On February 8, 2002, life's problems had become too big for Brenda Heist.
The Pennsylvania mother of two, who was getting a divorce and facing financial uncertainty, dropped off her children, daughter Morgan, 8 and son Lee, 12, at school and went to a park, where she began to cry. She was approached by some homeless people who asked if she was all right, and when they said they were leaving for Florida, she asked to go with them.
She disappeared for the next 11 years.
“She left with $20 in her pocket and the clothing on her back and that was it,” Dr. Phil McGraw told TODAY on Friday in a network exclusive. “She didn't have makeup, she didn't have a packed bag, a credit card. She had 20 bucks and an empty purse, and off she went.”
Heist, who reappeared two weeks ago after being gone for more than a decade, spoke to McGraw in an interview that will air on the Dr. Phil show on Monday.
"I just kept saying to myself, 'They're better off without me,'" she told him.
Heist's family didn't know what to think, and her former husband, who was initially believed to be a suspect in her disappearance, believed she might have been carjacked. After she had been missing for seven years, Heist was declared legally dead.
“From a professional standpoint I’'m looking for the answer to that question: Who does this?" McGraw told TODAY. “When I first sat down with her, she was in complete and utter meltdown. I mean full body tremors, shaking, and not because of the interview but because she was getting ready to have to come to grips with what she had done.”
Heist, now 54, assumed a new identity while living in Florida. At times she was homeless, though she also held odd jobs and had new relationships. But her real identity was never far from the surface.
“When did you stop crying and start living?” McGraw asked Heist.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever stopped crying and started living, to be honest with you,” she replied.
Heist turned herself in to police and is currently in the Santa Rosa Country jail being held on outstanding warrants. McGraw took a team of therapists with him to help understand why she would take such drastic measures with her life, and her family’s future.
“What's going on here, you have to look way back in the situation,” he said. “This is a woman that I believe has serious attachment disorder. Serious issues with regard to forming the normal bonds and attachments that people would normally do.
“How else can you leave a child, eight and 12, and never call within 11 years?” he said.
Heist has not reunited with her family, and daughter Morgan wants nothing to do with her. “It’s not that I hate her,” Morgan Heist told NBC affiliate WCAU. “I just think she doesn’t deserve to be in my life at this point.”
"I would like their forgiveness," Heist tearfully told McGraw of her family, "but I'm going to have a hard time forgiving myself for what I've done."
McGraw said that one thing Heist admitted during their interview surprised him.
“She told me something very insightful I believe — very telling,” he said. “She is really questioning if she did the right thing by coming back at all. Because now she fears burdening her family, and creating all this angst and opening wounds with her children.”