Why you should care
Because tripping is about more than being clumsy.
Adam Strauss, Brooklyn, New York
I’m doing a full-time theater run now, so a good part of my days is spent on stuff like talking to you. I also make sure to get some relatively quiet time in each day, since the show is so demanding. I live a couple of blocks from the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, and I go there every day, regardless of weather. Seeing water calms me like nothing else. But when I’m not doing a run, I do stand-up almost every night, so my days then are spent lining up gigs, writing new material. I also produce stand-up shows, which is fairly time-consuming.
Comedy is one of the few good things in my life since my OCD [obsessive-compulsive disorder] progressively took over. My main symptom was decision-making. As soon as I’d make a decision, even a trivial one like what to wear or which side of the street to walk on, I’d be flooded with obsessive thoughts that I’d made the wrong choice, and I’d feel an overwhelming compulsion to reverse my choice. But when I gave into that compulsion, I’d realize that I had had it right the first time. So I’d change back, and the process would repeat endlessly to the point that I was spending days on end holed up in my apartment, trapped in this cycle.
I try to capture the wonder and terror of the basic fact of our existence, which is that we have no idea what’s going on, ever.
When you’re performing, there’s not much room for OCD, or anything else. But the rest of my life was falling apart. Then I stumbled across a scientific study of psilocybin for [the treatment of] OCD. I had no real experience with psychedelics, but I figured I had nothing to lose. Soon after, I happened to meet a psychologist whom I later learned had seemingly cured her suicidal depression with psychedelic cactus. We became romantically involved, and she sort of took me on as her unofficial research subject.
It was a very bumpy path, trying to treat my OCD with psychedelics, largely because I became, well, obsessed with my quest. Sometimes I took very large doses in less-than-optimal conditions, which predictably led to some terrifying trips and, in one case, an ambulance ride to the ER. Ultimately, though, psychedelics helped my OCD a lot, but not quite in the way I had imagined.
I think it’s important to note that originally, psychedelics were seen primarily as therapeutic. This applies to traditional shamanic use throughout the world, where psychedelics like ayahuasca and mushrooms have been used — probably for millennia — to treat all sorts of physical, psychological and spiritual ills. It also applies to Western medicine, where LSD in particular was being hailed as a wonder in the ’50s and ’60s.
Then, as the use of LSD exploded, it began to be seen as a dire threat by law enforcement and government, despite the fact that there was basically no evidence for the supposed harms — no LSD crime spike, no widespread negative psychological consequences — which led to the national and international ban on all major psychedelics in 1970.
Now we’re in what some people call the “Psychedelic Renaissance,” a new era of legal psychedelic research that’s really taken off over the past decade. A big part of this is because of the incredible success of the marijuana legalization movement. Another part is the recognition that putting stuff like mushrooms and marijuana in the same legal category as heroin — which is where they still are, by the way — just doesn’t reflect an accurate view of the relative benefits and harms of these different substances.
I think the other big factor is a growing recognition that psychiatric medications simply are not effective for many people with depression, OCD or other conditions, so there’s more openness to exploring other approaches.
I very rarely use psychedelics now. The last time was from mid-February to early March 2017, with ayahuasca in Peru, where it’s legal. But my breakthrough experience that led to my recovery took place about a year into my psychedelic career. So if someone wants to support the psychedelic revolution today, it’s not about tuning in and dropping out. It’s about supporting research by donating to groups like the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, Heffter Research Institute or the Beckley Foundation.
But now I have an abiding obsession with particle physics, particularly the idea that it’s largely bullshit: theoretical mathematical constructs without underlying empirical data. I mean, a few decades ago, physicists realized that all of reality can be mathematically described as the vibrations of infinitesimally small strings. This was, and still is, considered a massive breakthrough, even though no direct evidence of these strings has ever been detected.
Then it was determined that there aren’t enough different ways for these invisible strings to vibrate to give rise to everything in the observable universe. I think most people would view this as an indication that “string theory” is wrong, or incomplete. But string theory is the gospel in nearly all university physics departments, to the point that grad students who question this orthodoxy generally can’t get jobs. So it starts to look very much like a religion — a belief that there’s an omnipotent deity, or that there are tiny strings and seven hidden dimensions of reality — that is accepted because it explains what we can observe rather than because there’s empirical evidence backing it up.
I think particle physics has done a grave disservice to the quest for fundamental knowledge about reality and our place in it. I have a show, “The Uncertainty Principle,” that explores this. [Strauss also has a one-man show about his experience trying to treat his OCD with psychedelics, “The Mushroom Cure.”]
But it’s always hard categorizing my comedy. I’d say I try to capture the wonder and terror of the basic fact of our existence, which is that we have no idea what’s going on, ever. That is the ultimate cosmic joke: We have free will and can do essentially anything, but the results of our actions are always unknowable.