Empowerment Series: Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer of Melissa & Doug Toys, Author “Lifelines” Shares her Darkness and Light with AW
Melissa Bernstein is the Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer of Melissa & Doug, the multimillion-dollar iconic toy company she started with her husband in 2007. She has a successful career, a beautiful home, love in abundance with a marriage of decades. Plenty of people would describe this as life, most dream about. Looking from the outside in, the 55-year old, mother of six has it all but things are rarely what they seem. In a world where perception is everything, Melissa made the courageous decision to share her truth. She revealed her story of Existential Depression to The Washington Post, People Magazine, Yahoo Finance, Elle Magazine, Inc Magazine, Today Show, Good Day NY, and CBS Morning News. The world was given a bird’s eye view into the creator’s personal battle with the demons taking residence inside her head.
AW had the amazing opportunity to sit with Melissa for in-depth interview where she provides insight on The Journey Inward: A Path to Self-Discovery and the Lifelines Community. The human mind is a black hole filled with thoughts that have the potential to drown us in negative self-talk unless we choose to shift our focus to the positive. While many are able to do the work that brings them out of darkness, others fight demons for years barely crawling out of this vortex. Melissa fought her way back into the light and continues to plant seeds of hope, spreading goodness everywhere she goes but it has not been easy.
The topic of mental health is urgent, it’s necessary to continue the conversations in an effort to keep raising awareness. No longer a shameful secret, people are owning their emotional struggles, encouraging others to do the same. This will be the first time readers of the empowerment series are granted access to the video interview, as well. The lengthy conversation had some brief departures from the main interview. These digressions were important to get a better understanding of the suffering and breakthrough moments that took place.
Her pain began at an early age, living with a feeling of hopelessness that was suffocating. Childhood and youth consumed by dread and the questioning of her existence was daunting but it was her reality. What is the meaning of life? Why am I here? She wrote about the private anguish on bathroom tissue or small scraps of paper, any blank space she could find to express herself was a relief. She wrote a poem at 5-years old, describing vividly the pain of being alive. Living in that headspace was consuming and societal pressures just added a layer of complexity for her to navigate.
Striving for perfection is a dangerous practice, anything less than flawless can be devastating. During her time at Duke, she struggled with an eating disorder that brought her down to 82 pounds. Life became so dark that she carried a bottle of pills for a year, in case she wanted an out one day. The toy company founded with her husband, gifted Melissa with a world of creativity, allowing her mind to go elsewhere. However, the torment did not completely stop, it was years before she got a hold of the demon that deceived her into believing life wasn’t worth living. Thankfully, the inspirational journey inward eventually opened a gateway of hope for the talented creator. During her early 50’s, she found the help needed to get to the other side.
Melissa joined our Zoom meeting with a smile that lit up the screen! Mild-mannered, kind, warm, and polite are some of the words that come to mind to describe her demeanor, she came prepared to be an open book for me to read. Immediately, I enjoyed a comfort level that allowed me the vulnerability to connect with her story. I could only paraphrase some nuggets of wisdom and experience because there was so much information. Undoubtedly, your life will be enriched by reading this article. I’d suggest watching the interview on AW Confidential: YouTube Channel to get the full impact of everything shared during our time together.
What or who gave you the fearlessness, not only to speak your truth about depression but write such a personal book that includes verses you wrote during painful times. What is your WHY for giving yourself permission to be seen? I was sort of living a lie, I wasn’t conscious of it, adopting a facade of society’s expectations but these great things that were happening did not fill the void in my soul. I had done the work to achieve the American dream but happiness is not found in external sources. This was about pulling the mask off to show others that fulfillment doesn’t come from outside validation or achieving the conventional definition of success.
Mental illness does not discriminate. Being born with it, I’ve accepted the affliction is part of me. Learning to embrace, harness, and manage the mental affliction offers the possibility to live a bountiful life. I never would have found fulfillment without taking the journey inward. I wanted to assist others with healing and self-compassion but I had to do this for myself first, before helping anyone else.
The World Health Organization (WHO) reports over 264 million adults of all ages are suffering from depression. Cases are rising and a spotlight has been placed on the importance of mental health. We can all play a small part to help others and ourselves. Whether it’s listening to someone or seeking help oneself, there is something each of us can do. You and your husband, Doug, have created a new platform – a beautiful community offering resources to persons in need. Can you share with us, how the Lifelines Community will accomplish its goal to improve the mental health of its members? How can people find out more about it?
Pain + Resistance = Suffering. Once you go into authentic living, you understand that not every day is bliss. At first, spirals are horrible but accepting yourself, knowing that there are highs and lows is essential to the process. Embracing these ebb and flows takes practice and we must do it daily. It takes time to get grounded in this place and critical to understanding that life is an art and takes work.
Lifelines is an ecosystem that has been created from my experience and despair. It is based on three parts of what I’ve gone through, as I grew up feeling “alone” like an alien from outer space. I want to make people feel less lonely in their pain, and instead more accepted. We have workshops that cover various topics, particularly subjects not being talked about elsewhere. Each of us has the ability to shine a spotlight on others, and turn darkness into light. This community is designed to encourage us to continue to do so in different ways. The platform offers books, podcasts, videos, wonderful workshops, as well as, a FaceBook community of people sharing their stories. Everyone has the capacity to live in the light and find meaning if they choose to.
So many are racing outside of ourselves to find validation, achievements, and rewards but it is the wrong direction to go. Taking the intentional journey to the inner space is how we really find self-acceptance which is one of the things we teach in our community and leads to authenticity.
You mention some of your biggest lessons earlier in the interview. What has been the greatest challenge during this journey? There are so many challenges, and people in deep pain. I want to help all the people that come to me. This is a not-for-profit project, I’m one person, and I’m not a professional. I just want to share my journey to inspire others but I’m realizing that I can’t save everyone.
The other challenge worth mentioning was brought up at a recent workshop – balance. I hate the word “balance” since I don’t believe there is really such a thing. We find our sweet spot in the balance of sanity and insanity. There are plenty of ideas in the unsettled space but only so many hours in a day.
I like to end AW interviews on a positive note. Some interviews can be heavy, I enjoy finishing conversations with a message of inspiration. “I believe after darkness, we can find the light.” Living in a space of darkness is lonely and scary but we are resilient enough to find the light, however, it’s critical to seek help when needed. Would you be able to contribute advice, quote, or mantra to comfort and encourage readers who want to embrace their light in a moment of darkness, depression, emotional or spiritual challenges? For me and everyone, because we’re all similar, it’s been a battle between the head and heart. The head is where depression lies, despair, the terror of the things we cannot control. My head has always been this prison, the source of anguish. Living in the heart is pure, in the moment – the now is where you are liberated. Being in between the two spaces produced lots of anguish for me.
The inability to separate the head and heart, plus being unable to release emotions made things very difficult, leaning on my creativity proved valuable and necessary. If we engage the senses and self-expression, we can get into our hearts and unfree ourselves from our heads. We have unique forms of self-expression that we can tap into. This is something that largely happens in childhood through play. It is the thing in you that gets your heart singing, makes time stop, and makes you forget the messages that come into your head. Ultimately, it’s energy pushing out the lies your brain dishes, instead, it quiets them by helping you connect with the joy. Live in your heart as much as you can.
My mantra has become “Step on out of the head, moving freely into the heart to channel all dread into jubilant art” Art can be any type of self-expression that gets you out of your head. Write, dance, paint – whatever it is you do to link with your true self.
The interview with Melissa was incredibly inspiring – real talk between two women exchanging stories about their own version of pain. Depression leads to frightening isolation that can unleash insurmountable torment. The voyage out this pitch dark underworld requires an incredible will to manage but despair can be survived.
During my journey, I’ve been taken to places of great sadness, the darkness is familiar. These experiences are extremely intimate and personal, however, there are millions of people around the world going through the same thing. If you are one of them, know that the only way out is through and you’re stronger than you realize. Everyone has challenges in life that can bring unhappiness. Sad days still creep in now and then, fortunately for me, these are passing moments. If the thoughts are continuous and preventing you from living a healthy life, resources are available. You are not alone.
Words cannot express the amount of gratitude for Melissa’s time with AW. She was gracious, open, and gifted us moments of enlightenment for us to ponder. Sharing painful stories is difficult but helpful in taking the power back from the things that hurt us, use your voice to speak up. It is darkest before dawn, a new day is around the corner. Hang on for tomorrow, it offers hope for something better.
If you’re in trouble the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can also be of assistance at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Help is available 24 hours/7 days. Your information is CONFIDENTIAL. Speak to someone today.
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