Chicken Soup for the Soul Magazine- June 2006
by Mignonne Wright and Amy Lorton
He’s known as a loving husband, incredible father and Emmy-Award winning actor. But at one point in his life, he was simply referred to as Rick Madrid, mental patient.
Actor Maurice Benard, who for more than a decade has played mobster Sonny Corinthos on General Hospital, suffers from bipolar disorder. Over the past nine years, he has openly discussed his mental illness and three nervous breakdowns he experiences as a result.
By speaking out, Maurice has give a voice to more than two million Americans who are living with an illness that causes moods to swing from excessively hight and/or irritable to sad and hopeless, with periods of normal in between.
Maurice talked candidly with Chicken Soup about is personal journey throught the terrifying world of bipolar disorder and the family that has been by his side through it all.
When did you learn that you have bipolar disorder?
I never knew until I was 21. But for me, I think it started when I was younger. I remember acting out as a teenager-getting into fights and feeling this rush after beating some guy, you know. And I was drinking a lot. I was pretty much self- medicating.
When did you suffer your first nervous breakdown?
I was modeling and I was unsuccessful because I was too short. But I lied about my height. It was horrible. From modeling, I got into acting. I met this acting coach. He had me read his play called American Buffalo. Al Pacino had done it on Broadway. As I started reading, I began talking like I was from New York. I had never done anything like that before. He looked at me and said, “Have you ever done any acting?” It was the first time I ever picked up a script.
When I went back to my agent, I walked in and he said, “I just talked to your acting coach. He said, “You’re going to be the next Al Pacino.”
Now at that time, it was probably the worst thing to say to me because I started kind of believing that. It’s interesting because now people can say whatever, and it doesn’t matter. Then, it sure started something in my head. I would be doing monologs all night. I wouldn’t sleep. I wanted to be up with the acting class.
One thing led to another and I started being delusional. A lot of things happened to the point where my mom and dad took me to the hospital.
What was your hospital experience like?
First, let me say I would not have made it without the love and support of my mother and father, my brother and my best friend. It’s hard enough to do it on your own. You need that extra help.
I was doing some crazy stuff at the hospital. They asked me to sign my name, and I wouldn’t do it. Finally, I signed it Rick Madrid, which was what the acting coach gave me as a stage name. That will tell you where I was at that point.
I was at the hospital for about four days. It wasn’t a great one, and I was strapped down- to my wrists, to my waist, to my ankles. I used to take the IVs out and blood would squirt everywhere.
Then, my mom and dad took me to another hospital, a mental institution, for two weeks where I could walk around. It was crazy because I was acting like the normal in there. People were screaming. It really was like One Flew Over the Cockoo’s Nest and I was the Nicholson character-the normal guy. But I did know when I looked in the mirror I was sick.
I stayed there (the mental health facility) for two weeks. The first day they let me out for a walk, I escaped. I had ripped off tennis shoes from another patient. The cops were after me, but I was fast. I weighed 129 pounds and they couldn’t catch me. No way was I going back.
My friends picked me up and took me home. But the hardest part came after being after the hospital. They had me all drugged up in the hospital. But once the drugs wore off, depression set in. And that depression was so painful, I didn’t want to go on. The pain was unbearable.
With so many complications, why did you stop taking your medications?
Because I felt good- like I didn’t need it. I had been taking it 15 years straight and I’ve got to be honest with you, I didn’t want to take it anymore. I still took the pills when I have them in my hand and just don’t want to take them. But I know that I don’t want to have another breakdown. I just have to stay on it.
How did you get through the depression?
I went to a psychiatrist who diagnosed me as a manic depressive (bipolar), and he put me on Lithium. It kind of saved my life. But then I’d go off (Lithium) and have another breakdown. Two years before I started on General Hospital, I was off Lithium. Right after signing on to General Hospital, I had another breakdown. Then I had another one.
Can you describe how an episode of serious mania or depression feels?
It’s not something you snap out of unless you get treatment and you take medication. For me, the high was just feeling manic, feeling grandiose, feeling like I’m on top of the world. I thought I could read people’s minds. I would talk differently at times. My mannerisms would change. At some points, I’d get violent. Just a whole different vibe.
Some people love the highs. But for me, the highs might feel great at the moment, but I know the low is coming. And the low is devastation. The pain is nothing you’ve experienced. All you want to do is sleep. Because when you sleep, you can dream. And when you dream, it’s usually nice. Then you wake up and reality sets in. And that’s when you don’t want to get out of bed. I literally rolled out of bed to the ground. And nothing feels good. You know when you take a shower and the hot water hits you, and it feels good? (When you are depressed), you don’t enjoy it. I love to get my back scratched. But when I’m in a funk-nothing. Everything is numb. So, think about that. And think about that six, seven, or eight months straight.
What do you think Tom Cruise stating that anti-depressants are dangerous and Brooke Shields should have used vitamins to fight her post-partum depression?
(Laughs) You know, everybody has their thing, but does he really have that much authority to say something so bold that could possibly hurt people? It would be like me going on Oprah and saying, “You know, I don’t think you should take medication for bipolar because it doesn’t work.” Oh boy, that would be harmful.
You’ve been very open about your manic depression for many years. Why did you choose to go public?
It’s my way of helping the cause. I’m a spokesman for a few organizations (the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance-DBSA-and the National Mental Health Association). I’ve done The View like four times. I’ve been on Oprah, and in magazines. I talked in Boston in front of about 500 doctors (for the 2000 Annual DBSA conference). It was pretty damn cool because they gave me a standing ovation. When I do these things, the letters I get are phenomenal, like “You saved my brother’s life. He was ready to die, then he saw you.”
Despite research indicating that bipolar disorder is a chemical imbalance, many people do not understand the disease, wondering why those suffer from it just don’t “snap out of it.” Do you think that perception will ever change?
I think it’s going to change. I do believe, and it’s not just because of what I’ve done, it will change, especially for actors. Look at me. I’m proud to be bipolar because I know it makes me a better actor.
It’s all that complexity. If I wasn’t bipolar, I know I would be the actor that I am. Just yesterday, I was drawing from the rage and all those things. I put bipolar on the script and I put the funk in the script because that’s where I go. Thank God I have this kind of character. If I played a doctor, it would be different. But this guy (Sonny) is different.
What advice would you give to friends and families of someone they believe is bipolar?
If there are any symptoms and it seems obvious, somebody that person loves needs to sit them down and say, “Look, we need to get some help here.” I know from experience people who have written me who would sit their husband down to watch Oprah. After the show, The husband would say, “You know what? I need help.”
It’s just like this magazine. It’s the same thing, you know. Take it to someone and say, “Look, read it.” They read it and a lot of things match what they are going through.
And the thing with me is, I’m a man. And a lot of men shy away from the illness because they think it’s weak or whatever. But the fact is I’m bipolar, and I’ve overcome what I have. They think it’s kind of cool.
How did you meet Paula?”
She was in a mall working, and I came in and she was dancing. I thought she was cute. I asked her out. She was 16. I figured that might not be good, so I never showed up. I came back about eight months later. And she said, “You stood me up.” And I said, “Yeah, I’m sorry.” I asked her out again. She was 17 and we’ve been together ever since.
Was it love at first sight?
No. I knew she had enormous qualities, but I didn’t really know until years later that I would be stupid not to be with her. She’s sensitive. She’s loves children and animals. She’s someone who just has a good soul, a good heart.
Have the children changed your life?
Yes. There is nothing better than coming home a hard day at work with the kids there to give me a hug.
What do you most love about Cailey, Cassidy, and Joshua?
Cailey is very intelligent, very talented, very soulful. Every since she was a baby, people said she has an old soul. She’s just incredibly intelligent as far as her gut in reading people, in feeling things. She’s great that way. I don’t want to pat myself on the back, but I think she does take a lot after me in those areas. Her guts, her insides, her emotions. She is a bit quieter, but she can also be goofier and fun. She’s cool. She’s the first born, you know.
Cassidy is just like candy cane. She’s just sweeter than candy. But she’s also very strong minded and energetic. She could run a marathon if she had to. And she is very attentive. You tell her to do something, she just does it. Cassidy takes more after Paula in that way. You tell me to get you a glass of water, I just roll my eyes. That’s what Cailey would do. Cassidy would just get it without hesitation.
Joshua has two sides to him. He has a tough and sweet side. He’s a charmer. He does it with his eyes. Physically, his complexion is completely Paula more than mine. He’s not dark at all except his eyes. I think he’s a combination of both of us.
Would you encourage any of your kids to become actors?
I’d rather not. But if one of them said to me, “There’s nothing else I want to do and I love it and am passionate about it,” I would help. I don’t want to encourage them because of what I’ve gone through to make a living in this business. I don’t want my kids to go anywhere near that. Not that they would, but you never know. Acting is like 80 or 90 percent rejection. And if you can’t take rejection, it is difficult to pursue something like that.
His character on General Hospital may be closer to Don Corleone than Don Juan, but Maurice himself, is a true romantic- even though he won’t admit it. In 2000, he hosted a surprise wedding for Paula, who had always said she wanted to get married again.
Tell us about the surprise wedding. How did it come about?
I was doing an interview for Entertainment Tonight with Jann Carl. It was about being bipolar. She suggested throwing a surprise wedding for my wife. I said, “Oh, I’m not good at that stuff.” The whole time, she was trying to talk me into it. Finally, I said, “All right. I’m going to do it.”
I took care of everything. I got the caterer, I got the DJ, I got the dress she was going to wear for the first time we got married and didn’t get a chance to. And I flew my family out here. In the morning of the day of the wedding, I got up, got on my knees and told her the truth. I said, “We’re going to have a surprise wedding. We are going to get married in a couple of hours. You are going to put on your dress, go have it fitted and meet me at the house at a certain time.”
It was incredible. That day it looked like it was going to rain-black and cloudy. The minute she came out of the house, the sun came through the clouds. It was just amazing and emotional.
What do you think makes you and Paula work?
We’ve always had enormous respect for each other. She takes care of me like no one could or would. She has to deal with a lot of my issues. Over the years, we’ve just kind of become one.