It might be understandable to assume someone who has devoted three decades to creating one of the world’s best-known toy companies and spreading happiness to millions of children, might have always viewed the world through rose-colored glasses.

But for Melissa Bernstein, co-founder of the Wilton-based toy company Melissa and Doug, life was actually pretty dark.

“From the very first moment I took my first breath, I felt this profound sense of something being wrong in my life, and not feeling at home on earth and in my own body,” she explained.

Bernstein described being preoccupied with three questions that left her feeling despair: Why am I here? What is the meaning of life if we are all ultimately going to die? What am I meant to do in my brief time here? 

Overwhelmed by the feelings of being unable to answer them for herself, Bernstein suppressed and disassociated from them. In her younger years, she coped by anchoring onto any form of control she could, including perfectionism and eating disorders, spending most of her life feeling like she was “fighting a demon that wanted to end it.”

Later on, raising six children while battling her despair was what Bernstein called the hardest challenge of her life. She had always wanted a big family and thought it would bring her the love, joy, warmth–and meaning–that she craved so much. 

“For a lot of their growing up, I really wasn’t able to feel a lot of my emotions. I was very robotic, I served their needs in everything they could have ever wanted, but I wasn’t able to really hear or feel them in their pain,” she admits. 

Only four years ago, after reading Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, did Bernstein discover her feelings have a name. She was introduced to the term ‘existential depression,’ which she describes as “a crisis of meaning.”

“[It] is not in the Diagnostic Statistic Manual for mental disorders, it is not considered an affliction,” says Bernstein, but it often is part of the experience of more typical, clinical depression. Some existential crises are triggered by events, but it can also be something “hardwired” into a person’s nature. Bernstein says her existential depression and anxiety were something she was born with.

Bernstein’s healing started “when the cry of my own soul to be seen became so loud that I couldn’t run away from myself any longer.” She sought professional help from a therapist. “I don’t recommend making the journey alone,” she says. “It’s a dark one.”

Now that she’s gone on that journey to self-acceptance, Bernstein hopes to help others find their own way too. Just like she created Melissa and Doug 30 years ago, Bernstein has started LifeLines, a mental health and wellness brand and community that was inspired by her mission to help others facing the same journey.

What is LifeLines?

Bernstein describes LifeLines as “an ecosystem” that’s based on three core beliefs:

  1. Show others feeling the same thing that they are not alone
  2. We all have the ability to channel our darkness into light
  3. We will never truly find fulfillment or be at peace until we make that journey inward and accept ourselves in totality

The name LifeLines comes from the second tenet, how to channel darkness into light. Lifelines are “daily practices you must develop in order to remain equanimous during life’s ups and downs,” she says. “They truly bring you joy and are in your heart that you can dig into any time that you’re feeling really low,” she says. 

Bernstein’s own lifelines include creating and writing verses, spending time in nature, being with her pets, and engaging with people. She compiled the prose and verses that she’s written over the years as she struggled with existential anxiety and depression, and has published her memoir–naturally titled, LifeLines–that is the foundation for LifeLines, the wellness brand.

“[The book is] my need to show the world who I was authentically,” Bernstein explained. “If I can be courageous enough to go out there and say, ‘This is who I am, in all its darkness… and be brave enough to do that, then hopefully I can encourage others to be brave enough to share the truth of who they are as well.”

Bernstein wants to be clear that her memoir is not a self-help book that will give all the answers. But, she says, it can be a model for what someone can achieve on the journey.

“I’m in a really awesome place. That doesn’t mean I don’t have low days and don’t need my lifelines every single day, I’m human, and human means we’re imperfect and face these huge ranges of emotion, but I don’t feel the despair I felt as a child when I didn’t accept who I was,” she said. 

Creating Community

Although she wasn’t planning on launching LifeLines during the unforeseen pandemic, Bernstein is glad to be able to help people navigate such a tough time. She has talked to many people who are experiencing triggered existential crises because of COVID.

LifeLines now employs 30 people full-time, including former Wilton resident and Wilton High School graduate, Lindsay Wheeler, who has been open about her own mental health struggles, including sharing her stories with GMW and The Mighty.

Melissa’s husband, Doug Bernstein, came across Wheeler’s writing on Linkedin and the two quickly realized she would be a good fit for LifeLines. With a master’s degree in social work and a specialization in clinical therapy, Wheeler’s experiences provide a unique perspective. She now focuses on community building within the organization and co-hosts workshops with Melissa.

“I lead with my diagnoses and with my own struggles in order to stimulate conversation,” Wheeler described. “I’ve been both in the situation that many people are talking about and I also have the academic lens on it.”

Opening up that community to anyone in need is the challenge they have all taken on.

“LifeLines is trying to do something that has never been done,” Wheeler told GMW. “They have made an ambitious promise to answer every person that contacts them so that no one feels alone. We are focused on being extremely responsive–you can email us at any time and say, ‘Hey, I’m going through this, can I talk to someone?’ And we’re there and we care.”

Recent press coverage about Bernstein’s new book from prominent news organizations like CBS News has made that goal more daunting. According to Wheeler, in just one night, Bernstein received 15,000 emails from individuals seeking help and someone to talk to. Melissa promises to personally respond to every single one. 

“I don’t think there’s another place out there where the main person is actually as accessible as Melissa is,” praised Wheeler. “We actually care about every single person that comes to us.”

LifeLines has free virtual workshops coming up where Bernstein intends to “talk about the things people don’t want to talk about, [including] loneliness, martyrdom, perfection, and this persona we all need to put on when it’s such a lie,” Bernstein said. 

LifeLines workshops and contacts are completely free in order to promote mental healthcare accessibility, but Wheeler stressed an important distinction between LifeLines and professional, clinical care.

“We do want to differentiate between being a place to come for therapy and being a resource to help people find what they need, whether that’s directing them toward therapy, or whatever it is,” she added. 

It’s all added up into something very gratifying. Since launching LifeLines and shedding light on the term ‘existential depression,’ Bernstein has heard from many people who say she’s helped them feel less alone.

“Scores of people are saying to me, ‘You are giving voice to the ineffable.’” 

You can follow LifeLines on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter