On October 28, 2006, Carrie Draher walked into her son's boarding school dorm room and discovered her son's lifeless body hanging from the top bunk of his bunk bed. At first she thought her 15-year-old was playing a ghoulish Halloween prank. “But when I reached out to touch Levi's hand to tell him it wasn't funny, it registered that his hand was blue and cold,” she recalls.
Carrie had last seen Levi an hour before, and he hadn't appeared distraught in any way—much less suicidal. Mother and son had made plans to go out to dinner, and Levi was looking forward to getting a new pair of shoes. While Carrie struggled to comprehend this terrifying turn of events her son's roommate realized instantly what had happened. Levi had been playing the choking game—alone—and as is often the case, something went terribly awry.
For parents of school-age children the choking game would be more worrisome than the dangers of drugs, alcohol, unprotected sex, smoking, and just about anything else their children might experiment with—if only parents knew how prevalent it is. Says Carrie, “My introduction to this ‘game’—I never heard of it before—was walking into my son's room and finding him suspended from a Boy Scout climbing rope.”
For the uninitiated, the choking game—a.k.a. blackout, flatliner, choke out, the fainting game, or the pass out game—typically involves one child choking another until the chokee passes out. The chokee then experiences a very brief “high” or feeling of euphoria when blood flow to the brain resumes.
In an even more dangerous version of this activity a child plays alone, using a ligature—a rope, a belt, a computer cord—to self-induce loss of consciousness. Because the child's neck remains in the ligature after he passes out the results can be catastrophic, with vision loss, permanent brain damage, or death being some of the possible outcomes.
While it might seem obvious that cutting off the flow of oxygen-containing blood to the brain is hazardous to one's health, the boys and girls who play this “game” aren't stopping to think about the consequences.
“Children do not understand they can die from this,” says Sharron Grant of Toronto, Ontario, who founded deadlygameschildrenplay.com shortly after her 12-year-old son Jesse died in April 2005 while playing the choking game.
According to an ongoing survey being conducted by Deadly Games Children Play, more than 85 percent of respondents under the age of 20 have heard of the choking game, and 63 percent know someone who has played. Meanwhile, just 25 percent of the surveyed parents report being aware of the so-called game.
“When parents find out they are shocked and want to keep quiet so their children don't find out about it,” says Sharron. But family members of victims decry the head-in-the-sand approach, urging that the benefits of educating kids about the dangers far outweighs the risk of enabling copycats. “Most kids think this is an innocent game. They are videotaping themselves playing it, thinking it's a hoot,” laments Sharron.
Certainly Levi didn't forsee that his behavior might leave him dead or disabled. Seconds after discovering Levi's body, a roommate helped Carrie free her son from the rope sling and ran to get help. Carrie performed rescue breathing while another Boy Scout friend of Levi's did chest compressions.
Within minutes Levi was transported to the local hospital in Harlingen, Texas, and admitted to the intensive care unit, where he suffered severe seizures for three hours. Doctors advised Carrie that her son's prognosis was bleak. “He was completely anoxic—no oxygen—for at least five minutes,” begins Carrie. "His liver was failing, his heart was failing, and he had what is called decerebrate posturing [an indication of severe injury to the brain at the level of the brain stem]. Judging from the ph level of his blood and the damage to his internal organs doctors estimated that he had been hypoxic [oxygen deficient] for 20 minutes.”
Yet, later that night Levi miraculously regained consciousness. With no memory of the incident, he couldn't understand why he had lost his sense of balance and why his hands weren't functioning normally. Days later doctors tried to explain to Levi where he was and what had happened, but he refused to believe it. “I got really angry and said, ‘I wouldn't do something like that!’” Levi recalls now, four months after-the-fact.
Levi would eventually admit that he had been playing the choking game since the eighth grade—first with friends and then alone—and did not comprehend the risk he was taking. “Levi told me, ‘I had never seen anybody pass out that didn't get up’,” notes Carrie, who now knew that she had a mission in life—to denounce the choking game. “But first I had to take care of my son,” she says, as Levi faced a still-uncertain future.
After being discharged from the hospital Levi started outpatient rehabilitation, but Carrie soon realized that her son was not quite the same. Among other things, he was less inhibited than before, and suffered from pronounced speech cluttering. “It's something like stuttering,” reports Carrie. “The words are difficult to find and they come out in a rush and are sometimes mumbled.”
Levi was re-admitted to the hospital for two weeks—receiving treatment alongside “old people,” as he puts it—hardly the way he envisioned celebrating his 16th birthday. However, the intensive neurological and physical therapy appears to have paid off. “If you were to pass Levi on the street today you would never know what happened,” begins Carrie. “He speaks well. He has no physical deficits. And he's making A's & B's again in school. Every once in a while there's what I call a speed bump where he has to re-learn something or use a coping skill, but he's doing so much better.”
As soon as Levi's long-term health was no longer in doubt Carrie turned her attention to raising awareness about the choking game. She reached out to Sharron, who regularly receives e-mails and phone calls from anguished parents who have recently experienced what she went through back in 2005. “Being able to help other parents has been therapeutic,” begins Sharron. “I help them understand that there's life afterwards, even though it's not the same and never will be.”
Unlike Carrie, Sharron was aware of the choking game prior to her son's death. In fact, the day before he died Jesse told his mother that he had seen kids choking each other at camp, “and watched them fall on the floor.”
Naturally, Sharron was mortified and admonished Jesse to “never let anyone put anything around your neck or try and choke you. He said, ‘I didn't do it, mom. Just the other kids,’” she says. Sharron didn't believe her son was telling the truth, but admits she was in denial. “Like most parents I thought, ‘My son is an A student. He's too smart to do something that stupid.’” The next day she walked into his bedroom, only to discover that he had strangled himself with the power cord from his personal computer.
Later, Sharron found out that her youngest son, Joshua, age 11, had also played the choking game on a number of occasions, but had disavowed it after suffering a laceration when he passed out and hit his head against the stereo in the living room.
“When I talked to Jesse's younger brother he said he didn't think he was doing anything dangerous. He said he didn't do it anymore because he didn't want to hurt his head again,” says Sharron.
Today, Sharron and the other Board Members of deadlygameschildrenplay.com are working tirelessly to alert the public about the risks that young people are taking. “Our goal is to make the choking game a part of the D.A.R.E. Program [Drugs and Alcohol Resistance Education], which is doing a wonderful job in terms of drugs and alcohol. We want the risk-taking part of what adolescents are doing to be added to the program—not only the choking game, but also related things like huffing,” she says.
Deadlygameschildrenplay.com is also educating parents about signs that their children may be playing the choking game. According to Sharron, parents should be on the lookout for one or more of the following:
-Marks on the neck
-A raspy voice
-Sudden decline in academic performance
-Changes in personality
-Severe headaches (brought on by blood suddenly rushing back to the brain)
“Jesse was always happy and very active, but the few weeks before [he died] he was extremely agitated and had a lot of headaches,” she begins. “The problem is when a teenager is going through adolescence it may be difficult to distinguish whether it's a warning sign or just a normal hormonal thing.”
For her part, Carrie says the choking game appears to be common among Type-A personalities like Levi and Jesse—driven kids “who don't do drugs or alcohol and color between the lines,” she says.
“We've heard many children say it's a way to relax and relieve stress,” adds Sharron, alluding to the sedative-like effect that children sometimes report experiencing after regaining consciousness.
But as challenging as it is to identify high-risk children, it's even more difficult to determine how many young lives are being lost. Both Carrie and Sharron suspect that choking game deaths are consistently under-reported. “So many of these cases are classified as suicides, because that's exactly what it looks like,” notes Carrie, who constantly re-lives that nightmarish moment when she discovered Levi's comatose body.
Today, Levi says he's simply thankful to be alive and able to pursue his interests, which include cycling, hockey and R.O.T.C. [Reserve Officers' Training Corps]. After high school Levi plans to join the Marines, but—as one of the few choking game victims who has come back from the other side, so to speak—he feels a sense of duty to tell his story. “I think it's important for parents and kids to know that this isn't a game. It's not worth dying for a five-second high,” he says.
With a newfound appreciation for living, both Carrie and Levi have also taken it upon themselves to formally learn first aid procedures—including cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). “I'm working on learning CPR, and so is my son,” begins Carrie. “He owes somebody a life.”