RACINE — Time stood still for Jeana Monroe last week when her 15-year-old son was found dead, hanging from a belt tied under his lofted bed.
Monroe spent a fitful night thinking of her happy-go-lucky son R.J. Monroe and in the morning, after some time had passed, she came to a realization: She believed her son died not due to suicide but from the choking game.
Racine police agree.
Now Monroe is focusing her time on alerting other parents to the deadly consequences of this “game” played to get high.
“My time here on Earth now is I have to bring awareness,” the 33-year-old Racine woman said. “I feel like if R.J. could come and talk to me for a minute he would tell me, ‘Mom, please tell other people about this because I didn’t know I would pass out before I could loosen that belt and it could strangle me.’”
The choking game
The choking game involves kids either choking each other or using a noose to choke themselves to get a brief high. A child or teen can become unconscious in a matter of seconds; after three minutes that way, the central nervous system can start to fail and death can occur, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The choking game has caused deaths around the country, usually affecting boys from the ages of 11 and 16, according to the CDC.
“There’s kids doing this all over the place but it hits home when it’s right here in the community, right here in my house,” Monroe said.
In Racine, health care professionals who work with children said the choking game happens but its prevalence is hard to know. It’s not usually reported, kids won’t tell on each other and it isn’t something health care providers routinely ask about, said Joseph Bergs, medical director of child and adolescent psychiatry for Wheaton Franciscan-All Saints hospital, 3801 Spring St.
“We’ve seen a couple of (known) cases but it’s really been pretty scattered,” he said.
Ann Rolling, counseling manager for Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin’s Racine office, 2405 Northwestern Ave., agreed. In her 11 years in Racine, she said she’s seen two or three choking game cases.
“Situations like this, we can never be exactly 100 percent sure but with the totality of everything … all indications are this is an accidental death,” said Chad Stillman, the Racine Police Department investigator on this case.
Since the case is still open, Stillman could not go into detail about R.J.’s Dec. 4 death but said, “he didn’t intend to kill himself. I believe he was probably doing it to achieve some sort of high.”
Monroe said there was no reason for R.J. to commit suicide.
“There was no reason for him to be committing suicide. He was so happy,” she said. “There were no indications whatsoever.”
R.J., a sophomore at Horlick High School, 2119 Rapids Drive, got good grades, loved playing with his younger siblings and enjoyed riding his bike at Racine’s skateboard park. He also had a girlfriend and a job working at the Racine Riverside Marina, co-owned by the family and located at 950 Erie St., Monroe said.
R.J. had just failed to make the basketball team and watched his parents go through a custody battle, but Monroe said those things would not have pushed her son to suicide.
“I was asking myself all night: Why would he kill himself?” Monroe said, adding it made no sense because that very day she and her son had made plans to attend a marina Christmas party and surprise his stepdad with Green Bay Packers tickets.
“Why would you be excited about plans if you were going to kill yourself?” she wondered, and that thought prompted another. “Something hit me in my gut and I got real sick and I thought, ‘He was playing the choking game.’”
Monroe asked R.J.’s girlfriend about it and found out her son had been taking Xanax to get high. The person at school giving him the Xanax had just been busted, Monroe said, so her son likely tried the choking game for a similar high.
R.J. was found with a belt around his neck underneath his lofted bed, where there was a TV and a desk but no space for a person to stand, Monroe said.
It doesn’t seem like the place someone would hang themselves, she said.
“If he wanted to hang himself, we have rafters downstairs.”
Choking game warning signs
- Discussion of the game.
- Marks on the neck or wearing high-necked shirts, even in warm weather.
- Frequent, severe headaches.
- Bloodshot eyes or pinpoint bleeding spots under the skin of the face.
- Disorientation after spending time alone.
- Ropes, scarves or belts tied to bedroom furniture or doorknobs.
- Unexplained presence of dog leashes, choke collars, bungee cords, etc.
SOURCE: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.