Last month, Sean and Dawn Dawson of Saskatoon had to face every parent's worst nightmare: the death of a child. Thirteen-year-old Zachary appeared to have committed suicide.
"I called him to come upstairs; he didn't answer," said Mr. Dawson, 38. "I went down into the basement to get him and I went into the bathroom – and that's where I found him."
"There was a belt around his neck attached to the doorknob," said Ms. Dawson, 39. "At first we thought it was suicide."
But the more the Dawsons talked about it – among themselves, with police, with school officials – the more they realized it just didn't add up.
The authorities agreed. Soon Ms. Dawson began hearing from parents of other kids at Zachary's school and even a neighbouring school – everyone believes Zachary died playing the "choking game."
The choking game – also known by many other names, such as passout, blackout, the fainting game or flatliner – involves the use of a belt or rope wrapped around the neck to cut the blood supply and oxygen to the brain in order to cause a quick, exhilarating high without taking drugs.
"We're getting messages on Facebook from parents right across the country telling us this is going on with their kids or their kids' friends," Ms. Dawson said. "We talked to [our son]about drugs, about alcohol, suicide, smoking. But I had no idea about this.
"That's why we're putting ourselves out there so other parents can know about it and talk to their kids," she said.
Zachary Dawson had a zest for life.
Born April 13, 1998, the teenager did everything – Scouts, swimming, football, hockey, archery. He had been a goalie with a minor league hockey team in Saskatoon for the past five years, and his dad was his coach for a number of years and his Scout leader.
At St. Peter school in Saskatoon, he had a large circle of friends. He apparently had his first kiss just this past summer. He had some minor struggles with his grades, but nothing serious, Ms. Dawson said. "When his hockey games were done, he was always the last one to leave because he was so busy talking and socializing with the other players."
Zach loved his family and always had time for his younger siblings, sister Kaitlyn, 8, and brother Xander, 6.
All of this is partly why his parents and police don't believe Zachary's death was a suicide.
"I don't even remember the last time he was sad or mad. He was just grateful all the time and a joy to be around," Ms. Dawson said.
"We went through all his notes and his books. There wasn't a single thing in any of it that indicated he was depressed or sad. We spoke to his teachers and they were very clear: They have kids they watch, and Zach was never on their radar. Ever."
There was other evidence that made the suicide theory seem implausible.
After doing a bit of research, and in discussion with police, they learned that, when Zachary's lifeless body was found, he was in a "recoverable position."
According to Sharron Grant of GASP (Games Adolescents Shouldn't Play) – the best known advocacy group against the choking game in Canada – this is commonly found among victims of this macabre practice. Being in a "recoverable position" means that Zach's hands were in a position to push himself up if need be. Participants of the game who do it solo, as Zach did, think that if they choke themselves in a specific position, they will be able to recover themselves in time.
"Most of them make a sling, using a belt or rope or even a towel, and attach it to a doorknob," said Ms. Grant, whose own 12-year-old son, Jesse, died from the choking game in 2005.
"Then they lean forward against it, thinking when they pass out they'll fall backwards and they'll come to. Zachary fell backwards, and could have pushed himself up with his hands if he was not unconscious."
When Ms. Grant's son died, awareness about the choking game was pretty much non-existent. Since then, she has held 200 presentations for adults – teachers, parents, EMS workers and counsellors – but it's been harder to reach kids.
Coroners will often label a teen's death suicide when, in fact, it could have been as a result of this game. Statistics on injuries and deaths from the game are difficult to come by largely because of this.
The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health performed a study in 2008 that found 79,000 Ontario students in Grade 7-12 – or about 7 per cent – had participated in the choking game. The Public Health Agency of Canada, using various surveillance data sources to investigate fatal and non-fatal injuries associated with the choking game, has documented 88 non-fatal injuries associated with the game between 1990 and 2009.
One common way kids learn about the game is from the Internet – in particular, YouTube.
For a 2009 study in the department of pediatrics at Dalhousie University in Halifax, 65 YouTube videos depicting the game were identified. They had collectively been viewed 173,550 times.
The study's authors warned that seeing these videos "may normalize the behaviour among adolescents."
Although the game is generally played by kids aged 9-16, Ms. Grant has spoken to parents of children as young as 6 who have tried the game. They are often pulled into it by older siblings.
The Dawsons believe it's critical that there be choking game awareness campaigns in schools, just as there have been for bullying, smoking, drugs, and drinking and driving.
"Right now, there are kids at the schools who probably know something about what Zach was doing who won't say anything because they're afraid of being held accountable for his death," Ms. Dawson said.
But Ms. Grant said it commonly takes months for young people to come forward.
"Usually three to six months later – kids will come forward and say something. But immediately, everyone is scared of getting in trouble.
"When I lost my son, three months later my 10-year-old told me they were playing this game together," she said.
Ms. Dawson still has no idea how Zach picked it up.
"He wasn't ever on our computer at home. But we don't know what he looked at when he was with someone else," she said.
"We've lost our future with our son. We mourn we will never see him graduate, never see his first girlfriend. Our whole future has been redefined. I would do anything to go back to Oct. 13 and have someone hand me a pamphlet, and I would hand it to him and my son would be here."
Signs parents should look for
•Frequent or unusual headaches
•Strange marks on the neck
•Doors always locked
•Knots tied in objects in their bedrooms
•Marks on bedposts and closet rods where it's worn down
•Frequent disorientation after spending time alone
Special to The Globe and Mail