Mother describes ‘stress’ of face blindness condition which has left her unable to recognise her colleagues or young son

A woman with face blindness has said the condition can be “stressful” and “embarrassing”, as it has left her unable to recognise people, including colleagues and her son, if they change any small detail about their appearance.

Claudia Kozeny-Pelling, 45, from Oxford, is a translator and SEO content writer in English and German, originally from Bavaria, Germany, and has prosopagnosia, a condition also known as facial agnosia or face blindness.

She has been known not to recognise colleagues if she sees them outside work, or acquaintances who have changed their appearance slightly, like not wearing their usual jacket or getting a haircut.

She was even unable to recognise her son Sam when he was dressed up in a school play as a toddler.

Despite the embarrassment and frustration it can cause, there is no treatment available and Claudia has only told a few people she has it – because when she has discussed it in the past, she was not believed.

Claudia Kozeny-Pelling
Claudia Kozeny-Pelling (Anna McKay/PA Real Life)

According to the NHS, face blindness often affects people from birth, and it is estimated about 1.5 million people in the UK have developmental prosopagnosia.

Claudia has strategies to figure out who people are, and describes it as “putting a jigsaw together”. The strategies include memorising people’s voices, a piece of clothing they often wear, or the way they walk.

Claudia always thought she was bad with faces but, looking back, she remembers having face-blind incidents as a teenager.

“I remember one time somebody showed me a group picture,” she said.

Claudia Kozeny-Pelling
Claudia Kozeny-Pelling (Collect/PA Real Life)

“And I pointed out myself, but it was in fact a boy who had similar features to me – a similar short haircut and glasses.”

Another moment that sticks out to Claudia is when her son, Sam, 13, was a toddler in nursery school and she went to watch his play with her husband, Charlie, 44, an app developer.

She said: “All the children were dressed in teddy bear costumes, and they all looked exactly the same to me, I couldn’t see his eye colour or anything close-up that was distinctive so I couldn’t tell who was who.

“It was horrible.”

Claudia and her husband Charlie (Anna McKay/PA Real Life)
Claudia and her husband Charlie (Anna McKay/PA Real Life)

Claudia, who moved from Germany to Oxford in 1997, also thinks one of her relatives was face-blind too.

She said: “I remember being on the way home from school and I bumped into one of my family members.

“They didn’t recognise me for the first few seconds they saw me.

“And we both thought it was a bit funny, and we couldn’t explain it other than they were just not very good for faces.

Claudia Kozeny-Pelling
Claudia Kozeny-Pelling (Collect/PA Real Life)

“Now, it makes sense, they must have had it too.”

On how it feels when she does not recognise someone, Claudia said: “I would describe it as almost putting a puzzle together.

“So, somebody starts talking to me and it seems like they know me or my name, and I realise I don’t know who they are.

“Then I have to try and put the pieces together like, notice their hairstyle, or a distinctive coat or something like that. And then also, I ask myself ‘What are they saying? What’s their tone of voice?’

Claudia Kozeny-Pelling
Claudia Kozeny-Pelling (Collect/PA Real Life)

“Most of the time I can figure out who it is, but it’s quite exhausting. It’s quite stressful as well.

“It’s a little bit embarrassing if you have to tell somebody ‘I have no idea who you are’ – that doesn’t make them feel good, so I avoid saying that.

“If a colleague or a fairly good acquaintance even changes their hairstyle I can’t recognise them though.

“I had a bus stop friend who had dentures all of a sudden, so her teeth had changed completely, and it completely threw me. I was like ‘who is that person?’

Claudia Kozeny-Pelling
Claudia Kozeny-Pelling (Anna McKay/PA Real Life)

“Even when I tried to explain, it sounded like an excuse because they didn’t know what face blindness is.”

Claudia also struggles watching films.

“We watched a 1970s film recently and the main character had a cowboy hat on for the first half of the film,” she said.

“And then all of a sudden, he changed into a suit and had a slightly different hairstyle. I just didn’t know who he was at all and I said to my husband, ‘Who’s that?’

Claudia Kozeny-Pelling
Claudia Kozeny-Pelling (Collect/PA Real Life)

“A number of times that’s happened, where I just can’t follow the structure of the film all of a sudden, because I think it’s a new character, when it’s just the same character looking a bit different.”

Up until two years ago, Claudia was unsure why she was getting so confused with faces.

“I didn’t really know what it was,” she said.

“I finally Googled all the symptoms, and I realised it’s something that other people have, and I was really happy, because it’s not just me.

Claudia Kozeny-Pelling
Claudia Kozeny-Pelling (Anna McKay/PA Real Life)

“About 18 months ago, I talked to my GP about it and there’s no formal diagnosis they can do.

“I could go to a university to volunteer for a research study, but I’m not sure it’s really going to help me a lot.”

Claudia has not told anyone about her face blindness besides her family and her best friend from Germany, as well as one friend from her book club.

“I bumped into her and I told her and she actually had heard of it.” Claudia said.

Claudia Kozeny-Pelling
Claudia Kozeny-Pelling (Anna McKay/PA Real Life)

“I find it really hard to tell people – in the book club, for example, it’s a group setting, and I wouldn’t just announce I have face blindness.

“I find it really embarrassing, but I think I should do it, and I probably will do it at some point.

“I did some research on faceblind.org and they sent me a badge and some information material for family, friends, colleagues, and so on.

“At some point when I get the courage up, I will explain it – I can show them that I’m not just making it up.”

Claudia said she hopes awareness of prosopagnosia will grow, and encouraged anyone who thinks they may have the condition to research it and see a GP.