The three-time Daytime Emmy winner opens up about the moment he contemplated ending his life
General Hospital’s Maurice Benard is a superstar in the soap opera world, but for millions living with bipolar disorder, he is a teacher, a sympathetic ear, a firm shoulder and a symbol of survival.
In less than two months, two of Benard’s costars on the ABC soap, who also had the mental health condition — which according to the Mayo Clinic is characterized by extreme mood swings including depression and periods of mania — died at young ages.
Billy Miller, who played Jason Morgan and Drew Cain, died by suicide at age 43 in September, and more recently, Tyler Christopher — who won an Emmy for his portrayal of Nikolas Cassadine — died after a cardiac episode a week shy of his 51st birthday on Oct. 31.
A three-time Daytime Emmy winner for his portrayal of mobster Sonny Corinthos, Benard, 60, was 22 when he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1985. At that time it was referred to as manic depression, and the disorder was not as understood — or as openly discussed — as it is today.
“For about a two week period, I was just acting strange,” he tells PEOPLE, explaining that his behavior at the time included becoming violent with his mother, which had never happened before. That’s when his mother called the police on him. But upon their arrival, Benard says he was acting perfectly normally.
"My dad's crying; my mom's crying, but the cops couldn’t do anything because I became normal,” he recalls. “And then the next morning, they took me to the mental institute.”
While in the county hospital for four or five days, Benard says he began acting like the little girl, Regan, in The Exorcist, spitting on his brother, his father and large male nurses at the facility.
“It was just really scary in there,” he explains. “I was tied down from my wrist, my waist and my ankles. And all I wanted to do was escape the whole time I was there. ‘Get me outta here! Get me outta here! Get me out!’ They didn't know what I had for about a month, maybe two months.”
Benard went on to meet his wife, Paula, shortly afterward and they married in 1990. She got a look at his struggle with the disorder from the very beginning but has never wavered in her love, support and loyalty.
There was even a time when Maurice threatened to kill her, but, she said in her husband's podcast, State of Mind, that the man she saw in that moment, “It wasn’t Maurice. He was sick.”
When asked if it was difficult for her along the way and if she ever thought “I didn’t sign up for this,” she said simply, “It’s no different than living with anyone with any other problem that they have. ...I mean, yes, it’s difficult, you know, but I don’t think twice about it. I just do whatever we have to do to manage it. ... And when times are hard, then we dig deeper and figure out what we need to do.”
Although he has had both ups and downs managing the condition for the last 40 years, during the pandemic, he says he hit a low that had him thinking about ending his life.
“I thought about it every day,” he admits. When lockdown was ordered, Benard’s parents were living with them, GH was shut down for four months, and his book tour across the country for his memoir Nothing General About It: How Love (and Lithium) Saved Me On and Off General Hospital was put on hold.
He explains that while at the time what he would say out loud was, “Okay,” what was going on in his head was very different. “I 'got it' but thought in my mind, ‘It’s the end of the world, too.’ ”
“I felt a real cold rush in me. And then that night I was shaking like a fish out of water and crying like a baby. This had never happened in my life. Paula's on the bed and I'm like, ‘Baby, I'm done. What's going on with me?’ In a calm voice, she says, ‘Honey, you're fine. You're gonna be fine.’ And I'm like, ‘What the f--- what do you mean. I'm gonna be fine?' I was stuck in this horrific panic that wouldn’t leave,“ he continues.
Benard then started a podcast called State of Mind, talking with fellow actors about every aspect of mental health. That release did help, he says. A lot. And it still does. But something still felt off. His book tour became one Zoom interview after another rather than travelling the country.
He reveals that he’d be talking with Dr. Oz or Dr. Drew or Charlemagne, the God on Zoom, “And what I really wanted to say was, ‘I'm gonna die. Can somebody please save me?’ “
"It wouldn't go away. And it was bad,” Benard says, confessing that he would look at the tree in front of his house and think about taking his own life.
“I was just figuring it out because I didn't want to use a gun because it's messy and ugly. That's what I thought about every day — the tree. And, I just did everything that I possibly could to survive.”
He says he would spend time with the menagerie of animals at his home south of Los Angeles, including several goats, because many times that would help. But this time, it wasn’t making a difference.
“I ran to my house, and as I walked in, I said, ‘God, you gotta help me now because I can't do it anymore.’ And I remember thinking of my family. And then I remember thinking, ‘If I did [kill myself], then it would give everybody who watches State of Mind the green light to do it too.' ” And that stopped him from making that fatal choice.
“Somebody asked me why I think I have bipolar disorder, and I said, ‘I always believed that God wanted me to suffer so I can prevent other people from suffering,’ “ Benard says.
“That's the key to me, opening up to you right now as deep as I can. Because I know other people are listening.”
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988, text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741741 or go to 988lifeline.org.
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