TODAY

TODAY   |  May 17, 2013

Mom who vanished for a decade opens up to Dr. Phil

For over ten years after she disappeared shortly after dropping her kids off at school, Brenda Heist’s family could only wonder what happened to her, until two weeks ago when she reappeared as a shadow of her former self. She breaks her silence to Dr. Phil, saying she would like forgiveness.

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>>> in florida . now she's opening up about where she's been and her decision to leave behind her young family. here's nbc's anna navaz.

>> reporter: for years, brenda heist's family could only wonder what happened to her.

>> i thought probably after about two years i thought based on some of the information that she had been carjacked.

>> reporter: in 2002 the pennsylvania mom dropped off her kids at school and disappeared. daughter morgan was just 8-year-old, son lee was 12. brenda 's husband, lee, was a suspect and cleared.

>> my brother graduated from high school and college and i graduated and she wasn't there.

>> reporter: after seven years missing brenda heist was declared legally dead .

>> this is a rare situation, it truly is because to go off the radar, that completely for an adult is very difficult.

>> reporter: until two weeks ago, when the 54-year-old reappeared, a shadow of her former self.

>> i just kept saying to myself they're better off without me.

>> reporter: and broke her silence in an exclusive interview with dr. phil mcgraw .

>> her marriage was falling apart, her finances were falling apart, her future looked bleak.

>> reporter: mcgraw says heist now in a florida jail on outstanding warrants became overwhelmed and ran. she hitchhiked south and spent years living on the streets.

>> i've never been around homeless people at all, never knew anything about it, that's why i had my own problems believing what i was doing.

>> reporter: what she did was create a completely new life in florida , new identity, odd jobs, even new relationships, hundreds of miles away from the life she left behind .

>> she had 20 bucks in an empty purse and off she went for 11 years. you have to have a substantial level of mental and emotional maladjustment in order for this to look like a viable option to you.

>> reporter: heist has yet to face her children.

>> i don't want her to miss me and tell her she loves me. i don't want a sob story. i want the cold, hard truth.

>> do you want their forgiveness.

>> i would like my forgiveness but i'm going to have a hard time forgiving myself for what i've done.

>> reporter: former husband lee has moved on.

>> i just wish her that she'll get well, whatever the problems are.

>> reporter: problems that prompted her to finally turn herself in to authorities.

>> she just had hit bottom, bottom, bottom, so she just surrendered herself to the reality to stop the lies.

>> reporter: for "today," anna navaz, nbc news, los angeles .