'There's this cloud of hopelessness:' Melissa & Doug co-founder gets candid about depression

Melissa Bernstein, co-founder of the Westport-based toy company Melissa & Doug.

Melissa Bernstein, co-founder of the Westport-based toy company Melissa & Doug.

Tyler Sizemore / Hearst Connecticut Media

The Westport home Melissa Bernstein shares with her husband and six children covers 38,000 square feet and contains an indoor full-court gym, a pool, a tennis court and a video arcade.

It’s the home that Melissa & Doug built, one pretend-play toy at a time.

But inside the sprawling estate lives a woman who faced a depression so deep, it nearly took her life.

Danielle Braff spoke with Melissa Bernstein, 55, co-founder of the Wilton-based global toymaker, about her path from existential depression to her enlightenment today, about her memoir and her new site (launching Feb. 15), lifelines.com, to help others who are struggling.

Danielle Braff: What is existential depression?

Melissa Bernstein: It’s the type of depression that I’m afflicted with, and it has no trigger. It’s existed as long as I can remember. I never thought about it until I was close to 50.

It feels like there’s this cloud of hopelessness that sort of suffocates you. You question life’s meaning, and you question why you’re here specifically and what you’re meant to do in your brief time here.

It’s a sense of unease and not-quite-rightness.

DB: How have you lived with this while creating and parenting?

MB: I repressed it and I tried to fit in. I never accepted these things in myself. People who have this tend to be hyper-sensitive. We tend to have real extremities in how we feel and how we see the world.

You feel like you don’t belong — I always felt like I was from another planet. I’m not like everyone else, yet all I wanted was to be like everyone else. When you feel an utter lack of control and a chaos raging inside your head, you try to form order from the chaos.

Everything I create is based on turning meaninglessness into meaning. I’m trying to turn all the ugly, despairing feelings into meaning. When I started making toys, I felt something I had never felt before.

I could actually take something that was utterly dark and despairing and turn it into light.

DB: What would have happened without your creative outlets?

MB: I probably would have ended my life at some point. People who are afflicted to the level I am either go crazy and lose their minds, or they kill themselves. Or they turn to addictions. They have to do something to ease the pain.

I had wanted to kill myself my whole life — I thought I was weird and odd and I’d never be accepted. I had to make a journey inward into self-acceptance. Until you come to a sense of peace within yourself and can allow yourself to feel everything, you can’t move forward.

That’s the first step, but no one does that today. Society tells us to put on a happy face. It shows us that we can’t be vulnerable, but that’s the opposite of what we should be doing.

We should be teaching kids that being human means we’re going to have highs and lows and ups and downs, and that’s exactly what life is.

DB: Most people assume you’re happy because you appear to have the perfect life.

MB: It’s an amazing lesson that money doesn’t buy you happiness. That’s one of the reasons why I’m wanting to go public. You see the Christmas-card type photos and you think, “She’s got it all.”

You can have every material thing you’ve ever desired and still not be able to fill that gaping hole. You realize that this doesn’t bring you the acceptance you need. The acceptance comes from within. When you want to acquire the material things, that will never end.

The only way you stop that craving is to go inward. All the torment and the terror I felt in my life came through my head. I had to get out of my mind and live in my heart.

DB: How has your depression influenced your creativity?

MB: I can create out of joy, but I create more out of pain. The first medium I used was notes: I wrote music. But when my head started tormenting me, I started writing. Now that I’ve merged my head and my heart, I’ve started writing music again.

Many days, I’m just feeling in the middle and I’m flowing. But I was living a lie for my entire life. I was only showing the shiny side of who I was. All my creativity was born out of despair.

I had a deep, dark, soulful, questioning side that no one ever saw. When I went public for the first time, I went on a podcast and I started thinking, “You’re not alone — there are other people who have exactly what you have.” That’s why I wrote my memoir, “LifeLines.”

DB: Why are you sharing all of this?

MB: I’m still here and I thought, “I can’t not help others who think there’s no reason to go on.” I have to express my truth. It’s my goal now to help others who feel like their lives have no meaning.

We created Lifelines, a wonderful ecosystem that will help anyone know they’re not alone. They can turn to us, and we will understand some of those feelings, and we will offer an incredibly vibrant community to a safe, secure place, and we will offer tons of content with livestreams talking about depression and the journey to inner peace.

It’s all free. Doug and I are financing this with all the goodness we’ve gotten from making toys. We’re also creating products. We all need our own lifelines.

This article originally appeared in Connecticut Magazine. You can subscribe here or find the current issue on sale here. Sign up for the newsletter to get the latest and greatest content from Connecticut Magazine delivered right to your inbox. On Facebook and Instagram @connecticutmagazine and Twitter @connecticutmag.