By Jenny Potter, 16, Arcadia HS
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Jenny says teens should put their health first.

*Editor’s note: the names of Jenny’s friends have been changed.

Last summer, when my mom and I were camping with three other families, I made probably one of the biggest mistakes of my life. I allowed another person to choke me as part of a game, not knowing how deadly it could be.

It was about a week into the 10-day trip and the parents were busy doing something among themselves. The teens and I were bored and the fish weren’t biting. My friend Jessica* and I decided to hang out in the tent that my three friends, Billy, Roger and Matt* shared. We used this as an escape from the ever annoying younger children who were begging us to come up with some new way to entertain them.

As I entered the tent the guys were playing the choking game again. I saw Matt’s eyes roll back in his head and he passed out for about three seconds. Then suddenly he woke up. I almost didn’t believe my eyes. Matt looked like he had just died, and then he came back to life. He seemed OK, talking normally about how it felt and how I should definitely try it. I glanced over at Jessica, who had a worried look in her eyes.

"You want to give it a go?" Matt asked.

The guys had been asking us to "play" all week. We kept declining. I was scared to try something that I knew in the back of my mind must be dangerous. But they kept telling me that it was not as bad as it seemed and that it was really a lot of fun.

Seeing that Jessica and I were scared, Matt offered to go again to show us it wasn’t that bad. Matt passed out for about four seconds and woke up with a big grin.

"I’m next!" Billy said. I watched as Roger made him pass out. It seemed like this wasn’t so bad.

"It feels like you’re floating on air!" Billy said once he woke up.

I felt my brow beginning to dampen and I couldn’t help but feel my turkey sandwich lunch start to rise inside me. I am not a person who jumps into things and I couldn’t imagine doing anything that would harm my body. But this seemed like it was no big deal; I’d maybe lose a few brain cells. Plus, the guys’ incessant efforts began wearing on my nerves, and I felt like I needed to prove that I was not a wimp.

Oddly, though, what truly pushed me over the edge was that my father is a police officer. Even though I had never even been offered pot, I had thought once or twice about what it would be like to try it. But I never did because of my dad. With the choking game I thought that I could get a high without the smell of pot on my clothes. I have heard my dad saying how he could smell it a mile away.

I decided to give it a go. Slowly the light that we had set up at the top of the tent seemed to fade. When I first woke up, I forgot where I was for a split second but I recognized the faces. I felt warm and fuzzy, like the feeling you get with a cup of hot chocolate and a fire. It seemed like I had passed out for hours, but they said I was gone for only about eight seconds.

After I stupidly convinced Jessica that it was fun, she did it next. She didn’t seem to find it as enjoyable as the boys and I did, but she said she would do it again.

We giggled in the tent about the weird things we saw when we were out, like Billy seeing a guy bending his finger up and down going, "Boop, boop" and how Matt saw us in clown outfits. I didn’t see anything except darkness, but I felt more accepted. I regretted not doing it sooner. I thought of how my problems with my dad, his girlfriend and my parents fighting disappeared. During the trip, I passed out a total of three times. I wanted to do it more, but we had to head home.

Would my mom be disappointed?

Coming home, I was nervous. The choking game had felt great, but I knew it was wrong. And I was really confused about whether I should tell my mom. I usually don’t keep secrets from her, and I felt like I had to tell someone.

When we got to my house, my mom had to pay bills. I followed her into the dining room and instantly she knew something was wrong.

It was difficult to start the conversation. I didn’t want to ruin our relationship and I kept going back and forth in my mind, while my mother bored her eyes into mine. I’ve always told her important stuff, like about all the boys I liked. However, this was one of the first really big things that had happened in my life, so I hesitated. Soon though, her stare almost made me feel like she had read my mind. I then decided to tell her everything, because I knew she would understand.

I told her what we had been giggling about in the tent, because I knew the parents had heard it. I told her about the game. Her head sank slightly. Then, when I told her I had done it more than once, she looked worried. I reassured her that it was just three times.

My mom was silent at first and then she said that life was full of choices—her favorite quote. But I felt like she was saying more. She meant that life was full of choices and that she was not always going to be there to help me get through them. She told me that making decisions was part of growing up and that I would be put in these situations again, maybe not with the choking game, but with pot or something else. Next time, my mom said, I should not give in so easily, but what’s done is done. She was scared for me; I could tell by how she selectively chose her words, opening her mouth, and then closing it again, which she doesn’t usually do.

My mom strongly recommended not doing it again. But she didn’t try to guilt trip me or get angry. I think the fact that I told her showed how remorseful I was and that’s why she didn’t yell. Besides, I ended up putting myself on a guilt trip—that’s the curse of a conscience I guess. I regretted disappointing her more than anything.

I felt a burden being lifted once I had told her. I never called my friends or told them that I told my mom. I figured that they would freak out because I had told an adult and that this was breaking some teen code. My mom wanted me to call them, though. But she didn’t push it and knew that it was not her place to inform their parents and break the trust she had built with me.

After our conversation, my mom began sending me articles about teens who had died from playing this "game." I was shocked that some teens had died from something I had taken so nonchalantly.

This led me to do more research. I found that it was far worse than I had ever imagined. The articles talked about parents who found their children dead and then wondered what they, as parents, did wrong. Most of the deaths I read about were teens who had been good students and well-liked. This was me. That I fit the profile scared me so much that it sent a shiver down my spine.

I read an article in USA Today about a girl named Ashley Tucker of Cary, Illinois, who played the game two years ago when she was 13 and went into a coma. She spent months in rehabilitation and had seizures for two years. After finding this out, I almost cried. This girl is almost my age and now she has permanent brain damage.

That USA Today article also told the story of Jennifer Cernekee from Kenosha, Wisconsin, who died in 2001 when she was just 14. Jennifer’s parents initially thought she had killed herself. When people are alone and they try to make themselves pass out, sometimes they  cannot wake up. But after the police re-examined the case and the odd position Jennifer’s body was in when they found her, they declared it the result of this "game."

It’s no game

All these people considered it a game, and so did I until I learned the facts. This "game," according to the USA Today story, has names such as "black out," "funky chicken," "space monkey," "flatliner," "tingling."

Sometimes, the people who "play" don’t pass out, but they simply feel a tingling all over their bodies, according to the article from USA Today. This tingling and the other effects are caused by cutting off the oxygen to the brain.

While I was learning about these scary incidents, I asked my mom, who’s been a nurse for almost 30 years, about the importance of oxygen. She said that oxygen is essential for the body. Without it, the brain begins to quit functioning, and in turn, the heart and lungs stop working. A person will die within 10 minutes of the organs not working and no aid.

I interviewed Dr. Yafa Minazad, a neurologist at Huntington Hospital in Pasadena, and she said that any kind of passing out, even for a few seconds, can cause many types of permanent brain damage, like slower functioning, depression, learning disabilities, etc.

"Every single time you cut oxygen supply to your brain, certain number of cells will die and over time this damage will become more visible and obvious," she said. This means the more times you pass out, the greater the risk.

Not only can these problems occur, she said, but passing out like this can also lead to a stroke, in which a part of the brain dies. This can leave a person partially paralyzed, with speech difficulty or even being a vegetable the rest of his or her life.

After I learned all this information, I felt like screaming from the top of a mountain that this game kills.

I even began talking with my friends about it. They were surprised that you could die from it, just as I was. Some hadn’t even heard of the game, so I felt obligated to tell them about it and let them know how dangerous it is. I thought it would be better coming from a person who had done it before.

If I could go back and undo what had happened, I would in a heartbeat. It seems silly looking back. I was such an idiot for for giving in so easily. I will always wonder if I had done it one more time, if I had passed out just once more, would I be alive today to tell this story? Would I be hooked up to some machine that was helping me live? Would I be able to have the friends I have and the experiences I have yet to endure? I guess I’ll never know. But, I am thankful that I did not do it again and that I still have a tomorrow.