"Mommy! ... MOMMY!"
The cry had the kind of blood-curdling edge that tells a mother something is horribly wrong. It shook Kamelia Sepasi from the camaraderie of friends, sent her rushing upstairs to her daughter's room.
There, 13-year-old Sunny stood frozen in place, staring toward the open door of her sister's closet. "Sasha's not moving," she shouted. "Sasha isn't moving, Mommy!"
Fourteen-year-old Sasha Sepasi lay slumped on the floor of her walk-in closet, one end of a belt fastened around her neck, the other looped over a hook on the wall. Her eyes were closed. Her cheeks were cold. Her legs, splayed out in front of her, were mottled with blotchy bruises from pooling blood, evidence that death had taken hold.
Kamelia Sepasi cannot recall exactly what she said or did next, only that she could not believe that her funny, fearless oldest daughter had purposely hanged herself. But what else is there to think when you find your child with a belt around her neck, alone and dead?
She broke free of friends trying to comfort her and began tearing through her daughter's backpack, dresser drawers and desk.
"I knew there must be a note," she said later, sitting on her daughter's bed in a room exactly as Sasha left it -- backpack open against the desk, eyeglasses resting on a notebook on the nightstand, her clothes for the next day laid out on the bed.
There was no note. And Sasha's parents would soon believe their daughter's death was no suicide.
"The police officer, a woman, came in and looked at her and told us, 'This looks like the choking game,' " Sepasi recalled. "I had no idea what she was talking about."
By morning, Internet searches had unearthed a thick stack of articles detailing dozens of deaths blamed on the choking game. Self-asphyxiation, it seems, has become a popular adolescent pastime.
"I was totally, totally shocked," Sepasi said. "A game? Where children choke themselves?"
There's no way to know how widespread it is. The phenomenon has been discussed on talk shows and online forums. A chat group begun last summer by bereaved parents has more than 50 members and maintains a list of more than 70 deaths. Yet experts have been slow to document the practice and its widespread appeal.
Children play the game by compressing the carotid arteries in their necks, reducing blood flow and oxygen to the brain. That produces a momentary loss of consciousness, preceded by lightheadedness. When they release the pressure, a surge of pent-up blood flows to the brain, creating a euphoric rush.
They do it in groups, at parties, at sleepovers, in school locker rooms and in lavatories. But they've added a dangerous element to a game some of their parents played as children. Now instead of just squeezing one another, they wrap belts, ropes, ties, dog leashes, even bicycle chains around their necks to produce the fainting sensation.
This allows the game to be played alone, when one mistake -- a belt too short, a rope too tight -- can doom a child.
"These are typically not kids who are using drugs, but they're doing it for the same reason that kids use substances," explains Julie Rosenbluth of the American Council for Drug Education. "It's an opportunity to get high that doesn't have the stigma [of drugs] attached to it."
The game is seen as a clean, quick, drug-free high by teens like Sasha -- children with good grades, nice homes, doting parents and too little life experience to consider its dangerous side.
Sasha was my daughter's friend. They were classmates at their private middle school until they began ninth grade at separate high schools this fall.
An honor student, athlete and talented artist, Sasha was liked by the jocks, the nerds, the popular kids and most everybody in between. Her stresses were typically adolescent -- friends, her weight, her parents' separation -- but she wasn't brooding or unhappy, at least not so any of us could recognize.
News of her death traveled quickly. Her friends searched for clues in the poems and postings on her MySpace website. We parents eavesdropped on their tearful phone calls, listening outside closed bedroom doors as our children struggled to understand why Sasha had died.
For us, it was an unsettling testament to the dangerous combustion of adult ignorance and adolescent vulnerability. How could our responsible, level-headed kids be stupid enough to play such a game? How could we -- worldly, educated baby boomers -- be clueless enough not to know?
For Sasha's closest friends, the tragedy waved a guilty finger in their faces. They knew about the game. They played it with her.
It forced their parents to remove the blinders. Gated communities, wealthy families and private schools might shield our kids from urban threats, but not from their own adolescent missteps.
Not only were these suburban 14-year-olds choking each other to get high; some were smoking weed, huffing solvents out of plastic bags, sneaking alcohol from parents' liquor cabinets.