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I Can't Recognise My Friends. Or My Husband

Face blindness is an actual, not-made-up ailment.

20/10/2016 7:18 PM AEDT | Updated 24/10/2016 9:08 AM AEDT
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"Oh heyyyyyyyyy, of course I know who you are!"

Picture this: I am on a train with my husband and children. We're travelling to Melbourne -- a day out in the city -- and half an hour into the trip my son needs to go to the toilet. "Come on then," my husband says to him, and they wobble up to the cubicle at the end of our carriage. I talk to my daughter for a minute, glance at the paddocks out the window, check my phone... and then I look up and notice a very attractive man walking towards me. Ooh, I think, he's nice.

The man is my husband.

Now, this is kind of great -- I'm clearly still quite attracted to the fella I've been with for nearly 15 years. But, on the flip side, I DIDN'T RECOGNISE MY OWN HUSBAND.

I mean, it was just for a second. And he was a good five metres away. But still.

Picture this: I am at the supermarket. I need help with something, so I approach a staff member. "Excuse me," I say, looking directly at the man, "Do you stock arrowroot?"

"G'day!" he says, in a way that implies we have some kind of relationship. "G'day!" I reply, mimicking his tone. If I pretend I know who he is, I think, I might be able to keep the conversation going long enough to find out.

Unfortunately, he is not fooled by my amazing acting skills. "You don't know who I am, do you?" he says. I smile, and am about to hazard a guess when he adds: "We go to the same gym."

As soon as he reveals this information I think of course. This is a man who, despite not being a friend (I don't know his name), I have seen 3-4 times every single week for the past three years. On the treadmills, on the bikes, in BodyPump classes ...

"Oh!" I say. "You look different. In your uniform." This is true. He isn't wearing bright green shorts or a yellow t-shirt. He's in a slacks and a woolly jumper. But his face is the same. And I didn't recognise that face at all.

I have good eyesight. Well, my right eye has recently been having a bit of trouble with up-close words in books, but overall I'd say I can see fine. My problem is face blindness.

It sounds like a wacky made-up ailment, but it has an official name -- prosopagnosia -- and apparently a whopping two percent of people have it. Although it is possible to acquire the condition after a stroke or head injury, most face-blind people have had trouble with faces their whole lives. The disorder may even have a genetic component.

I probably snub someone at least once a week. In context I'm not so bad. When I go to pick the kids up from school I see the same set of parents milling about in the playground. When I go to my regular café I see the same hipster baristas. But if someone I know is in the wrong place, at the wrong time, I am hopeless.

About a month ago I was walking to the park with my family when I heard a car horn. I looked over at a grey ute about 20 metres away and noticed the driver waving. My husband waved back, so I followed suit, and then he had a short, shouted conversation with the driver before the lights changed and she drove off. "Was that someone from work?" I asked him, as we continued our walk. He raised his eyebrows at me. "That was Steph."

Steph is a close friend. Plus, I know her way better than my husband does, which means that I should have made the small talk, not him. At least I waved.

There are certain people I find harder to recognise than others. Anyone with bland features is tricky. Particularly symmetrical types are no good. And don't get me started on people who like to mix up their accessories (sun hat one day, cap the next -- come on, is that really necessary?).

I had face-blindness moments as a child, too. I remember urging my mum to cross the road once, because I thought I could see the local scary man (who, I now know, just had Tourette's) walking towards us. The 'scary man' turned out to be a girl from my class at school. A girl.

There's no treatment for prosopagnosia. I mean, it's not exactly debilitating -- the worst bit is losing my car in car parks (did I mention my blindness extends to vehicles?) -- but I would love to be cured.

I tend to cope by looking at the ground when I see someone coming towards me (thereby forcing them to initiate any interaction), making sure I'm early when meeting friends for coffee (so that they have to find me, not the other way around) and being upfront about my lack of recognition skills if caught out.

As for my husband, well, luckily he always recognises me. And he knows that even if I don't always know it's him, at least I like what I see.

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