Real Lives: `My hallucinations were addictive'

STEVEN WHITEWELL recalls how, like Etonian Nick Taylor and many a schoolboy before him, he played games that could have cost him his life
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Indy Lifestyle Online
In some of the reports on the death of Eton schoolboy Nicholas Taylor, it has been suggested that he invented the "fainting game" that killed him. The impression given by the coroner was that this was an isolated incident of high jinks gone horribly wrong. Yet when I was at Tonbridge, an all-male public school in Kent, back in the mid-Seventies, getting high by depriving the brain of oxygen was common practice.

What happened at Eton is not new or isolated but a widespread activity among boarding-school - and other - boys that has been going on for years. When I was at school, our favourite experiment was to hyperventilate and, after about five minutes, another boy would lift you up from behind and compress your rib cage. The effect was instant: a warm and tingling sensation followed by a brief period of unconsciousness during which you experienced vivid dreams. We knew what we were doing was potentially dangerous but my reason for playing was that I was chronically homesick. During the fainting spells I usually imagined I was back home in London. These dreams were addictive and I took part in the "game" regularly.

I have spoken to many friends who all attended different boarding schools and they, too, remember experimenting with fainting. (One guy I know exclaimed in an almost competitive tone when he saw the story: "Blimey, we used to do that the whole time at Harrow.")

The techniques varied but the aim was the same. However, none of the people I spoke to used oxygen deprivation in conjunction with masturbation in what is known as "autoerotic hypoxia". "The asphyxia produces an hallucinogenic state," says Dr Liz Wilkinson, "but the sexual compulsion is probably a masochistic combination of self-restriction, humiliation and, possibly, a brush with mortality."

In the Nicholas Taylor case, one of his friends and a witness at the inquest, Boy A, stated that the Eton boys took part in this activity because "It was something different. It made you feel abnormal". This desire for an altered state was a constant theme in my five years (from the age of 13 to 18) at Tonbridge School and many of the group who tried the fainting trick soon progressed to other forms of getting "high".

In my first couple of years at the school, this mainly involved abusing legal substances and over-the-counter drugs. One of our favourite activities was to soak our jacket sleeves in liquid paper thinners, place our mouths over the wet patch and inhale. This made lessons and the hours spent in chapel fly by, but, of course, meant we needed a new jacket every term as the sleeve would be dissolved by the solvent.

Another favourite was to swallow numerous tablets of a decongestant called Do-Dos which we bought at the local chemist and this induced a sensation similar to taking speed.

Later on, I moved on to alcohol, smoking, cannabis and, in my final two years, amphetamines for thrills. I was not alone in this and substance abuse was pretty widespread in the school. Each House had its group that would, at any opportunity, sneak out to the local pubs or secluded spots (favourites of mine included under a railway bridge and in an old Second World War pill box on the bank of the River Medway) to get off our heads on whatever we could lay our hands on. I have always maintained I did this because I was bored and rebellious. But in truth I did it because I wanted to. If I was bored there were plenty of slightly healthier activities - sport, art, societies, etc - on offer to keep me occupied. For me, my seemingly "rebellious" behaviour simply became another way of life.

I, like all other teenage boys, believed I was immortal and that "death by misadventure" or overdose happened to other people. I wasn't bothered by rules and Government health warnings, and to this day I don't believe that you can stop teenagers from experimenting with "fainting games", drugs or drink by threatening to expel them or by punishing them when they are caught.

It would be comforting to think that Nicholas Taylor's death will act as a deterrent to other teenagers who are thinking of experimenting with asphyxia. However, it is more realistic to suppose that once the horror has died down and the media's attention has moved on to some other mortal danger that is facing our children, this "deadly game" will be forgotten. (After all, the death of Leah Betts did little to deter hundreds of thousands of people taking Ecstasy every weekend.)

What is needed is a realistic programme of education in the schools that tells teenagers about the dangers and how, if they are going to try these things, they can minimise the risks. Boys will always be boys - so it is the adults who must change.