The Choking Game

Levi Draher came back from the dead. Other players were not so lucky.

Levi Draher is clinically dead.

The 15-year-old's body is positioned with the knees on a stack of mattresses, the torso slumped forward with the neck pressed into a black nylon cord he had tied between two bed bunk posts. He's in an empty bedroom in his company barracks at the Marine Military Academy in Harlingen. The proud red MMA crest is emblazoned on his gold T-shirt. His shorts are red; his feet are bare.

A few yards away, through the open door to the bathroom connecting two bedrooms, Levi's roommate sits studying at a desk. The company's recent wave of low grades has put them on restriction and cost them tonight's Halloween party. If Levi had made any noise before the nylon sling clamped his carotid, his roommate wouldn't have been able to hear through his headphones.

Carrie and Levi give school presentations on the choking game.
Daniel Kramer
Carrie and Levi give school presentations on the choking game.
If a kid doesn't know how to play the choking game...
If a kid doesn't know how to play the choking game...

Levi's mother, Carrie, is down the hall chatting with the drill instructor's wife. They're talking about next week's annual Marine Corps Ball. As a "company mom," Carrie is involved in the planning.

Carrie glances at a clock and sees it's nearly dinnertime. Time to grab Levi and head to the mess. Then they'll head into town for that pair of Nike Shox Levi's been begging for.

Carrie walks down the hall to Levi's room and sees her son's roommate through the open door. She knocks loud enough to snap him from his music.

"Where's Draher?" she asks.

The roommate turns to the bathroom, thinking Levi's in the shower. Hearing nothing, they walk through the bathroom and see the body. They rush forward, pull Levi from the sling and onto the floor. The roommate flies out the door.

It's Halloween; this is a joke, Carrie thinks.

"Stop it!" she tells her son. "It's not funny!"

Something's making her strong, because she grabs her only son by his cold blue arm and pulls his 160-pound body nearly upright. But his torso tumbles into her, followed a split second later by his head, which snaps forward and crashes into a desk, and the two crumple to the floor.

Carrie puts her ear to his chest, his lips. No heartbeat, no breath. She can't find a pulse. She draws what feels like the first breath she's taken since she saw the body and screams. With the next breath, she catches herself before the scream. She hears a word. Share. Without thinking, Carrie puts her mouth over Levi's and shares her air. Now the drill instructor's wife and the company kids rush into the room. One drops down and compresses Levi's chest. Levi makes a gurgling sound. When the medics arrive, Levi's seizing, his back arching off the ground. The medics try to intubate, but his jaw is welded shut, so they use the bag. It takes five adults to load his writhing body onto the backboard.

In the ambulance, Carrie is in the front seat, looking in the back. The tube connecting the breathing bag to Levi's mouth is clouded with blood. The medic at Levi's side sees Carrie's expression. He bit his tongue, the medic says.

While Carrie's at the hospital, waiting to hear from the doctors working on her boy, investigators are talking to the kids in Levi's company. What the hell is this, the investigators want to know. To the kids, it's obvious. Levi made himself pass out to get high. Some of the kids would do it to each other after taps, when they should be asleep. By the dim light of the bathroom sink or the glowing flames from a puddle of hand sanitizer they'd light on fire, they'd take machine-gun breaths and wait for the crushing bear hug from behind. Thing is, after they'd pass out, they'd get back up. That's how the choking game is played.

Their names and ages are listed on the Web site:

Brandon J. Myers, 12, Missouri

Elizabeth Pryor, 13, Georgia

Isaiah Mitchell, 9, Indiana

Casey Richards, 10, Ohio

These kids, and dozens more on the list, have killed themselves playing the choking game. Their carotid arteries have been squeezed to strangulation by the thumbs of friends. They have tied utility cords and scarves and ropes around their necks and to the tops of doors. They have bent over and hyperventilated to the point of hypocapnia, lowering the carbon dioxide in their blood. They have done this for a high that can be counted in seconds.

These names are on the Web site for GASP, Games Adolescents Shouldn't Play. It's a campaign launched by Sharron Grant of Ontario, Canada, whose 12-year-old son, Jesse, strangled himself with a computer cord while playing the choking game in 2005.

However, research is murky when it comes to how many kids die each year from playing the choking game. Grant's group has tallied 337 children's deaths worldwide since 1934. Those numbers also show a marked increase in U.S. deaths in the past few years. According to GASP, 30 kids died playing the game in 2004, 68 in 2005 and 81 in 2006. The group has recorded 18 deaths so far for 2007.

But Mark Lepore, assistant professor of counseling psychology at Pittsburgh's Chatham College, believes 1,800 people in the United States have died playing the game in the past ten years. The majority were children and teens. However, Lepore acknowledges that "it's really hard to make an accurate determination" as to exactly how many deaths can be attributed to the choking game. (Deaths attributed to the choking game are not to be confused with those attributed to autoerotic asphyxiation, in which masturbation and asphyxia are combined in the quest for a more powerful orgasm, and which typically involves older practitioners.)

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