Pennies in My Pocket: My Battle with Anxiety

I sat straight up in bed, my hand instinctively covering my chest. My heart beat so rapidly that I could feel it on my fingertips, wildly thumping like a jackhammer. I was having yet another anxiety attack—this time jolting me out of a dead sleep.

The attacks had become more frequent and harder to control. They invaded even when I wasn’t conscious enough to let my ruminating thoughts take me there. Anxiety and I had become so interwoven that I couldn’t distinguish one from the other.

The year was 2002, and I was a freshman at a Midwestern Christian college. While I had left home ready to soak in all that independence had to offer, I began to experience symptoms of severe depression toward the end of my first semester. I struggled to get myself to class. I cried easily and without reason. I began to disengage from almost everyone around me. Anxiety shook me to the core. Soon enough, the stress also ravaged me physically, my weight dropping to an unhealthy ninety-seven pounds.

At first, I attributed my symptoms to grief. That November my Grandpa Bender had succumbed to cancer. While death was not new to me—I’d had other family members pass away, Grandpa had been like a second father, the embodiment of quiet faithfulness and unconditional love. He had lived right next door to my childhood home—his house quite literally in our backyard. I have very few high school memories that don’t include Grandpa: evening meals, my brother’s basketball games, decorating the Christmas tree. And when he died, the grief hit me hard.

I got caught in a downward spiral. The pain and emptiness increased. The anxiety attacks became more frequent. I collapsed inward, isolating myself because I couldn’t see past my pain.

In that season of intense depression, I often called home in a panic. During one such phone conversation with my Dad, he sensed that while my pain was real, I had allowed it to paralyze me—so much so that I thought about very little outside myself.

Enter the pennies. My dad encouraged me to dig five pennies out of my purse and put them all in my left pocket. I did. Because those were the days of hip-hugger, low-rise jeans, the presence of those copper coins was palpable. Dad challenged me to find ways—five times a day—to do something, say something, or pray for someone other than myself. And every time I did so, I was to move one penny from my left pocket into my right pocket, until all five pennies had been moved.

While this practice initially felt inauthentic, the pennies became a turning point. As I sought others out, moving pennies from one pocket to the other, I began to regain empathy and my sense of compassion. Slowly, one penny at a time (combined with therapy and meds), I began to see outside myself.

I empathized with friends who were navigating strained relationships, and I’d listen. I accepted invitations from my suite mates to get ice cream at 10 p.m. I even giggled with the girls down the hall the night boys from our brother dorm serenaded us with Dashboard Confessional outside our third-story window. Every time I wanted to disengage with the world, I’d feel those pennies in my pocket urging me to stay connected.

The pennies weren’t the only thing that saved me. God was gracious in providing me with good counsel, good meds, a patient boyfriend (later turned husband), and ever-present parents. The pennies alone didn’t heal me, but they became the symbol of my healing, my takeaway from a season when I was careening out of control.

I still battle anxiety from time to time, that unbidden panic rising in my chest. While I’ve developed habits to help manage my physical anxiety, I can still feel the pull, the desire to slip back inside my melancholy and stay there. But then I remember the pennies. I feel their presence, beckoning me to see beyond my own pain and into the lives of others. They remind me to look up and look out, to offer my pain to God for His purposes—even if it means staying in it a while longer.

A whole host self-absorbed temptations greet us when we treat suffering as something that belongs to us. [...] our suffering belongs to the Lord. It is an instrument of his purpose in us and for others.
— Paul David Tripp
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