Maurice Benard has spent 28 years portraying General Hospital's sometimes-fearsome, sometimes- endearing mob boss Sonny Corinthos. But that nearly came to an end one year ago. Benard, an advocate for mental health due to his struggles with bipolar disorder earlier in life, suddenly found himself experiencing crippling despair and suicidal inclinations during the COVID-19 lockdowns. His state of mind got so bad that he would 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 on Christopher Closeup to discuss his experiences and his Christopher Award-winning memoir Nothing General About It: How Love (and Lithium) Saved Me On and Off General Hospital.
When he started out as an actor during the early 1980s, Maurice's bipolar manifested itself through mania, hallucinations, and 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. 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 and kill himself. 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. I knew in that moment, with so much pain, that there was a reason that I was going through this. I know now, with all the mental health [advocacy] that I've done, that that's the reason."
A diagnosis of bipolar disorder, which involves 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 his earliest days on General Hospital. Producers and colleagues were all supportive, though, and Maurice got back on lithium and was able to function again. He began speaking publicly about his mental health struggles to encourage others to get help.
Maurice's testimonies have been effective because he has a tough image. And when a tough guy can admit vulnerability, that carries a lot of weight. He observed, "As far as the character I play, [the audience doesn't just] like Sonny because he's tough. . . . He has vulnerability, 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. But the reality is that crying is healing. 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. . . . 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."
Maurice thought the worst of his mental health struggles were behind him, but 2020 proved him wrong. That part of his story next time.
This essay is a recent "Light One Candle" column written by Tony
Rossi, Director of Communications, The Christophers; it is one of a
series of weekly columns that deal with a variety of topics and current