If anyone seems to have it all, it's Melissa Bernstein.
Doug, her husband of 32 years seems to adore her: "She is the most selfless person that I've ever met in my life," he said.
They have six high-achieving kids, and they run Melissa & Doug, the toy company they launched in 1988 with wooden furry-animal puzzles. From those humble beginnings, they built Melissa & Doug into a billion-dollar corporation. Melissa has designed all 5,000 of its products, all of them low-tech.
Correspondent David Pogue asked, "Well surely, the screen and app era has cut into your sales though?"
"We just had our 32nd straight year of growth," Doug replied.
Melissa & Doug, the company, have made Melissa & Doug, the couple, rich beyond their wildest dreams. They own four homes, including a 38,000-square-foot Connecticut mansion with its own bowling alley, basketball court, and arcade.
Melissa said, "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.'"
But as you may have guessed, there's a "but" coming.
Melissa said, " 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."
For most of her life, Melissa 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. "When I was young, you know, 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."
She wrote that at age five.
Over the years she has written 3,000 of these poems, and never showed them to anyone.
Pogue asked, "This darkness that you lived with growing up, I mean, how did it manifest itself in the real world?"
"I developed eating disorders," she replied. "You know, 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."
She hit bottom in college, at Duke University: "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, [I] sort of opened it up and looked at them and kinda went like this [miming about to ingest them]. I knew if the pain, you know, got too, too intense, that I always had them there."
Melissa tried to suppress her depression by throwing herself into her creative work at the company. "So, for 32 years I've made toys. We created this amazing family. However, [I] was still repressing and denying who I was."
Finally, four years ago, she reached her breaking point. "I was so exhausted, because pain plus resistance equals suffering. I enlisted the help of a trained professional who became my partner in making this inward journey."
To celebrate that journey, Melissa has self-published a book called "Lifelines: An Inspirational Journey From Profound Darkness to Radiant Light." It's her memoir, her photography, and her verses.
She and Doug have also launched the second major enterprise of their lives, LifeLines: it's a website, an app, a podcast series, a video series, talks and events, all of it free.
Pogue asked, "You would call it a mental health hub?"
"Yes, it's a place to explore everything; explore things that most people don't wanna talk about."
"But what you're saying is a little radical. The American way is that consumption makes you happy, money makes you happy."
"And yet, what is the next pandemic? Depression. I mean, we are at our highest rates of depression in this world ever."
"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?"
"It would be the best thing that could ever happen," Melissa replied. "It's so exhausting, having to live a lie."
Melissa and Doug are paying for this entire enterprise themselves. When asked to give a ball park figure of what they've paid to develop LifeLines, Doug replied, "I'd say we've spent several million dollars already, and expecting to spend a lot more."
"For the sake of people you don't even know?" Pogue asked.
"We do know them!" he laughed. "Because they are Melissa, and they are everyone who feels the way that Melissa has felt in her life."
"Wow, I mean, you might wind up saving lives," said Pogue. "I mean, there might be people who owe their continued existence to this enterprise."
Melissa said, "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 'til I rescue lives unknown."
READ AN EXCERPT:
For immediate help if you are in a crisis, call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. All calls are confidential.
For more info:
- "LifeLines: An Inspirational Journey From Profound Darkness to Radiant Light" by Melissa Bernstein, in Hardcover and eBook versions, available via Amazon and Indiebound
- Melissa & Doug Toy Company
Story produced by Michelle Kessel. Editor: Emanuele Secci.
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