Melissa Bernstein, LIFELINES

Melissa Bernstein, LIFELINES

“The cry of my own soul to be seen became so great that the risk of not saying who I was, was much greater than the risk of saying who I was.” Co-founder of Melissa & Doug, Melissa Bernstein, joins Zibby for a heartfelt and thought-provoking conversation about coming forward with her lifelong experience with existential depression and how it has inspired creativity throughout her life. Her book, LifeLines, opens a door for others who may be going through the darkness as well and offers resources and a friendly hand to help them come into the light.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Melissa. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss LifeLines, your new book.

Melissa Bernstein: It’s my pleasure. Can’t wait.

Zibby: It’s so exciting. First of all, this wins the award for heaviest book ever.

Melissa: That’s not a compliment.

Zibby: It is a compliment. I think it’s awesome because you have to pay attention to it. This isn’t something you’re going to throw in a pile and not think about. That’s really important because it’s highlighting some of the most fundamental parts of life and not feeling alone. You have to remember all those things. I feel like this form echoes some of the importance of that. Why don’t I let you talk about form? Melissa, tell listeners about LifeLines. What inspired you to collect your previously written verses and songs, if you will, and poems and all the stuff that you have packed into the volumes in here? Then let’s talk about the form of it itself, which I think is unique and interesting.

Melissa: This product was the one that took my entire life to give birth to. I was hiding, really, everything in it, all the verses which numbered about three thousand by the time I put it together and all my journals which I kept throughout my life. They were still in the dark, in the shadows. I longed to have them be out in the world because they truly represented who I really was. While they were in shadows, so was I.

Zibby: Wow. You said in this book that even five years ago you hadn’t shown anyone, that you just gave it to a girlfriend. The first two people you gave it to did not respond in the way you wanted. Tell me a little bit about that.

Melissa: I always believed that who I truly was would never be accepted and would be rejected. Throughout life, I had a few instances where I think I showed some of the darkness I was feeling or tried to be seen as I was. I was so stigmatized by that and felt so alone because people were horrified when I shared it that I vowed very early on to keep my true feelings hidden even from myself. Once the world didn’t accept them, I couldn’t accept them in myself either. From the time I was a little girl, I truly repressed, denied, and disassociated from anything that made me unique and creative and anything that showed the despair I was feeling.

Zibby: That must have been a really hard way to live, hiding such a huge piece of yourself and feeling such shame over something that was not in any way bad or unique, even, but feeling like you had this albatross around your neck. Tell me about that.

Melissa: I think when you feel that you won’t fit in — society does us such a disservice from the time we’re young, which is a whole other story. I got the message very early on. Buck up. Be strong. Don’t show anything negative. Be happy. Act perfect. I truly believed that anything other than perfect, great, awesome would stigmatize me. I got that message the few times I did show it. I think it becomes very unconscious, but I just adopted a façade that became who I was. I didn’t know it was a façade. It wasn’t like I was like, you’re putting a on façade, Melissa. That was who I became throughout my entire life, denying, repressing, submerging, and becoming a very high-achieving, existential-despairing person, but really only letting it eke out in my writings. That’s where the truth of what I was feeling eked out. Even that was unconscious. It just would pour out of me. I would just sort of transcribe it not even knowing how dark it was.

Zibby: You had some places where you talked about how your feelings would just pour out of your fingertips. I just loved that visual because sometimes I feel like that too when I’m writing. I’m like, oh, I didn’t even know I was feeling all that. Wow, look at that. Look what came out once I let my fingers start working their magic. Then you just find out what’s in your head. I really related to that.

Melissa: I truly believe when you create from your heart and you untether from your head — my mantra is, step on out of the head moving into the heart, free to channel all dread into jubilant art. When you allow yourself to create from that intuition that’s in all of us, what comes out are things that you, as you said, sometimes don’t even recognize. It’s incredible. It’s magic.

Zibby: It does feel like magic. I think that’s why I’m always so curious what people are writing. It’s a glimpse into people’s souls that you can’t get another way, particularly with your book because you have covered up what was hidden in here for so long, which I view as almost a tragedy. The fact that all of this was inside you and you’re only now in your fifties, I guess — right? I’m not revealing something private. You put it in the book.

Melissa: Nope, you’re not.

Zibby: You’re only now feeling comfortable sharing all of this.

Melissa: This was one of the reasons I wanted to do this so badly. I felt it was tragic. It was tragic that I hide everything I was and everything that made me the creative person I am from myself and from the world to brandish someone who wasn’t me at all. If I could help others to earlier on accept themselves and really show who they truly are to the world, then their lives would have more meaning and they’d be able to feel freer and more fulfilled through decades that I didn’t.

Zibby: Meanwhile, when you say, yes, you were a high-functioning, existentially depressed operator, you’re not just high functioning. You founded a multimillion-dollar toy business that every parent out there, Melissa & Doug, has depended on in one way, shape, or form from costumes to puzzles to just basically every single toy out there, many of which I have sampled over the years with my four different kids. And you’ve had six kids. Insane. How did you do that while only putting forward a slice of yourself? Did you show it to your kids? Tell me about, did it seep out anywhere, or literally just on the page?

Melissa: It seeped out actually in the creation of Melissa & Doug. The first dot for me really connected when Doug and I started our company. Until then, until my early twenties, I created incessantly. From the time I was born, creation was pouring out of me in verses and in music and in journal writings, but I never shared them with the world. They were so dark and so despairing that even I, after I would write something, I’d never read it again. I would squirrel it away in a drawer and never see it because it was showing who I was that I didn’t want anyone to see. Because of that, my creativity never brought me meaning. I never understood the connection between what was the meaning in my life and creating until, sort of by accident, we created this toy company and I started making toys. I saw for the first time — it was such a profound metaphor.

I saw creativity as a water faucet. One side of it was dark. One side of it was light. For the first basically twenty-five years of my life, I had turned off the light side. The dark side was on. This creativity just channeled through me, almost as if I was a victim, into darkness, despair into darkness, and just stayed in that spiral. It never saw light. Because of that, it never gave me meaning. When I started making toys and realized that I could actually take that very same despair that created the darkness and instead choose to turn off the dark faucet and turn on the light faucet and instead channel it into this radiant light, it was like for the first time I felt what it meant to breathe fresh air. That became my salvation. The reason we created nearly ten thousand toys, and probably in our most prolific years, two to three hundred products a year, was because I was channeling that profound despair that had nowhere else to go into creativity almost manically and trying to create meaning and a legacy from this anguish, truly.

Zibby: You identify this — what did you call it? — overexcitability piece that I’ve been trying to figure out if I also have. I’m like, that sounds pretty familiar too. You feel super sensitive. Things affect you so deeply. Tell me more about that.

Melissa: You know what? I think this is the next big thing because I truly believe that all of us have some hypersensitivities. If only we could proudly show that to the world, it would change the way people see us. I realized once I saw that I was afflicted with existential depression — which is so rare, by the way. It’s not even in the journal of mental afflictions. It’s not a diagnosed condition as of today, which means that when people like myself come forward, no one knows what to do with us. Once I saw that I was afflicted with this and highly creative people were also afflicted with it, I saw that these people who create for their salvation happen to have these hypersensitivities that make their acute sensations that they feel much more heightened than other people. I would always say both the beauty and the pain of the world are unbearable for me. I cry at the slightly thing of beauty and the slightest thing of pain. I’m moved to tears by the world in all its beauty and its pain.

They appear in five areas. One that I think you said that you might feel is the emotional hypersensitivity. It basically means when we feel, it is so deep that sometimes we feel like a dagger is piercing our soul. It’s palpable. It’s just that you can feel the pain. There’s intellectual. That’s the curiosity. That’s where you have this rabid need for knowledge and asking the question why over and over again. There’s imaginational, which might be my greatest. It’s where everything comes alive, inanimate things or even animate. They have voices. Nature always spoke to me. You live in your imagination. That’s a pretty important one to true innovation and creativity. There’s sensual, which is another one that I think is much more common than we think. It’s where your senses are extremely heightened. There are children who, when they hear loud noises, they’ll cover their ears and they’ll cower. That’s a hearing sensitivity. Bright lights, same thing. That’s a sight sensitivity. It actually is connected to being able to hear things other people don’t necessarily hear. That’s in your five senses. Then the last one is psychomotor, which is this revving up of your central nervous system and this need — I have a volume in the book called The Futile Race. I feel like that was my psychomotor, this need to just keep talking and keep doing and keep creating. You can’t ever stop. You’re on this treadmill that won’t ever turn off. When I discovered those existed, it was also like this window had opened into my soul. Which ones do you resonate with?

Zibby: All of them. No. The last one in particular, the motor-revving, nonstop feeling of needing to keep producing and thinking. I feel like my ideas run away. I’m just trying to catch up with all of my ideas all the time. There’s not enough time. I’m racing against time all the time. I just wrote an essay about this this morning. On a given day, I feel like I’m always racing against the clock. There’s too much to do, not like I have too many bills to pay, not tasks. I have so much to do. The time is clicking down on my life.

Melissa: You know what? That’s existential. You have a bit of the existential meaning crisis going on.

Zibby: I do what you did. You described it in the book. If you think about death too much, too head-on, and you start having kind of a panic attack and your whole body — that’s why I can’t think about — it happens every time. You just have to know these things about yourself.

Melissa: You do.

Zibby: In the book, you talk a lot about the despair and the darkness that you had to climb out of, which I haven’t felt to this extent. I have it more in moments or days, not years and lifetimes, but I can relate in that way. You had just a million beautiful lines. I turned down like every other page here. Let me see. Oh, this I loved too, by the way. “For the first time ever, I felt something entirely different having spent a lifetime suffocating with a tube suddenly jammed into my trachea and experiencing what it meant to breathe fresh air.” That’s kind of what you were just saying now. Then you said you had the power to “funnel desolation into engaging playthings for children. By doing that, I was resuscitated from my lifelong coma.” Oh, my god, a lot of COVID analogies here. This passage too, you said, “My voice rarely leaves these lips, but boldly channels through my hand for I find most discourse challenging since answers can’t be planned, often uttering opinions which are terribly received and encountering reactions so much worse than I perceived thereby heading to a corner armed with paper and a pen to release the desolation using written words again.” Wow, you’re so good. These are all so powerful, one after another after another. It’s just amazing.

Just to change gears slightly, I have to know about the form that you chose. You are a producer of objects. Your toys are all well-thought out and completely addictive for those parents and children. I know that you applied that same thought to this book and made it a creative package in and of itself. Tell me about the design and the intention and all of the things that made this beautiful book. For people listening, it’s almost like a coffee table book, although much smaller and very thick. It has a rainbow and all these inspirational designs and a poem or two on each page interspersed by text about all these different volumes that you have in your life. Tell me about that.

Melissa: There’s nothing I love more than creating products that really are an interactive experience. In toys, that’s what our mission was, to create toys that spark imagination and allowed people to ignite their inner bonfire. We wanted to do the same. I wanted to take the three things that are maybe most important in my life, which was writing in these journals, writing these verses, and photography of nature — nature is one of my most powerful lifelines. I do most of my writing in nature. We said, why can’t all three be in one book? which is why, by the way, we chose to create this book ourselves and not go through the traditional methods of publishing. That would’ve really, I would say, hampered us from doing exactly what we wanted and then using materials that nobody uses in a traditional book. We have a hand-sewn binding, which never happens. We have a cover that is so thick and embossed.

I love to just run my hands — I’m doing it right now — over the title, LifeLines, because it’s embossed. Just the feel of the cover makes me happy. Then the pages are extra thick. It has a hundred full-color photographs. It’s just a beautiful work of art. Then we said, and we want to make it at a price point which is the same as other regular hardcover books, which is twenty-eight dollars. We were like, we’re going to do all this and we’re going to make it accessible so that regular folks, hardworking folks can afford it. Then I think most importantly, I didn’t create this to be a best seller. I know now how to create toys that sell millions because I do it every day. I could’ve done that. I could’ve made it the cute anecdotes about my kids and then Melissa & Doug stories. I had been asked to do that book again and again and again over the years, but I knew that would just be promoting that façade. The whole point in this was to have the courage to show exactly who I am in all its depth and rawness to give others the courage to share their stories as well.

Zibby: Wow. Then not only did you do this, but at the end of the book you show us how to continue to engage with this whole mission. Then you have whole website with a little backpack kit that you can start using to go on your journey, and the acorns. You have so much extra stuff, and then an Instagram. You’ve created a real front door and entry point, essentially, for anybody who is feeling this way and doesn’t know where to turn. You’ve literally laid out a welcome mat with this book as the first brick in the path.

Melissa: Yes. The reason I did this wasn’t as much for myself at this point as to help others. LifeLines, the truth is, it was for three reasons based on my journey. One, to show others they’re not alone. That sounds really clichéd until you read my story and you know that throughout my entire life I felt utterly and completely alone because I knew I would be rejected for showing the mania that comes with being a creative person. I don’t want others to feel that way. I want our community to be one that accepts every single person no matter who they are or what they’re scared of. That’s one. The second is, I’ve spoken with so many people who felt the same way I did, but the one difference between the two of us is I have found a way to turn my darkness into light. Most people have not. The second is, we all have the ability to turn our darkness into light, just many of us don’t know how. It’s my role to show them because we all have these beautiful seeds of self-expression in our souls that long to rage freely and ignite a bonfire with humanity, but so many of us keep them shrouded because we’re terrified of tapping into them. We’re terrified of the responsibility of taking ownership for our lives and making meaning. I want to show them that until we do that, we are all in a coma. We’re not really living. Then the third is, until we decide to stop racing out there in the futile race, we decide to stop, change direction and plunge inward to discover who we are and accept ourselves in totality, we will never find fulfillment or be at peace.

For me, that journey — I had two parts of my journey. The first was making sense of things through creativity, which I did since we started Melissa & Doug. For thirty-two years, I’ve been channeling all that despair into the toys and finding salvation, no doubt, but there was still a big part missing. I realized that, again, a few years ago when some dots started connecting that I wasn’t accepting those qualities that birthed the creation. I still was denying who I was and really not coming out as the real Melissa. I knew I needed to stop and make that journey. I also knew I couldn’t do it alone. That was when, four years ago, for the first time — part of it was stepping off my perfectionistic podium and saying, I need help. I cannot make this journey alone. It’s going to be way too terrifying. I need a partner. I enlisted the help of a professional. She and I made this journey inward which was one of the most arduous expeditions of my life. I’m still on it. That formed the basis for this journey that we’re taking at LifeLines. It’s the exact journey. It was so deep and so revelatory that I said, I have to make it so others can take it as well. That’s number three. Ultimately, if we want to truly feel and be in our lives in totality, we have to take this journey.

Zibby: Not that this is any of my business — you don’t really discuss this in the book, so feel free to just say you don’t want to talk about it, but have you ever thought about medication for any of the feelings that you had in your life?

Melissa: I love that question. Absolutely. By the way, I am not against medication for anyone. I think we all have to make those choices for ourselves. It’s really interesting for me. I knew medication wouldn’t work for me for two reasons. One is, I knew once I tapped into it that I had a meaning crisis. I needed answers to, why am I here? What am I meant to do while I’m here? What is the meaning of life if we ultimately have to die? I knew medication wouldn’t give me that answer. I knew it was going to involve a much more intellectual plunge toward philosophy and really discovering it for myself. Two, I knew my salvation was creativity. I was terrified of messing with it in any form. Maybe it would’ve stayed completely intact, but I knew without it, I wouldn’t be here. That is my lifeline. I must engage in it every single day. For me, that wasn’t the answer. Many around me take medication. They say they’re still just as creative. It hasn’t done a thing. It’s really helped them at a dark point in their life to come out of it. To each his or her own. I think we all have to do what is best for us.

Zibby: I want to ask if you have advice for aspiring authors. Before that, I just want to know, now that you have all this out there after so long having all of it hidden even with your husband, even with your kids — I know that Doug even wrote your introduction and your bio. I was like, I can’t believe she’s not even writing her own About the Author. Everything about this book is so designed to make you think. How do you feel that all of this is out there to strangers, to family? What does it feel like now?

Melissa: That’s such a good question. It feels absolutely incredible. I have a word that a coined which is the combination of when you are exhilarated and terrified at the same time. I call it exhilafied. It’s an exhilafying experience. It feels utterly exhilafying. It’s exhausting to hide who you are. To resist who you are and pretend to be someone else, it’s the most tragic and exhausting thing any of us will ever do. When you have nothing left to hide — I write a lot of verses about that — it’s like, here I am. Take me or leave me. You can be my friend now or not. It’s perfectly fine with me. That’s one of the positives of waiting this long. As I said, the cry of my own soul to be seen became so great that the risk of not saying who I was, was much greater than the risk of saying who I was. Now I’m just loving it. I find it really humorous too because people aren’t taught in society — this is one of the things we want to do with LifeLines — how to deal with people’s mental health afflictions. Now when people see me, I can tell when they’ve read something or seen a video. They look at me. Either they will avert their eyes — I’m like, oh, poor thing, they don’t know what to say to me. They don’t know how to approach me. I’ve had the instance where a couple people have come over and sort of patted me on the back awkwardly and said, “I’m so sorry.” I kind of feel bad for them because “I’m so sorry” means they pity me in a way. I don’t pity myself anymore. I think that was what people did my whole life. If I showed them, they were like, “Wow, I’m so sorry,” as opposed to saying, “This is who you are, baby. Own it.” It makes me understand that we really need to broaden this conversation. My depression isn’t something to be sorry about. It’s something that I want people to say, I feel the same way as you. Let’s join hands and support each other.

Zibby: Amazing. I’m really thrilled you have this out there. I’m excited to watch your exhilafying journey. That’s amazing. Parting, last-minute advice for aspiring authors or anybody who is thinking of revealing a big piece of themselves and is maybe on the fence about it?

Melissa: I don’t think anyone should do anything before they’re ready. I’m a big believer in our hearts versus our heads. My whole life has been untethered from my head and moving into our heart. I believe our heart tells us everything when it’s ready. Our heart leads the way if we allow it to. Every question I’ve ever had has been answered when I stop thinking and really be. I wouldn’t do anything until — I would just really work on becoming present and grounding in the moment and being in places that make you feel alive and engaging in those activities that make you feel alive and with those people who make you feel alive. Soon, the answer will come to you. I think when you’re ready, it won’t be a question anymore. You will just one day wake up and say, I’m ready to tell my story. Then I would, just personally, tell it. I would write it down. I always write things down first. I would write it down. I would read it over. I would practice sharing it so you feel like you can own it. Then I would just go out there and yell it from the rooftops. That’s what I hope we’ll all do.

That’s what LifeLines is for, so we can all commune and share our stories and have others just sit there smiling and clapping for us because it’s such a brave thing to really go out as yourself. My biggest stain on my lens was I always thought the bravest thing was to buck up and fake it and pretend everything was great even though it wasn’t. I thought that was what gave me my power and the, I’m not going to let anything take me down. Actually, it was the complete opposite. That was the weakest thing, to really try to show the world that I wasn’t human, that I had no emotions, and that I would just fight on no matter what. The bravest thing I’ve ever had to do is to truly honor myself and accept myself. Only in showing myself compassion have I finally been able to show others compassion as well. It’s really come full circle. I think once we can feel confident to share our truth, then we’ll be able to hear everyone else’s and clap for them as well.

Zibby: Amazing. Wow. There’s so much more I wanted to talk about. Melissa, thank you. Thank you for this book. I can’t wait to hear all the LifeLines devotees or all the lives you end up really saving by providing this lifeline to other people. It’s really magical.

Melissa: Thank you. If any of your viewers or listeners want to talk with me directly, I would be honored to answer them personally if they email me at That is my salvation. I love nothing more than connecting with people and sharing my story, sharing experiences, communing with them to maybe make them feel not so alone. That is why I’m here, so bring it on.

Zibby: Wow, good luck with that. Lots of emails headed your way, I’m sure.

Melissa: Can’t wait.

Zibby: Thanks, Melissa. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Melissa: You are so welcome.

LifeLines by Melissa Bernstein

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