Melissa & Doug co-founder on confronting her depression
Melissa Bernstein, co-founder of toy company Melissa & Doug, seemed to have it all. The firm that she started in 1988 with her husband Doug grew into an iconic brand worth a billion dollars. But despite the trappings of success, Bernstein still experienced an existential depression. Now for the first time she’s opening up about her lifelong mental health battle in a new book, “LifeLines: An Inspirational Journey From Profound Darkness to Radiant Light.” Correspondent David Pogue sat down with Melissa and Doug to talk about her ongoing journey, and about the launch of their online mental health hub LifeLines, which she hopes will help others who struggle with self-acceptance.
– Entertaining kids with creative playthings isn’t all fun and games, as the toy-making couple Melissa and Doug explained to our David Pogue.
DAVID POGUE: If anyone seems to have it all, it’s Melissa Bernstein. Doug, her husband of 32 years, seems to adore her.
DOUG BERNSTEIN: She is the most selfless person that I’ve ever met in my life.
DAVID POGUE: They have six high-achieving kids. And they run Melissa and Doug, the toy company they launched in 1988 with wooden furry animal puzzles.
DOUG BERNSTEIN: Oh, the fuzzy puzzle.
MELISSA BERNSTEIN: Yes, the first product.
DAVID POGUE: From those humble beginnings, they built Melissa and Doug into a billion-dollar corporation. Melissa has designed all 5,000 of its products, all of them low-tech.
Well, surely, the screen and app era has cut into your sales, though.
DOUG BERNSTEIN: We just had our 32nd straight year of growth.
DAVID POGUE: Melissa and Doug the company made Melissa and Doug the couple rich beyond their wildest dreams. They own four homes, including this 38,000-square-foot Connecticut mansion with its own bowling alley, basketball court, and arcade.
MELISSA BERNSTEIN: I can certainly admit that I have enjoyed the material trappings that come from being successful. All those material rewards that make us feel that we’ve made it.
DAVID POGUE: But as you may have guessed, there’s a but coming.
MELISSA BERNSTEIN: From my earliest recollections, I felt like I didn’t belong here on Earth and that something was profoundly wrong deep within my being. Why am I here? What is the meaning of life if we are all ultimately going to die? I felt utter despair.
DAVID POGUE: For most of her life, she concealed what she calls her existential depression from the whole world, including her parents and her children. She never sought help. Her only therapy was writing what she calls verses.
MELISSA BERNSTEIN: And when I was young, one of my first verses was, I am fearful, oh, so fearful. If you do not show me light, I will lose the will to live and choose to end this futile fight.
DAVID POGUE: You wrote that when you were five?
MELISSA BERNSTEIN: I did.
I was a little older. This was probably 10 or 11.
DAVID POGUE: Over the years, she’s written over 3,000 of these poems and never shown them to anyone.
This darkness that you lived with growing up, I mean, how did it manifest itself in the real world?
MELISSA BERNSTEIN: I developed eating disorders. My first eating disorder was at age 11. And when I met Doug when I was 19, I weighed 82 pounds. And I was very frail. I controlled every single thing I could control since I could not control my thoughts.
DAVID POGUE: She hit bottom in college at Duke University.
MELISSA BERNSTEIN: I created a bottle of pills that basically I researched and found the exact cocktail that would effectively stop my heart. And I carried those around with me in my pocket every single day for close to a year and many days, sort of opened it up and looked at them and kind of went like this. And I knew if the pain got too intense, that I always had them there.
You can do color recognition, shape recognition–
DAVID POGUE: Melissa tried to repress her depression by throwing herself into her creative work at the company.
MELISSA BERNSTEIN: So for 32 years, I’ve made toys. We created this amazing family. However, I was still repressing and denying who I was.
DAVID POGUE: Finally, four years ago, she reached her breaking point.
MELISSA BERNSTEIN: I was so exhausted because pain resistance equals suffering. I enlisted the help of a trained professional who became my partner in making this inward journey.
DAVID POGUE: To celebrate that journey, Melissa has self-published a book called “Lifelines.” It’s her memoir, her photography, and her verses. She and Doug have also launched the second major enterprise of their lives. It’s a website, an app, a podcast, a video series, talks and events, all of it free.
So you would call it a mental health hub?
MELISSA BERNSTEIN: Yes. It’s a place to explore everything, explore things that most people don’t want to talk about.
DAVID POGUE: But what you’re saying is a little radical. The American way is that consumption makes you happy. Money makes you happy.
MELISSA BERNSTEIN: And yet, what is the next pandemic? Depression.
DAVID POGUE: Oh.
MELISSA BERNSTEIN: I mean, we are at our highest rates of depression in this world ever.
DAVID POGUE: But it really does seem like there is a compulsion these days on social media, on Facebook, on Instagram to present to the world that everything is great, to take pictures in front of cool travel locations, to show the fancy food we’re ordering. What would happen if that came crumbling down because people are taking your advice?
MELISSA BERNSTEIN: It would be the best thing that could ever happen. It’s so exhausting having to live a lie.
DAVID POGUE: Melissa and Doug are paying for this entire enterprise themselves.
MELISSA BERNSTEIN: Can you give us a ballpark of what this is personally costing you to create?
DOUG BERNSTEIN: I’d say we’ve spent several million dollars already and expecting to spend a lot more.
DAVID POGUE: For the sake of people you don’t even know?
DOUG BERNSTEIN: We do know them. We do know them because they are Melissa, and they are everyone who feels the way that Melissa has felt in her life.
DAVID POGUE: Wow. I mean, you might wind up saving lives. I mean, there might be people who owe their continued existence to this enterprise.
MELISSA BERNSTEIN: Well, the first verse on my book is, today I saved a life, although it was my very own but won’t serve a greater purpose till I rescue lives unknown.