An exploration of the poetry of

Pinball Therapy

Let me start by saying this. No, you haven’t come across some new kind of therapy where you play pinball. Sadly, that isn’t a thing as far as I know. It could be – but I am going to resist the urge to look it up and deep dive into research on this. Because that’s not the point of this post.

Pinball Therapy is just an analogy that I am using to describe how it feels when I go into a therapy session. The combination of anxiety, autism and ADHD make therapy, counselling, or psychology sessions like playing a game of pinball. And maybe, to be fair, I could apply this analogy to most of my social interactions, but since this analogy came to me after my therapy session today I am calling it Pinball Therapy.

Sorry but I have to make a quick detour

I don’t like using the word therapy (probably due to past shitty experiences), and I don’t know if we ever use the word ‘therapy’ in sessions. And since I have some real need to remind myself that the guy I see is ‘not like the usual guys’ maybe I don’t want to define our sessions under the usual name of ‘therapy’. But the sessions are with someone who has the qualifications of a psychologist so for the sake of staying on track, let’s call it therapy.

When two weeks feels like too long

On Monday, I had a therapy session after a two week break. I can’t believe I actually want to go weekly – I used to really hate going to see therapists. I mean, part of me hates getting myself there – but once I’m there I am always glad to be there (even if it’s uncomfortable), and the sessions always seem to go by too quickly.

Since it was a two week break, I noticed that I struggled more than usual with my session. I was pretty anxious in the morning and it’s frustrating to be anxious about sitting down across from someone I only saw two weeks ago. It seems to me that it shouldn’t be that difficult with just two weeks in between sessions; that my anxiety response shouldn’t amp up so much. But regardless of how I think I should be, it takes longer to settle in and feel the sense of safety I need to feel to talk about the things I need to talk about.

When it’s been two weeks in between sessions, I have a really hard time figuring out what’s relevant to talk about. I have a tendency to place great importance on every experience and feeling that I have so I want to paint a big picture but the only way I know how to do that is to focus on all of the little details.

And even if I know what I want to or need to talk about, it is hard to relax into it because I always feel rushed. How could there possibly be enough time to tell him everything I need to tell him (not to mention all of the millions of questions I have for him that go unasked because I only have so much time to talk, and so I better be goal-oriented and not fulfilling my inquisitive needs).

say it before you run out of time

And by the way, whose idea was it that 45 or 50 minutes is a good length of time for any kind of psychology or therapy session? Time is something that is difficult for me to cope with. I always need to know how long something will take in order to feel engaged, and not too distracted by the not knowing. And I never know how long I have to talk about a topic. I never look at the time in sessions partly because I feel it would be rude but partly because I feel as though it would influence me. I’d be wondering Do I have enough time to talk about this particular issue today? I would probably always think ‘no’ for every issue anyway. And then what would I do? I would get stressed, that’s what. Feeling rushed is one of the biggest triggers for anxiety that I have. And I don’t have to actually be rushed to get anxious. It’s the perception that I am running out of time that stresses me.


Finally…The pinball analogy

So what does this have to do with pinball? As I thought about my session, I got this image of playing pinball. I grew up in the 80s so I can clearly remember what it felt like playing pinball. Pinball wasn’t something that I had constant access to, like when we got home video game systems. I could only play pinball at a bowling alley or an arcade. So every time I played pinball, I had to get warmed up.

I would pull back the plunger, and the first ball I played with would kind of loll around while I got used to working the flippers. In therapy, this is like the introduction and small talk and settling into the space.

pinball plunger

Then as I get used to the flippers, I’m using a different part of my brain. I’m trying to figure out where to aim the ball. In therapy, this is when I flit from one topic to the next as I work to figure out what’s important to talk about or to experience in that session.

And eventually I have a real feel for the game. My conscious mind isn’t working so hard now. I’m allowing the game to just happen. As I get in the zone, I think I know what part of the machine I am aiming for, and how hard to hit the flippers, and how to time it just right. In therapy this is when I feel safe with the therapist, and in the space that we are sharing.

And you know how at an arcade sometimes there will be a kid hanging around as you play? And they are cheering you on and trying to help you by telling you what you could do differently to get a higher score? In therapy, this is when the therapist helps me by seeing how I can be my best me, and by showing me things that I might not have noticed, or giving me strategies that I hadn’t thought to try.

friends at an arcade

But I always run out of pinballs no matter what. And there’s always someone standing behind me, waiting for their turn to play. In therapy, this is when my allotted appointment time has elapsed, and the next person is waiting their turn.

I suppose that even though it feels like I could play pinball forever, I would eventually fatigue from it. That’s the same with therapy. I do feel like I could do more than the session time allotted – but I don’t think I could actually do as long as I like to believe I could. It’s that whole thing I have about needing to complete things. Like I could sit down and say “Right, let’s just get all of this sorted out now” and in a day? (or a week or a month?), I would have gotten everything out of my system and I  would be a clean slate with all of the answers I have been seeking. And I would go on to live the life of my dreams without any more of the shit holding me back. 

Keeping score

Okay, let’s leave fantasy land behind and get back to pinball. How do I get my highest possible score? By hitting lots of smaller, but easier to hit targets – or by aiming for the big one? I don’t know that there is a definite answer to this one.

But when it comes to therapy, I do know that I won’t always want or even need to hit a big target. And sometimes it’s actually too much on my psyche to hit big targets every time. And unlike pinball, sometimes in therapy, those seemingly small topics I’ve discussed lead to big gains that aren’t always obvious until there’s been time to metabolize them.

I’m just glad that I’ve got a stack of coins so I can keep playing. I’m so grateful that the kids that are standing by the machine cheering me on actually know what they’re doing. They know that this machine operates a little differently than most. That it’s more sensitive, and it has its quirks, but once you get to know how to play with it, it’s actually a lot more fun because it’s different. It’s more challenging. But also more rewarding.

So I keep showing up. I keep learning about this machine. And even though I might not get a higher score with each game I play, I am on the whole, improving.