With its multiplicity of rituals and its insistence on punctilious observance, Judaism is often jokingly referred to as a religion for obsessive-compulsives. Now comes Adam Strauss’ one-man show, “Varieties of Religious Experience,” which details the Jewish stand-up comedian’s struggles with real OCD, his last-ditch effort to cure it with psychedelic mushrooms, and his ultimate discovery of spiritual enlightenment.
When the show ran last summer at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Kate Copstick of The Scotsman called it “storytelling of the highest order … fascinating, gripping, personal stuff.” It runs this weekend at the Frigid Festival in the East Village.
Directed by the playwright, “Varieties of Religious Experience,” the title of which is borrowed from the classic philosophical text by William James, traces Strauss’ struggles with a case of OCD that made the most basic decisions, such as what shirt to put on in the morning, or what bagel to eat for breakfast, feel freighted with the potential for catastrophe if he chose incorrectly.
Strauss, who grew up in a Reform Jewish family in the Boston suburb of Newton, told The Jewish Week that even as a boy he was “filled with longing, seeking the answer to a question that I didn’t even know.” His Bible, so to speak, was the Sharper Image Catalog, where a glow in the dark snorkeling set or a short wave radio held out the promise of “fulfilling or completing” his existence. Beginning in junior high school, he started lifting weights, then turned to music, and then to Zen Buddhism as each failed to bring him the perfection that he sought.
When, in his late 20s, he was finally diagnosed with OCD, Strauss tried medication, yoga, psychotherapy and acupuncture — none of which had any effect on his debilitating condition. Only when he met a clinical psychologist who claimed to have cured her own depression through the use of hallucinogenic drugs, did he discover that psilocybin, the active ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms, could also help to tame his OCD and set him on a healthier path.
OCD is the fourth most common psychiatric disorder in the U.S. — less common than only than phobias, depression and alcoholism. Like depression, it has been shown in many recent studies to respond to psilocybin, although the use of illegal drugs to treat any illness, physical or mental, remains highly controversial.
But Strauss says that the magic mushrooms were helpful in that they “opened me up to a willingness to bow to a greater force,” and ultimately to enter a 12-step program for OCD sufferers. And while he still describes himself as a secular Jew, Strauss concedes that the way that things have worked out for him “itself inspires wonder … and for me wonder is really the soil from which whatever faith I do have grows.”
With his OCD now mostly under control, Strauss said that one form of compulsion still remains alive for him. “I feel compelled to share this story,” he said, “and incredibly gratified to perform it.”