Though it is known by many playful names: Gasp, Space Monkey, Dream Game, California High, Tap Out and many more, “The Choking Game” is not a game, said pediatrician Robert K. Dowse.
“It is important to realize that even if kids do this 50 times in their life and survive, they have still killed millions of their brain cells,” Dowse said. “When brain cells die in mass like that, it could lead to things like silent strokes and other things that could follow them the rest of their lives.”
One Cedar City mother said she knows all too well how serious this “game” really is. Codi Laws said when her 17-year-old son Jaden Laws was found dead in his father’s yard on Oct. 25, at first they thought it might have been suicide. She said that it didn’t take long to figure out that this was not an intentional act, but a horrific example of how far things can go when teens play the choking game.
Laws said her son had used a rope to choke himself alone, and because he was unconscious he didn’t know that the rope had slipped further up his neck. She said it all happened so fast.
“He was only outside for 10, 15 minutes at the most,” she said. “I don’t understand where he got the idea to use the rope.”
Dowse said the use of a rope is fairly common when users become addicted to the game and move from a group setting to an isolated setting. He said the choking game typically begins as a group activity, but youngsters eventually start to find ways to choke out while they are alone.
“Once it has been done as a group at a party it becomes so addictive these kids will do it on their own,” Dowse said. “That’s when these injuries occur, because there is no one there to help them.”
He said that other than ropes, the most common forms of choking tools used are hands and belts, and that the activity is indiscriminant.
“Between (the ages of) 9 and 16 is probably the height of the game,” Dowse said. “And it is popular with both boys and girls.”
Sixteen-year-old high school junior Michael Kepan (name changed for privacy) said he used to play the choking game with his friends when he was in middle school. He said he started playing it because his best friend asked him to, so he figured it was safe.
His friend died suddenly, Kepan said, and the boy’s parents didn’t talk about what happened. Though it wasn’t confirmed the choking game played a role in his friend’s death, the game stopped for him right then he said.
“We were completely stupid,” he said. “We were risking for lives for nothing. It’s just not worth it, you never know if you’re going to wake up or not.”
Kepan said he and his best friend played the game in larger groups because it was fun to watch each other’s reactions when they passed out.
“It’s like adrenaline just rushes through your veins,” Kepan said. “It was fun to watch my friends, they would fall face first on the ground, then they would wake up really quick and start laughing – everything would be okay.
“It doesn’t seem like anything is wrong because they’re laughing,” he added.
Kepan said he never actually passed out while playing the game, at least not that he could recall.
“I never passed all the way out,” he said. “My vision would go purple, and then I would maybe black out for a second, then I would wake up. You don’t feel any time pass.”
Dowse said when the brain is deprived of oxygen that is exactly what happens. He said when people are being choked they have a loss of oxygenated blood to the brain, and then when the choke is released there is a surge of oxygenated blood that causes a feeling of euphoria.
“(Blood) floods the brain,” he said. “No blood is going to (the brain), but while this is happening, blood is draining out. As the brain cells die they release a chemical that causes a warm and fuzzy feeling.”
Kepan said his parents never knew he played the game. He said if they ever found out, they would have been very disappointed in his behavior.
Laws said that in her case it was a complete shock when Jaden died, because she had talked to her son about the choking game long before the incident occurred. She said about 1 1/2 years ago Jaden had come home from a slumber party and told her about his friends playing it the night before.
“I told him how I had done it in middle school and that it was stupid,” Laws said. “I told him it’s not worth the killing of the brain cells for that five second high. We talked about huffing paint and the things that could happen, and then we never brought it up again.”
Laws said she felt secure that their talk had an impact on Jaden because he seemed truly disturbed by the game. She said he told her he would never do it again, and she believed him.
“It just went over our heads – there were no signs that we knew of,” she said. “But then within the last year he started getting migraines really bad, and his vision, his eyes were hurting him constantly.”
Since her son’s passing, Laws said she has learned that the headaches and eye pain were both indicators of her son’s activities, and she just didn’t know it. She said her lack of education on the topic led her to believe that Jaden’s death was a wakeup call.
“(When he was a child) this little guy would draw pictures of this laboratory he was going to have when he grew up,” Laws said. “He wanted to find cures for cancer. He just thought the world was an unfair place and he didn’t understand why there was hatred and harm in the world.”
Because she said her sons legacy was meant to save others’ lives, Laws said she plans on making it her mission to educate the public about how dangerous the “clean kids’ high” really is.
SUU Center for Women and Families Volunteer Coordinator Lauren Schwanz said parents have often come to her seeking information and asking for literature on the choking game, but currently she has nothing substantial to offer them. She said that she would love to have Laws come and speak to parents about the game during the spring semester.
“I have heard quite a bit about this game before,” Schwanz said. “We’ve had parents come in asking if we have informational resources because they are worried about their teenagers or their children.”
Schwans said she wants to help Laws get information out, and plans to help with fundraising in the future so Laws can start a foundation designed to educate others.
Laws said the whole idea is a lot to take in right now, but she thinks it is important that parents know about how to recognize the signs, and that kids know that this “game” takes lives.
Dowse said it only takes two or three minutes of oxygen deprivation for the brain cells to start dying, and after that they will not grow back.
“The damage is irreversible,” he said. “These cells will not regenerate. It affects a lot of different things; memory, speech, motor control, it can cause silent strokes and can lead to all kinds of problems.
“Another risk is injury from falling,” he added. “What are they going to break?”
Dowse said that if a child seems disoriented after they have been alone, or if there are wear and tear marks on closet rods and bedposts, these could be red flags that a child has been involved in the choking game.
According to www.gaspinfo.com, some additional signs to look for are bloodshot eyes, frequent headaches, locked doors, marks on necks and knots tied around the bedroom.
The website reported that an estimated 250 to 1,000 children die from the activity every year. The numbers are unclear because many of the deaths are classified as suicide. The children most likely to engage in choking game behavior are “a wide-range of youths, especially high-achieving kids that know to avoid drugs and alcohol, and think this is a safe alternative.”
More information is available at www.gaspinfo.com.