Death by the Choking Game
It was the kind of day you’d never remember if it hadn’t ended the way it did. A mother with her two sons, 13 and 11, on a Monday in August. Shopping for school supplies and clothes at Target and Abercrombie. Lunch at Subway. Grocery shopping at Whole Foods. The mom helping the younger kid with his summer Spanish homework in the family room; the older kid upstairs in his room.
After a while, Alex came downstairs and leaned over Susan and Zach to see what they were working on. “I was doing homework, too,” Alex said. Then he called out the answer to the question Zach had been working on. “Hey, don’t give him the answers,” Susan said and poked Alex in the ribs with a Nerf sword, pretending to stab him. Alex laughed. As Alex was walking out of the room, Zach asked him to set up a board game, Settlers of the Stone Age, so they could play it that night. “Sure, I’ll do it later,” Alex said and left. That was the last time Susan and Zach saw Alex alive.
Zach finished his homework about 10 minutes later, and Susan told him that he could play on the computer before dinner. Zach ran to the foot of the stairs and called up to Alex. No answer. Zach yelled again, “Alex, Mom’s giving us screen time,” and started to walk upstairs. Later, Susan would wonder if things might have turned out differently if she hadn’t stopped Zach, thinking that Alex — a teenager about to start high school in a few weeks, after all — might want some privacy. She would ask the ER doctor who tried to revive Alex if he could have been saved if they’d found him then. And although the doctor would assure her that no, death came quick, no more than a few minutes after they saw him last, she won’t be able to stop thinking of that moment, of Zach agreeing to leave his brother alone for now. “But I’m gonna wait for Alex for screen time because it’s not as much fun by myself,” Zach said and went back to the family room.
Some time went by — 20 minutes, maybe 30 — and Susan started thinking that it was funny they hadn’t heard anything from Alex. Dinner would be soon, so she went upstairs. His door was open, the room empty. She knocked on the bathroom door and went in. Nothing.
She checked the other bedrooms and bathrooms upstairs. She went up to the attic, checked the guest room. She went back downstairs and opened the basement door and called his name. No answer. She went outside, yelling his name now, running through the backyard, the pool area, the garage, the driveway, the front yard. Her heart thudded against her chest, her neck, her temples, her hands growing cold, but she told herself that she was being silly to worry, that he was a big boy, not a toddler. She imagined Alex laughing at her paranoia.
She went back in the house and called his cell phone. It went to voicemail. Zach said to text him; Alex always checks his texts. She typed in “Where r u.” No response.
Susan remembered that she hadn’t actually checked the basement. She walked down the spiral staircase, scanning the room. Drumset. Ping-pong table. Treadmill. All empty.
It wasn’t until she reached the bottom that she saw it: Alex’s body, hanging, something green around his neck, his toes brushing the ground. “Stop it, you’re freaking me out,” she said and slapped him on the shoulder, thinking, hoping, praying that he must be faking it.
Of the next moments, she remembers only bits and pieces. Screaming “Oh my God” repeatedly, yelling for Zach to call 911. Trying to get Alex’s body down, trying to lift him up to give him slack, but his body being too heavy. Running up the steps and trying to get the string — an old dog leash, a green one she didn’t even remember having in the house — off the railing. Hearing Zach say, “I don’t know what the emergency is. My mom told me to call,” grabbing the phone and saying that her son hanged himself. Cutting the leash with scissors, Alex’s body crumpling down, the leash around his neck falling away easily. Following the instructions from the 911 operator to give CPR, flinching at the touch of Alex’s body. The police coming, taking over CPR from her, relief flooding her that finally, someone who could save him was here. The EMTs using the defibrillator, her having to go upstairs, unable to watch them shock her son’s body over and over again.
She found Zach outside, sitting on the steps. He said, “Is Alex dead?” and she told him that there was hope, that all these people wouldn’t be doing so much for so long if there weren’t. Her husband Jim called to say that he was getting on the train to come home. She said — no longer hysterical, weirdly calm now, thinking maybe this was some elaborate hoax, trying to figure out how Alex managed to get the police and the doctors in on it — that something had happened to Alex. Jim asked if he was alive. She said, “I don’t know.”
When the ER doctor told her that Alex was dead, Susan asked if Alex would have known that he was dying. The doctor looked confused. “It was an intentional act,” he said. It occurred to her then: The doctor thought Alex committed suicide. Everyone did. The police had searched the whole house, his computer and phone, looking unsuccessfully for a suicide note, for some clue as to why a seemingly happy 13-year-old kid would kill himself.
Later, after Jim met Susan at the hospital and they saw their son’s body for the last time, after they picked up Zach from the neighbors and told him that his brother was gone, after they walked into their house, now a family of three, Susan sat up in Alex’s room, trying to comprehend what had happened, why he would want to end his own life. Alex had just come home from summer camp; the day before, he’d excitedly shown them pictures of his roommate and friends, challenged them to play the computer game he’d programmed. He’d been looking forward to starting high school. There, on his desk, neatly laid out, were the school supplies they’d bought that day, next to the new brown desk lamp he’d picked out. All the new clothes they’d bought that day, neatly folded and put away in his drawers, the tags in the trash can. The novel he was reading, “A Dance With Dragons,” on his bed, bookmark in the middle. He was a voracious reader; he’d stayed up until 1:30 the night before to find out what happens next in this book, the latest in the “Game of Thrones” series he’d been reading all summer — wouldn’t he have wanted to find out how it ends before killing himself? And on the desk, the grammar packet he’d done that afternoon on his own, without being told. Why would he have done homework a half-hour before committing suicide? None of it made sense.
In his bathroom were more puzzles. On the counter, the police had laid out something they’d found: a ligature, like a too-long shoelace, with a small loop knot at one end and a complicated slip knot on the other. Susan and Jim opened Alex’s bathroom drawer and found more strings and two pieces of yarn, one green and one yellow, some with knots. Susan remembered seeing the yarn earlier that year in the bathroom, wondering what it was and why it was there but not thinking much of it. They searched through the house and found more of these ligatures hidden away—the strings from a cat’s cradle kit hidden away in his closet, one of Susan’s soft headbands with slip knots at both ends stuffed in a box in the powder room cabinet on the main floor. What were they, and why were they everywhere?
The police explained the next day. Kids sometimes asphyxiate themselves for “recreational purposes,” they said. Based on the evidence they found, they were reclassifying Alex’s death as an accidental death, not as a suicide.
Susan and Jim had never heard of this, and they immediately researched it online. They found out that it’s called the Choking Game, an activity popular among 9- to 16-year-old kids in which they strangle themselves or each other — sometimes at parties or sleepovers — to get a high. The most common reported age of death is 13, Alex’s age. Many kids like Alex — smart kids who do well in school and have loving families — regard the Choking Game as a legal and safe alternative to drugs; one popular nickname for this is the Good Kids’ High. What these kids don’t realize is that this “game” is inherently dangerous andcan be addictive, making it all the more likely that they — like Alex — will attempt this on their own, experimenting with using a rope or belt as a makeshift noose.
The thing that didn’t make sense to Susan and Jim was how Alex could have hanged himself, knowing how easy it would be for him to pass out before he had a chance to release. Alex was a brilliant kid; he skipped a grade. A Science Olympian, he loved tinkering with all types of electronic and mechanical things to modify their design and function. Surely, he would have known that if you hang yourself and fall unconscious while you’re alone, chances were good that you would die.
What they discovered was that Alex had taken precautions. He had put one end of a dog leash through the handle to make a loop on one end, which he put around his neck. He looped the leash around a vertical rail on the staircase, using the rail like an overhead pulley. When he pulled down on one end (the end with the clip for the dog collar), the loop around his neck would tighten. If he passed out, his grip would automatically release, the leash would come undone from around the rail, the loop around his neck would loosen and fall away, and he would simply fall onto the padded mat around him. Alex had apparently done this many times before, successfully; Jim found another dog leash in the basement, a thick pink one, worn away and ragged in the middle where it would have grated against the rail. The problem was that there was a thin gap between the rail and the wooden step. The green leash, unlike the pink one, was thin enough that it could get pulled into this gap, like floss between teeth. When Alex released, the leash could get through the gap, but the buckle clip at the end couldn’t. The clip became jammed between the rail and the step, making it impossible for the leash to loosen and release him as he would have expected it to.
The thing that haunts Susan now is realizing that if she had known about the Choking Game, she might have realized Alex was in danger. The warning signs of the Choking Game include bloodshot eyes; frequent headaches; marks on the neck; ropes, scarves, and belts found knotted in kids’ rooms and bathrooms and the unexplained presence of things like dog leashes, choke collars and bungee cords. Susan had noticed some these things in the six months or so prior to his death, but not knowing about the Choking Game, had dismissed them. Alex had headaches and a bloodshot eye, but what kid doesn’t? And during the summer, he’d had many broken blood vessels under the skin on his face, but wasn’t that just a side effect of acne? And she’d asked about the marks on the neck — a two-inch thin mark around his neck back in the spring and a scab mark earlier in the summer — but when Alex shrugged them off, she figured they must be byproducts of her sons’ frequent roughhousing. Taken individually, each of these signs seemed innocuous, but taken together, if she’d heard of this game before, even in passing, she might have figured it out. She would have confronted him. Educated him of the dangers. Become one of those helicopter moms we all make fun of. Whatever it took to get him to stop.
Susan and Jim don’t know how or when Alex got started. He could have learned about it from friends; several of his middle school classmates have said they knew about it and had heard kids talking about it at school, although none has admitted to having tried it. Or he could have come across one of the hundreds of YouTube videos of preteens and teenagers playing this “game,” choking each other and laughing as their friends pass out and fall to the ground, their arms and legs twitching in a seizure. They’re easy to find, under knock out, passing out game, space monkey, California high, funky chicken, airplaining or even choke out or choke hold, search phrases kids interested in wrestling might use. If Alex had seen one of these videos, he might have been lured by the message they carry: This is easy, fun and safe. No big deal, totally legal, takes less than a minute, and you get a great high for free. Just a game.
It’s been two months since Alex died. Zach has started middle school, and when new friends ask him if he has any brothers or sisters, he doesn’t know how to answer. Susan can’t do laundry because she can’t go down to the basement, can’t even look at a spiral staircase in someone else’s house. They’re looking for a new house — something smaller, with more kids on the neighborhood streets for Zach to play with. Susan worries about finding the right balance with Zach — if he’s out of eyesight, she panics about where he is, what he could be doing, but she also worries that she might end up smothering him if she doesn’t give him independence.
It’s hard for her to talk about this, to email and write Facebook posts to raise awareness over the Choking Game, to urge her friends to look up a Choking Game video and report it as dangerous and get it taken down. But she does, hoping that maybe she’ll reach one parent or teacher who’ll see the warning signs before it’s too late, that maybe she’ll reach a first-responder who won’t immediately jump to the conclusion of suicide next time, that maybe someone will tell her story to their kids or neighbors, that maybe she’ll be able to prevent the agony that she and Jim felt in thinking, even for a moment, that their child was secretly in so much anguish that he’d taken his own life.
In recent weeks, Susan has gotten to know a woman who also lost her son to the Choking Game. She has a strand of beads and adds one every time someone contacts her to report a Choking Game death or a death is added to the Choking Game victims list. Each bead has a Choking Game victim’s name and age; the youngest victim is a 6-year old boy who watched his brother playing it and tried it by himself in his own room. Since January 2006, when this woman’s son died, the strand of beads has grown to 645 beads, more than 23 feet in length. She doesn’t need to add any more.