Updated: Nov 11
Q: What if our brains stop developing at 18?
Trigger warning: reference to suicide
Chapter 1 - Harebrained
The signs were there but we all ignored them.
Message: U coming?
We should’ve seen it when the stories started leaking out about the governmental parties during lockdown. The wine on the walls, the vomit, the brawling…the signs were all there, staring at us in plain sight.
Sorry, I keep getting interrupted. Breaks my train of thought. Where was I? Oh yeah, the signs. The ones we chose to ignore. All of us.
Sorry, they can wait. It’s fine. I want you to hear this. So…yes, the signs. Right…it wasn’t until a decade later when the opposing party came into power that we knew something was really wrong. I mean, really bad, like disaster movie bad. Worldwide MRIs showed that our brains weren’t developing. Something to do with environmental factors. Or climate change. Can’t remember. It’s always climate change though so it must be that.
Shit, I didn’t mean to snap like that. Again. It just comes. I try…but…it just comes.
That’s how it happened before. Like that. A branch breaking. A rush of anger. And I said it. I didn’t mean to. But I said it.
Let me turn my phone off. It’s distracting. So the scans identified that our prefrontal cortexes weren’t advancing past a certain stage; past the brains of an eighteen year old. Great, right? On the cusp of adulthood. Medically still an adolescent.
Apparently the PFC was responsible for impulse control, decision making, planning, that kind of thing. Important life-to-function-as-normal stuff…whatever normal was anyway. It helped us learn from our mistakes. It stopped us from doing mad shit. Well, a little crazy is always good but man, you need to grow up one day, you know? And we weren’t. None of us. The PFC didn’t fully develop until 25. We were fucked.
What’s the time? Shit, I’m late for my session. Come with me? I’ll keep telling you my story.
So they put us into pairs. We did everything together. A buddy system. Two teen brains were better than one, they said. Keep an eye on each other. Harebrained maybe but it was the best that a government with immature brains could offer.
Things got worse. I could’ve told you that. There were no credible role models. No one to turn to for guidance. Teenagers became the dominant influence on society’s development. Culture that was once passed on through the generations, vanished. Peer-to-peer social media became the arbiter of current affairs and culture’s only barometer. Of course we needed peer culture and ideas for social evolution. But now this was all we had. No intergenerational wisdom.
The opinions of a peer held great weight. Words from ‘an impulsive, non-adaptive individual’ could make or break your day, your week, your month. Even your life.
I still had the exchange on my phone. I look at it daily. A flagellation to alleviate my guilt. A reminder of why I’m here. In this dark, suffocating flotation tank. Electrodes on my brain, trying to stimulate the synapses into action.
I had just snapped. Hadn’t meant to say what I said. I should’ve realise that they were just in pain, crying out for comfort. But I hadn’t and couldn’t take the moaning any more. The self-indulgent routine. So I snapped.
Message: hate life
Me: if you hate your life so much, why don’t you just kill yourself?
Bright light. The door to the flotation tank lifted open. A set of eyes stared down at me. The neurologist. You’re doing great, she said. Your concentration is improving. We would like to consider you for the next level. Remember we discussed it? Come and find me.
I remembered. The electrical implant in the brain. An experimental therapy involving invasive brain surgery. Small holes drilled into my brain under local anaesthetic. A node, containing the pulse generator would be tucked in the bone beneath the scalp. It would send electrical currents directly into my PFC to stimulate its growth. The pain would be excruciating but I would be doing it for mankind. That’s what they said. That there were only a few of us who had these receptive brains.
Was I being naive thinking I could actually make a difference? Civilisation was doomed, wasn’t it? What could I do to make a change? It was pointless.
Or maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it was up to me to try, to give it a go. I might have a chance. There’s always a hero in every story, why couldn’t that be me for a change?
I’d already let her down. I should’ve listened and been there for her. I was her buddy after all. But I didn’t. I’d let her down. I didn’t try hard enough. Maybe this was my chance to make amends. Wash away the blood on my hands.
Are you still there? Are you still listening? What would you do?
Chapter two - Heavy. Hot. Panting.
If you hate your life so much, why don’t you just kill yourself? I woke up with a start, heart pulsating, ice drenched. Another nightmare. Another reminder.
It was a no brainer. You said it yourself. I should do the surgery. I’d feel better then. Atoned.
They gave me valium to chill out. Asked for something stronger but they needed me awake. Fuck that shit. What’s the point if not to get high…high up, away from this world. Right?
Wrong. It was the dullest experience ever. Bright lights, stainless steel, masked up surgeons…every inch of their faces concealed, apart from their eyes. Windows to the souls, they say. What could I tell about this one here, standing by the heartbeat machine, making sure I wasn’t flatlining. I bet she had sex this morning. Uh huh. I can see the twinkle in her eyes, pupils still dilated, must have been good. And what about this one over here? God no, he definitely didn’t. In fact he’s still a virgin and lives at home with his Mum because they don’t pay him enough to move out. Yup, I’m right, I can see it in the furrow in his brows. Woah…I’m talking a lot of shit. What did they actually give me? Technically I’m ‘think talking’ because they can’t hear me. But…what if they could? What if they could actually hear me. Maybe if I shout loudly in my head, they might. Like this. H-E-L-L-O. Heeeeellllooooo!
Please don’t, said sex eyes, it’s putting me off. Too loud. We know exactly what’s going on. We can see it right here, on this monitor as we cut into your brain.
What the, I spluttered. Yup, said home boy, we see it all. And you are talking a lot of shit. Oh, I mumbled, embarrassed. He continued. And…by the way…even though it’s none of your business, I don’t live at home with my Mum. Long awkward pause. I live at home with my Dad. Sex eyes laughed. I did too, over loudly, not really knowing what else to do. You would’ve done the same, right? Then home boy joined in and it was the most bizarre situation - me on the cutting table with the two doctors staring over me, all laughing our heads off, as my skull was being cut open.
Then it all stopped abruptly. Sex eyes put her face right up to mine. On a serious note, she whispered, you do realise that you’re making a mistake, don’t you? Huh, I replied. That one, she said, gesturing with her head to whoever was above me, cutting up my brain. That one hasn’t got a clue what she’s doing. Not one iota. I blinked back at her in disbelief. You mean, the neurosurgeon? Neurosurgeon my foot, she scoffed. How can anyone without a fully developed prefrontal cortex become a neurosurgeon? Didn’t you think of that before you said yes?
Nope. I hadn’t. But how could I? I was still half-baked. I tried to get a glimpse of the butcher having a field day with my brain but my head was firmly locked into place. So were my arms and legs, come to think of it. Something didn’t feel quite right.
Don’t listen to her, said home boy. She loves a bit of drama. You shouldn’t believe everything you hear. Don’t they teach you that at school? I strained against my bonds. Then why am I strapped down like this, I asked? Home boy smiled down at me nonchalantly. I could’ve punched him with that know-it-all smile. Because we can’t have you move a millimetre, might cut into your basal ganglia and then you’d be paralysed forever.
Don’t listen to him, he’s just showing off, interrupted sex eyes. Thinks he’s it since he got the second highest brain score this month. She winked at him. I’m it am I, joked home boy, rolling his surgical gloves off and whipping them flirtatiously at sex eyes. Weird…but she seemed to like it. Who was first, I asked, trying to break up this curious atmosphere. You silly, she replied. Me? Great. I had kids operating on me who had less grey matter than I did. Things couldn’t get any worse. Sex eyes was now taking off her surgical head gear and shaking her hair down seductively. This was all getting very strange and somewhat awkward. Wait, I said, if you guys can hear me, why can’t the ‘neurosurgeon’?
No one answered. Before I knew what was going, sex eyes had grabbed home boy by his collar and was making out with him right above me…then on me…and I couldn’t get away, pinned down to observe helplessly. It was like Clockwork Orange on steroids.
Why didn’t I scream or protest? Because suddenly no words appeared in my mouth or my mind. I was brain paralysed. Something had gone wrong. I closed my eyes to block out the entangled couple. Soon I couldn’t feel them fumbling on me any longer. Shit, I was fully paralysed now.
Open your eyes, said a voice. Come on, it’s ok, you can trust me, open them. I slowly fluttered open my eyes but all I could see was darkness. Then a set of eyes stared down at me. The neurosurgeon. We’ve reached a crucial point in the surgery, she said, I need you to make a decision. I was confused. Where were sex eyes and home boy? I asked. Who, replied the neurosurgeon. The two surgeons getting it on right here, just a moment ago, I said pointing to my lap. But there was no one there. Just darkness, me and the neurosurgeon. Was I going crazy?
You have just undergone brain surgery, she said. It’s natural. Was it, I wondered? It was so vivid. I felt them on me. Heavy. Hot. Panting. The neurosurgeon continued. The brain’s activity is showing that you’re feeling a sense of unease, that you’re unsure of the surgery. We’re about to put the node into your skull. You still have a choice but you need to make it now. This is your point of no return. What will it be?
I didn’t know. I couldn’t tell what was real and what was a figment of my imagination. Did sex eyes and home boy really exist? And if so, were they right about the neurosurgeon? Did she actually know what she was doing? Or was it all an illusion, side effects of brain surgery?
The neurosurgeon urged me for a response. We need your decision now, she said. What will it be. I took a deep breath. Who was I to trust? I felt a connection with sex eyes and home boy, maybe because I felt they were on the same level as me. But did they really know what was going on? I wasn’t sure. Then there was the neurosurgeon. Somehow she was different from us. She had an air of wisdom that we lacked. She should have the brain of an 18 year old like the rest of us, shouldn’t she? Perhaps she had already had this procedure. Maybe that’s it. Maybe I could be like her. I wanted to be like her, wouldn't you? But what if I was wrong and she was incompetent like sex eyes said.
It was decision time. What should I do? My head hurt. What would you do? Who should I trust?
Chapter three - Love that keeps me going
I closed my eyes again. It was all too much. I had no idea which way to turn. One part of me was willing myself to go with the surgery, to choose progress, logic, wisdom. The other was screaming out to beware, protect, be autonomous. Don’t listen to them, it said. Don’t let the authorities push you around. Be free like sex eyes and home boy. They’re the #goals.
I opened my eyes and found myself in a dark space. I was no longer on the operating table but standing up, a cold draught blowing at the top of my head. I reached up. I felt the sponge-like undulation of what I guessed was my open brain. Gross. I could feel the flap of my skin hanging over to the left and mustered courage to flip it shut. My stomach churned. A little bit of sick came in my mouth. I swallowed it back down.
In the far distance I saw figures in a circle, holding hands, skipping anti-clockwise. Sex eyes, home boy and the neurosurgeon. Was that laughter I could hear or were they sniggering at me? As I got closer, they dropped their hands and took opposing stances. Two against one.
Hey, said sex eyes to the neurosurgeon. Hey, replied the neurosurgeon. Sup, said home boy to the neurosurgeon. Sup, said the neurosurgeon back at home boy. Both confident, both defensive. An eerie atmosphere lingered in the air. Run, take cover, said the voice in my head. Run before…but it was too late. The battle was about to begin.
Failed again I see, said sex eyes to her opponent, gesturing towards me. Couldn’t get another one to stay? The neurosurgeon shrugged her do I give a fuck look. Useless, sex eyes pursued, no wonder they wanted to get rid of you. The neurosurgeon winced. Those words had worked. The blow had struck. Tears welled in her eyes. Brushing them away, she took out a mask from under her operating gown and placed it on her face. It morphed into her skin and became flawless. She was ready. Her game face was back on.
At least I can operate, she retorted. At least I qualified for the programme. Sex eyes visibly recoiled. Home boy stepped forward, puffing up his chest as if shielding his partner from the hateful words. You looking for a fight, he growled? Not especially, replied the neurosurgeon. Home boy handed sex eyes a vial. She swigged it and was calm again.
We should stop doing this, said the neurosurgeon. Yes we should, said a voice from behind me. A voice I knew so well. A voice I would never forget. I turned around and she was there. My trigger. My responsibility. My buddy.
What are you…why…how? My words spluttered out. I wanted to run over to her but overwhelming guilt prevented me. How could I face her after what I had done? My words had killed her.
She sensed my angst, strode over and hugged me. A deep, comforting, envelope of a hug. A hug that brought back memories of every joyous moment in my life. My buddy released me and smiled. She looked older, lines now marked her face, pathways of experience proudly showcased. That’s unconditional love, she said. Love that our parents and caring adults embody. Love that I’ve mastered on the other side. Love that keeps me going.
She took my hand in hers. I want you to know that I forgive you, she said, and that I will always love you, whatever happens. You didn’t know what you were doing, what you were saying, how powerful your words were then. It wasn’t your true self talking but a collection of unwired synapses. I can see that now. Only now with decades of experience can I see.
You’ve only been gone six months, 3 days…how…I started to say? She nodded. On the other side, time is fluid. We keep developing, learning, experiencing. Our brains mature. Answers are found, new questions are formed. We age, yes, but with it comes self-assurance, self-knowledge, self-discovery. So much is clearer to me now. I see that you’re worried, unsure, hesitant of life. That’s ok. That’s how it’s meant to be. We learn from our mistakes. We learn from our experiences.
Sex eyes, home boy and the neurosurgeon came closer, drawn to her glowing energy. They sat down next to her. She smiled up at them kindly. She looked so much older, wiser, adult-like. What should we do, they asked. Tell us. I wanted to know too. My buddy held out her hand to them. You know what to do, she said. Listen to your heart. The answer lies there.
I closed my eyes. They were heavy and I felt weary from all the drama. I wanted to sleep, to rest. My buddy stroked my forehead and let me curl up on her lap. The other three did too, forming petals on a flower with her at the centre. I joined in, took my place.
I was drifting off, just entering that blissful state when a voice called out to me. I wasn’t ready. I wanted to sleep. Open your eyes, it said. I tried to pull myself back towards slumber. I resisted as much as I could but it persisted. Come on, it’s ok, open them, the voice said. It was a kind, warm voice. Familiar. Who was it? I opened my eyes. I was back in the flotation tank. Back at the beginning. Before the surgery, before sex eyes, home boy and the neurosurgeon. Before my buddy and that hug. That hug. My heart ached for her. My heart ached for all of them.
The neurologist beamed down at me. That was amazing, she said. Your brain is re-generating itself. It’s growing. It’s changing. How did you do it?
It all made sense to me now. I saw an image of my buddy in my mind and tried to remember everything she had taught me. The ache in my heart morphed into a strong feeling of hope. I knew what we had to do. How we were going to re-generate. It wasn’t too late for our generation. We still had time to become The Re-Generation. All we had to do was listen to experience and our hearts. And find the wise love that will keep us going.
World Suicide Prevention Day is on Saturday, 10 September 2022, to raise awareness of how we can create a world where fewer people die by suicide. Just listening and showing you care can save a life.
If you need to talk to someone, call The Samaritans on 116 123 (UK) or 1(800) 273-TALK (US).