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Nitrous Nation: A Party Drug Endures

Mr. Hsieh was a regular attendee of Burning Man, the Nevada festival popular in recent years among the tech elite. It is one of the most prominent events seeking to capture the hippie zeitgeist in recent decades, and nitrous is popular there.

Burning Man forums are full of tips for users, encouraging them to recycle their canisters and avoid throwing them into fires lest they explode. A nitrous oxide supply company called CreamRight even offers Burning Man discounts. In a 2017 essay about Silicon Valley culture published in N+1, the writer Anna Wiener describes a party that “feels like a normal event in the Burning Man off-season —whippets, face paint, high-design vaporizers.”

Ishaan Chugh, 30, was introduced to nitrous oxide at a Silicon Valley party. The year was 2013, and the tech world get-togethers he attended often featured the substance. A friend first showed him how to do whippets using a whipping cream dispenser.

“It’s a quick high, 15 seconds, you get a buzz and you feel very lifted and positive,” said Mr. Chugh, who was trying to get a tech start-up going at the time. “Versus feeling miserable, which is what you feel when you run a company which is not doing too well.”

A casual whippets habit turned into three years of heavy use of a powerful anaesthetic.

Mr. Chugh thinks the tech world’s utopian ethos makes people susceptible to this drug because it seems to expand the mind. “Lots of Silicon Valley folks are very cerebral in nature,” he said. “Nitrous, in the early days, produces some kind of insight, or the illusion of insight into consciousness.”

Ultimately, though, it leads to delusional belief that the drug “is actually good for you, and that you found something wondrous that the rest of the world doesn’t know about.”

Only after losing his company — and damaging many relationships — did Mr. Chugh seek treatment. He moved back home with his parents in India. “A lot of things that I valued in life were all gone forever,” he said. “That’s when you will realize that no matter how alluring that thing may be, you just got sucked into something really monstrous.”

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