The Pinball Machine in my head

When I’m feeling depressed, which seems to be all the time recently, I am more impacted by the various stressors of my life. Stress at work. Stress at home. Stress in the community. Stress at church. Stress with our extended family. And then, the result of this greater impact is that these “routine” stressors lead me into a negative spiral, a condition where any small thing is apt to set off (or “trigger”) a “negative emotional response” within me that is far out of proportion to the often-trivial thing itself.

This post is my own initial effort at trying to describe and explain this process, not only for myself but also for my wife. As I’ve learned about my autism, perhaps the most painful part of my discovery has been the recognition of how much pain my behavior has caused for my wife. She is the only true “friend” that I have, and because of that, my wife is often the only person around me when I drop ALL of the things that I have been doing to “pass” in public or at work. When I drop all of those, AND I’m in a negative spiral that includes one or more of my “negative emotional response(s),” I can be rather difficult to get along with. And since my wife has been my only real friend for the past twenty years, she’s born the brunt of far too many of these “negative emotional responses.”

One thing I’ve learned over the past six months is that what I experience as a “negative emotional response” looks most like ANGER to an allistic person. This is important for me to recognize, because ANGER is usually NOT the thing that I’m feeling inside. Unfortunately, what I’m feeling inside can quickly turn into real anger because of how my own confused emotions are being interpreted by those around me. In other words, I may be experiencing FEAR, or RESENTMENT, or DISAPPOINTMENT, but my mind and my body (through my expression, the tone of my voice, and my physical movements) portray those things as something that LOOKS like ANGER to the allistic world. And then, when the world responds to me as if I am angry, it’s not a giant leap for me to become ACTUALLY angry. This transition from a negative emotion to actual anger is very much like adding fuel to the destructive fire that is raging out of control in my mind.

In trying to describe my own personal experience of emotion to my wife, one difference that surprised us both is that I almost always experience only one single emotion at a time, whereas (according to my wife) she experiences complex blends of multiple emotions simultaneously. Talk about confusing! I’m struggling to understand one emotion at a time, but allistic people seem to be able to “multitask” emotionally, ebbing and flowing, sliding from one subtle blend to another, whereas MY experience is much more like a simple “on / off” switch on the wall. When a situation is emotionally complex, there may be many different “on / off” switches for many different emotions in my mind, and those different switches may be turned on and off very quickly, but no matter how fast they go, I only experience one single emotion at any given point in time.

Pinball Machine image

Pinball Machine – from

My experience is sort of like having a pinball game running in my head. Each of the “bumpers” or “targets” in the pinball game is a different pure emotion, and the ball ricocheting around the machine is my sequential experience of those emotions. Sometimes the ball moves slowly, deliberately, from a flipper to a bumper to a target. Ocasionally, when I’m in a negative spiral, the pinball gets stuck in a pattern where it’s bouncing furiously between three or four different emotional bumpers, until finally it bounces out and I’m left completely drained of emotional energy. As if that experience wasn’t frustrating enough, I’ve been working with my counselor to use my logic and reason to “dissect” whatever emotion I’m feeling, so that I can express that feeling in ways that interface effectively with the allistic world. The challenge for me is that this process of dissecting, exploring, and deciding on specific actions to convey this emotional respone is not quite as fast as the native emotional reaction that occurs more automatically from an allistic mind. And when the situation is complex – when the spiral is tightening, the pinball is bouncing faster than imaginable between different bumpers – that is when those small delays in emotional processing add up, and further complicate my problems. Where I might be one or two emotions behind during a routine situation, I may be six or eight steps behind in a complex one. And when I’m in the grips of a negative spiral, this processing lag is my worst nightmare. It is this lag that causes my emotional experience to be out-of-sync with the emotional experiences of my wife, which can have disasterous consequences for our relationship.

In some ways, having a diagnosis and working on the challenge of emotional experience with a counselor has actually made things WORSE for me! Why, you ask? Because I no longer have the option to just let the ball bounce around without trying to understand each of those bumpers. I can’t skip by even ONE of the emotions in the sequence without evaluating it logically, without considering possible actions to take. Before I knew about my emotional processing deficit, I didn’t know that I COULD do something different, so I just waited out the experience. Now that I know, my knowledge can sometimes be a curse, as I’ve painfully experienced several time in the past month.

I don’t yet have a clear way forward, a process for moving beyond this frustrating challenge. But what I do have is motivation. I can’t possibly express clearly or often or loudly enough the love that I have for my wife. The more I learn about myself, about my autistic differences, the more amazed I am that she has continued to love me throughout our marriage.

Photo of a red rose

Single Red Rose

Sweetheart, thank you so very much, for your patience, for your strength, and for your unconditional love.

2 thoughts on “The Pinball Machine in my head

  1. allieoopsie

    I have read this and I understand. I need you to understand that it is in my very being to do my best at helping people to stop hurting. It is most difficult when the person hurting is the one I

  2. AspieCatholic Girl

    I also only feel one emotion at a time. It was only recently, through reading blog posts such as yours, that I discovered other people feel many at one time. I had always just thought the phrase “mixed emotions” was not to be taken literally!
    Unlike you, a pinball machine would be a very bad analogy for me, since my emotion, whatever it may be, is perseverating. In other words, I feel one emotion for days and days. In fact, if it so happens that my emotion changes too frequently (like every two days) such as was happening a couple of weeks ago, I find it highly confusing.


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