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I heard about them, as many did, in middle school. Whippits: little canisters of nitrous gas that you could... well—there was a proper use for them, which was to charge a can of whipped cream. But the kids in my school weren't interested in using them the proper way. Instead, they'd empty the gas from the tiny canister into a balloon, then inhale that balloon for the unique physical effects it promised: lightheadedness, euphoria, a warm tingly feeling, a palpable physical undulation, being "happy drunk."
Many of my classmates talked about these whippits and their experiences with them. Many tried them or said they had. We were at that precious (and potentially dangerous) age where no one wants to be left behind, or feel like they aren't clued in, or risk being perceived as uncool. It was hard to tell how much of this talk was genuine. Either way, there was still the sense that the use of whippits was pretty widespread. I managed to get through school without ever partaking. For the longest time, in fact, I thought people getting high off whippits meant they were sucking on plastic tubs of Cool Whip by cracking the lid a little, letting gas escape.
But eventually, I learned. I started going into the head shops around my hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan, to explore their world of barely legal wares, and I'd see boxes full of little metal canisters for sale right next to the cash register and people buying them with a few balloons, which were in a fishbowl on the counter. I also started to hear about some of the health risks the contents of these little shiny metal gas containers posed—that you could black out on them due to a lack of oxygen, or freeze your vocal cords, or feel nauseous to the point of puking. I heard quite a bit about how inhaling the gas killed brain cells, but people often debated how dangerous it actually was since it was discovered nearly 240 years ago.
None of the apparent risks kept my friends away, though, and at one legendary party in particular, a group of them obtained a tank full of nitrous, supposedly from a dentist's office. They sucked on the thing until it was empty, and everyone there managed to escape the experience without inhaling themselves into a permanent state of brain damage. So, years later, finding myself bored on tour, and after trying harder drugs that changed me in profound and positive ways, I decided to finally huff some nitrous oxide to see what it was all about.
I was in Austin, Texas, and there was a head shop near the hotel I was staying at. I bought a box (thankfully, America wasn't facing a shortage then) and a black "whipping cream" canister. The store helpfully walked me through the process after I admitted it'd be my first time (it's true what they say about Southern hospitality!). Before I took that first hit, I thought of the brain cells I might kill and remember thinking about the often-stated theory that we only use a small percentage of our brains. Maybe all the damage I'd do would be to the 90 percent or so of my brain that I don't use anyway! I inhaled.
"It would require a pen, made of a quill, plucked from an angel's wing, to describe half the pleasures arising from this source."
It was such a short high. So short I found there was no room for much reflection or exploration. It was very physical but not cerebral or emotional. I felt brief twinges of happy giddiness wash over my body, but it wasn't accompanied by any insights or new perspectives; it didn't stir my imagination or knock any creativity loose from my brain like past drug experiences. I wasn't floating on a cloud for the 30 seconds it lasted, as some had suggested I would. It left me feeling a tad empty, hollow. I appreciated the sensation, but I wasn't left with much except an instant desire to do it again, which I did. Over and over until the box was nearly empty. It was easy to recognize how someone could just keep going deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole with this stuff, and that held little appeal.
The pure physicality of the effects reminded me of another head shop classic, amyl nitrate. Or low-dose edible marijuana. I felt it deep in the body. But it failed to alter my thoughts in a unique or novel way. Nitrous was almost like amyl nitrate in reverse. With the former, there is a very light and floating lift, and with the latter, there is an incredibly heavy heart-pounding weight, like a slow feel-good headache.
In all, my experience with whippits was frustrating, interesting, and boring all at once. It was also short lived. After that day in an Austin hotel, I've felt no need to revisit them.
In the anthology Oh Excellent Air Bag: Under the Influence of Nitrous Oxide 1799–1920, poets, scientists, and philosophers eloquently describe their experiences with huffing nitrous oxide or "laughing gas." They make it sound incredibly appealing. "I felt like the sound of a harp," writes one, beautifully stating what I'd heard a few times about the whomp-whomp-whomp-whomp waves of blissful feeling and sound friends past had described washing over them. Another writes, "It would require a pen, made of a quill, plucked from an angel's wing, to describe half the pleasures arising from this source."
This was not my experience. Similarly, others I've spoken to haven't had the same experiences I've had on drugs I've used to revelatory effect in the past. Dabbling in this kind of stuff is not without risk. It can offer extraordinary highs and devastating lows. Whether the experience is worth the gamble is an extremely personal decision. My days experimenting with these kinds of things are largely behind me. As I've grown older, wiser, I've come to find life is its own gas.
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