someone who has difficulty remembering names and faces.

But, there is a certain safety net in large cities with limited interpersonal interactions.

Recently I visited a branch of our local library and began chatting with the librarian about the house my family has been remodeling. It’s been a year long process to remodel and we’ve been living in the community where our house is located. I said, “Oh yes, we live in ‘such and such a town’ now.”

The librarian gave me a funny look. I visit the library a lot—I know our librarians, so it wasn’t a look I was expecting from someone I know so well. (It was the ‘why don’t you know me?’ look). Then the librarian said, “Don’t you know who I am?”

I don’t know what color I turned, but my brain started flipping through library workers I thought I could identify. How could I get this wrong? I felt lost, like I’d stepped into a foreign land and was speaking with a stranger. What had I gotten wrong?

I flip through as many clues as I’ve been given in the conversation. Name? Did they say a name I didn’t recognize? Do I work with their child and have rudely not attributed them correctly? I think of the sound of their voice and try to ping it off any matches I my brain—ping, ping, ping. Still blank. What have I missed?!

“You see me every week in church—we live in the same ‘such and such a town’.”

This is a moment I’m familiar with—when two people I’ve memorized in their specific environment overlap and what (to me) are two completely separate individuals must suddenly meld into a single person. It’s painful for me. My brain literally feels like it’s melting people into a new slot—like I have to shave a corner off a shaped peg hole to fit the new corner of a person.

You see. I work so hard to ‘learn’ who someone is—their entire being is fixed to the place I ‘learn’ them. I have a habit of smiling and waving at everyone I meet as if we’re long past buddies, because I never truly know if we might be, as I pass a friendly face in the store.

But every environment my life spreads into poses new and terrifying opportunities to not know someone who I should probably know.

If I know someone through writing. Then in my ‘who that person is’ part of my brain—they are ‘writing friend’. If I cross paths with ‘writing friend’ at a restaurant (I’ve had this experience trying to meet for meals with writers at conferences) I cannot find them in the restaurant—even if we’re the only two people in the room. I will stare lostly.

Unsure if I should approach or remain where I stand.

I’ve sat with a table of strangers because I was told ‘oh we’re already sitting, you’ll see us when you get there.’ These are people I’ve met in person before.

But, I just hadn’t been ‘in person’ enough to memorize their demeanor, know what clothes they’re wearing, the tone of their voices, the style of their new haircut, the color lipstick they’re recently fond of…

So, I sat with the large group of people I saw seated in the restaurant. They seemed a bit surprised when I smilingly pulled up a chair to join them. It didn’t take long to realize they didn’t know me. I might have heard a few chuckles at my back as I excused myself. I held back the panic and tears of feeling ‘lost’ in a sea of faces.

It’s embarrassing to me. I did my best to smooth the anxiety from my face and try again. I admit to taking a little longer at the door before deciding to not walk away and return to the safety of my hotel room, with its fixed roommates, and order room service.

I try to smile, but sometimes I still end up embarrassed and offending someone who feels I ‘should know’ them.

It’s hard to be friendly all the time. I’m not perfect at it.

But, it’s my best defense for not having a damn clue who is in the room with me at any given time.

I’ve committed worse offenses than not knowing someone’s name.

Not recognizing my own children (on more than one occasion) are the moments that I feel the most shame.

I’ll post about that later.

Feel free to post questions or comments.

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©2017 by Aften Brook Szymanski.