My Appointment with the Brain Doc

“You can’t see the difference?” Brain-doctor studied the images on the screen.

I looked carefully as a house flashed onto his screen, then another. My job was to recognize if there was a difference between the two, which there wasn’t. “Nope.” I said, confidently. “No difference.” I clicked ‘N’ on the keypad to record there was ‘no’ difference in the photos.

Brain-doctor leaned closer to the computer as I studied the white house with green shutters that flashed for a second. The second white house came up; it was identical to the first image, green shutters and all.

“No difference.” I announced.

The doctor stared at me. “You really can’t see a difference?”

Oh. God. I was failing the test, wasn’t I? I mean. That was the whole idea of his visit; the examination of my visual memory. And. I agreed to the testing, knowing my disability well enough to expect failure. My rare form of epilepsy has burned away my visual memory, meaning I can’t recognize my friends, myself in a mirror or my car as my brain can’t hold any visual images.

But. Now that I was failing, the competitive side of me wanted to win. I wanted the high score. Losing suddenly seemed a painful end to a frustrating test. “Are they really different?”

“Yes.” He said slowly.

“But. It’s a white house and then another white house.” I clicked ‘N’ again. There wasn’t a difference.

He sat back in his chair.

Is there something I’m missing?

“Yes.”

Why did I agree to take this test? Oh. Yes. So I could learn more about my disability. But. I hadn’t considered how painful getting that information would be. It’d be one thing if I couldn’t do the test, but this exam seemed obvious to me. I was ready to bet a hundred dollars that there was NO difference between the houses, but there was something in the doctor’s voice stopping me from placing that bet: I so hated to lose money.

This would be my very first F on a test for my whole life. And even though it had nothing to do with lack of studying or trying, ancient survival skills from my long ago college days kicked into gear: “Concentrate. Try harder. Maybe you can bluff your way through with an essay.” I wasn’t going to lose a scholarship with low scores, but losing was new territory for me. Knowing I couldn’t brain my way to winning grades was sobering. This was me. This was the way I worked, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t do any better.

I felt itchy and self-conscious as if this were the first time the truth was revealed to me: I have no visual memory: I can’t see houses once they’re gone. I would never again be able to trust things I saw, my eyes can’t be trusted.

Concentrate. I had to concentrate. A white house flashed onto the screen. The next house flashed up. No difference. ‘N.’ Again: House. House. No difference. ‘N.’

A few months ago I happened upon the website, faceblind.org, which had a survey asking people to explain their visual memory problems. I was in a sarcastic mood, and filled the survey with saucy testimonial as to how life can be better if you can’t recognize your mother. I expected nothing for my efforts, except maybe a visit from my out-of-town mother demanding a retraction over lunch.

Brain-doctor, Dr. Brad Duchaine, e-mailed back, saying he’d like to test me and that he’d be in Denver and could test me at my apartment. I figured he’d import a hospital neurological unit with a staff of nurses who understood electrodes so he could peer into my synapses, but he assured me he only needed room for a laptop.

He didn’t use wires and he didn’t wear a white coat. He was a research doctor connected to Harvard University and University College London and let me know when he arrived that he didn’t know how to test me, because I was the only one he’d ever heard of with my specific visual memory loss. He had a series of tests: flashing houses, cars, and people, he used to examine people with a condition called Prosopagnosia, or Face Blindness. These people register blurs when they try to recall faces.

Me? I recall a big blank void when I try to recall faces, places or things. I knew my syndrome was far different from what Brain-doctor was used to testing, but figured those Face Blind people were kind of like my medical cousins. How cool is that? Finding family in the medical world.

I found comfort in being the only one with my bizarre set of conditions. My smug moment of superiority left by the time the Famous People test rolled around.

I was shown numerous images of famous people, and I had to give their name. Easy right? Well. No. I missed Marilyn Monroe, President Bush and Julia Roberts which confused me; I would have thought Marilyn would be an easy guess.

I did recognize a few people. Luckily I didn’t have to remember the exact name. “Ok. This guy is on TV. He’s really racist and has a wife named, Edith.”

“Yes.” Brain-doctor agreed. “Archie Bunker.”

I paused to let my embarrassment sink in. I didn’t recognize Lucille Ball, but knew Archie Bunker? Brains really are unreliable, aren’t they?

Testing took hours away from my otherwise predictable life. Work. Work out. Play. Write. Sleep. Brain-doctor hid his boredom by studying the hundreds of photos in my kitchen while I hit ‘Y’ and ‘N’ on his keyboard. He showed utmost decorum by gently reminding me not to cheat, which I unconsciously tried to do, repeatedly.

“Don’t turn your head.” He smiled from the corner of my eye.

I was trying to match upside down faces to faces that were right side up. “I’m not.” I wasn’t lying; I wasn’t aware that my head was practically upside down, trying to study the photos from the angle they were printed in.

Great. He’ll be able to add to his report that not only was I absent of a visual memory, but I wasn’t aware of what my body was doing. What’s the official definition of Tourette’s Syndrome?

Brain-doctor laughed at me. “You’re still turning your head.”

Hours after the testing started, he pulled out a notebook and printed my name at the bottom of a long list. “Time to get paid.”

Oh. Yes. The money. He said something about getting paid for letting them test me. I brightened. Even though I failed the test, I still got paid? I liked this system. Maybe others would pay to test me. Maybe I could make testing into a full time job.

He handed me twenty dollars and asked me to sign off on it.

After releasing the dream of a ten thousand dollar check, I accepted the twenty and took him out for Mexican food, a treat he can’t enjoy in London where he now lives. The restaurant is owned by the family of one of my students.

Fourth-grade-Student approached our table and answered the doctor’s questions about students I mix up in the classroom.

Brain-doctor leaned forward. “Do J and D look the same to you?”

“No.” Student shook his head. “They look exactly different.”

That was news to me. They look different to others?

I leaned back and listened to the doctor quiz student on my classroom behavior and I realized I’d been failing this visual memory test long before Brain-doctor came along. The principal of my school looks exactly like the orchestra teacher. Hardly a day goes by where I don’t confuse a fourth grade teacher with a sixth grade teacher. I’ve learned how to deal with my inability to recognize the people I work with by never calling anyone by name and initiating small talk before every conversation so I can discern who I’m talking to by voice.

The irony of students with learning disabilities being taught by a woman with such a debilitating disability isn’t lost on me. One day when my students who struggle with reading and writing learn of my disability, they’re going to feel a lot smarter. These ten, eleven, and twelve-year-old children can do things a teacher can’t do: tell J and D apart, call out a greeting to the principal before they hear her voice, and recognize their friends without memorizing their clothes. And just as my students’ inability to read or write has nothing to do with a lack of intelligence, maybe I’m not failing at anything either.

I’m just doing the best I can.



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