Content warning: suicidal ideation
To the outside world, I lived a perfect life. My toy company, Melissa & Doug, which I founded in 1988 alongside my husband, Doug Bernstein, had grown from a tiny operation run out of Doug’s parents’ garage into a half-billion dollar business. Doug and I had been married for over thirty years; we had six children and a beautiful home, all of which I was profoundly grateful for. And yet, at many points in my life, I wanted to end it all.
I can’t recall a particular moment that led me to seek treatment for the mental health issues that had plagued me for five decades, no one incident of peeling yellow wallpaper or letting out a primal wail while driving down the street. Likewise, there was no one trigger for my existential depression and anxiety—just the knowledge that this feeling of despondency and hopelessness about the meaning of life had been inside me, seemingly, from birth. Then one day, the cry of my own soul—my desire to be seen for who I really was—became so loud that I couldn’t ignore it any longer.
Depression has long been considered one of the most common mood disorders, and yet it is becoming even more prevalent with the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the grief, uncertainty, and fear that has come along with it. Last August, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that during a period of only six days, from June 24 to 30, adults experienced increased mental health issues, as well as an increase in both substance use and suicidal ideation. That was about three months into lockdown. By fall, another study (by JAMA Network Open) revealed that symptoms of depression had tripled in adults. With the dark winter months that followed, bringing Seasonal Affective Disorder into the mix, it’s no wonder that depression rates have continued to rise, even as spring and the potential relief brought by vaccines approach.
For me, feelings of anguish predated the pandemic. As a child, I was unable to be calmed. I was always upset, and I can’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t desperately wondering, Why am I here? What is the meaning of life? A longing to be perfect exacerbated my sadness. I strived to be the quintessential high-achiever, but I felt so profoundly imperfect, so different, like I might as well be from another planet. If my goal was to be a blooming, beautiful rose, my depression was like a thorn; persistent and sharp and very much in the way.
This was a very painful way to exist, of course, but I didn’t share my feelings with anyone. I kept it all hidden inside of me, which made my situation progressively worse. As a teenager, I collected enough pills from around the house to fill a small bottle that I would carry in the pocket of my jeans. That was my out, my escape from this world if the pain became too great.
By the time I turned fifty, there was so much more at stake, and so much more to hide. Certainly, creating toys for children—and parenting my own—has brought me tremendous joy. But what did it say about me, that I could still be depressed with this incredible abundance in my life, and what would it say to the world if I were to reveal this about myself?
Anyone who has struggled with depression, either of the existential kind or the types triggered by life events or a chemical imbalance, knows how exhausting it can be. And after five decades of repressing and resisting everything I was, and everything I had felt, I was weary. I could not fight my depression on my own for one more day. I simply no longer had the energy. And with that realization, came liberation. I had reached a breaking point and no longer cared about what others would think of me.
I started noticing that acquaintances in my community were raving about a particular therapist, and I decided to reach out to her. We jelled from the start. I knew I could trust her, and we soon were off on an incredible journey together. This journey, admittedly, was also the scariest, most grueling work I have ever known. I had to go as deep as I had ever gone, stare despair right in the eye, and relinquish the idea of being perfect. That was terrifying and very, very dark—and I wasn’t sure I would make it out alive.
But thankfully, I did. And once I started connecting the dots, I realized that if I hadn’t been so determined to keep my depression hidden, I could have gotten help a lot earlier. I had thought I was alone; I wasn’t. I had thought my feelings and fears were shameful; they weren’t.
That was four years ago. Today, I still serve as Melissa & Doug’s Chief Creative Officer, but my experience with therapy inspired me to create a free online community called LifeLines.com, to support others as they find their way to emotional wellness. I don’t claim to have all the answers, only a profound desire to help others feel less alone. Friedrich Nietzsche, a philosopher and poet whose work I love, famously offered this advice: “Throw roses into the abyss and say, ‘Here is my thanks to the monster who didn’t succeed in swallowing me alive.’” Depression can feel like both a monster and an abyss. But we can help each other to exist as our true selves; as roses, with our thorns and all.
If you or someone you know is at risk, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text HOME to 741741 to message with a trained crisis counselor from the Crisis Text Line for free.
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