Neither, precisely, did he. Then last year he discovered that, like some 6 million other Americans, he suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder. According to Dr. Eric Hollander, an associate professor of psychiatry at New York City's Mount Sinai School of Medicine who began treating Summers last August, OCD is an anxiety disorder that manifests itself in "an impulsive need for perfection, orderliness and cleanliness and the need to check things over and over." Though it can be triggered by trauma, a person must have a genetic disposition." OCD affects functioning at home and work," says Hollander. "It becomes time-consuming and puts people in a lot of distress. "Indeed, Summers, who left Double Dare in 1984 when the schedule became too demanding, admits he made his wife, Alice, 44, a homemaker, "nuts over the years." The couple live in Calabassus, Calif, with son Matthew, 16, and daughter Meredith, 13—"normal neat freaks," he says, "who often laugh at me."
Since identifying his affliction, Summers has been developing a talk game show with DreamWorks. He takes an anti-obsessional medication to stabilize his level of serotonin, the brain chemical that stimulates obsessive thoughts, and his symptoms, he says, are diminishing. Summers discussed OCD with correspondent John Hannah.
I WAS NEVER THE KIND OF KID WHO would go on Double Dare. From the time I was 8 until I was 10 I felt the need to clean my room at home in Indianapolis every Sunday and would spend four to five hours at it. I would take every book out of the bookcase, dust and put it back. At the time I loved doing it. Then I didn't want to do it anymore, but I couldn't stop. The clothes in my closet hung exactly two fingers apart. My father was that way, and I felt I was emulating him. Nobody in my family disapproved, but my brother and sister weren't that way. They were "normal," but I had to do it. I made a ritual of touching the wall in my bedroom before I went out because something bad would happen if I didn't do it the right way. I had a constant anxiety about it as a kid, and it made me think for the first time that I might be nuts.
I did stand-up comedy in clubs and warm-ups for shows like Star Search and Alice. The fact that I could function is an anomaly to many people with OCD, but I had it under control. All my life I wanted to host a television show, and I finally got the opportunity in October '86. I couldn't believe it was one where kids went backward up a slide covered with chocolate syrup or dived into a vat of whipped cream. My situation was like a bad sitcom. If you wrote it, nobody would believe it. But I was living it. Some days the kids would pick me up and throw me into a vat of unknown liquid. I know that throwing the host into a vat of goo is great TV, and kids say they love to watch it. So for the good of the show and for the good of my career, I did it.
But the hours I would spend in the shower afterward! I would shower at the studio, go back to the hotel and take another half-hour shower. It was the most uncomfortable feeling in the world—a feeling of physical revulsion. They used assorted substances—banana pudding, applesauce, chocolate syrup, sometimes peanut butter.
It wasn't until last year that I heard about obsessive-compulsive disorder. Mariette Hartley was coming on my Lifetime talk show, Biggers and Summers, with Dr. Hollander, and the night before I went over my notes. When I got to the OCD segment, I started shaking. I had no idea this had a name, and I said to myself, "I'm not crazy after all." There were cases of people who wash their hands over and over for eight hours. That isn't what I do, but I do have OCD rituals.
While we were talking, during the taping, I said I believed I had OCD. Afterward, Dr. Hollander told me I would be a good candidate for medication. It took me about a year to surrender to the idea. I'm the kind of guy who doesn't even take aspirin for a headache. I had to reach bottom. I got tired of straightening and cleaning and realized I was wasting so much time. Three months ago I called Dr. Hollander for an appointment and flew from L.A. to New York. Since I've been on medication, it has taken the edge off. He says that after six months I will start to notice even more of a difference.
I still have rituals. I never take my socks off in hotels because I don't want my feet to touch the floor. I take a shower, and when I get out of the shower and dry myself off, the first thing I do is put on socks. Whenever I leave on vacation, the last thing I do is vacuum the entire house. I'm the only person in the world who can vacuum a house and not leave one footprint. I check the stove a couple of times and then lock all the doors, checking every one of them three or four times.
I've driven my wife, Alice, crazy over the years. The first three years we were married, I made her clean house with me every Sunday. We lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Sherman Oaks, Calif., and we would spend eight hours cleaning. Once, at our other house in West Hills, N.J.; we had new wallpaper, and about 15 4-year-olds were coming over for Meredith's birthday. "Please, Alice," I said, "can't we do it someplace else?" She said, "We bought the house; we're going to use the house." We moved all the furniture out of the living room, and I bought butcher paper, figured out the height of the average 4-year-old and taped the paper all across the walls.
When Matthew was in nursery school, his teacher said that he refused to fingerpaint. In all her years of teaching, he was the first kid she had met who wouldn't. I said, "Yes, I have to take responsibility for that." Matthew was the only 5-year-old who could eat an ice-cream cone and not get a drop on him. He's the neatest kid in the world, and it was my sick training. When he was a baby and I fed him, I was always wiping him off.
The teacher gave me an assignment. I had to go to the art store, bring back finger paint and show Matthew it was okay to get his hands dirty. It took every ounce of energy in my body to stick my finger in the finger paint, but I knew I had to do it. I brought it home and said through gritted teeth, "Look, Matthew, this is great." The next week when he went to school, he finger-painted with the other kids. We made a point to let Meredith be a little more free-form. If she ate an ice-cream cone and it dripped on her shirt, so be it.
If there has been one problem between Alice and me, it's that we can't invite people over. I have a living room with beautiful furniture that nobody ever sat on. My goal is to get so strong that I can throw a party in my house for 50 people. My biggest problem still is when people touch the walls. Matthew, for instance, will brush against them with his book bag and I wash the walls. Another bad thing is the fringe on our rugs. We have about nine of them, and the fringe always has to be in straight lines.
A year from now, I'd like to be able to tell you I'm not straightening fringe and don't care about the symmetrical aspects of the bookshelves. I don't feel I can do that right now, but I try. I talk to Dr. Hollander regularly, and he asks me to practice delaying, and I've gone as long as two days before I've had to straighten everything. I'm not cured; but I'm better.