A Psalm for Serotonin


It’s February again. I’ve suffered three weeks of cold, steady rain here in San Francisco, rain that creeps under my collar like slimy earthworms, rain that squeezes out of the fog like suds. Perennially happy people smirk and say, “Yes, but it makes snow in the mountains.” I want to bonk them with their ski poles. Now, to compound my anguish, it’s Friday and I’ve been sobbing all day.
That’s my husband’s fault.
This morning I complained to him, “You don’t show gratitude for me, I don’t feel appreciated.” My heart hung heavy in my chest, and small tears beaded in the corner of each eye. I hoped he would coo, maybe produce red roses and hug me. I teetered on the edge of a meltdown into a mud puddle. I felt abandoned and surrounded by adversaries.
My patient husband puzzled, and then replied, “I do too show gratitude. I put the toilet seat back down every time.” He smiled warmly.
Disbelieving, I tried to speak, to object, to stare the right words out of his mouth. But I could not. I was already sobbing. What Mother Nature alone could not provoke, Bill unleashed with a few words. I stomped away, anger added to gloom, planning to retaliate. I decided to take his car for a trade-in later today.
“Why do I keep trying to get serotonin from him?” I grumbled to myself. “He’s a deep dark well of testosterone who finds love in a toilet bowl.” Like many of my damp, exhausted girlfriends, I can occasionally admit that it’s not love I need — it’s serotonin. Getting it from my husband, I must learn over and over again, is like shopping for clothes at Walgreen’s: You can’t complain about selection or quality.
“I must have more serotonin,” I moaned, looking at car dealerships in the Yellow Pages. “If he won’t give it to me, where am I going to get it?” I pouted to myself. The thought of going back out into the pouring rain — even to exchange Bill’s Audi for the used VW Beetle he deserved — failed to lift my sagging, soggy spirits. I slumped in my chair and clicked over to Google.
Serotonin, I read between sobs, provides the body with its “happy feeling,” soothing and calming so that we sleep better, feel less anxious, and avoid the wild mood swings. I know a lot of women who don’t have enough serotonin — their uptake inhibitors broke with age or clogged with stress, and their bodies maliciously whisk away every tiny sprinkle of neurotransmitted calm. This leaves many of us wailing aloud, “Where have all the serotonins gone, long time passing?” — while we glare suspiciously at husbands who appear chipper without reason.
Research has revealed that serotonin can be regulated and manipulated by diet and weather. Carbohydrates and sunlight, for example, produce this critical neurotransmitter — no wonder I fantasize in the carpool line about eating cherry cheese Danish under a beach umbrella at Waikiki. I was surprised to read that turkey and bananas boost the chemical balance, and moved on to the much better advice that chocolate enhances serotonin levels. “I’ll get a Snickers bar on the way to the car dealership,” I nudged myself.
Beyond dispute, and in heavy use, drugs can increase serotonin levels by impeding the body’s ability to reabsorb it. Zoloft and Prozac step in and force the body to provide some comfort and calm to itself. For many, the medicinal solution relieves the irritability, depression, and anxiety symptomatic of depleted serotonin levels, avoiding the chub of eating and the burn of sunning your way to a better state of being. “Drug therapy,” I made mental note, “can help restore a feeling of emotional balance.”
As I researched the Internet — calming slowly as I went, detecting some indecision about whether to punish my husband — I found other sage tips about my serotonin levels. Small pleasures, I learned, can pay huge hormonal dividends, as they ease the body into relaxation, elevating serotonin and creating happiness. Meditating regularly, making time for music, or reading a daily poem offer respite with pleasant chemical consequence. Exercise and quality family time can do the same.
As my emotion-disengaging brain landed upon a sane thought, I wondered: “What regular ‘small pleasures’ had I in my life?” I recalled my weekly trip across the Golden Gate Bridge to St. Hilary’s for Perpetual Adoration, and the hour I habitually spend with my Lord on Thursday mornings — an hour I had let my mood and the rain excuse the day before. “I always leave there calm,” I reflected with now-amused interest. “God elevates my serotonin,” I whispered with surprise, regretful that I had let weather and temper keep me from the Lord, regretful that I had turned against my husband, away from my God.
Now I know just where to go.  I can bear the mildewed rain jacket, moldy hat, and permanently wet umbrella one more time. I will leave Bill’s Audi in the garage and steer my own car toward the Golden Gate Bridge, scolding myself as I go, mumbling a psalm — a psalm for serotonin. “I stretch out my hands to you; my soul thirsts for you like a parched land. Selah. Answer me quickly, O LORD; my spirit fails. Do not hide your face from me, or I shall be like those who go down to the Pit.”
Not there, not back to the Pit, I pray. I am on the way to You.

Marjorie Campbell

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Marjorie Campbell is an attorney and speaker on social issues from a Catholic perspective. She lives in San Francisco with her family and writes a regular column, "On the Way to the Kingdom," for Catholic Womanhood at CNA.

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