When you think of whippits — aka nitrous oxide, the clear odorless gas that, when inhaled, induces a brief, dizzying headrush, punctuated by a “wah wah wah” echo and a fit of the giggles — you might picture a bored teen standing in front of the fridge, head tilted back, sucking on an empty can of Reddi-wip. Maybe you see festival kids inhaling balloons filled with hippie crack at Bonnaroo, staggering around in the dirt during a Widespread Panic show; crazy-eyed Dennis Hopper removing his face mask and hollering, “Baby wants to fuck!” in Blue Velvet, or Steve Martin, yanking teeth and singing about being a natural sadist in Little Shop of Horrors; or a hazy memory of getting loopy in the dentist chair, pre-wisdom teeth removal.
You probably wouldn’t ever dream of finding yourself, somehow, through a friend of a friend of a friend, inside an embarrassingly opulent Manhattan apartment on Halloween night, with fake cobwebs strewn across floor-to-ceiling fine-art canvases; at the kind of party where the bartender and DJ are both hired, and — record scratch — a group of doctors you’ve never met are taking pulls from a stainless steel whipped cream dispenser, passing each other little blue canisters of nitrous oxide like candy.
Although widely available, with canisters of the stuff sold for 50 cents at every headshop or bodega, you don’t hear much about nitrous oxide’s use as a recreational drug, because when used moderately, it isn’t particularly habit-forming or life-threatening, and there are plenty of other drugs that are way more fun and way more potent. You certainly wouldn’t imagine affluent doctors bothering with the stuff, when they could be spending their time and money on good coke or Molly.
And yet, the gas appeals to some medical professionals because it’s short-acting, easily accessible and undetectable on drug tests — despite the fact that, when misused, it can pose significant health risks and risk of dependency.
When you look into it, doctors and chemists have been getting fucked up on nitrous oxide since the late 18th century, decades before anybody thought to use it as an anesthetic or analgesic in dental and medical procedures. English chemist Joseph Priestley, who also discovered oxygen and seltzer, is credited with discovering nitrous oxide in 1772. A couple decades later, chemist Humphry Davy got hooked on it while working at the Pneumatic Institute in Bristol, where he and his pals, including Romantic poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey, would inhale it inside of a gas chamber. In his book, Researches, Chemical and Philosophical, Davy wrote about nitrous’ euphoric effects, coining the term “laughing gas,” and lectured on it at the Royal Institution, where he would offer the gas to attending physicians and scientists. “Laughing gas parties” became all the rage among the British upper class, and traveling nitrous oxide exhibitions became a popular form of public entertainment.
Fast forward to 1844, Horace Wells, the dentist who pioneered nitrous oxide’s use as a medical anesthesia, got the idea to do so while watching one such show in Hartford, Connecticut, hosted by Gardner Quincy Colton, a medical school dropout who toured the country demonstrating the drug’s effects. When an audience member volunteered to inhale the gas and then hurt his leg while staggering off stage, Wells noticed that he had a delayed reaction to the injury, and surmised that the nitrous oxide might have pain relieving effects. Wells asked Colton to administer nitrous oxide to him the next day while a colleague removed his tooth, and endured the procedure without pain.
Back in present day, Scott, a psychiatrist who asked to only use his first name, spent years unwinding after a long day seeing patients by retreating to his couch and inhaling nitrous oxide, alone, for hours. He’d fill a whipped-cream dispenser with up to 300 canisters in an evening, running him around $200 per day. He admits he could have written himself a script, or invested in a nitrous tank, but he didn’t want to get caught, and figured by using canisters, his habit would go under the radar.
For Scott, inhaling nitrous nightly provided “stress relief” and a “sense of euphoria” during a busy time in his career as an addiction-medicine specialist. He says he became dependent on the gas, experiencing strong psychological cravings for it during the day, and then rushing home to use. “I’d use for hours and hours, go unconscious and then I’d wake up and go unconscious again,” he says. “I ended up having cervical disc problems because my head was drooped over for so many hours.”
But despite the volume of gas he put down every night, he could recover fairly quickly after each pull. “If I got a call from the hospital, I could be clear-headed within 10 minutes if I needed to talk to a colleague or patient,” he says. He also mentions it was nice to not have to worry about failing a drug test. When Scott sought treatment for his addiction, after about five years of heavy use, he did so at a rehab facility with a program specifically designed for health professionals — first at Hazelden Betty Ford, and then, after relapsing, at the Center for Professional Recovery in Malibu. He’s been sober two years.
Dr. Greg Skipper, the founder of the Center, and a recovering addict himself, believes that rehab programs tailored to professionals give physicians a better shot at recovery. An internal medicine doctor, now board-certified in addiction medicine, Skipper attended Talbott Recovery in Atlanta, the first treatment facility in the country to offer a program specifically designed for addicted physicians. “When a doctor ends up in a regular program, they end up being like a celebrity: everybody wants a prescription or defers to them, even the counseling staff sometimes,” according to Skipper. “It works better when they have a cohort of other adults. It’s shame-reducing when they’re in there with peers, and they don’t feel like the only doctor that’s gotten addicted to whatever. There’s more freedom to talk about their addiction.”
In his work at the Center, Skipper says the majority of patients seeking treatment for nitrous-oxide dependence are dentists. Because nitrous oxide doesn’t show up on drug tests, Skipper says they administer a polygraph to their patients to see if they’re clean and otherwise observe common signs of use: patients will “seem impaired, tired and rundown, depressed, disheveled, confused. If you use it a lot, it leads to you getting pretty sick,” he explains. While there aren’t symptoms of physical withdrawal, as with alcohol or opioids, nitrous oxide is certainly psychologically addictive. “One guy didn’t want to throw away whippits, so he was storing the canisters in his bathroom. Stacking them up, floor to ceiling, thousands of them,” he recalls about a former patient.
For Dennis, a practicing dentist in Manhattan and former nitrous-oxide addict himself, the fact that the drug was readily available to him in his office and that he could use it somewhat secretly proved a potent combination. “You have stressful days and it’s in reach,” he says. “I’m not driving a car. No calories, no smell on the breath. No one’s gonna know.” He recalls a colleague who used to “drain the lines” at the end of the day, and another, who was found dead in her office on a Monday morning. “I thought I was going to be clever and not be an alcoholic like my dad, but I got just as bad getting off on this stuff,” he says. “For me it was a reward, Miller time, a way to relax at the end of the day, and it became progressively worse.”
Dennis notes that when nitrous oxide is administered to dental patients, it’s mixed with oxygen, but when he inhaled it, he used 100 percent nitrous, which induced a hallucinogenic effect. This puts users at risk of death by hypoxia, or when the brain is deprived of oxygen. It can also lead to nausea and the risk of aspiration — choking on your own vomit. In 2012, post-Ashton Kutcher breakup, Demi Moore went to the hospital with seizure-like symptoms induced from an all-night whippit binge.
Dennis used for about three years, and then got sober attending meetings of the International Doctors in AA, a branch of AA for healthcare professionals and their families. He’s been clean for 36 years, but has experienced residual effects from the drug, like peripheral neuropathy, nerve damage caused by B12 deficiency, which results in numbness and tingling in the extremities, and sometimes loss of motor control. “The availability increases the epidemiological risk for any drug,” Dennis explains. Or put another way: “There’s all kinds of garbage heads in the medical profession.”