IDAHO FALLS, ID — It’s been a year of heartache, a year of pain and a year wondering why for Curtis McAbee’s family.
On Sept 6, 2016, Becky Mix was sound asleep when she was jolted awake with a phone call informing her of a real-life nightmare taking place at her brother’s Idaho Falls home.
“My mom got a phone call at about 2 o’clock in the morning and my sister-in-law was just hysterical,” Mix tells EastIdahoNews.com. “Her oldest son had gone in to tell her middle son his music was kind of loud and found him passed away from playing the choking game.”
The choking game, also known as the fainting or pass out game, refers to intentionally cutting off oxygen to the brain with the goal of inducing euphoria and temporary losing consciousness.
Curtis, who was 11 years old, had a dog’s choke chain around his neck. It’s believed when he passed out, he fell forward which resulted in the tightening of the chain.
“With as tight as it had gotten, he was gone within two minutes,” Mix says. “Even if somebody would have gotten him right away, it probably wouldn’t have been enough time to stop the end result.”
Emergency responders arrived and Curtis was pronounced dead. The coroner ruled his death as an accident.
His family had never heard of the choking game and immediately tried to figure out how their boy, who loved to swim, ride his bike and play at the park, learned about the deadly practice.
“From what we found out, this all started when another child said I dare you to do this,” Mix says. “We think it might have only been a couple of weeks that he was doing it but within that two weeks time, we ended up not having him anymore.”
It’s unknown how many people within the past few years have died from the choking game, but in 2008, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 82 deaths nationwide between 1995 and 2007.
The choking game has been around for decades and many educational groups have been formed to address the issue.
After Judy Rogg’s son, Erik, died playing it in 2010, the California mother decided to do something.
“It was blindsiding. It was absolutely blindsiding. He learned about this at school on Monday and tried it on Tuesday to clear his head because he was frustrated with his homework. I missed him by about five minutes,” Rogg tells EastIdahoNews.com during a phone interview.
She has established Erik’s Cause — a nonprofit dedicated to teaching teenagers, parents, educators and others about the choking game in a non-graphic, skills-based way. The program is now being implemented in school systems across America.
“It helps kids understand where they are in their brain development and why it’s difficult for them to make good decisions,” Rogg says. “It helps them understand how to say no to peer pressure. We never show them how to play, we never do any ‘shock and awe’ and we’re very careful to make sure it gets through.”
Too often parents try to overprotect their children by not talking about issues like this, Rogg says, and there’s the worry that bringing attention to the choking game will peak curiosity.
But Mix says every adult needs to become educated.
“We think our kids know better because parents think their child wouldn’t be that stupid. It has nothing to do with being smart or stupid,” Mix says. “It’s that they don’t understand that this could potentially kill you. Kids sometimes don’t realize the consequences of their actions until it’s too late.”
Warning signs to watch for when it comes to the choking game include bloodshot eyes, broken blood vessels on the face or eyelids, mood swings, disorientation after being left alone and bruises or marks around the neck.
Signs that, if ignored, could result in tragedy.
“Our goal is to just make sure people know about it,” Mix says. “I’ve watched my brother’s family suffer through this and I don’t want any other family to go through what we’ve had to go through.”