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Accidental death by asphyxiation leaves parents stunned, grieving

Troubled teen had been trying to turn his life around
by: Carole Archer, Bob and Bernadine Denson console each other after their son accidentally killed himself while playing a dangerous asphyxiation game. The Densons wanted to tell their story in hopes of saving other young people’s lives.

Adam Denson loved to laugh and could always bring a smile to those around him. Although the 19-year-old Corbett resident had a hard time in school and endured his share of drug- and alcohol-related struggles, the generally happy-go-lucky teen had recently kicked his addictions and was trying to turn his life around.

All that changed Friday, Sept. 29, when he accidentally killed himself because of a dangerous activity known as 'the choking game,' or Space Monkey, in which young people cut off oxygen to their brains until they pass out.

As normal blood flow returns to the brain, participants reportedly experience a type of high or feelings of euphoria.

But not everyone wakes up.

'It's hard on us as parents,' said Bob Denson, Adam's father, tears welling in his eyes.

Adam's mother, Bernadine Denson, found his body Friday night after the family dog roused her from her seat and led her to the door of Adam's room, pushing it open.

Adam was sitting on the floor and had a cotton belt twisted around his neck.

His parents initially thought he had committed suicide but couldn't believe that their son, who got so much joy out of attending the youth group activities at Columbia Life Center in Troutdale, would do such a thing.

Then the calls came in. One person after another mentioned the Space Monkeys game.

'We didn't know anything about it,' Bernadine said.

Now Adam's parents just want to get the message out to others about the dangers of the common party game.

Although she has never tried it, Channey Holmes, Adam's 19-year-old niece, said the Space Monkeys game is more common than one might think.

When she asked her friends about it, she was told that it happens all the time, particularly at parties, and that there is a lot of peer pressure to participate.

At least one of Adam's friends admitted to having tried this form of asphyxiation as well.

'Just don't do it,' Bob Denson said, urging teens to tell someone if they know people who are participating in it. 'If these kids want a high, they should go get involved in a youth group.'

Phil 'Big Bear' DuFresne, owner of Big Bear Country Market and Deli, where Adam worked his first job, and a close family friend agree that getting the message out to parents is important.

Adam, who had fetal alcohol syndrome when he was adopted, had been in counseling and was getting help for substance abuse problems. He had promised his mother that he wouldn't drink or do drugs again. His parents believe he had a hard day and was looking for a way to relax but didn't think through the potential consequences of his actions.

'He was a kid that couldn't think ahead,' Bob Denson said.

Despite his struggles, Adam was looking ahead, his family said. He was planning to attend the Springdale Job Corps and wanted to be a chef.

'(He was) always trying to do right, but got twisted and ended up doing something wrong unintentionally,' DuFresne said.

Game popular among youth

The Choking Game, or Space Monkey, as it is known, is a popular and dangerous party game in which participants stop the flow of oxygen to the brain to create a high, or a euphoric state.

Participants either bear hug each other until the person being choked passes out, or strangle themselves using some kind of tie, such a rope or a scarf, and then let go.

When the pressure is released, the resulting blood flow to the brain causes a rush as consciousness returns.

Children and teens often participate in the game on a dare for the high, which can become addictive, or to enhance sexual pleasure.

The practice, also known as the Black Out Game, Breath Play, California Choke, Dream Game, Flat Line Game, Funky Chicken, Knockout Game, Natural High, Sleeper Hold and Space Cowboy, among other names, results in hundreds of accidental asphyxiation deaths each year and can cause brain damage, strokes or seizures.

Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, defines asphyxia as 'a condition of severely deficient supply of oxygen to the body that arises from being unable to breathe normally.'

In some cases, individuals, particularly young men, will participate in what is known as erotic or autoerotic asphyxiation, which is the practice of reducing the amount of oxygen to the brain during sexual stimulation to heighten orgasm.

According to Wikipedia's page on erotic asphyxiation, 'Victims are often found to have rigged some sort of 'rescue mechanism,' which has not worked in the way they anticipated as they lost consciousness.'

A number of Web sites, including www.deadlygameschildrenplay.com/en/home.asp, offer parents resources and guidance.

- Information from Deadly Games Children Play, Dr. Phil, Stop the Choking Game Association and Wikipedia.