Before leaving the house, comedian Adam Strauss would routinely spend hours deciding which shirt to wear. One seemed too nice, one not nice enough, and another didn’t fit quite right. So he bought 11 of the same shirt, thinking that would solve the problem — but after washing there were subtle differences, and he was back to staring at the mirror, arriving late for everything. Just walking down the street was difficult because he was constantly changing his mind about what side was better. Simple decisions, like which kind of bagel to order, weren’t so simple after all.
Strauss tells these stories in his show at The Marsh, The Mushroom Cure, which details his obsessive-compulsive disorder, which became so debilitating that he was willing to do almost anything to get some relief. He had already cycled through therapy, medication, yoga, and hypnosis before deciding to try psychedelic mushrooms.
First, Strauss tried telling stories about his experiments at comedy clubs, quickly realizing they weren’t the right venue. So he applied for an hour-long slot at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where critics called his show “hugely intelligent and incredibly engaging.” Then he took it to New York, where The New York Times said it was “mining a great deal of laughter from disabling pain.”
Strauss was working without a script, trying out different versions, until he finally decided he needed some help. Theater friends recommended director Jonathan Libman, a member of Amy Schumer’s ensemble company. Libman, who went through hours of footage, was brutally honest about what to cut.
Strauss says people come up to him after the show, telling him they have a family member or a friend with OCD — which about two percent of the population has — and that the show helped them understand it. He also gets a lot of people who tell him that although they don’t have OCD, they can relate to the struggle for control that he goes through.
“I find that so gratifying,” he says. “It’s a universal struggle to control our lives and to fix ourselves and make things right. It’s really about accepting suffering and transcending it so it doesn’t totally define and dominate you.”
Strauss was able to do that. He can now put on a shirt, walk down the street and order a bagel without great torment — to say nothing of going onstage and joking about it. He says the mushrooms helped a lot — combined with other treatments.
“The 12-step group and the therapy exposed me to acceptance and surrender, but it’s not intellectual,” he says. “It’s not in my brain, it’s more a physical and spiritual thing to accept the anxiety I had. With psychedelics, I had the actual visceral experience of letting go, which was a key piece.”
Recently, Strauss went to the Psychedelic Science Conference in Oakland and performed stand-up for 500 people. The mood there was giddy and hopeful, he says.
“The data people are getting is just incredible,” he says. “Some people who don’t respond to medication have complete relief with psychedelic therapy. These psychedelic researchers are working with the sickest of the sick — people who can’t leave their houses — and they’re responding.”
Researchers at New York University, John Hopkins, and the University of New Mexico have done studies suggesting that small doses of psychedelics can help with depression and anxiety among cancer patients. They’ve enabled 80 percent of smokers to quit, and show great promise in treating severe depression and PTSD.
Mental illness is the leading cause of disability in United States, Strauss says, and he would like to see much more research into psychedelics as a way to treat it.
“It’s not that everyone should be taking drugs, but for some people who are resistant to treatment, they can increase a sense of connection to the world and others,” he said. “From that comes empathy and the sense that we need to take care of each other, which is something the world could use now — and always.”
The Mushroom Cure, The Marsh, 1062 Valencia St., Wednesdays and Fridays, 8 p.m., Saturdays, 8:30 p.m., through June 3, $20-$100, 415-282-3055 or themarsh.org