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Melissa Bernstein of Iconic Melissa & Doug Toys Reveals Lifelong Battle with ‘Demon’ Inside Her Head

·6 min read

Melissa Bernstein

Melissa Bernstein has brought joy to millions of children with her designs for the iconic Melissa & Doug company she founded with her husband — but joy is an emotion she had little experience with until five years ago.

In an exclusive interview featured in this week's issue of PEOPLE, Melissa delves into her lifelong battle with what she calls the "demon" voice inside her head, the subject of her new memoir, LifeLines: An Inspirational Journey from Profound Darkness to Radiant Light, and new website LifeLines.com to help others with mental health issues.

"My mother said I screamed 24/7 for the first year of my life, and she said the screams were horrifying," says Melissa, now 55. "Before I could actually voice what I was questioning, it just came out in those screams — it was this sense of not-quite-rightness."

When she could verbalize her feelings of despair and worthlessness, they crowded her head in fully formed rhyming verses that she secretly transcribed onto scraps of paper and then stored away.

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"I was forever asking the question, why? 'Why am I here? What am I meant to do while I'm here? What is the point of life if we ultimately just all perish?' " the co-founder of Melissa & Doug says. "Those were the questions that plagued me."

And they persisted until the toy maker was 50 years old, when she stumbled across a name for her feelings — "existential depression" (defined as the state of hopeless doubt that life has any purpose or value). It was a eureka moment that led to an official diagnosis of severe anxiety and depressive disorders — and, finally, treatment.

"It was a lightning bolt," Melissa says.

One too long in coming.

Years of Pain

As a child, Melissa longed to be just like her Barbie doll — "beautiful" and "happy all the time."

"[Barbie] was really like the antithesis of who I was," she says. "I was an isolated, miserable misfit."

The demon in her head demanded perfection, which led to a severe eating disorder and thoughts of suicide when she was a college student at Duke University.

"I went to college and I decided I couldn't be less than perfect at college. I had to get an A-plus in every single class," says Melissa, who had stopped playing the guitar, even though she dreamed of becoming a professional musician. "I dropped all my lifelines, all my creativity, which was my salvation and focused everything on my academic performance. That's when things started to go downhill because you can't get 100 percent on everything."

When her grades slipped and she was rejected by the popular-girls' sorority, she didn't want to live any longer.

"I carried around a bottle of pills in my pocket for over a year knowing that could be my way out," Melissa says.

Doug helped bring her back from the edge of despair. By the time the two met — through their parents — in 1986, Melissa was about to start her senior year at Duke and weighed just 82 pounds.

"He forced me to eat," Melissa recalls of their early courtship. "I was attracted to his strength and the fact that he made me feel safe and protected."

Two years into their relationship, Doug proposed that they start a business together making children's videos and, later, toys. The couple wed in 1992, and today have six children plus the Melissa & Doug company, which has grown to $500 million in annual revenue.

The creative process of designing toys saved her life, Melissa says.

Cari Miller The author with her family

"For my first 25 years of life, it was like my head controlled me and it basically told me these lies and it told me life was brutal, and it wasn't worth living," she says. "I felt utterly powerless, that there was this demon that controlled me that was in my head."

Channeling her natural creativity into toys felt, to Melissa, like finally being in control and able to turn darkness into light.

"I was like, 'Are you kidding me? I have a choice?' I can now breathe for the first time in my life," she says. "That's when I created my mantra. That became the mantra for the rest of my life, which was stepping out of the head, moving into the heart, free to channel all dread into jubilant art."

'Robot' Mom

Despite her business success, Melissa continued to quietly struggle through life. With her children, who now range in age from 13 to 27, she never felt emotionally connected.

"If they were in a low place, I was a robot who told them, 'Don't wallow.' If they did, I thought they'd never make it out and something terrible would happen," says Melissa, "because I know how barely I squeaked out when I was low."

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It was only after Melissa listened to a podcast and learned about Viktor Frankl's 1946 book Man's Search for Meaning that she learned about "existential depression," which so perfectly described her lifelong hopelessness. She was 50 years old.

"I realized that this is exactly, to the word, what I have been afflicted with my entire life," says Melissa, who then learned something "even more powerful" about the source of her creativity.

"I began to see that those who have existential despair also have what are called hypersensitivities, which would lead them to feel the world in a much more highly affected way than some others," she explains. "I always said both the beauty and the pain of the world are almost unbearable for me."

Melissa celebrates both that beauty and that pain in LifeLifes. It's a book she's been writing her whole life, she says. To accompany it, Melissa, Doug and their two oldest daughters have also created a new website, LifeLines.com, that offers free webinars and an online community to others struggling with mental illness.

Now in her fourth year of talk therapy and using a daily practice — her "lifelines" of music, tea, walks in nature, and writing verses to help steady her moods — Melissa still has her "low days," she says. But she hopes to help others grab onto the same happiness that she's found.

"I'm beyond happy. I'm enraptured with life," Melissa says. "I still have low days, don't get me wrong. I'm a spectrum of emotion and I'll wake up one day feeling low, but I have my lifelines."

LifeLines: An Inspirational Journey from Profound Darkness to Radiant Light is on sale now.

If you or someone you know need mental health help, text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 to be connected to a certified crisis counselor.