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I can't recognise my wife and kids
SOMETIMES people take offence when David Fine doesn’t recognise them.
“Surely you’ll remember me,” they say.
But he won’t. He doesn’t recognise his own wife and children, and even his own reflection is unfamiliar.
On one occasion he was in a pub with a colleague explaining his condition – prosopagnosia or face blindness, a profound inability to remember and recognise faces.
He told her that he would be meeting his son there later, but that he wouldn’t recognise him. At that point a young man standing next to the woman said ‘hello Dad!’. David’s son had been there for some time but he’d had no idea.
On another occasion he followed the wrong woman around an airport for a while, having mistaken her for his wife, who had similar hair.
Failing to recognise his own family members is not a daily occurrence, but it happens too frequently for incidents to stand out as unusual.
Luckily, not recognising people has never got David into any serious scrapes.
“I’ve never taken the wrong child home from school because by that time, I knew I wasn’t very good at recognising people, so I was cautious,”
says the 60-year-old, who has recently retired from his position as a gastroenterologist at Southampton General Hospital.
However, it has caused him difficulties.
Once he didn’t recognise a patient who was in hospital to see someone else. She took offence and made a formal complaint about him.
But on a more fundamental level, it has shaped his life.
As a child he was punished for not raising his hat to his teachers in the street, because he didn’t recognise them.
Dating was very difficult as David has always been dependent on things like clothing, jewellery and hair to recognise people – many of which women may change on a daily basis.
“Women would seem to pop into my life for an evening and disappear again. I’d think ‘I liked her,’ and then not see her again or if I did she’d say ‘you said the same thing to me six months ago and then you ignored me’,” he says.
Luckily the woman who went on to become his wife didn’t take kindly to being ignored the day after the pair had spent a romantic evening together and shouted at him “I settled down with an extrovert and what I would call a hyperrecogniser.
She recognised people she hasn’t seen for 30 or 40 years. That was the sort of person I was going to end up with because someone who was going to take offence at my not recognising her wasn’t going to get beyond the first stage.”
David found it particularly difficult to recognise people he knew from work in other contexts.
“I worked on a hospital ward, where everyone wore a uniform, the women wore their hair up and everyone had badges, so I could put people in context. Then we’d have a ward party and there would be all the strangers there, with long hair and party dresses, and I wouldn’t have an idea who anyone was.
“I didn’t understand why I didn’t know who they were. It caused me so much anxiety. I came to really dislike parties because I found myself left on the edge. I couldn’t socialise.
Unless I actually tracked someone round the room I didn’t know who the person was who I’d spoken to a few minutes before. It made me appear less social than I really am.
“I think it probably made me a more isolated, less outgoing person. I was insecure in crowded areas – I realised it was because I didn’t know who would pop up next to me and I wouldn’t know who they were.”
David first heard the term prosopagnosia when he was in his 40s and had failed to recognise a senior psychiatrist from Southampton General Hospital.
“It was quite useful having the term because if people get really upset about it when you don’t recognise them, to say you have prosopagnosia seems to stop it, because it’s a very long word,” he says.
“Then some time later I was tested and had a diagnosis.
They said I was in the bottom 15 per cent of the prosopagnosic population.
“It made me realise I’ve been going through life with a sort of narrow but profound disability.”
For David, being formally diagnosed and telling people about his condition has been very helpful.
“Before I was upfront about what is wrong with me.
I sometimes had very long conversations with people without having a clue who they were,” he says.
“Now, because I’ve told almost everyone, if I say I don’t know who they are, they are OK about it and explain.
“A lot of people with prosopagnosia try to cover it up but for me, being able to say ‘it was lovely to meet you but next time I see you I won’t recognise you so please introduce yourself,’ has made my life much easier.
“Some people seem to be ashamed of it but I think ‘that’s just me, that’s my disability, what’s yours?’ because I suspect that if you look closely enough most of us have got things that we’re not terribly good at.
“Some people find it hard to accept and say ‘you would recognise me, wouldn’t you?’ but the answer is ‘no, I don’t recognise my own wife and children!”