Sex symbol, comedic actress, best-selling author--Jenny McCarthy was a multi-hyphenate before the term came into vogue. From her stint as a Playboy Playmate to hosting MTV’s "Singled Out," to appearing in films like "Scream 3" and the newly released comedy "Witless Protection," McCarthy is an expert at doing anything for a laugh. But her life changed radically when her son Evan was diagnosed with autism just as McCarthy was launching the press tour for her second book, "Baby Laughs: The Naked Truth About the First Year of Mommyhood." While promoting the book nationwide, McCarthy waged a fierce battle at home to pull Evan out of autism, a complex developmental disability affecting one out of 150 children. She chronicles her struggles in her latest book, "Louder Than Words: A Mother's Journey in Healing Autism," and spoke with Beliefnet on dealing with guilt, having faith in recovery, and praying for her son to do "what typical kids do when they're older...go out with his friends and make out with his girlfriend."
Listen to Jenny McCarthy:
What motivated you to write your book? You've never been a shrinking violet. But at the same time, celebrities rarely want to air their problems at home.
When I started to become an author, I always thought to myself, "Is this it? Am I supposed to be just a fun kind of author of mommy and parenting and baby stuff?" And then, when autism hit my life, I realized how perfect the universe is and how really I became an author so I can get moms' attention--so they can listen to my message. It is a book I was destined to write.
There's a line in your book about how people don't realize that celebrities, too, have problems with their kids. Was it difficult to reveal that to everyone?
I've never really been shy of admitting to being vulnerable. But I had to cover it up during the time that my child was first diagnosed because I was going out on press tour for my book "Baby Laughs," to talk about my baby and try to sell a comedy book.
There must be a sort of great relief to be able to talk and be so open now.
To be my authentic self--I don't have to be funny right now. I can just tell my story, and the journey, and share it and help. It's what makes being exhausted okay.
You went through a bad time in the beginning with your son being ill and the doctors not understanding. What propelled you to keep fighting?
Things weren't making sense. I kept asking questions, like, "If he's having seizures, why? And why are they 20 minutes long?" Epileptic seizures are one minute, two minute. Why are [my son's] 20 minutes? Why is the next one going to cardiac arrest? That is not typical. [The doctors] were just giving me the sole label of epilepsy. But there's something else, I kept saying. I was on the quest for unanswered questions.
Parents of autistic children go through such guilt issues. What's the way to get over that?
|Warrior Mother Deals with Guilt|
I called my therapist and said, "I haven't seen you in two-and-a-half years, and I need to know why I'm having anxiety attacks, like full-blown heart palpitations." And she said something that made me think, "Whoa." She said, "You still feel guilty for giving your son autism."
And that's where my guilt was coming from. I fell to the floor, because all along I kept going, "Oh, you know, it's these pediatricians, the government, the vaccines, blah, blah, blah." And really, underneath all of that anger, it's the little mom that went, "I feel responsible. I'm sorry, Evan." I felt guilty, and I had to let it out.
How do you come through moments of despair?
I give myself a break, because it's so overwhelming, so exhausting and trying, and no one gives you a pat on the back. I have to step away sometimes. I say, "I don't want to hear about the autism, diet, detox, therapy." Those are the times where I took a vacation with my girlfriends, or I just stopped for a little bit just because I had to recharge my battery and know that it was okay to not be supermom. And then I'd come back around and go, "Okay, Mom's back."
Would you give that advice to other parents, especially with kids with autism, to deal with the low moments?
|Stepping Away from Autism|
So I begged and begged for babysitters myself. Because you just need that time away. It's so hard. I would tell everyone to make it a priority. Get that rest.
Autism is becoming much more prominently covered by the media. Do you think that people have realized that it's an epidemic? Is enough being done?
|How to Fight Autism|
I'd also like the [American Academy of Pediatrics] to come and take a look at all these kids that are getting better through diet and detox. Because a lot of people don't know about this, or they read about it online, and they don't hear from a doctor. So they think, "Well, do I do that much work? Because I don't know if it'll work, and I don't want to do all that [detoxification and changing of diets] if it's not going to work."
But if it came from their pediatrician, they just might try it. So I'm inviting pediatrics to start looking at a lot of the research that's being done on the kids [who are on gluten-free and casein-free diets and in detox programs] who are getting better. I want alternative medicine to be viewed as real medicine. Why a special diet is [considered] alternative? It’s crazy.
What do you say to a family who just received that devastating diagnosis? Where do they begin?
If you read my book, it's a good start. Second is to get a DAN [Defeat Autism Now] doctor. Then change the diet, go GFCF (gluten-free, casein-free), and sign up for therapies immediately. Go to state-funded, in-home therapy centers. Get speech therapy and whatever else your kid needs. And also let’s not forget to take time out to mourn the loss of what you thought the future would be.
I always say I kept crying and mourning the loss of what I thought Evan's future should have been like. You have to take time and go through those emotions, and that's really important. Otherwise, they're going to pile up and come crashing down.
What do you think the right combination of attack is for dealing with autism?
I think that doing a combination [of biomedical and behavioral/social therapy] is key. This is my motto to the parents. If your child doesn't feel good, he can't absorb the therapies in front of him. The biomedical approach can make [autistic kids] feel good, and I have to tell you, if it wasn't for the biomedical, my kid would not have gotten this far. And my biomedical was not intense like what some other parents do—with chelating and injections. I just did the diet and excluded yeast. You've just got to know your kid and know how far you're willing to go.
What would you say to parents who have tried a biomedical approach, but their child has not responded? Autistic kids don't all make the same progress.
That's a good point. It's the same thing with chemotherapy. It works on some people, and not on others. I do know that changing the diets--getting rid of sugars, wheat and dairy completely, and yeast--will make most kids at least feel better and better.
In terms of getting to a recovery place, each kid is so unique on where they are on the autism spectrum. Keep looking into things. Keep researching and know that you're just doing your best.
In your book you say that your book is about having faith that you can do what you need to do for your child. What is faith for you?
|Trust the Path That You're On|
How much of a role does faith play in dealing with autism on a daily basis? If a family’s inner faith is weak, does that affect their child?
|Why Faith Is Everything|
For me, I put the intention of hope and faith in the possibility of my child's recovery. I kept being pushed along in that direction. It's like a magnet. So, if you don't have faith, if you don’t believe inside that [beating autism] is possible, and then it's impossible to get there.
How important do you think it is to have a support system when raising an autistic child?
Oh, my God. If you're not getting it from your husband--and 80 percent [of mothers of autistic children] don't because they wind up in divorce—then you really have to be verbal with your family members. You have to say, "I need help." It was really hard because my mom lived in Chicago, and my sisters who lived in L.A., worked. I used them as much as I possibly could, but it was never enough.
It's also about reaching out to friends. A lot of us get rid of friends at the diagnosis time, friends who have kids the same age who are typically developing. It's too hard to be around them. It's like, "I don't want to see your freakin' kid talk to me about Barney the dinosaur for two hours when my kid can only say one word.”
It's too hard. But, I must say, those friends [who] are willing to kind of come over and babysit once a month are great. You have to really look for those outside resources.
You have support now through your relationship with Jim Carrey and from your family. How important has that been for you and Evan?
Imperative, because I was the pillar of strength for so long that I could barely hold up the walls. Then I prayed. I prayed really hard for someone to come in my life who I can lean on. And Jim, you know, took that job quite nicely, I must say. So I can just cry. It's true. And I've done it. I'm like, "Let me just lay here and cry on your chest. Thank you very much."
How is your son now? Are you pleased with his progress? What are your hopes for his future now?
I’m really happy with his progress. He's in typical preschool. He's doing great. My hope for his future is nothing but perfection. I hope he comes home with hickies on his neck, like what typical kids do when they're older. I want him to go out with his friends and make out with his girlfriend. So I keep those visions alive in me. And I know that we're going to have speed bumps. Evan still has epilepsy. I still have my own battles to be fought. But I'm not losing faith.
Do you think one person can really make a significant difference to fight autism?
If we look throughout history--not that I'm comparing myself at all--there's always been one to speak out. So sometimes it only takes one, and if it was meant to be for me to take the job and keep preaching the message, so be it. But I love being able to share my pain with other moms, so they can go, "I'm not alone feeling like this."
What's the most important advice you would give to the world at large regarding autism?
|Moms, Take Back Your Power|
What would you want to tell parents who are raising an autistic child?
Don't forget about you. Our world becomes a world of autism, and we would let our hair grow out, and roots grow out, and our armpit hairs get long if we had to--just to put ourselves second. Just remember to put yourself first, even if it's once in a while.