On a Tuesday afternoon in June 2004, Gavin and Wanda Cocks found their 16-year-old son, Edwin, dead in his bedroom with a dog leash around his neck. Edwin had not committed suicide, they said. He had been the victim of a deadly game gone wrong – a game that is played by teenagers in many countries, including South Africa.
Gavin and Wanda had never heard of “the choking game”, played mostly by boys and girls between nine and 16 to get high without drugs. It’s sometimes called “the good kids’ high”.
The tragic event set Gavin and Wanda on a path of bereavement that varied – and still varies – in intensity. It also channelled them in a new direction, which Gavin describes as his “passion”. He started the South African chapter of Gasp – Games Adolescents Shouldn’t Play – an American non-profit campaign that publicises the dangers of the game and provides a forum for those affected by it.
He has also set up a presentation, endorsed by the Lowveld Psychology Association, to educate youngsters and their parents about the game, in the hopes of preventing more deaths.
“We do not want Edwin’s death to be in vain,” he said.
Gavin, a businessman from Nelspruit, recently spoke to several leading high schools in the greater Durban area.
“There are no statistics in South Africa as to how many adolescents are playing the game but when I visit schools, I ask the children if they have ever played or have heard of the choking game. There is sometimes a 50 percent or more show of hands.”
Gasp estimates that in the US, between 250 and 1 000 children die each year to the game (this also includes sniffing or inhaling aerosol and butane gases). There are no statistics in South Africa and Gavin would like to see a South African database so the extent of the problem can be assessed.
The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) says that while is does happen here, they do not receive many calls about it and when they do, it is often associated with children bullying others into trying it.
So how does a child become involved in such a dangerous practice?
Gavin spoke of his own experience.
“We are a close, loving family and Edwin was an achiever at school. He played sport, did long-distance running and was middle-of-the-range academically. He was against drug-taking and drinking and he loved to help. He was a provincial cyclist. Two hours before he died he bought some cycling equipment for a ride – not what one would do if planning a suicide.
“So when we found him slumped behind his bedroom door, our world fell apart – and it just didn’t make sense.”
The Cockses were convinced it was not suicide and tried to piece together the complex puzzle of why their boy ended his life.
“The dog leash was attached to the door handle and at the time we thought this was probably an exercise-related activity that had gone wrong.”
Four years later, however, an important piece of the puzzle came to light.
A female friend of Edwin’s came to them and said she had been part of a group of friends who had played the choking game. She could no longer keep the information to herself.
Gavin started researching the game and came across information on the internet, including Gasp.
In reality, it is not a game at all – it is an act of suffocation on purpose. Adolescents cut off the flow of blood to the brain by strangulation, in exchange for the euphoria that follows when pressure is released.
It is addictive – and so they play it over and over again.
Deaths usually occur when they play the game alone. When things start going wrong, they are unable to get help.
After three minutes without oxygen to the brain, a person will suffer noticeable brain damage, according to Gasp. Between four and five minutes, a person will die.
Some of the children who died were alone for as little as 15 minutes before someone found them, and it was already too late.
The choking game can result in teenagers being left in comas, mentally and physically disabled, having seizures, aneurisms and suffering strokes. Children have been known to break noses and teeth, and one boy fell on a glass with fatal results.
Gavin says any parents who lose a child in this way should look at what internet sites their child has visited, search for journals and diaries – kids sometimes record how long it takes them to pass out – and speak to friends, though many are reluctant to talk.
He believes children do it not for sexual pleasure, but for the warm fuzzy feeling that makes them feel so good.
Doctoral researcher and psychologist Darryn Haug said children thought it was safer than drugs, but it was not.
“It causes irreversible brain damage and can be fatal the first time it is played,” she said in a previous interview with the Daily News.
“Parents usually only find out when there has been a death. These deaths are often confused with suicide because they involve a ligature around the neck.
“People say it is an overseas problem and not a South African problem. But it does happen here. Children don’t mention it to parents, so chances are we are hugely underestimating its occurrence.
“Statistics are anecdotally based because there is no official way of documenting auto-asphyxia deaths caused by the ‘choking game’. When paramedics arrive, they don’t know what it is. It looks like suicide. They get docked as death undetermined or suicide.
“It crosses cultural boundaries too.”
Gavin gets turned down by many schools when he approaches them about doing a presentation. He says some people fear his talks could expose children to something new – but he disagrees.
“I am convinced that had we been given an opportunity for an informed and educated discussion at home about the dangers of the choking game, my son’s death may have been prevented.”
See: www.gasp.org.za or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 082 410 1984 or 074 150 8748.
Tips for teens:
How can I spot someone playing the game?
Red flags include bloodshot eyes, frequent headaches, locked doors, marks on the neck, knots tied around in the bedroom, wear marks on bed posts and cupboard rods and disorientation after spending time alone.
If I know someone who chokes, what should I do?
Tell them to stop and don’t just take their word for it – tell an adult: your parents, other family members, your friend’s parents, your teacher, school counsellor or school nurse.
Tips for parents:
Be alert to other names of the game:
Hangman, tokkie, schoolboys’ roulette, rising sun, space monkey, airplaning, space cowboy, funky chicken, tingling, gasp, passout, suffocation, blackout, flatliner.