Sasha Is Dead, but Why?

Times Staff Writer

"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.

The confessions came in a hastily arranged session with a therapist and eight of Sasha's best friends the day after she died.

"We wanted to jump off our chairs, grab our kids and go home," one mother told me later. "All this time we've been trusting them to be going out with their friends and having fun, and they're out doing this huffing, smoking, choking.... "

That afternoon, when the kids stopped by Sasha's house to pay their respects, her father marched them upstairs to her room and pointed them toward her closet. On the wall, three hooks were perfectly aligned. Another had been bent toward the floor by the weight of Sasha's falling body.

"I wanted them to see it," said Rob Sepasi. "I wanted them to know what their stupid game caused."

How stupid is it?

For a 30-second rush, it can cause brain damage, cardiac arrest, physical injuries from falling or death from asphyxiation, according to doctors.

Medical examiners across the country are just beginning to realize that some teenage deaths ruled suicides may actually be accidents. A conference in Los Angeles last month of the National Assn. of Medical Examiners featured a seminar suggesting that coroners have been slow to recognize the phenomenon of "asphyxial games."

Los Angeles police say the occasional accidental strangulations they encounter seem to reflect a different mission -- autoerotic self-asphyxiation by young men to heighten sexual sensations.

And UCLA's online advice forum for school mental health professionals suggests that the choking game appeals to disturbed, destructive teens for whom "getting high" is a "disguised behavior to temporarily release unbearable pain from emotional wounds."

But are our kids really sexobsessed emotional cripples, or just bored and restless teens, bred to be afraid of drugs but craving momentary escape from the pressure to get good grades, excel in sports, manage busy social lives?

Adults unwind with a drag on a cigarette, a stop at happy hour, a glass of wine with dinner. Why does it shock us to imagine that our kids come home from school, finish their homework, then retreat to their closets with a belt?

It just feels good.

That's the explanation I got from a friend of mine who admitted playing the game 35 years ago in his basement with buddies. Listening to him reminisce about its heady rush and dream-like floating sensation, I wonder if I should hide his belts.

And suddenly the choking game frightens me. Not because it is hard to fathom, but because I understand how a curious 14-year-old might consider it worth the risk.

Four days after Sasha's death on Oct. 21, her parents invite us to a forum. More than 100 kids and their parents show up at a temple in Woodland Hills.

We are hoping for information, confession, catharsis.

What we get is an emotional bloodletting that exposes the gulf between expectation and understanding, concerned parent and cosseted child.

If I'd envisioned sitting shoulder to shoulder comforting my sobbing daughter, my child clearly had other ideas. She sought the shelter of her peers, who filled the pews on both sides of the room, clutching tissues and linking arms.

I watched my daughter anxiously. She'd barely spoken during the ride over. Suddenly, with her friends, she couldn't shut up. I stood awkwardly behind mothers I now envied, whose daughters followed them dutifully down the rows.

The rabbi opened the service with a gentle question: How are you feeling? Confused, hurt, empty, angry -- all natural and appropriate, he said.

Then he asked the question that would stir us up: When is it OK to tell on a friend?

A few teenagers raised their hands: "When your friend is doing something dangerous. When you're worried they're going to hurt themselves."

Parents nodded approvingly.

Don't worry if you lose friends, the rabbi told them -- saving a life is more important. Would you rather have them mad at you, or dead?

Then a young girl, in a trembling voice, offered another perspective. "My friends are the most important thing in my life," she said, holding tight to the hand of a wispy blond with mascara-stained cheeks. "I know I should tell, but then she'll be mad at me, and the whole group will find out and I'll be out.... " Her voice breaks and she stops.

From across the room, a boy took up the banner: "How are we supposed to know what's dangerous? I never even heard of this game. Aren't our parents supposed to warn us?"

A father stood and clutched the back of a pew, trying to control his voice. "I am so shocked by what I've learned about this community of kids," he said.

His son's revelations forced him to send the boy away for three months, he said, "but at least we'll get him back." He stopped, sat down and buried his face in his hands.

"Take the mask off," shouted one mother, whose own outspoken 14-year-old daughter often seems to be at the center of trouble. "Parents need to accept that our kids have issues. Stop pointing the finger at everyone else's kids."

The rabbi tried to steer back on course. "This isn't Dr. Phil," he said. "Let's be honest.... How do we get out from behind this facade?"

But blame was bouncing back and forth: The children should have been brave enough to tell. The adults should have been more attentive.

Parents who aren't willing to police their kids get what they deserve, implied one mother. Her son never goes to anyone's home unless she talks to the other parents. She stays on top of what he's doing.

Sasha's father rose and took the microphone. The rabbi quieted the clamor.

"I talked to Sasha all the time," Rob Sepasi told us in a steady voice. "I have great communication with my daughter. She wasn't keeping anything from me." He turned toward her best friends and called out their names. "You spent all summer with her," he said. If they had told what she was doing, he suggested, "Sasha would still be here."

One girl's head dropped and her sobs pierced the silence. A boy drew back, his eyes flashing anger. But they were no match for the emotion of a grieving father.

"I wish she would have tried crack cocaine," Sepasi said slowly, letting his words hang in the air. "I would have taken her to a clinic; I would have known what to do. But this.... "

He opened his hands helplessly, a naked display of confusion and pain. "She tried something I had no knowledge of." His eyes searched the room, as if answers lurked in the awkward spaces between mothers, daughters, fathers, sons.

Children shifted uneasily in their seats. Next to me, two young girls gripped each other's hands so tightly, I could feel their elbows trembling.

"Talk to your parents," he pleaded with the kids, his voice edgy, harsh and rising. "Talk to your parents!" He was shouting now. "TALK TO YOUR PARENTS!"

Spent, tears streaming down his cheeks, Rob Sepasi took his seat.

Our kids were outside before we knew it, jockeying in the parking lot for the attention of TV reporters, who had been invited by the Sepasis to spread the word about the dangers of the choking game.

I stood in a knot with other mothers, trying to reconcile our kids' childlike antics with their earlier adult expressions of pain. We are as puzzled, sometimes, by their contradictions as they are by the mixed messages we send.

"You do everything you can to smooth their path, straight from preschool to college," said Michele Schad, the mother of one of Sasha's best friends. Private schools, play dates, sports lessons, homework tutors. "Maybe it's too much. Maybe they don't get to make enough decisions."

Or maybe, I think, they make too many. We give them cellphones and send them off, armed with admonitions but absent judgment.

There will be less freedom in our children's futures, I suspect. No more changing plans midstream via a phone call from the mall.

"This certainly makes 'no' a lot easier," said Schad. "It's kind of a no-brainer now."

But we know that policing kids only goes so far. Sasha is the third 14-year-old in our children's circle to die. A girl committed suicide. A boy wound up brain dead after inhaling household products from a plastic bag. Like Sasha, they went to good schools, hailed from affluent families. All three children were at home, their parents just a cry for help away.

Officially, Sasha's cause of death remains unsettled. Her parents are trying to convince the medical examiner that Sasha didn't purposely take her life, even though there were small scars on her wrist and a reference in her diary to suicide.

The Sepasis want a deeper profile done; they are not afraid of the revelations. Sasha had admitted to cutting herself because her friends had tried it and she wanted to know how it felt. "Teenage girls," her mother said, "are so dramatic sometimes.

"I wasn't one of those parents too busy to talk to their kids," she said, "about everything -- sex, drugs, boys, peer pressure. Sasha was curious about so much. It was always, 'Mommy, what about this?'

"I thought I was very liberal, very conscious," she said, sitting at the dining-room table in her Tarzana home. "I knew what was going on."

It's how we like to think of ourselves: So different from our parents' generation. Open-minded and understanding, we'd done it all and had the answers. We'd stay connected to our children's lives. My daughters would trust me, bring me their problems. We'd steer through danger together, I thought.

Now, I look at my daughter, almost 15, and wonder about her private life -- the hours she spends alone in her room, the new friends she's making at public school, the secrets she spills only to her journal. I could clamp down, bombard her with questions, scour the websites she visits for hidden hazards. But what would that accomplish?

She is moving away from me, and I can no longer clear her path. There are things she will face with her friends, not Mom, as her touchstone. I hover, I hope, I lecture, I listen. But I've also absorbed a grieving mother's lesson:

"However we run after our kids, you are always way behind," she says.

Times staff writer Rong-Gong Lin II contributed to this report.

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