A deadly game

Sharron Grant had no idea her 12-year-old son was choking himself to get high. She found out in the worst way possible. Now she's determined to prevent other parents from suffering the same grief

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On Saturday, April 23, 2005, Sharron Grant returned home from running errands and made her way through the house saying hello to each of her three children. She found her younger son, Joshua, playing upstairs with his cousin. Not seeing his older brother, Jesse, Sharron went to his bedroom. When she opened the door, her world came crashing down.

“My 12-year-old son — my pride and joy — was strangled from the computer cord he had put around his neck,” says Sharron from the small town of Penetanguishene, Ont.

Jesse, a sociable, happy kid who was an A-level student in school.

Jesse, who loved cross-country running, baseball, hockey and soccer.

Jesse, who didn’t smoke or do drugs.

Jesse’s death was ruled an accidental asphyxiation. He didn’t intend to kill himself.

Jesse died while playing the choking game.

While parents may never have heard of it, kids across North America know it by many names: airplaning, American dream, blackout, California high, fainting game, flatliner, gasp, passout, space monkey and suffocation roulette. It involves choking yourself to cut off the flow of blood to the brain, which produces a light-headed feeling. Then as the pressure is released, blood rushes back to the brain, resulting in a short-lived, euphoric high. These feelings are actually caused by brain cells dying from a lack of oxygen.

Usually played by adolescents between the ages of nine and 16, it is often referred to as a good kid’s high because it is typically performed by kids who are generally high-achieving and sociable, and shun alcohol and drugs.

“Unfortunately, it’s considered by these kids as harmless fun,” says Sharron. “There is nothing harmless about playing the choking game. The dangers are very real.”

Although it’s typically first played in a group setting with one person choking another, the dangers really increase when kids try to find the high on their own. If they lose consciousness, they are unable to loosen whatever is choking them. Death occurs in four or five minutes, permanent brain damage in even less time.

“Everyone else was home when Jesse did this,” says Sharron. “He was by himself for no more than 15 minutes.”

It is estimated that up to 1,000 young people in North America die each year from playing the choking game, though accurate statistics — whether for the US, Canada or elsewhere — are hard to come by as many deaths are classified simply as asphyxiation or mislabelled as suicides. However, a 2009 survey conducted by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health revealed that five percent of Ontario’s high school students reported participating in the choking game; that’s approximately one in 20 students throughout grades seven to 12.

“Parents really need to understand that not only is it dangerous, but there’s a good chance their kids have tried it or know of someone who has,” says Sharron.

John Westland, a social worker with The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, has counselled teens who have acknowledged playing it. “Most of the kids I talk to are surprised to learn how dangerous the choking game really is.”

Sharron believes that if Jesse really understood the dangers of playing the choking game, he would never have put himself in harm’s way. “We need to ensure that our children hear all of the hard, deadly facts that are out there. We don’t want them hearing from friends how much fun the game is. They need to understand that it’s not a game, that it’s more like tempting death.”

Sharron says that there were warning signs, but she missed them. “Jesse was 11 years old and he was telling me about some fun games he learned at camp. What he called blackout was one of them.” Sharron says that, like most parents, she read her son the riot act, discussed the dangers with him, and then thought nothing more of it. The following year, Jesse was talking about returning to camp and he brought up blackout again. He told his mom that she didn’t know what she was talking about — that a teacher had told him that he wouldn’t lose brain cells if he passed out. “I told him I didn’t believe that a teacher would say something like that,” says Sharron. “I didn’t recognize the sign. He was talking about it because he was trying to see if he’d be safe if he played it.”

“After Jesse died,” says Sharron, “we found out that he was playing it with his younger brother, Josh, who was 10 at the time. Josh got hurt once, not enough to tell me, but enough that it scared him and he didn’t want to play anymore. Unfortunately, I didn’t find out about that incident until three or four months after Jesse’s death.”

Sharron says if she could go back, she would make Jesse speak with a knowledgeable doctor or police officer about the dangers of the choking game.

After Jesse’s death, Sharron and her then 24-year-old daughter, Kristen, realized that there was no information warning about the choking game. “We only saw ‘funny’ videos on sites like YouTube that showed kids passing out with everyone around them laughing,” says Kristen. “So we decided to create a website to educate about the dangers, and also to be a source of support to families who had lost a loved one the same way we had.”

A year later, Sharron and Kristen formed Games Adolescents Shouldn’t Play (GASP), a non-profit global support group and education service. “Our goal is to raise awareness, while also giving children enough information and facts to allow them to make the right choice about this game,” says Kristen. “Right now, what they’re hearing from their friends is ‘Try this — it’s fun!’ and they have no idea of the associated dangers.”

Sharron says that most schools stay away from talking about this game because they are afraid of teaching children something they don’t already know. “Avoidance is the wrong approach,” she says. “When we educate our children about sex and drugs, does it make them run out and do drugs or have unprotected sex? No, it doesn’t. This isn’t any different. If we give our children the information to make educated and informed decisions, their chances of making the right ones increase.”

Miriam Kaufman, an adolescent health specialist with The Hospital for Sick Children, agrees. “Kids have heard about the choking game,” she says. “Some people worry that if they talk to kids about it, they’ll put ideas into their heads. I don’t think it’s unsafe to be asking your kid if they’ve heard about the choking game and if it’s something they’re doing.”

Kaufman notes that she has had some kids say they would never play the game, but that they know of others who do. “You’ll never know if that is accurate or not,” says Kaufman. “But it does give you the chance to educate them and follow up with something like ‘That’s great that you don’t do it, and here’s why.’ Then you can point out the dangers — things like how this activity deprives the brain of oxygen and that a number of young people have died while playing it.”

Losing a child under any circumstance is a horrible experience for parents to face, but it becomes even more tragic when the child dies from something that could have been prevented. “My grief is a daily ordeal that has softened over the past six years, but will never be fully healed,” says Sharron. “We lost so much that day — too much to even imagine in any parent’s worst nightmare. What has helped us is being there for other families when they reach out for help, and educating against this deadly activity. Talk to your kids. Show them the information that’s out there. We need to educate all of our children.”

Are they playing the choking game?

There are some clear signs that your child may be playing the choking game, but remember that every child is different. Some children may exhibit several of these signs, while others only a few or none at all.

• Bloodshot eyes or any other noticeable signs of eye stress.
• Any suspicious mark on the side of the neck, sometimes hidden by a turtleneck, scarf or permanently turned-up collar. Note: Some participants may not have marks on the neck. Do not assume that an unmarked neck means your child is not playing this game.
• Personality changes like agitation or aggressiveness.
• Headaches, loss of concentration, flushed face.
• Any questions about the effects, sensations or dangers of strangulation.
• Any kind of strap, rope or belt lying near the child for no clear reason, and attempts to elude questions about such objects.
• A thud in the bedroom or against a wall — may indicate a fall in cases of solitary practice.

GASP is available for presentations to any group of people. The organization can be contacted online at gaspinfo.com or by email at contact@gaspinfo.com.

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