Have you ever felt weird, different or alone? Melissa Bernstein has. You may know her as the founder of the extremely popular toy company, Melissa & Doug, and now you will get to know Melissa on a whole other level. It is only over the last few years that she has been able to be her true self. Her inspirational journey to triumph over anxiety, depression and despair is nothing short of remarkable. Melissa’s captured it all in her new book, Lifelines, and created the Lifelines digital platform to help others find their path to meaning and inner peace in this lifetime. She is authentic, brilliant and wants you to know that you are never alone. You don’t want to miss this two-part conversation.
Part Two to be released on or before July 9, 2021.
You can purchase Melissa's book lifelines, wherever books are sold, or at https://www.lifelines.com where you'll also find resources and tools.
If you are in need of help on your life's journey, you can also reach out to Melissa on https://www.lifelines.com - She would love to hear from you.
Follow Melissa at https://www.instagram.com/seeklifelines or https://www.facebook.com/SeekLifeLines
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Have you ever wondered about life's biggest questions? Like, why am I here? What happens when we die? Or what else is out there, but we have, and we love to talk about it. And if you're listening, we think you probably do too. I'm Robyn and I'm Karen and we've spent our lives searching for those answers.
And we're seekers, just like you talking to some of the most fascinating spiritual teachers, healers and scientists. And showing you how you can use some of their spiritual practices for you. We'll also be sharing stories of other seekers. They motivate you to live your fullest life. We translating it all.
So the spiritual stuff won't feel so out there. If you're curious, get ready to rediscover why we're here.
Karen, and I we're honored to be speaking to Melissa Bernstein today. You may know her as the founder of the extremely popular toy company, Melissa and Doug, but Melissa is also the mother of six and has been married to Doug also Melissa and Doug for 30 years. She and her husband built this wildly successful company that has changed the lives of millions of parents and children all over the world.
But what's even more remarkable is Melissa's inspirational journey and the lifelines that enabled her to try it or anxiety, depression, and despair. She hopes by sharing her story in her new book life. And the Lifeline's digital platform that she will be able to help others find their path to meaning and inner peace.
Thank you so much for being so kind to me, thrilled to have you Melissa here and club. Now I've been talking about your book nonstop in your book. You talk about from your earliest memories that you felt different, different in not a special way. We're curious. How did you know at that early age, what that meant or did you know what that meant?
Can you tell us about that early self and that early part of your life? Yes. Oh gosh. The best way I can say it is, I always felt like I was from another planet. And one day I literally had this image in my head that some spaceship just showed up. They like opened the bottom, dropped me out on the earth and I was like, What am I doing here?
Like, why am I here? I don't belong here. I was like, excuse me. And then it was gone. I was like, like I need tea or something. And I just had the sense that I was beating to an entirely different drummer that I was like on a freeway on the way to New York city. Wall-to-wall traffic going one direction. And I was like the one car trying to go the opposite way on the freeway.
And it's a horrible feeling because our society doesn't have time for people like me. You know, our society says you fit in being a certain way and. It's a pretty specific certain way. And once I knew I wasn't that way I felt completely lost and alone. And did you have brothers and sisters? Like what were your parents like?
I mean, did they encourage any of you to be you or any of that? They had their own issues from their own childhoods and I think. Didn't come to the party, knowing how to parent someone like me. So I think they were too involved in their own issues to really see me as someone who wasn't fitting in. So I got the message very early on that I had to change who I was.
Because who I was was not good enough. And what I was feeling was bad. And I must have early on, someone must have said to me, like, why are you thinking these things? You were like, just go play. Like you shouldn't be thinking, why am I here? What is the meaning of life? You shouldn't be talking about mortality or three years old, like, like stop.
And I got the sense that everything I thought and felt was just not to ever be shown to the world and my only sibling has special needs. So I was really more like his mother than his sister. So I really had no one in my family unit to, to turn to. So I learned to deny repress and disassociate from everything I was and adopt a facade.
To be who I thought I needed to be. Talk a little bit. It's more about that, Melissa, because I think already I'm not in my head saying to myself, I mean, I had those moments too, where I was feeling I was different. I wasn't enough. I was questioning why I was here. Those are really big questions. But I think at a young age, I think there was a lot that came, like you were saying, your parents asked you to be very good at what you do.
And that kind of led to this sort of perfectionist. Street at a very young age. Can you, can you share a little bit about what that was like in school and out of school? I think so many females especially can relate to this because I needed validation I needed to fit in. And the way I was, which was an introverted creative misfit was not accepted.
By my standards and by society standards at first started with society, but then it became my own. Then it was like, if I can't be accepted by society as who I am, that I can't accept myself as who I am, which became really punishing. But because I still needed validation, I ended up anchoring to two things.
I ended up anchoring to perfectionism because achievement, scholastically was something I could do really easily. So it was like, okay. Then, I guess if I can't be seen as the dark turning person, I am, I'll be seen as someone who can get like hundreds and straight A's and the shiny gold stars. And I started anchoring to outside external performance as worthy and really black and white, like a hundred was perfect.
99 was imperfect and worth. And then the other thing was I, I started anchoring to pleasing others because that made me a good girl that made me get the pats on the back. That made me, you know, when I served others, I thought it was a virtue. I thought martyrdom meant I would receive like accolades in the next life or something.
It was like something I needed to do. I needed to push myself below and serve everyone. And those two things, perfectionism and martyrdom became a really tough affliction. I would say, say even in school, were there teachers or anybody that kind of saw through any of the facade? Never. I mean, my facade was so strong that I didn't see through it.
Like, I didn't even understand any of this until I was middle age. I had a voice in my head, my entire life that said, Andrew, It's all futile. It's not worth it. You might as well give up all your efforts are going to be in vain, just end it. So that voice was so loud. And so unwavering that the only way I survived was to drown.
It to such an extent that I truly had to literally disassociate from who I was and kind of adopt this other persona. And that's pretty much what I did. I lived in my imagination when I could and created another life. I had a completely fictitious life in my head. And then when I had to be here on earth, I anchored to all these other things and what I call the feudal.
This incessant need to keep doing, to keep creating, to keep racing, to drown out that drum beat of that voice in my head and that drum beat of my own mortality. That was like a looming every second of every day I was in. You know, such denial and in such terror of going inward and facing who I truly was because it was consistent with hating myself and consistent with, you know, darkness that I was terrified of touching.
It occurred to both Robyn and I, when we were talking about the book, once you got to college, you met your husband. Tell us a little bit about. Him and how you were able to form a relationship with all of this going on inside of you. And did you share any of that with, with him at that stage? Wow. That's, that's a great story.
And I, and I will start before I met Doug, you know, I was really at my very lowest point ever. And. The closest I came to really any of my life. And I think it was because, you know, I always had this battle between my head and my heart, and I feel like it's a human battle. Now I know that we're always tethering tethering to our ego in our heads that tells us some very fictitious fallacious stuff.
And all we really want to do is be in our hearts. Like for me, my heart is expressive liberation and I just long to be there all the time, but my head always gets in there. And when I went to college, I was thinking of being a professional musician because I played music my whole life and it was one of my lifelines.
And when I decided that I would not go to Europe and study, I would instead go to traditional college. I literally completely ceased all my music. Because I was so black and white. And if I, you know, I practiced like six hours a day. I thought if I can't practice six hours a day, I'm just going to watch my, my skills go downhill.
And that was unbearable. It was imperfect. So I untethered from pretty much anything that gave me joy in my heart. And I went to college. And ended up anchoring to two things social acceptance and academic acceptance and nothing in my heart that brought me true unadulterated joy. When I ended up failing at both, I ended up putting so much pressure on myself socially to be accepted by.
These girls that honestly were nothing like me and I was accepted by a bunch of girls like me. And so disgusted that girls like me would, would want me. I was like, I, I rejected them and didn't get accepted by the ones who weren't like me and was so distraught over that. And then simultaneously failed academically, which meant by the way.
That I couldn't complete one paper and had to take an incomplete. It wasn't like failing. It was, I couldn't complete everything because I put so much pressure on myself. But that combination, because I had nothing left to anchor me, I was purely anchored to the external, you know, I had nothing left. I had no.
Tethering to who I was. That meant I was worthless and was when I said I can't be here anymore. Like, I'm nothing I'm worthless. So when I met Doug, I was in the summer of my junior year of college. And I was at that lowest point, I had disordered eating from the time I was 11, which wasn't about eating, eating disorders are a control.
And I was so powerless in the thoughts that ran through my head of futility, that I ended up controlling anything I could and that all surrounded my body. I controlled my, I tried to control my looks, which I couldn't, because I wanted to be Barb. And I'm not Barbie. I'm like five foot two, and really petite and dark hair.
I tried to control my performance, my exercise, my eating, and my spending, and anything else like that, that I could control. So food was, was one of the ways I tried to take control over my mortality. And when I met Doug, I was like at my lowest weight ever. And pretty much, you know, so weekly. Couldn't even walk up a flight of stairs, but for some reason he saw something in me and we ended up starting to date and never talked about it.
Never talked about the feelings, because again, I think if someone had asked me I would have denied everything. To, to admit anything that made me imperfect was that I was worthless. So I couldn't do that, but he forced me to eat, which was crazy. So right. I had my two issues. I had my need to please. And my perfectionism and my need to please was so great that even though I didn't want to eat, I didn't want to disappoint him.
Cause he was, he would say finish what's on your plate, like every bed. And he would take me to these nice restaurants and I. Horrified because eating was like something I didn't do very well, but to please him, I would eat. And I started gaining the weight back. I wasn't solving the Nate problems, but once you get to your body set point with your weight, you do start to feel better.
The voices in your head start to cease. I started to function. Yeah. It's like he was an anchor that kind of came along a parent. Like he basically, which by the way, we had other issues with, because, you know, in those days he basically became my parents and was like, you eat. And he became very protective of me.
And of course there came a time when I was like, I don't need a parent anymore. You know, I'm I want to be me, which was hard for him because he was. He served a role I really needed and, and probably saved me. He saved, he, I think he did. I came really, I had a few heart issues during my eating disorder and 20% of anorexics die of heart attacks because you aren't nourishing yourself.
So I don't know if I would still be here. I was that, that, you know, that ailing, so. I have to view it as some divine intervention. How did you trust him enough? So even in my worst moments, I mean, I remember because I studied abroad in Japan and that was when I had no parents around a, no one to watch me.
And I just went off the rails in my exercise and my eating. And I remember one night, the family, I lived with a Japanese family who spoke no English. And one night we went out to eat. It was like a special night. They didn't have much money to just as one tree. Like in the eight months I was there. We went out to eat and bowl and I wasn't allowing myself to.
And then we went bowling and I couldn't pick up the bowling ball. I remember I went to pick up the ball and I had no energy and I just started sobbing. And I, if I think I'm getting emotional, I was like 19, I'm getting emotional today. And inside. I was like, I wish someone would just make me eat. Like I wanted so desperately for someone to force me to do what I couldn't do myself.
And that's all I wanted. Well, you might have to. That I met Doug and he literally, and I would fight him of course, because the, the, the devil, the demon is like, you're not going to eat, but I really wanted it. I mean, he was fully an angel and definitely like some sort of, I mean, a real soul mate, you know, We all have soulmates in different ways, right?
Yeah. He's definitely that soul family that was there at the right time, the right place to save you. He really was. He really was. I definitely would not have done it myself. I think I would have, you know, it, it, I wasn't, I wasn't going to eat. There's not a chance. And so most people have heard of Alyssa and dog toy products, honestly, which thank you.
I have a 13 year old daughter and your products were a mainstay in many of the rooms of our home. So thank you because you really created hours and hours of imaginative play and creativity and time well spent, but they may not know how the company came to be. So. Can you talk about how it started and why?
Absolutely. Doug is very humorous. He actually thought about being a stand-up comic, which is so funny. Cause right. I'm the most like, like cynical cup, half empty person. So he always jokes that we formed a toy company out of wedlock because we conceived our company when we were just doing. So it's a really cool story because right out of college, we both went very conventional paths because in the 1980s, you didn't like the word, you know, upstart or startup, or like, it didn't, it didn't exist.
Like no, everybody followed the conventional path, you made it, you're doing something. And then you ended up getting a job. If you could, in that major. Followed that escalator all the way up to the end of your career. It didn't matter. It wasn't about your passion. It was about what would support your family and support you.
So we took that conventional path right out of college and I, especially he was doing well. He was in advertising. Being creative, but I chose investment banking and I am like the most out of the box. And that was after law, by the way, I was so like, I, there's a whole other story in following your intuition and your dream in your heart, which I didn't do.
And, you know, thought I wanted to be a lawyer, which is the most rigid non-creative job ever. I thought society wanted that of me. And when I had a panic attack in the L sat and couldn't finish it because my intuition was telling me something, I ended up, instead of saying, let's say you're creative. You should be a creative.
Cause I denied that and I didn't admit I was creative. I decided I would do the most cool socially acceptable thing, which was that those were the days of Drexel Burnham, Lambert of Michael Milkin and like the hottest job. A financial analyst in an investment bank on wall street. And it was like one in a thousand, got this job.
And I was like, I'm getting that job. I don't care. I'm getting it. So it turned out that I was fluent in Japanese because I lived in Japan and Japan was really. Hot then. And that ended up being really my ticket and every single investment bank want to be. And it was the first time in my life that I felt wanted.
I was like, wait a second. I'm the one who's like never accepted and never wanted, like all these really cool firms want me. So I ended up taking a job with Morgan Stanley and for about two days I was on cloud nine because it was the job to get. Until I realized that numbers to me do not make music.
Numbers are just boring, old numbers staring up on the sheet and words are my music. And I was like, oh my gosh, I am a fish out of water. And we did a mini MBA at Columbia. And in my first accounting course, I was like, literally, it was like, they were all swimming. They were didn't make sense. And I'm looking around and I'm saying, like, to cap this and they're like, yeah, why you don't?
Oh gosh, something is really wrong with me. And it just started from there. And after about a year, I could barely get out of bed. I didn't know why I was there. I didn't understand the meaning. And Doug, again, he had the courage to say. We are going to do something on our own. And I was like, oh, okay.
Like, I've got to follow this path. He was like, Nope, you're not following this path. I'm like, really? Do you think it's okay. So we pulled our Meeker savings. We said, we're going to go away for a fateful weekend. To a bed and breakfast in Lenox, Massachusetts. And we're not going to come back until we figure out what we're going to do with the rest of our lives.
We brainstormed. And we knew like right from the outside that it had to be around kids because we both love children. All our parents were involved in some fashion and education. And we thought if we can do something to spark a child's imagination and unleash their potential, then we've done something great with our lives.
So we decided that it was going to be children. And that was, I think, even going into that week. And we were like, we want it to be around kids. We just don't know what, so we had all kinds of ideas, but we ended up saying, you know what? We. Feel like products, like sort of toys, some of the, the toys that were such hallmarks of our childhood, the open-ended ones, the blocks and the puzzles, and, you know, which seemed boring to most, they didn't exist anymore.
And those were the days when licenses and technology toys were starting to take over. It was like cabbage patch and a lot of things. I thought kind of like unattractive loud toys. And we were like, where are the blocks? Where are all those great toys? And we couldn't find them anywhere. And when we did find them, they were really expensive.
Like inaccessibly expensive mostly from Europe. So that was kind of the, the spark. Huh, what if we could reimagine these dull, boring, lackluster play patterns and re-energize them with new pazazz that brings them to life and makes them fun and fresh in a child's hand. Wow. I see. Like I see the excitement is still there.
When you describe that. Was there any fear or did you just go with it at that point? Which with Dunn's health great question. There was always incredible fear. Are you kidding? Every single moment of every day? But I think an entrepreneur uses that kind of as opportunity. And I think the fear for me too, was I still hadn't really ever harnessed my creativity to do something positive.
So my whole life I created from the time I was two, I wrote music. I wrote like symphonies and stuff, and I wrote verses that came to my head. But they were so dark and so despairing and so simple. I thought that I never showed anyone and they never access light and they never found meaning. So I never thought creativity had any meaning for me, which was why one of the reasons I was in such despair.
And when we started deciding to create products, I never thought. Oh, I'll just create these products because I hadn't ever taken a design course. I mean, I majored in public policy studies and Japanese use language. Like I never associated myself with being creative ever. I thought it was a nuisance. Like I was a victim of that, this creativity that just like rage through man, like shoved it away.
I always just hit it away because it made me weird. Cause I always like. Had a mother to myself to hear the words and to write the music. I was always like singing in my head and people were like, she's so weird. That's all I ever heard. Like she talks to herself, she seems to herself like, she's weird. So I, I hit it as best I could.
And then when I realized just by accident, that I actually could take this same darkness that creates. All the desperate verses and music and channel it into something as light and bright as toys. And it was kind of like effortless. It was like breathing. It was the most profound sense of being able to breathe fresh air for the first time that I could have ever imagined, because I realized that I actually had a choice and I could choose to channel that same darkness into light and make these toys.
So that was. Profound and really became the first time that I saw this curse that I was born with as maybe potentially having a blessing and being a blurs, not just a curse. I love that. I feel like to me that it was an unlocking, like that weekend wasn't on locking in your life. It was this point that was supposed to happen.
And then it was like the flood gates opened. Yes. I was meant to be. A creative person and my form of self-expression, which we all have. My form is creativity, but I never associated with it. I never wanted to be thought of as that. So, and no one ever saw me as that. Like, no one, my whole life ever said, wow, you're creative.
It was just, they said to me, your academic, like your intellectual. But never creative. So I never thought about doing something creative. It's that? Where do you, I love that. Like you said, expressive liberation. Oh, that feels like so freeing and yeah. And it's, for me, it's, it's kindling and harnessing my sparks and everybody has these innate sparks that we're born with.
And it's not necessarily creativity for some of us, you know, it's whatever our form of self-expression is. And it's the idea of you can't find it. By running outside yourself. So I raced outside myself to try to find it through validation. And of course I never found it until I stopped and had the courage to say, huh, maybe this is sort of what, what is it?
Yes. Well, and how did that help with the depression like that you were dealing with? It's a, it's an awesome question. It helped immensely in one area, but there was still something missing that ended up not coming till middle age, but it helped because it gave the despair meaning. I mean, that's what all I ever wanted.
My, my questions were, why am I here? What is the meaning of life? If we're all ultimately going to die and what am I meant to do during my brief time here? And that was the first time I kind of. Huh, maybe this is part of what I'm meant to do because when darkness just stays darkness, right. And it never sees light and it never touches anyone.
It has no meaning. And I realized that my meaning came from harnessing this dark despairing, an angst within me. Into something that could touch others and bring them light and bring them joy. So when I completed that circle, when I could take the despair, shadow it into light and touch others with it and impact them in some positive way, it started to make me say, okay, then I get it.
If, if I can't create these toys without that full spectrum of darkness in life, Then maybe I have to accept it. It strikes me. And I'm sure all these parents who are listening to have to remember how much we teach our children about what to value and what not to value. And I don't think back then, because we're, we're almost the same age is we weren't really taught that creativity was valuable.
We were taught that academic. Academics is valuable sports, all those things that you told us earlier, those were the things that were valued. I want to just talk for one second about your poetry. What I think is so interesting is that that was another area that wanted to creatively express within you.
And yet you were told. That it wasn't any good and it wasn't valuable or you already know and showing it to people. No, I mean, anything in my life that I have expressed creatively has been rejected by conventional society. It's now become every single thing. And I think that's the point when you are different and you think differently.
And again, my favorite quote is by a Nobel prize, winning physicist, who said discovery is seeing what everyone has seen, but thinking what no. I thought, and that is exactly what I've done because my lens unfortunately, is very simple and I take really big, complex things and I distill them to their simplest form.
And that's what I did with toys. I try to make them so simple that engaging in the experience is I call it low-scale high-impact and the verses were the same thing. They were taking these big weighty questions and fears that I couldn't understand. And just trying to distill them to somebody. Could become a mantra that could help me make sense of it.
So I think our society goes the opposite way. Society tries to make things overly complex, to mask it in a bunch of, you know, fancy, superficial reality to maybe hide that. It really isn't very meaningful when my innate nature was to simplify it. I think I always felt that no matter what I did it. Not going to be accepted.
So it makes it when you were a different thinker, you are generally rejected to stained and exiled from traditional society. And that's kind of like where I was, even with our toys. I mean, you know, we don't win the conventional, like I've sold almost a billion toys. I'm not awarded stuff. And not that I care, but like I'm not considered that type of toy maker because it's.
We don't think of simple things as worthy of, you know, I don't know what the word is. Fanfare. Yeah. Accolades. Yeah. Yeah. And yet the opposite is so true. I mean, haven't, we found that out, like even through this whole COVID experience, right. How really, really important that is. When, when you started writing the poetry that you have in the book, did you do it at a set time every day?
Was it part of like a daily practice for you? So they just appear in my head, it usually is a function of how I'm feeling and what questions I'm pondering. They always start with a question like, wait, why? And it usually is like a hypocrisy. Why do people pretend they're certain way when they're really something else?
Or why do I feel so horrible about the way people treat me? And then I just sit on it and then it comes out as a verse. It's really cool. And sometimes it comes out like 16 lines. Perfectly metered and it's good. I don't ever change a word. And other times it's like a baby that won't come out and it's like so painful.
And you're like, just get this out of me pens. And sometimes I have to hone it for like weeks and I can't seem to get that meter. They have to be a perfectly rhymed meter because my head is such chaos and a sense of futility that that makes order from the distress. We were wondering that we were, cause we were talking about your poetry and your book, and we're like, how does she do this?
And I wonder why we knew everything has meaning for you. I was very OCD as a kid because the thoughts. We're so overpowering and the voice in my head saying, and your life right now that I needed to find patterns. I needed to find order to be my protection, to be my guardrails and those, I think that's why they, and I've read, you know, poets are generally the most afflicted of any creative person.
They have like an 85% incidence of depression, but rhyming poets are even higher. And it's like the highest afflicted form because that need for that rigidity, that order is so great because it shows the mania, you know, that's raining, it might head the more, the more despairing I am like if I get up and I'm having a really like today, I was kind of like a little bit off.
I wrote like three verses today just because when it gets really intense, it comes out as well. Well, and I think it's very similar to the music that you started off with, but being in love with music. So it's kind of finding another way out, which is probably in a way more therapeutic because it is allowing those emotions to have an actual voice and to speak through you, but then let it out.
Right. You're letting it out actually out of your system. Don't you feel like it's your soul talking? I mean, it is my soul talking, which is why, when they were rejected, when they were being hidden in the dark, I felt like I was living a lie. I was still hiding behind the shiny toys. And that's why, even though I had channeled the darkness into light.
And made the toys. I felt ultimately those are actually almost a hiding of my truest self too, because they're so light and bright and shiny. And yet the person who created them is a full spectrum of emotion. And I was still, I had the light faucet turned off. But I had turned off the dark faucet from the world, and nobody saw me as this full, deep dark person in addition to light that created these toys.
And I felt like, I don't know. I felt like I was still being authentic to myself. I still hadn't had a really authentic relationship with anyone because I was still hiding behind this perfectionistic facade. And I just said, I will never rest easy until I. Tell my truth. Before we go into the breakthrough, how did you coping with this on a daily basis with your family?
I don't think most people know that you have six children and obviously your husband, Doug. So how did that work on a day-to-day basis in your life? And then Melissa and Doug became an extremely successful business. It actually worked incredibly well, other than the emotional piece with my children and with them.
But, you know, my coping mechanism was what I call the feudal race. It was incessant activity and doing to drown out the drum beat of my head. So my life became the perfect coping mechanism for the thoughts that raged through my head in that there wasn't a moment to breathe and I'm an, a high achiever.
I'm probably the most high-achieving existentially depressed person who's ever lived because I was. You know, it was literally like, I, I wanted more and more and more put on me because it made it so I didn't have time to think. And I would've kept having children. I created 200 plus products a year. Like that was my bid to leave a legacy.
And I thought my war against mortality, it was just my innate, like I had to keep doing more. So if I had a weekend that had, I mean, Had weekends or I've had eight to 10 different birthday parties and 12 to 16 different games, different sports. One day I had four different kids with four different sports in four different towns.
At the same time I have one child. So it's just, I can't, I cannot, I honestly cannot imagine I asked for it, so I'm not complaining, but I love it. To me. That was the only way. So I, I did it 20 years kind of went by like a blink and it, in a way, in a sense, they were my most functioning years because I didn't have time to, by the time I got into bed, it was like that voice.
It couldn't even, I mean, I was like, it was midnight and I was like, okay, I'm going to sleep for six hours. I didn't have time to think. Let's talk about what existential depression. Because again, and that's a term I don't think most people have heard. So can you tell us about it? I had not heard about it, and I also couldn't believe the other people that you talked about in our history that I've had.
Well, the crazy thing about it is it so rare and unknown? Not even in the diagnostic and statistical manual for mental disorders. So it's not considered an affliction and many say it's not pathological, meaning it's not something that has a diagnosis. It's philosophical. It's actually life questions that need a philosophical answer, not a medical one.
It really is sort of questioning the very nature of our existence and why we're here, what the meaning of life is and what, how we are to find our meeting. And I think when we don't get those answers. So when, when I had these questions and it's fairly rare in young young people, many people have like, COVID has given many people existential.
Right. It's made them question. Why they're here. You can have a situational existential crisis. Pretty much everyone will have one of those in their lives, but to have it from birth is, is pretty rare. So I think my issue was when I had these questions, you know, very early on. I couldn't voice them. I couldn't get the answers I became.
What is an existential nihilist, which is the lowest form. The, the most dire form of existential despair, which is I believed that there was no meaning to existence. And I had no ability to make meaning. A meaningless existence. So that's when all hope is gone. And I was really there for like 15, 20 years, because I didn't understand that we as humans need to take responsibility for making meaning for ourselves.
And that's the pathway out. Through that decision and that understanding that we alone make the choice whether to make meaning in our lives or not. And I finally did that. Thank goodness. And now I am an existential list, so I'm not an existential nihilist any longer, but most people who go that low either and their lives.
They numb it, they numb themselves. They have to like become addicted to something because it's too hard to feel it. Or they anchor to something, you know, it could be perfectionism could be religion, could be a political cause. Anything. To sort of get them away from thinking that very few people can face it.
I mean, I can just feel the weight of it as you're, you're saying it. And I think all of us maybe feel like we've had morsels of it along the way, like you described, but to carry that weight for so so many years. And the fact that you did survive is, is amazing and that you did so much with your life is, is incredible.
Was there a moment Melissa, that it was just like, oh my gosh, this is, this is what it is. Is there like that wake up moment for you?
I guess it came through, believe it or not. So as I started getting closer to middle age, the drum beat of my soul's cried to be seen authentically started getting louder and louder, and I started listening and I didn't realize this. I wasn't. Huh, my soul wants to be seen authentically. I just started feeling like in authentic, they was getting really, and I'm like hiding behind these shiny toys and like, I need to come out somehow.
And I started listening to other people coming out. I realize now it was like, I was trying to get the courage because I was so terrified of, of showing who I was. And I listened to this podcast called the good life project with this guy, Jonathan Fields. And I was trying to get the courage through listening to like went into I Auburn brown.
Like I can, I can do this, they can do this, I can do this. And he would always talk about his favorite book, which was called man's search for meaning by Victor. And the irony is I had this book and I had read this book in my twenties and I thought it was a cool story, but you know, it didn't speak to me, but he mentioned it so many times.
I was like, you know what, it's in my bookshelf. I'm just going to read it again. It's really thin I can read it in an hour. And I read the book and lo and behold, that book is what changed my life. Because Victor Frankl had an existential crisis in concentration camps. And when he came out, he actually founded a school of existential psychotherapy called logo therapy, based on the contention that are as humans, primary motivation in life is the search for meaning.
So suddenly it was like, wait, I'm not so weird. Like this is actually our primary motivation in life. Extensively about existential analysis. And I started reading. I never in my life, I'm a word person who like reads the sources for fun. Never heard the word existential, never heard the word logotherapy ever.
So you're not alone. I didn't hear about it. I read the definition of existential anguish, angst, depression, and I am literally like holding on for dear life. I am like, are you kidding me? This is exactly what I've experienced. Like everything to the letter. And when I started to also see that those who experience existential depression are generally.
Extremely highly creative. There's a direct correlation because if you can ponder higher realities, you have a certain sensitivity of your central nervous system that make both the beauty and the pain of the world, incredibly acute. And when I read about that, Hypersensitivities that created existential depression.
And there were five of them. I literally fell to the ground and didn't stop crying for like a week. And I didn't cry. I was like, no emotion, Melissa. Like I don't ever cry because I was reading a dictionary definition of exactly who I am. And these hyper sensitivities, it said people can have one of them to be hypersensitive.
I have all five to the highest degree. And I was like, this is who I am. And it was unfathomable that I had thought I was alone my whole life. Not only wasn't I alone because these were in books, but my creativity was born out of these. So again, here I thought. Stigmatizing qualities were for no reason.
And I wanted to like expunge them, but actually they were the very reason I could create. And seeing the blessing in the curse was like, so revel at Tori, because I didn't understand why I could create so easily. I thought it was just something everybody could do. Like again, I didn't see that as anything special either, but I now saw that.
Okay. If I'm going to be able to create this easily, then that means I'm also going to have to live in this body that makes every day, if I'm accepting it kind of challenging. Well, did you make Doug read the book? They can read it, but I was like, and I didn't even want to say it because it sounded like because I'm so, so I'm Jewish.
And my grandma had this thing called the Kenner hoorah, which is the evil. And she always said, if you ever say anything good about yourself. So this was another issue. The evil eye is going to like look down on you when something bad is going to happen. So I never, I was always like looking for the evil eye, my whole life, and I never wanted to say anything good.
And I always thought, if anyone thinks I'm bragging or I'm saying anything. So I didn't want him to think like here I am saying, now that I have like this ability to create that comes out of this weird. So I didn't even like know even how. Say it, but I was like, I have this thing that like a lot of creative people have, and I mean, people like Mozart and I'm like, I'm not saying I'm bad, but like, we kind of create from that same hypersensitivity.
So it was like, do I walk a little taller? You know, because here I am my whole life thinking I'm such a loser. And now suddenly I have something that my very favorite people in the world, you know, Emily Dickinson and Faulkner and Hemingway. I'm like, these are my heroes. We share something even deeper than our love of words.
It just made me think, oh my gosh, this is it. A window is finally opening onto my soul. And of course the first thing that came to me, which was the most out of. It was, I have to go on that podcast and share my truth. And here I am my whole life I created out of my hands. I never spoke. I was not a speaker and because I can edit my writing and I can hone it and I can make it sound below.
And when I speak, I say it, and then I'm like, oh gosh, that didn't come out the way it was supposed to. And I can't rewind it. It's out there. And people are like, no, that's not what I was thinking, Melissa. And I'm always horrified. And so either people didn't listen to me and made me sad to speak or they miss interpreted me.
So either way I pretty much, my whole life was like, I'm just going to create through my hands. So when I was like, I'm going to come out on a podcast and say, this, my inner self was like, you don't speak Melissa. You're not going on a podcast and saying something that only Doug knows no one in the world knows not that they care, but they don't know.
But I was like, I'm doing. And there's no going back. So I contacted Jonathan Fields who I didn't know of course, and was like, I want to come on your podcast. And I think your listeners, I feel like they're going to get this. They're like the type that are going to appreciate my truth and maybe hopefully resonate with them.
And I want to come share it. What was their reaction is podcasts records. Way ahead of time. I recorded the episode in October. It didn't air till the end of March. So I actually thought it was a dream because after I did it, it ended and I was. Sobbing. I mean, this was like a big deal, but I did it and that's, this is business.
So it's over. And he's like, so what are you doing this weekend? And for me, this was like the biggest thing ever. I was like, thinking it was going to be this mic drop. And he was going to be like, I've never been so moved. He was like, thank you. What are you doing this weekend? I left thinking, he's not going to air it.
He didn't think it was anything. Cause he was just like, thank you. So I left, I forgot. And I didn't tell anyone. I think I. Briefly, you know, mentioned to Doug, I'm doing this podcast with this guy. I forgot about it completely because it was over another year. It was like holidays. And I only knew it aired because I started to get letters.
I ended up getting hundreds and hundreds of letters and these weren't just like, thanks for sharing. They were, I'm sitting on the subway sobbing because you were the first person that gave voice to what I've been feeling my whole life. They were so beautiful that I decided I wanted to write back every single one of them.
So I took six months to write back every single one and that I would tell them if they wanted to speak with me personally, I would love to do that. And those conversations became the most. Powerful of my life, because I thought there was no one like me. I thought I was all alone. I never had authentic relationships as my true self.
And these were people who were feeling really very much similar feelings, the only difference. And it was a big difference was I had figured out how to channel my darkness into light and they were still in the darkness. Wondering if they should go on another day. So in many of the phone calls, I was literally saying.
Your life is worth living. You know, please stay here after maybe 20 of those conversations. I said to Doug, this is what I have to do the rest of my, my days, like making toys is awesome. And I love it. And it's been such salvation, but I'm not really saving wise. Like I'm, you know, sparking imagination in this case, I feel like I have the potential to help someone choose to live.
And there is no greater honor than that. That really became the beginning. You know this new chapter. Wow. Literally. So, so explain lifelines, where did that word come from and why did that become the title of your book? So good. Gosh, I love double meanings or triple meanings. There. Words are like my music and I believe there's nothing ineffable, ineffable.
There are no words for it. I have to described it and depict the ineffable in life. The words, you know, in my verses, I've called them lifelines many times because they really were my lifelines and really kept me alive. I'd say through a lot of darkness, I would repeat my mantras. They would be my comfort.
They were my friends and they kind of like enveloped me. Love when I didn't feel any in the rest of my life, it was a natural word for what they are, because they were not only my lifelines in being like a lifeline, like a beacon, like a lighthouse, but their lines of verse. So it was like, that is the ultimate double meaning.
There are lines of verse that are lifesaving. We only heal ourselves through sharing our story. I needed to share that to heal myself so I could heal. Truly heal others because it's only when we share who we truly are, that we can be free. And that offered me such liberation. I never realized what a weight I was carrying on my heart and my soul and my shoulders, my whole life.
And once I came out. Who I am like, no, not hiding anything. It was like just ultimate freedom. You know, I've, I've experienced creative freedom. I've been so fortunate that my hobby has become my vocation, but I never experienced sort of totality of self freedom until I was able to say, here I am. And I wanted that to give others courage, to be able to do the same.
And then within the book, It really follows a certain structure. So how did you come up? Because it's really unique and, and util, I mean the book itself, I, I mean, we'll show it again, but it's, it's first of all, it's, it's very thick and it's just, but it's beautiful. It, so how did you, how did you come up with.
The way to structure this whole story and take all of that poetry. How did you do it? So by the way, this is another great story. This book, because I initially went with one of the top literary agents for this book, but I knew exactly what I wanted the book to be, which was a problem. And, you know, I'm incredibly dogmatic.
Like I see it in my head and I know what I want it to be. And basically she was like, it has to be a certain way. So she said, Give me your outline and we'll, we'll look it over and we'll talk it, talk about it and, you know, give it to me within two weeks. So I decided I was just going to write the whole book because I, once I said I'm writing it, it was already, you know, like in my head.
And I wrote the whole book in maybe a couple months. So. Ended up, instead of sending her the outline, I sent her the whole book finished and it was by the way, it was like 900 pages to begin with. That is like a truncated version. And I was so excited. I'm like, she's going to think online, just so cool.
Like I sent her the whole book who would have ever sent her a 900 page book. I didn't hear from her a week, goes by two weeks, goes by I'm like, this is kind of weird. Well, maybe she's taking time to digest it. Write down all her good thoughts anyway. She writes me a really triggering traumatic email, which is basically like, I cannot believe you went ahead and wrote the whole book without the going over the outline.
This is not something that will ever sell memoir. Don't sell and versus really don't sell. And the combination of the two is like a non-starter this will not work. You know, it needs to be much more prescriptive and the lessons, and you need to tell more anecdotes about Melissa and Doug and, and I'm like, book was the book I, you know, could easily write that.
I never wanted to write because it's just the shiny side of it. So I didn't even tell Doug for two days I was like sobbing. I was like, here we go again. Anything I've ever done creatively has been rejected here. This is my finally bearing my soul, like exactly authentically. And she's telling me, no, nobody wants to read your stuff like nobody.
And this is the top person in the city. So, I mean, I'm hearing it from the best. So I was like, I can't even tell DAGA. Like, this is me being rejected. So finally two days goes by and I'm like, like, try to get the courage. I'm like, Doug, I heard back from her and it's not good. And I like started sobbing. He said, what do you mean?
I'm like, I can't, I can't talk about it. I have to forward you the letter. And Doug is so cool. He basically started laughing after he read it. And he said, I'm really confused, Melissa, did you think it would be anything different? I'm like, what do you mean? He's like, well, what happened with your versus they were rejected.
What happened with your toys? They were rejected, still are kind of by conventional. So did you think, like it was going to be like heroin and if so, would it be speaking to your people? It would be speaking to sold. Like, what are we going to do? He's like, we're going to do just what we did with Melissa and Doug.
We're going to publish it ourselves exactly the way. So I wrote her back a letter that night. I was like, thanks, but no, thanks. I appreciate your feedback. You make really good points, but unfortunately I got to do this the way I want to do this. Cause this is my soul. So I wanted to combine three of the things that mean the most to me, I take photos of nature because nature is literally one of my other than words, it's my most essential lifeline.
So I wanted photos of nature. I wanted the pros, which compiled a lot of the journals. Through my life. And then the, the verses that I wrote as my lifelines. So I wanted all three to come together. And I think when it hit number one on all Amazon, for all books, Doug was like, do you wanna send her a photo?
I was like, yes, but I'm not going to. But I was close. I was like, you know what? Maybe, because that's been my philosophy with all creativity, you know, maybe memoir with verse didn't work in the way it's been done throughout history. But if you're seeing it differently and doing it differently, like then who knows what it will do.
Thank you for being a pioneer, you know, Karen and I talk about this all the time with what we're doing right now in our own right. Because what we're doing, and we both had, you know, what would be considered really successful professional lives in the media world. And we both, I was maybe a few years before Karen felt like I couldn't stay doing what I was doing because my soul was dying.
I was clearly having an existential crisis because I was like, why am I here? You know, why am I here? I want to start answering those questions about why we're here and I want to help other people. Also, I was able to do that, but it's also just that idea of doing something that no one's done before. Okay.
You, I mean, look at how many times you've now done it. So thank you because it's inspiring for us. I know. I mean, I'll let Karen speak for herself. That is exactly what we say every single day that people, you know, cause there are people who are like, you're talking about spirituality, that's crazy. And, and we're like, well, we don't think so.
And there's a way to normalize it. Just like you're you're doing that. And look what you just did with your number one, but that's going to help save lives. That's. Save lives. So thank you. So I don't know if you want to add to that. Just wanted to say when you were talking, Melissa, I hope you play back. I know it's always awful to watch yourself, but I want you to play this back because I just, in my soul, I was wishing that you could play this video back to your younger self.
And see the glow of what you're talking about and see how you're speaking about your life now, and this opportunity that you have to all of this really, really hard work and learning that you've done to inspire so many, that is the seed and the essence of authenticity, right? Because you have been really successful.
There's lots of people who look at your life and going, oh yeah, but she's had so much success, but so much of what you've done is kind of mass that over time. And the fact that. You know, now that you are a visible well-known person, willing to come out and share that story is just going to save a lot of lives.
In fact, can you indulge us just for a moment and maybe just read that last, that paragraph on the back of your book. I just want people who haven't bought from your book yet. Are you comfortable doing that? Yes, of course. It's a snippet of your poetry and it just so beautifully accents. What we're talking about right now.
Why should it be nippy? My words ringing true in someone's ears. Why shouldn't it be my words, helping others face their fears? Why shouldn't it be my word? Forging empathy and hope. Why shouldn't it be my words, lending strength and will to cope. Why shouldn't it be my words, guiding seekers on their way.
When these words are every reason I'm still standing here today. I don't know what better way to capture what you've done here and inspire others. And like Robyn said, I think for those listening there is that feeling very often that you're off your idea, your dream, you, the essence of who you are is just not it's wrong.
Even when you speak your truth. Many, so many people are not accepted for who they are, but I think it's the message of, you know, keeping going and finding the audience, finding, doing it your way. And then those people who need to hear that message will hear it and resonate it and be saved by it. I, I think, you know, it's all about, we all have.
Not only do we have these innate sparks, but we all have. Gut intuition. And if we give it the space to speak, it speaks really loudly. And no one believes that until you give it the time and space, it knows what is bright. It knows what's true. It knows how to guide us, but a lot of times. Against convention.
And it's really hard to fight that when the world is telling you you're wrong or you're not right. But I now know that when I hear that that's actually means it is right, because if the world's telling me it's right, it means that's what everyone else is doing. Right. If the world's telling me it won't work.
Then I know I'm onto something because I'm doing something that no one has been able to do. So I've come. It's like I'm seeing the other side of that and realizing that that must mean I'm onto something very different and seeing it with a really different lens. There's much more of our soul connecting conversation with Melissa Bernstein, listen, or watch part two, which will be posted on or before July 9th, 2021.
You can purchase Melissa's book lifelines, wherever books are sold, or at lifelines.com where you'll also find resources and tools. If you are in need of help on your life's journey, you can also reach out to Melissa on lifelines.com. She would love to hear from you. Follow Melissa at seeklifelines on Instagram or Facebook.