It’s called the choking game. Or the space monkey. Or the flatliner.
But whatever it’s called, two local families have made it their mission to have it called what it really is: a killer of children.
Self asphyxia, or the act of choking one’s self to the point of near unconsciousness, has become a more common occurrence in recent years, according to a study conducted by the Dylan Blake Foundation, a national organization dedicated to educating children, parents and educators about this deadly game.
Two local families are all too familiar with the dangerous consequences of the “game.”
“In all of their minds they think that this is a game,” said Kelly Sims, whose son Micah died from self asphyxia more than two years ago. “It’s the six-foot tall bulletproof mentality.”
A family remembers
Blake Sandel was, by all accounts, a model student. He dreamed of heading off to college, becoming an architect one day and returning to Huntsville to help develop the city that raised him.
An honor student and a guitar aficionado, his list of accomplishments ran as long as his list of friends and admirers. His passion for music was only eclipsed by his love of rodeo.
“He had plans,” said his mother, Charlene Sandel. “He had it all mapped out. He was definitely a leader.”
All that changed when Blake heard about self asphyxiation from friends at school, and tried it. His parents are not sure how many times or for how long he had tried self asphyxiation, but one time, one deadly time, was enough.
“Blake and his brother came home to change clothes and then go to the Houston Livestock Show with the local FFA that night,” Charlene Sandel said. “He went into his room to change clothes. It was just a moment.”
Blake never came out of his room.
From the time he entered his room to the time he was found his father, Byron Sandel, said that no more than 45 minutes could have passed.
His body position was such that Blake thought he could have saved himself if he needed to, his mother said. But unfortunately, all the safety measures he took were just not enough.
“They think if they have a support, they can get up,” said Blake’s father Byron Sandel. “But they can’t.”
Reserved yet stoically dedicated, Byron and Charlene Sandel talked candidly about their son, and the tragic mistake that led to his death.
“If my son were sitting here right now, he’d say ‘that is the craziest, stupidest, most dangerous thing I could have ever done,’” Charlene said.
“(We’re going to) tell the truth — Blake made a bad choice,” Byron said. “He didn’t know the consequences and it killed him. But we can’t back down. This is the truth and we can’t be afraid of that.
“It’s not easy for us (but) we’re prepared to go through this.”
From death comes hope for life
A little over two years have passed since another Huntsville resident, 20-year-old Micah Sims, played the same deadly game that cost him his life.
But even though the Sims family has had nearly 27 months to come to terms with their son’s death, the pain of talking openly about the circumstances surrounding their son’s death is only outweighed by their resolve to stop others from suffering Micah’s same fate.
“It’s certainly not easy for us to talk about our child that made a choice that unfortunately took (his) life,” said Micah’s mother, Debra Sims. “But in all their minds this is a game, and we have to change that.”
Micah’s father ,Kelly Sims, said that Micah and Blake have passed away and the families’ focus has changed from grieving to one of educating.
“This is not about our kids,” said Kelly Sims. “It’s about the kids that are still here and that are tempted or might be engaging in this deadly activity. And it has to be talked about, no matter how hard it is.”
Byron candidly spoke about his son’s death to Blake’s friends, warning them that there is nothing trivial about the choking game.
“Kids think they’re invincible,” Byron said. “I told kids at the funeral service that if they’re wondering whether they should (play the choking game) they should look at what it can do. Kids should really consider and think about what they’re doing and the risks they are taking. It’s a lot more serious than they realize.”
Debra said the Sandels were right on target in openly and honestly talking about the issue.
“We need to give kids information,” she said. “We have to talk to kids about things. We can’t let this thing keep being swept under the rug (because) if we do they won’t be aware of the danger.”
Solidified by a common link and a hope to save others, the Simses and the Sandels say they have only begun to fight a killer.
“We’ve known each other all our lives and for kids to have died in the same way ... it only brings us closer together,” Kelly said.
The Sandels and the Simses are at peace knowing their children are in a better place.
“Blake was a good kid and we feel strongly about his faith,” Byron said. “We’re OK with this. We have peace.”
Even out of Blake’s death, the Sandels are convinced good will come.
“Our heart tells us that this was allowed because we can collectively take this and make good out of it,” Byron said. “ If we don’t get out there and save people then (Blake’s) death is in vain. Blake died because of a bad choice. We believe that God has a plan and we have a duty to educate and save other kids.”
The families said that the conceived notion that death by self-induced asphyxiation is suicide is not only wrong but dangerous.
“These are accidents, that’s all,” Charlene said.
“I will put myself in the poor house to get the word out,” she added. “Our boys are gone, and we will not see them this side of eternity.
“But our kids have a legacy and we’re going to carry it on for them, and we’re going to save these kids that are here now,” Charlene said determinedly. “We’ve got to save these other kids.”
Dr. Marsha Harman, a licensed psychologist with a practive in Huntsville, said that oftentimes middle-class teenagers may feel either bored with their day to day routine and are looking for a thrill, a thrill that can become addictive and deadly.
“This is something they do to get a rush to escape whatever it is they want to escape,” Harman said. “It’s more like a game, something to do.”
Harman said kids aren’t always just bored when they perform this act.
“Sometimes, it can be relaxing for them,” Harman said. “It’s just about changing whatever they are feeling at the time. It may be a way to escape stress or just something fun to do that they’ve heard of.”
Dr. Ronald Peters, an assistant professor of health promotion and behavorial sciences at the University of Texas’ School of Public Health in Houston, said that many perform self-induced asphyxiation if for no other reason than they learned it from their peers.
“Kids are kids, and they do this based on the peer pressure they receive from other kids,” Peters said in a 2006 interview. “They think it’s a game, and they’ll play it with their friends.”
Peters and Harman both believe that, with continued playing of the game, children can become addicted.
“If you get into something that feels good and you like it it could certainly become an addiction,” Harman said. “But it doesn’t start out that way. It’s not something we come out of the womb doing. It’s a learned behavior.”
Charlene said that her son had not even tried alcohol, and she was surprised that her son would take part in such a dangerous act.
“I guess if they don’t do drugs or drink, this is their buzz,” Charlene said. “I know that before Wednesday Blake never walked in and said, ‘I’m gonna try this.’ He didn’t know what he was doing and didn’t know the consequences. He never knew what hit him.”
The danger behind self-induced asphyxiation is the serious consequences of a mistake, Harman said.
“This is something that takes nanoseconds of precision to control,” Harman said. “Sometimes you don’t have that.”
Despite any safety measures that children may take when performing the act, too many things can go wrong to make them effective, Debra said.
“Our bedroom door was locked (and) I walked around to the other door and there was Micah on the floor,” Kelly said. “He had a belt tied to the doorknob and it was maybe only three inches too short or he would have lived.”
The reports of other parents whose children died from self-induced asphyxiation are full of “inches away” stories.
That’s why, Charlene said, that children understand there is no safe way to play the game.
“They’re laying on the floor or wherever and they think that (when they are in trouble) they can just get up,” Charlene said. “They think they have a support, but they don’t understand.”
Education is key
“How much more of this is going on?” Kelly asked.
And Kelly’s question is the key to fighting self-induced aspyxiation.
Debra said that the key to fighting the problem is by gathering statistics on the number of children who die each year from self-induced asphyxiation.
“The federal government will grant money for things that have statistics,” she said. “But there are no good statistics.”
“For the funding, for the education, the statistics are crucial,” Charlene said.
Debra said that with accurate and complete statistics and profiles of victims of this game comes funding for research and education.
But the process of collecting those statistics is plagued with problems.
“We’re keeping up the statistics by word of mouth,” Debra said.
“And some people just won’t talk about it,” Kelly said.
The other problem facing the collection of accurate statistics is a lack of knowledge about self-induced asphyxiation among the law enforcement and medical communities.
In fact, the Sims found this out the hard way.
Their son Micah’s death certificate does not say that he died from the choking game.
And to this day, Micah’s death certificate reads “undetermined asphyxiation by hanging.”
“(Micah) was not a suicidal child,” Debra said. “A lot of these are being reported as suicides. We’ve got to stop that if only for the others.”
In fact, Debra said that there is no medical classification medical examiners can use to classify accidental asphyixiation.
But more often that’s not the problem.
The Simses said a lack of education on the part of police officers and medical examiners — as well as a lack of care — more often accounts for the misclassification of these deaths.
“Two years ago we had one detective that knew something about this, and a police chief that had never seen this related to teenagers,” Kelly said. “But two years later we get another death, and immediately the authorities know what it is. Micah’s death helped bring some awareness.”
The Dylan Blake Foundation, a Web site dedicated to information parents and medical and police officials about the choking game, said that unofficial statistics confirm at least seven deaths in the last year in Texas alone.
But the statistics are based only on parents’ accounts.
Statistics from the Department of State Health Services’ Community Mental Health and Substance Abuse Section show that in 2002 there were over 220 deaths from hangings in children between the ages of 5-14. Twenty were classified as “undetermined hanging strangulation,” 158 were classified as “suicide by hanging strangulation,” but only 49 were classified as “accidental deaths” by hanging.
“And it’s easy to tell the difference,” Charlene said. “If they are swinging, it was obviously not an accident.”
Debra said that she believes these statistics are wrong.
“There is something wrong when there are 158 children under 14 commiting suicide,” she said. “Professionals will tell you that’s very unusual.”
Debra said that procedures are in place in some places in the U.S. for the proper forensic discovery and classification of self-induced asphyxiation.
“It’s about the body position and if there was a self-rescue mechanism that (separates) the choking game from suicide,” Debra said. “They also have to review the child’s psychological history. They have to know if the child was ever in a depressed state.”
Debra admitted, however, that it’s not always a cut and dry classificaiton.
“There’s a fine line,” she said.
“This affects a lot of families,” Kelly said. “It happened to two families in Huntsvile, and it can’t just be happening here.”
The families — along with many website-based support groups and foundations throughout the nation — are taking their case to their own communities, one person at a time.
“I’ll tell anyone about this,” Kelly said. “I feel like it’s the most important thing I’ll ever do.”
The Sandels and Simses say that they have aligned community support around education and awareness of this very serious issue.
“We’ve talked to lots of people, and we’re making some progress,” Byron said. “The pssychians, the first responders, the justices of the peace, they are all saying we’re getting some information out more than before. They’re behind us, but they’re waiting for us to make our next move. We’re making it.”
Debra said that a few years ago, when Micah died, there was very limited information around about the choking game.
“Two years ago, Web sites didn’t even exist (explaining the choking game),” Debra said. “Now we’re making some progress.”
Debra said that educating law enforcement officials is only part of the solution, but that kids need to know the dangerous effects of this deadly behavior.
“We’ve got to tell our kids,” she said. “They’ve got to know, or we’re letting them down.”
The families’ next moves are uncertain, they said, but they know they have to do something.
“If we don’t, our children’s deaths will be in vain,” Debra said. “This is our duty to them.”
There is some solace to the Sandels and Simses to know that their children are looking down on their parents today.
“We’re sure of Blake’s salvation and that he is in heaven,” Byron said. “And we know this mission is what he wants.”