Seven years ago I had emergency surgery to relieve a condition called spinal stenosis. This is when the discs in your spine collapse inward rather than outward (which is normally a bulging disc). Two of mine, up in the cervical area, had collapsed onto the spinal cord and I started losing my motor skills, slowly at first, then suddenly really rapidly. My spine surgeon estimated full paralysis within two months if I didn't get the surgery - not something you want to hear - so in I went for a double spine fusion three days after diagnosis.
Despite a mishap with the Mayfield clamp - that's a clamp that screws into your skull to hold you still, and one of the screws slipped and mashed up a muscle in my head - the surgery was successful. I was told I was wheeled out of the recovery room demanding my two deflated discs in a mason jar.
I recall being in a lot of pain despite a morphine drip, and I couldn't walk. I was told this would subside within a day, but something was clearly wrong, and within a short time I discovered I couldn't move my right side. Even my face was slack. Naturally I freaked out, and meanwhile the pain in my neck and head intensified, and soon after my room was swarmed with doctors and nurses and I was hustled into ICU. It appeared that my brain and spinal cord were swelling - we didn't know it at the time, but I had Addison's Disease and this was the result of an adrenal crisis. Basically, my brain was bursting.
The doctors responded swiftly and within a few days I regained my mobility and the swelling was under control. I was able to learn how to walk with a walker and I was happily discharged, although my doctors were a little bewildered with my unusually slow recovery. Normally people are back to normal within a couple weeks, but it took me over a month, and even then, I was having inflammation problems. One of my doctors wised up and did a cortisol test - I scored 0. Several additional tests later, the diagnosis of Addison's was laid on me. Yay.
I was finally able to go back to work that December at Krab Jab Studio, and we had an upcoming art show opening. I'm used to these kinds of events, which can bring in a lot of people, and I was looking forward to it, like I always do. I was tired and a bit forgetful, not a big deal, even understandable. However, I was a little bit perplexed at some odd interactions cropping up suddenly.
Artists were dropping by to say hi, or drop off art, and I simply had no idea who they were when they came calling. At first I thought maybe I was just tired, but it kept happening, and then it was happening at roller derby practice, which I was coaching at the time. I was mixing up skaters, and without seeing their jersey numbers I was having a hard time figuring out who was who. Then it started happening all over the place: people would say hi or smile at me, strangers, and I couldn't figure out who they were. A few folks called me on it ("Julie, what's with the stinkeye? Are you mad at me?").
It came to a head at the art opening. We had our usual crowd, and many of them were regulars. My job is to greet people, chat, talk about the art, introduce the artist to people. But this time something was clearly wrong. I was introducing myself to friends, I was brushing past regular buyers without acknowledgement. I had no trouble recognizing my studio mates, but everyone else -- without a clear identifier (a signature hat, hair color, voice), I was lost.
I spent the latter part of the evening hiding in a corner, mortified.
Turns out the brain swell did some damage - I had developed what is called prosopagnosia, or face blindness. The lower right side of my brain took the brunt of the swelling, and that's where facial recognition is located. For some reason people I knew prior to the surgery I had no problem recognizing, but anyone I met afterwards, or if I didn't know them very well before the surgery, my brain just couldn't figure out who they were. I couldn't even drum up their image in my memory, their face would be a smear. As an artist, this was particularly distressing.
After the opening, I became very anxious and avoided as much social interaction as possible. I was really embarrassed I couldn't recall people, and I'm such an easy read, it seemed like every interaction I had with someone was awkward. Are you a stranger or friend? I was repelled by people coming up to me, I dreaded any kind of interaction at this point. I was pretty useless as a coach, so I quit derby completely. I didn't want to go out, not even to my beloved art studio.
As a social person, I was becoming miserable with the isolation. This wasn't me at all! I sat one day, staring at photographs of my friends, and suddenly a thought hit me: I have been approaching this all wrong. Sure, everyone is a stranger until we establish our relationship, but it goes the other way, too: what if I approach everyone as a friend? If they actually are a friend, we're already on good turf. If they are a stranger, well, now I have a new friend. This might be a good strategy.
I realized that just asking people how things are going gives me enough clues to figure out who they are. I learned I can recognize voices and physical tics and movements. I started working a little harder to note details of everyone I meet: do they have a favorite hat or coat? Do they have piercings, or moles? What is the shape of their brows? If something looks familiar to me, I start working through my database of details, hemming them together until I can "recognize" the person, all the while cheerfully asking them what they're up to or how are they doing. Most of the time this works and I can figure out who I'm talking to within a few seconds, but it did take practice. At first it would take a couple minutes and sometimes I'd finally have to ask who I was talking to, but that doesn't happen as much these days.
When I'm tired, its worse, and in situations with a lot of people I do get overwhelmed and easily confused, but now I just laugh it off. Oddly, the face blindness forced me to be even more social and friendly and the result is making a lot more acquaintances than I've ever had in my life. I smile more at people and say hi more. I have more interesting conversations with people. My friendliness often pays itself forward, and I have good daily interactions, sometimes with benefits (a free coffee here, a helping hand there). Sometimes I get a cold response from a stranger, but I shrug those off. Their loss.
A stranger is a stranger until they're a friend. Its funny how a little break in the brain actually adds value, rather than detracts. At first this was horrible, but it forced me to really look at how people interact with each other, it pulled the rug out from under me and I had to learn to be comfortable with uncertainty. What a gift!