Imagine walking into a room full of friends and acquaintances but seeing mostly strangers.
That's a daily reality for one local woman.
Sharon McLean never knew she had a problem until several years ago when she was watching TV and saw a show about prosopagnosia, also known as face blindness.
There's nothing wrong with McLean's vision. She can see faces, she just can't remember them.
"I can't visualize faces in my mind, however I can visualize objects and animals, but not faces. I can visualize hair and clothing and build but for some reason I can't process, I can't visualize or retain, faces," she says while sitting in the bright living room of her Ladner home.
Prosopagnosia is a form of recognition impairment that's restricted to facial identity. The condition can be caused by brain damage after an injury or stroke, by degenerative brain diseases (acquired prosopagnosia) or it simply occurs as the brain develops (developmental prosopagnosia).
Many people with developmental prosopagnosia don't know they have a problem until well into adulthood. Most of the medical research on face blindness is centered around acquired prosopagnosia because those who suffer from it are aware that something has changed in how their brain functions.
People with developmental prosopagnosia often don't realize they are unable to recognize faces because the impairment is not apparent - they've just always been that way - and people with normal face recognition also don't identify they recognize people by their facial features.
McLean says that growing up she never realized she had a problem.
"In school it wasn't so bad because you see the same people every day and they're always sitting in the same seats," she says. "Certainly I knew that my facial recognition wasn't great and I always used to say that I don't recognize faces very well."
However, once she was out of school, the problem became more apparent.
"Then as an adult, that's when I really noticed it... because as an adult you don't see people every day all the time. I didn't know that something was wrong, I just thought that I don't recognize faces very well.
"(I'd run) into people who would clearly know me quite well and I didn't know them at all until I'd spoken to them long enough to pick up something in their voice or their movements or something."
The condition even extends to entertainment. McLean says watching TV shows and movies can prove frustrating because she's unable to remember characters from one scene to the next. She says she mostly watches documentaries and animated shows are easier because the characters usually always look the same.
McLean started developing strategies to help jog her memory or avoid the embarrassment of having to admit she didn't remember someone. She says when she was dating her husband and meeting his friends, she asked him to ask them first if they had met her before.
"I'd always instinctively wait for their response and then I would follow what they said... I'd always follow their lead.
"It was very awkward for me and panicky for me."
McLean thought maybe she just wasn't paying enough attention and tried harder.
"I was having more and more and more frequent episodes of people running into me in the bank or people running into me in Safeway or wherever ... and it was very upsetting to me."
Then one day about seven years ago, McLean was watching a news magazine show when she saw a story about face blindness and immediately made the connection.
"I was so excited to see that, you know, it wasn't just me and that it's a real thing and other people have it as well and that I'm not so odd after all."
There are no treatments for prosopagnosia, but McLean says she was just happy "to know that it was a real thing that other people have."
She says she's found an online community of other people with face blindness, which is helpful, but it's still something she has to deal with on a day-to-day basis.
"Sometimes I panic. There's a girl I know very well and I will never recognize her," she says. "Some people, like my family members, I recognize them. However, you put a toque on them and a long coat, I probably wouldn't. But there are certain people with their hair, build, gait, everything that I will never recognize and I don't know why. Most I will over time but some I will never."
The context in which she sees someone or what they're wearing can make a difference.
If she is used to seeing someone in one setting and runs into them somewhere else, chances are she won't remember them. Winter is bad, she says, as bulky coats and hats make it more difficult to remember people, even ones she knows well.
"It's just hell. It's awful," she says.
Two recent incidents where she didn't recognize people she knows quite well left McLean shaken and upset, and she made the decision to share her story.
"I am so humiliated and so panicky all the time that I think, doing this, if enough people read it then people will start to understand and if they do read it and it is about me then they can see, 'Oh, now I see why she walks by me without saying hello.'
"Not only that, but (it's) for people who are like me but have not yet discovered that something's up."
For more information about prosopagnosia, visit www.faceblind.org.
© Copyright 2013