(Trigger warning: this post deals with the topic of suicide.)
Maurice Benard has spent nearly 30 years portraying “General Hospital’s” sometimes-fearsome, sometimes-endearing mob boss Sonny Corinthos. But that all nearly came to an end one year ago. In fact, his entire life was in danger.
Benard, a vocal advocate for mental health due to his own struggles with bipolar disorder earlier in life, suddenly found himself the victim of crippling anxiety, despair, and suicidal inclinations during the COVID-19 lockdowns. His state of mind got so bad that he would sometimes walk around the property outside his home looking at tree limbs over which he could throw a rope to hang himself.
Today, the actor has found joy in living again and is committed to spreading the message that hope and healing can be found by anyone enduring a season of darkness. He credits his survival to his willingness to reach out for help, to therapy and medication, and to the love of God and his family.
Maurice joined me recently on “Christopher Closeup” (podcasts below) to discuss his recent experiences, his Christopher Award-winning memoir “Nothing General About It: How Love (and Lithium) Saved Me On and Off General Hospital,” and his Youtube talk show “State of Mind,” which aims to raise awareness about mental health issues and eliminate the stigma around them.
Around the time he started out as an actor at age 21 during the early 1980s, Maurice’s bipolar began manifesting itself to a major degree through mania, hallucinations, and even violent outbursts. He wound up in a psych ward and mental hospital where he endured horrific treatment without anyone being able to learn what was actually wrong with him. “I was like Jack Nicholson in ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest,'” he said, “because I looked like the normal one, but I was messed up. But I wasn’t that messed up.”
One day, while strapped down to a bed, Maurice managed to get his hands free and break off a latch. His hopelessness led him to hold the latch over his wrist, as if to slit it, in order to kill himself and escape his mental anguish.
Maurice recalled, “Then I just started praying, and I felt God, strongly. So I took the latch, broken in half, made it into a cross, and put it by my bed. And I knew in that moment, with so much pain, that there was a reason that I was going through this. And I know now with all the mental health [advocacy] that I’ve done, that that’s the reason.”
For Maurice, there has always been a spiritual dimension to his struggles. He said, “I believe that when you’re going through a nervous breakdown, it’s God and the devil fighting each other. That’s my interpretation…But God usually comes through. All the time for me.”
A diagnosis of bipolar disorder, which involves a series of chemical imbalances in the brain, finally came. Through therapy and the drug lithium, Maurice was able to pursue the life and career he dreamed of – at least until he got cocky and stopped taking his lithium. That led to another nervous breakdown during the earliest days of his job on “General Hospital.” Producers, crew, and his colleagues were all supportive, though, and eventually Maurice got back on lithium and was able to function again. He also began speaking publicly about his mental health struggles, including during a memorable interview on “Oprah,” to encourage others to get help. In recent years, he has been doing that via his social media.
One of the reasons Maurice’s testimonies have been so effective is because he has a tough image, both as his character and in real life. And when a tough guy can admit vulnerability, that carries a lot of weight.
He observed, “You can’t just be tough. There’s nothing interesting in that. You’ve got to have all sides to the coin. As far as Sonny, the character I play, [the audience doesn’t just] like Sonny because he’s tough. It’s the other thing when he has that vulnerability and he’s emotional and he cries. You can like somebody because they’re tough, but you fall in love with them when they break your heart. And in life, men … I was taught not to cry. It’s not macho. I’m Spanish and you [have] machismo and things like that. But the reality is that crying is healing. And I think because I didn’t cry for so long, that when I had my first breakdown, all I did in the hospital is cry. It was like 20 years of holding it in…If you would allow yourself to cry throughout, then you wouldn’t be in the hospital crying…To everybody, men especially, I don’t hold back tears now, man. I don’t care. I cry all the time. It’s the best.”
Life was going well for Maurice during the early days of 2020. He was preparing for his memoir “Nothing General About It” to be released and go on a book tour. His storyline on “General Hospital,” having to do with Sonny dealing with his father Mike’s (Max Gail) Alzheimer’s, received critical and public acclaim. And he was simply enjoying his time with his wife Paula and their kids.
Then came COVID. The book tour got cancelled, “General Hospital” was shut down for months, and, in a case of art imitating life, Maurice learned that his father had Alzheimer’s, just like his TV dad. “It was the end of the world – in my head,” recalled Maurice. “It hit me so hard. That anxiety was horrific.”
Though he had occasional anxious times in his life, he was always able to push through on his own – and he thought he could do the same this time. But he lost the ability to sleep because his mind was racing constantly with nothing but negative thoughts. Maurice described what he endured as “pain,” but realizes that word is insufficient, especially to those who have never experienced mental illness and can’t grasp the depth of the problem. He explained, “It’s beyond pain. I believe that your thoughts, they’re running so rampant, that it controls your whole body. And it’s so ugly…You can’t stop your thoughts, and your thoughts are all negative.”
Maurice reached the point where he didn’t want his family to leave him alone because he feared the choice he might make. “I’d go and run outside, and I’d be crying and crying and crying,” he said. “And I just said, there’s no way I can get through this. And then I’d see this tree…I was looking at a tree to figure out how to put a rope around it…But somehow, this is where I think God comes in, He puts a hand on your shoulder and He says, ‘It’s all right, just keep [going].'”
In Maurice’s case, God made Himself present through the actor’s family, especially his wife Paula, who he says has saved his life many times, and his son Joshua. Maurice recalled, “I was in the car with my son, and I was crying and I said, ‘Buddy, I don’t think I can go on any longer.’ And he goes, ‘What, Dad?’ I said, ‘I don’t think I can.’ Then he says, ‘Dad, I’ll take care of you.’ And he did. And my other kids were great, too.”
Maurice struggled through this anxiety and depression for four months before asking for help from a psychiatrist. He can’t exactly say why he waited so long to reach out, other than hoping the problem would go away by itself. The doctor put him on a drug called Lexapro, which can make you feel worse for the first five days, but then starts improving your mental state.
In retrospect, Maurice wishes he had asked for professional help sooner, realizing that because he was that far gone, he needed medication. “General Hospital” started shooting again just as the Lexapro was working, so Maurice was able to return to work and went on to win his third Daytime Emmy Award for the Alzheimer’s storyline. “I’m not going to say [I was at] the worst of my life, but maybe the second worst,” he noted. “And then you go and do your job, and at the end win an award. What a difference a year makes, man.”
Beyond that, Maurice is also experiencing a renewed sense of joy in his life, saying, “What brings me joy is that I’m free of that darkness. I don’t have it in me. If we had this interview a year ago, I would be a totally different person. Now…I’m just in the moment. And the beauty is, I have so much joy because I know that other feeling, [the darkness], because it just happened, in a sense. And I see the huge difference…It’s like heaven.”
Maurice believes that one good thing to come out of the pandemic is that it forced society to talk about mental illness more openly because so many people were experiencing differing levels of anxiety, depression, and isolation. And having endured his own time of darkness, Maurice now finds himself with a renewed commitment to bringing light to people enduring mental health problems.
His biggest effort on this front comes through his Youtube talk show “MB State of Mind,” on which he interviews fellow actors and others about their lives, careers, and the struggles they’ve faced . For instance, actor and TV host Cameron Mathison discussed his cancer surgery, “Days of Our Lives” Billy Flynn revealed the steps he took to be in recovery from his addictions, “General Hospital’s” Kin Shriner talked about the death of his parents at age 16, and boxer Mia St. John opened up about the suicide of her son and ex-husband.
Though Maurice is primarily known as an actor, he brings a natural curiosity, as well as compassion and understanding, to his role as interviewer, allowing his guests to be comfortable discussing such personal stories. And though the show gets into some deep topics, his goal in the future is to go even deeper with his guests and with himself.
Ultimately, Maurice hopes that people who read “Nothing General About It” and watch “State of Mind” feel less alone. He adds, “I’ve gotten help in the past for my nervous breakdowns, but if you’re having anxiety or depression and you’re at that point, look, first of all, I would say, try to get through it yourself. But if you feel it’s this bad, call somebody: NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), Didi Hirsch, there’s so many that I work with, Mental Health of America, and they’ll set you up somehow. There’s no need to do what I did for four months. Get help now…I know I look strong and I’m tough, but there is a fragile side to me that’s unbearable. So if I can do it, anybody can do it.”
(To listen to my full interview with Maurice Benard, in which we cover even more ground, click on the podcast links):