Melissa Bernstein, the creative genius and co-founder of Melissa & Doug Toy Company, has bared her soul in her upcoming book, LifeLines: An Inspirational Journey From Profound Darkness to Radiant Light. She has been struggling with existential depression and anxiety her entire life. She was denying her despair, hiding it from the world and suppressing her overwhelmingly negative feelings and thoughts that were leading her to the brink of self-destruction. In LifeLines, Melissa opens up and shares all that she has experienced, the challenges she has faced, and her hopes for the future.

Hundreds of rhyming verses included before and after each chapter, written by Melissa, beginning in early childhood and continuing through now, reveal her innermost feelings, biggest worries, and deepest thoughts, from very dark to increasingly positive and hopeful. The beautiful book also includes volumes/chapters that speak to topics that have profound meaning for her: creativity, loneliness, martyrdom and perfectionism. She shares personal stories and recollections of her thoughts at different times throughout her life, often based on childhood journal entries. Also, printed in the book are artful photographs of nature, something incredibly important to Melissa, as nature provides her great solace on difficult days and every day.

These immensely personal pages of self-expression give us some understanding of the struggles Melissa has had with existential depression and anxiety and celebrate the light she has found to continue living with a purpose. I highly recommend this book for everyone … anyone who feels or has felt depressed, anxious, or who knows someone facing these struggles, as well as anyone who is a partisan of self-awareness, self-expression, and the journey inward. Self-acceptance and a greater understanding of others lead to more kindness, and LifeLines provides valuable insight from someone who has traveled the road to greater understanding of self and experienced all the feels.

In addition to her book, Melissa, her husband, Doug, and the Lifelines team have developed an exciting and unique interactive ecosystem and warm community that lives at LifeLines.com. Here, with Melissa’s personal journey as a framework, you can create your own personal profile and embark on an inward journey to self-understanding. There is a virtual hike with stops along the way to leave your personal baggage behind, collect nuggets of wisdom and participate in activities that encourage mindfulness. There are also opportunities to connect with others, experience nature and attend experiential workshops, all at no cost. Lifelines.com ensures that You Are Not Alone, and it is well worth visiting.

LifeLines will be published on March 16 and is available for preorder now.

Q&A WITH MELISSA BERNSTEIN

Q: How young did you start writing and how did you come up with so many rhyming verses?   

A: I started writing from as young as I began to form words! And the verses honestly just came into my head — I know it sounds crazy, but I didn’t come up with them … they came up with themselves! I would probably have thousands more if I actually wrote all of them down — they bothered me so much because they kept tormenting me. I mostly tried to ignore them and distract myself SO THEY WOULD STOP!

Q: You say in the book you enjoy nature and it helps you feel grounded. In what ways do you experience nature?

A: After writing verses, nature is my most powerful LifeLine. I love nothing more than simply being in nature — from simply sitting on my porch with the sun warming my face to walking or hiking in nature. The sounds of nature are truly symphonies to me — and being in nature calms me like nowhere else. I cannot even choose among ocean, mountains and woods — they are all so very different but just as magical in their own ways. I absolutely love sunsets and watching the very first star grace the sky … once the weather warms I can be found reveling in those nearly every day. And I also love thunderstorms — my son and I go outside and count the seconds between the flash of lightning and the thunderclap to assess how far away the storm is at that moment. We are also fortunate to have a large garden and small orchard, and I love picking fruit/vegetables that can be eaten right off the vine. There is nothing better!

Q: You have mentioned you were a musician when you were in school. What instruments do you play, what kind of music do you like, and how do you engage with music today?

A: Music was also one of my very first forms of expression, and I wrote melodies at a very young age. I first heard someone play folk guitar at a girl scout campfire when I was five years old. I can still remember the ecstasy that came over me when I felt the vibration of the guitar strings suffuse my being. It was truly magical. And I came home and told my parents that I MUST PLAY GUITAR. It wasn’t a request — it was essential for my soul. That was my first instrument, which was shortly followed by piano, violin and flute. I also LOVED to sing and was in a number of show choirs. Similar to what happened to me physiologically with nature, the same thing happened with music … I was calmed so instantly by both playing AND listening to music and transported to a realm where everything resonated in harmony. Today, my Spotify playlist is one of my most treasured possessions. And I’m thrilled that my musical taste has expanded and grown so much over the past few years! I would have told you that R&B is by far my preferred genre (I love Babyface, Maxwell, Her, Ledisi, Mary J. Blige etc.) — but now I have deep house (I love Nora En Pure), and other artists like Victory Boyd, Everything But the Girl, Leon, Ellie Williams, Justin Bieber and Ella Mae. And I’m proud to say many of my recent favorite artists came from my children!

Q: How did you decide to start a toy company? Did you and Doug explore any other business ideas before Melissa & Doug came to be? 

A: Doug and I both desperately needed to have a sense of purpose and reason to get out of bed each day! And we both loved children and wanted to create something to impact their lives. So we decided to leave our conventional jobs and do something TOGETHER! We went away to a bed and breakfast for the weekend with the mission of not returning home until we determined EXACTLY what we would do. And we decided we wanted to make products to spark childrens’ imaginations. And although we were just dating, we pooled our meager savings, left our jobs and started creating our very first product!

Q: You have been a very high-functioning depressive person for your entire life, but kept it to yourself. What made you decide to get help? 

A: I only kept it to myself because I was in such complete denial. I had repressed, denied and disassociated from everything I felt in order to function and continually achieve. It was only when the dots started connecting in my late 40s that I even understood for the very first time that I had an actual collection of afflictions. Once I understood that I actually had “a condition,” I realized that beneath the deep repression I was desperate to be seen as my authentic self.  In fact, once I became aware of my lifelong pattern of denial, the cry of my soul to be authentically seen became so deafening that I could not repress it any longer. And I knew I needed to make the journey inward and accept all the dark aspects of myself I had always denied. I knew I would not be able to make such a treacherous journey alone, and sought professional help to do so.

Q: In your book, you talk about when, in college, you didn’t get into the sorority you had hoped to, and you were upset. Your boyfriend at the time told you to forget about it, that you would succeed in other areas. His reaction did not console you in a way that you required; what did you need from him at that time? How can friends and family support their loved ones who are struggling? 

A: I couldn’t actually voice it at the time … but all I ever truly wanted is for others to see me in my pain and not shy away from it. The few times I truly showed the extent of my despairing feelings others became aghast or worried or disgusted … and I knew I needed to hide them and put on “a happy face.” When we are sad, we are longing for others to simply say, “I understand why you would feel that way and I am here for you.” Nothing more, just acceptance, validation and support. And making us know that they won’t leave us — that they’ll stay right by our sides.

Q: Being afflicted with existential depression is not the same as feeling depressed for a day. Can you explain the difference? 

A: Existential depression for me was something I was born with. It didn’t have a “trigger” like many other temporary periods of depression. It was a terrible sense of “not being rightness” that never left — like a terrible itch deep inside me that couldn’t be scratched. Existential anxiety had me ever asking the questions: “What is the point of life if we all die?” “Why am I here?” and “What am I supposed to do while I am here?” And given I was never even able, much less find the words, to ask these questions at such a young age, thus never receive answers to these deep questions, I was never able to find solace or rest easy.

Q: Once you learned you had a real affliction and were diagnosed, that must have been an overwhelming revelation for you to digest. How long did you keep that information private, how did you tell your family and how did they react?

A: It took me a few days to even process such a staggering piece of information — because it actually meant I was no longer alone. I just needed to bask in the joy of knowing “I had something others had,” before I could share it with anyone. But within a few days, I shared it with Doug and only Doug, because I truly didn’t think anyone else would even believe me. And although I always tend to hold my emotions in check, I was truly sobbing and shaking as I told him. I even worried what he would think of me … because I was telling him I had an affliction that had ended in mania, addiction and suicide for many … but the cat was out of the bag and there was no going back!

Q: How are you different today compared to 15 years ago? 

A: I am conscious and self-aware. I accept myself and all the oddities that make me who I am. And I am better able to accept others as well for all their eccentricities. I am also slowly getting to be a more conscious parent in not trying desperately to “fix everyone and everything.” I wasn’t able to tolerate malaise in myself, so I couldn’t tolerate it in others. Today I am better able to do that. And lastly, I was engaged in the futile race and truly unable to just sit and “be.” I felt like if I wasn’t continually broadening my horizons and accomplishing clear goals, I was worthless. It was a chain around my neck and part of the perfectionism scourge that plagued me. But there came a point when the exhaustion was too great to keep running … and I realized that I was just denying myself the joy of the present moment. So I have learned to stop and smell the roses. I still have a long way to go … but I know how amazing it feels to breathe and revel in the here and now.

Q: Creativity, and specifically writing and designing toys has been your salvation. Your work with LifeLines also includes creativity and product development, yet you are now face to face with so many people, sharing your struggles and baring your soul. How does that honest and open personal interaction make you feel? 

A: I honestly feel that this is the only thing I was ever meant to do — and that every single life experience has led me to this moment. When I speak to others and they are able to share feelings that they have never shared with anyone else, I feel SO INCREDIBLY honored — it is truly a sacred gift.  They are trusting me with their tender soul — and having had so many trust issues myself I know how special a gift that is. I want to completely rip the guise off pretension and perfection and this fallacy that we need to be perfect to be accepted. It cannot be true because HUMANS ARE IMPERFECT. So life will be futile for all of us if we chase an impossible dream.

Q: You and Doug and the LifeLines team have created a website that will bring people together and help those that are struggling with depression and anxiety not feel so alone. Can you tell me more about Lifelines.com?

A: LifeLines.com is a community for ANYONE who has ever felt they don’t belong. It is for other creative misfits like me … or ANYONE who wants a safe, compassionate group of Seekers to accept them EXACTLY AS THEY ARE. We have three core tenets: 1) you are not alone (once I manifested my true feelings and realized that EVERYONE FEELS THE SAME WAY, I knew I wanted others to realize that much earlier than I did); 2) we all have the ability to channel our darkness into light (my salvation was through toys, and now my writing as well); 3) we will not find true peace or fulfillment until we make the journey inward and accept ourselves in totality (our community members will be able to take that journey, called The Journey to Inner Space, on our website). We will also have fresh content, a blog, experiential events and anything else our community needs!

Q: How can we stay informed about your speaking events and keep up with news related to the website?

A: We will be communicating all our FREE AND INCLUSIVE events through our social media channels and on our website itself! And of course, I LOVE personal communication with anyone who would like to speak with me at [email protected]

About Melissa Bernstein:

Melissa Bernstein, mother of six, married 30 years, and founder of toy company Melissa & Doug, has struggled with existential anxiety and depression throughout her life. Although her toys have touched millions of children, Melissa longs to connect with people in a more direct and personal way. She reveals her journey in LifeLines, her first book, which she wrote to help others who are also suffering. Melissa’s mission is to help other seekers on their journey inward so they too can transform darkness into light. Join the LifeLines community at LifeLines.com.