Youths inundate counseling offices, clinics, hold discussions on 'choking game'

The "Follow This Story" feature will notify you when any articles related to this story are posted.

When you follow a story, the next time a related article is published — it could be days, weeks or months — you'll receive an email informing you of the update.

If you no longer want to follow a story, click the "Unfollow" link on that story. There's also an "Unfollow" link in every email notification we send you.

This tool is available only to subscribers; please make sure you're logged in if you want to follow a story.

Please note: This feature is available only to subscribers; make sure you're logged in if you want to follow a story.


Before her death this week at age 15, Tess Eisiminger was rehearsing the Keith Urban country song "Tonight I Wanna Cry" on the piano. The choice seems an apt one for the way many people are feeling this week.

Hundreds of mourners gathered Thursday at Hessel Church in Sebastopol to say goodbye to the Sonoma Academy sophomore who strangled herself Saturday in a workshop outside her family's Willowside Road home west of Santa Rosa.

The emotional service capped a somber week in which distraught teens flooded school counseling offices, peer groups and emergency clinics. Others sought comfort on and other Internet sites.

"All the counselors are bombarded with kids reeling from this," said Kathy Vyenielo, a counselor at Ridgway, a continuation high school in Santa Rosa.

Eisiminger's death also has sparked campus-wide discussions on a number of sensitive issues and concerns, among them the "choking game," which some members of Eisiminger's family, including her mother, blame for her death.

Eisiminger died after she went into a workshop Saturday afternoon and climbed into a detached pickup bed suspended in the air by chains. There she looped an electrical cord through the chains and around her neck.

Kari Solem, her mother, said she believes her daughter's intent was to fall backward out of the loop after passing out. She said her daughter instead fell forward on her knees and suffocated. Solem found her and dialed 911.

Solem said she picked her daughter up from a party at about 1:30 a.m. Friday and the teen finally went to sleep about two hours later. After waking up Saturday morning, Eisiminger told her mother that she'd argued with her boyfriend.

If Eisiminger was upset by that, she didn't reveal it when she phoned a friend at about 1:30 p.m. Saturday to see if he needed a ride to a birthday party that night.

"She seemed happy and excited," said Chance Thorson, 16, who attends Maria Carrillo High School and met Eisiminger at a Christian bible camp.

Faith was important to Eisiminger, who came from blue-collar roots -- her mother owns three auto body shops -- but had aspirations to see her name in lights.

"Tess could play an instrument like an angel or she could weld on her father's destruction derby car," said her grandmother, Shirley Byrd-Solem.

The choking game has many names, among them Space Monkey, Flatliner, Airplaning and Gasp, and its popularity is fueled in part by the Internet.

Kids get a head-rush or high by cutting off the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain, then releasing the pressure to let the supply back in.

"It gives you a kind of drug-induced euphoria without the drugs," said Dr. Joseph Hageman, an Evanston, Ill., pediatrician and author of a paper on the activity.

He said the game typically involves one person choking another as they pass out. It is even more dangerous when done alone, using belts, ropes or other objects.

Adam Buxbaum, an 18-year-old Santa Rosa Junior College freshman, said he played the game once when he was a student at Analy High School. He said he fainted for about 10 seconds.

"I don't remember passing out, but I remember waking up," he said. "I was dizzy like from dehydration or something."

He said he regrets doing it.

"It's absolutely a stupid thing," he said. "There are plenty of ways to get an adrenaline rush without damaging your body."

The choking game differs from autoerotic asphyxiation, in which a person uses choking to enhance pleasure while masturbating. People who do that tend to be older than choking game participants, who typically are 9 to 16, Hageman said.

It may be impossible to say how many teens play the game. Nationwide, medical and forensic experts estimate 250 to 1,000 people die each year from some variant of the activity.

Greg Jacobs, chairman of Sonoma County's Child Death Review Team and a former county prosecutor, said he'd never heard of the choking game until this week.

"I'm sure we're going to look into it, and I would hope that other involved entities in the county that deal with kids and with suicide prevention take a look at this," he said.

Whether the choking game explains Eisiminger's death may never be known. Sheriff's investigators said the evidence points more to the deliberate act of suicide.

"The difference between a suicide and if she had died accidentally in something like a choking game is her intent, and frankly, we'll never know her intent," Sheriff's Lt. Rob Giordano said.

School counselors and health officials report many teens have come to them this week with concerns about depression and suicide.

Eisiminger apparently had similar issues her freshman year at Santa Rosa High, where she was enrolled in the ArtQuest Program.

By rd-Solem said Eisiminger's mother, school counselors and police were notified after the teen confided to another student that she felt "weary" and that she would use pills if she ever decided to take her own life.

"They interviewed her and it was determined that she wasn't suicidal, so it was a big hullabaloo thing," her grandmother said.

Vicki Carpenter, Eisiminger's drama teacher, said the teen sought peer counseling on several occasions and had "absences for some rather extended periods."

But Carpenter, who called Eisiminger a talented playwright and actress, said she can't say whether the teen was depressed.

"I don't know," Carpenter said. "What we do know is that we miss her immensely."

Crisis teams that included bereavement workers and police chaplains were sent to several campuses in Sonoma County this week, including Santa Rosa High, Sonoma Academy, Piner High and Casa Grande High.

Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Santa Rosa also was affected.

"Our crisis services are super busy, and it's pretty clear it's in response to this death," said Amy Schaffer, division chief of Child and Family Psychiatric Services at Kaiser.

Schaffer called the days and weeks following a suicide a "high risk" time for other children who may be depressed. She encouraged anyone who is experiencing those feelings to seek help immediately.

Eisiminger's grandmother endorsed that idea.

"These kids don't need to beat themselves up. These kids need to look into their lives and reach out to people who can help them," Byrd-Solem said. "This has brought a community of kids together in a way that's amazing.

"That's a good thing that has come out of Tess's passing."

You can reach Staff Writer Derek J. Moore at 521-5336 or

Please read our commenting policy
  • No profanity, abuse, racism or hate speech
  • No personal attacks on other commenters
  • No spam or off-topic posts
  • Comments including URLs and media may be held for moderation
Send a letter to the editor
*** The system is currently unable to accept new posts (we're working on it) ***

Our Network

Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Emerald Report
Spirited Magazine