By the time Maurice Benard landed his first soap role in 1987, as Nico Kelly on All My Children, he had already had two mental breakdowns and was keeping his illness, bipolar disorder, a secret from all but his family and closest friends.
“I didn’t talk about it because an acting coach told me that if I said I was bipolar or mentally ill, I wouldn’t get cast,” Benard, 57, tells PEOPLE in an interview for this week’s issue, which includes an exclusive excerpt of the actor’s memoir, Nothing General About It.
In the book, Benard, now a married father of four, chronicles with unvarnished candor his experience on what he calls “the high end of the bipolar disorder spectrum.” Anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, hospitalization, manic outbursts and violence — Benard has struggled with them all and didn’t shy away from any of it when it came to telling his story.
“I let myself be vulnerable in this book,” Benard says. “And especially when I did the audiobook recording — oh man, I would cry like a baby and then pull myself together and keep going.”
- For more of Maurice Benard’s story and an exclusive excerpt of his book Nothing General About It, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday
In the book, Benard describes a lifetime of chasing the high of performing for an audience, which he first learned as a boy singing for his parents’ friends at parties. “I loved the attention,” he writes, and became obsessed with “perfect[ing] my performance to elicit the maximum applause.”
But he would also suffer manic episodes, one of which, when he was 21, was so violent that his parents called police and had him admitted to a mental hospital. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 22, Benard was prescribed lithium, which he calls “a heavy-duty drug” to even out the chemical imbalance in his brain and keep him on an even keel. “In my case, it was a miracle drug. I could function,” he writes.
As Benard’s career gained traction — first with All My Children, then with TV movies and, finally, General Hospital, where he’s played tough guy Sonny Corinthos for 26 years and counting — the actor twice took himself off his medication. “I was feeling great,” he recalls. “My head told me I didn’t need meds because I wasn’t sick.”
But in 1993, by then married to his wife Paula and in his first week on the set of General Hospital, he suffered his third and most violent breakdown, which he recounts in painful detail: Two weeks in, I began hearing voices. At the end of the two weeks, I was completely delusional. Since I’m a method actor, the people at work thought I was just really into the role. At home, I began behaving like my character — mean, tough and lethal.
One night the voices told him to confess; he writes that he was “twitching and crying” as he told Paula of strip clubs and other women.
Paula was mad, but she was also crying because she was so frightened. I grabbed a bottle of wine and drank the entire contents before throwing it at her. I held her toy poodle over my head and said I would kill him. At one point I threatened to kill Paula, but as I raged and hovered over her, she stayed, trying to talk me down. Eventually I dozed off, and that gave Paula a chance to call [my psychiatrist] Dr. Noonan, who called in a prescription for a tranquilizer she went to pick up. When she got home from the drugstore, I was waiting with a broken bottle.
Benard returned to medication after that breakdown. In 2000, he went public with his mental illness and began work with the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance and the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
“When I speak out, people tell me they feel like they’re not alone,” says Benard. “I’ve now been on lithium 27 years straight. I think I’ve done all right.”