Lawrence girl is a recent victim of the ‘pass-out game’
Teens’ brief high can choke out life
By DAVID KLEPPER and BENITA Y. WILLIAMS
The Kansas City Star
LAWRENCE — It wasn’t drinking, drugs or school violence that killed Tim and Carol Wilson’s 15-year-old daughter last week. It was something they had never even contemplated.
Kimberly Wilson lost her life to the “pass-out game,” a form of asphyxiation in which a person — by themselves or with a friend — voluntarily is choked to the point of losing consciousness. It’s a practice that adolescent psychologists said was more common than adults would like to believe.
Carol Wilson discovered the freckle-faced teen dead in the morning a week ago, with a plastic-coated bicycle lock chain around her neck. She had choked to death sometime overnight.
The pass-out game, or choking game, has claimed the lives of children in North Carolina, Idaho and California in recent months. Adolescent psychologists said the self-destructive behavior could become addictive, just like eating disorders or self-cutting. Yet few parents even know the game exists.
“This thing, this ‘game’ — I hate to call it a game — this thing killed my daughter,” said Tim Wilson, a software specialist and a pastor at a local church. “We want this secret exposed so nobody else has to lose their child.”
The goal of the choking game is the brief high that comes as blood and oxygen leave the brain and the rush that follows when the body is revived. Teens often play together, and some, like Kimberly, practice it alone, with lethal results.
“This has been around for years,” said George Comiskey, associate director of the Center for the Study of Addiction & Recovery at Texas Tech University. “Teenagers will try anything.”
Kimberly Wilson’s death is the latest in a series of deaths attributed recently to the choking game. A 13-year-old California boy died in May. Last month a 10-year-old Idaho boy was found dead, hanging from a tree. Another Idaho child, a 13-year-old girl, died in her bedroom three months earlier.
Denise Dowd, an emergency room doctor at Children’s Mercy Hospital, said that the practice had been around for years but that reported cases remained rare.
“Throughout the years we’ve (Children’s Mercy) seen strangulation injuries from what’s been reported as play,” she said. “I remember growing up in the ’60s and ’70s kids did that.”
Kansas City school resource police Officer Gordon Herndon, who works at Southeast High School, said he heard about the choking game for the first time a few weeks ago at a training seminar on club drugs like ecstasy.
“One presenter happened to mention it as another thing young people use to get high,” Herndon said.
Herndon said after hearing about the recent incidents in the news, he likely would add information about the fatal game to his program this school year.
After talking with their daughter’s friends, the Wilsons now think Kimberly had been playing the pass-out game for at least a year. “She had certain friends she did it with,” Tim Wilson said. “But her closest friends, the ones who would have disapproved, she didn’t tell.”
Medical officials said the choking game is similar to a more common practice called auto-erotic asphyxiation, where mostly adult or older teen males use choking to enhance a sexual experience.
“We see one of those deaths every few years,” said Thomas Young, Jackson County medical examiner.
Though sex is not involved in the choking game, the science is the same and the effects can be just as lethal.
The pressure put on the carotid artery in the neck during the choking can cause a sudden drop in blood pressure and irregular heartbeats. The loss of oxygen can damage cells and vital organs, also leading to death. Even if the person is revived, he or she can suffer irreversible damage if the brain goes without oxygen for more than four minutes.
The resulting death may look like suicide, but often other evidence of self-destructive intent is lacking, such as notes, a history of depression or recent financial or personal problems. People sometimes rig the choking device with padding around the neck or a release mechanism, showing they did not intend to kill themselves.
To adults, the pass-out game may sound irrational, but adolescents are often unable to see long-term consequences, said Tami Radohl, a mental health counselor at Lawrence’s Southwest Junior High School. After Kimberly Wilson’s death, Radohl said, she explained the choking game to several bewildered teachers. Radohl said teens at nearly every school in the area had likely experimented with the game.
“Teenagers always have engaged in high-risk activities,” Radohl said. “This one has gone under the radar.”
The most recent choking game cases have involved children between the ages of 10 and 15, the same age group often associated with huffing, or breathing the fumes of chemicals to get high.
“At the middle school level, they are not necessarily out buying drugs,” said Janine Gracy, who heads the Regional Prevention Center in Johnson County. “They are using things that are easily accessible. They find things at home.”
Teens with anxiety problems or depression are more likely to repeat the choking game compulsively, similar to eating disorders or self-cutting, said Ashraf Attalla, an Atlanta-area adolescent psychiatrist who has emerged as the closest thing to an expert on the little-studied behavior.
Attalla said the choking game’s warning signs include strange marks on the neck, bloodshot eyes or complaints of headaches.
“Kids mask things very well. But there are warning signs,” Attalla said. “If a kid is doing it, the kid should be evaluated by a mental health professional.”
The Wilsons said their daughter never had trouble with drugs, alcohol or emotional problems. Carol Wilson said she once noticed an unusual mark on Kimberly’s neck and joked with her daughter about it looking like a hickey. Otherwise, the Wilsons said that they had no warning and that Kimberly was just another happy teen. She would have turned 16 at the end of this month.
“She was very happy, she was very open about everything,” Carol Wilson said of her daughter. Tim Wilson shook his head and added, “About everything but this.”