Tag Archives: depression

Melissa Bernstein Offers Hope For Anguish, Depression

In the toy industry, Melissa Bernstein is a rock star.

The world knows her as co-founder and chief creative officer — with her co-founder husband and fellow native Westporter — of Melissa & Doug. The $500 million company is legendary for its toys that encourage interactive, hands-on play, and spark the imagination of children in a way screens and high-tech never can.

Yet for most of her life, Melissa Bernstein did not even know herself.

She and Doug built the business from scratch. It was their idea, their execution, their 32 years of hard — yet very fulfilling — work.

Melissa Bernstein, with some of her creations.

They married in 1992. They have 6 accomplished children, ranging in age from 27 to 13. They built a beautiful home.

Yet all along — for as long as she can recall — Melissa lived with existential anguish and depression. It made her who she is.

And at times, it made her want to end her life.

Existential anguish and depression is not a DSM diagnosis. But her torment — a crisis of doubt and meaning — was frighteningly real. It was “the darkest nihilism. Life seemed absurd and futile.”

Her mother remembers Melissa screaming every day, for the first year of her life. It was not colic; these were terrifying shrieks. “I had no words or creative solutions to what I was feeling,” Melissa says.

Melissa and Doug Bernstein.

Melissa grew up with that pain. But she was creative too. She wrote verses, and was a musician. But in college, realizing she would never play professionally, she quit music cold turkey.

She sought solace in academic performance. Looking back, she says, that turn “took me out of my heart, and into my head.” She felt “completely and utterly worthless.”

It was a coping mechanism involving denial, resistance, avoidance and dissonance, Melissa realizes now.

She created a “perfect, fictitious world” in her head. She lived in that “blissful place, filled with imaginary friends,” for at least a decade.

To the outside world, Melissa projected a façade of perfection. She worked, volunteered with the Levitt Pavilion, Music Theater of Connecticut and July 4th fireworks. She ferried her children to every sport and activity. The biggest criticism of her as a parent, she says, was that she seemed “emotionless.”

Doug and Melissa Bernstein, with their 6 children.

“Part of my validation was being a martyr,” she says. “I had to put one foot in front of the other. I had to think of my kids before me.”

Doug did not have an inkling of what Melissa was going through. But neither did she.

“I couldn’t let this demon come up,” she notes. “If I did, it would have taken me down.”

Five years ago, Melissa began to “connect the dots in a profound way.” She was exhausted. “I wanted to stop racing. It’s hard to resist everything you feel and are,” she says.

She listened to podcasts like “The Good Life Project.” She read Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning.” She learned that “as humans, our number one motive is a search for meaning.”

Melissa says, “My heart stopped. With profound alacrity, I knew what I was afflicted with.”

The more she learned, the more she realized that highly creative people — Beethoven, Mozart, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Emily Dickinson, Hemingway — shared her anguish.

For the first time in her life, Melissa did not feel alone.

Understanding her hypersensitivity to “both the beauty of the world, and unbearable pain,” she cried for 3 days.

She had awakened a window into her soul. She came to terms that her creative blessing was also a curse.

Melissa Bernstein

All those verses she’d written; all the toys she’d developed — they were outward signs of who Melissa Bernstein is. Now, she knew, she had to accept internally who she is too.

She could not do it alone. With the help of therapist Loredana Trandu, she has learned to make sense of her life.

“My journey with her was arduous. It was the lowest I ever felt,” Melissa says. “But she was there every step of the way. She’d been to that spot. I wasn’t scared.”

Now, Melissa wants to help others.

First, she shared her story on Jonathan Fields’ “Good Life” project. Hundreds of listeners responded. Their words were soulful and heart-wrenching. One told Melissa, “you put words to what was ineffable and hidden.”

She emailed or called every one. She followed up in depth with nearly 100.

Now, she and Doug have developed LifeLines. An ecosystem — books, videos, podcasts, community — its goal is to “help frame those soul-searching questions that allow you to explore your authentic self and discover what makes you tick.”

Melissa Bernstein reads her “LifeLines” book.

LifeLines is based on 3 premises:

  • You are not alone
  • We all have the capacity to channel darkness into light
  • We will not find true fulfillment and peace until we look inward and accept ourselves.

Completely free — funded by the Bernsteins — it’s about to roll out nationally. Major media like the Washington Post, USA Today, People, Elle magazine and “Good Day New York” are covering LifeLines this week and next.

Westporter David Pogue airs a segment on “CBS Sunday Morning” this weekend (March 14).

David Pogue tapes a segment with Melissa Bernstein, in her Westport home.

LifeLines has become Melissa’s life. She has recorded nearly 3 dozen podcasts, and oversees every aspect of the project. Yet she still takes time each day to speak to individual men and women — people just like her, who feel the same overpowering existential anguish and depression.

Being on the national stage — and speaking to strangers — is important. But Melissa is our neighbor. Sometimes the hardest part of baring our souls is doing it to those who know us well.

The other day at a Staples basketball game, a woman looked away when they met. Then she said, “I’m so sorry.”

Melissa felt badly that the woman felt so uncomfortable.

“We need a huge education program,” she says. “We know what to say, and not say, when someone dies. Now we need a new national conversation on how to talk about mental health.”

It’s taken Melissa Bernstein her entire life to discover herself, and open that internal dialogue. Now, with LifeLines, she’s opening up to the world.

The chief creative officer of one of the world’s leading toy companies is playing for keeps.

(PS: On Thursday, March 18 at 7 p.m., the Westport Library hosts a conversation with Melissa — and me — about her journey. Click here to register.)

 

[OPINION] There Must Be Ways To Prevent Suicide

Alan and Sheri Snedeker lived in Westport for 30 years. He’s an “eclectic creative”; she’s a painter.

They raised 2 sons here. Kirk is a drummer, and builds websites. Mark — who left Staples High School in 1990, when he had enough credits to graduate — committed suicide at 19.

The other day, Alan saw a Tedx Talk. He learned that psychiatrists and psychologists are the only medical professionals who treat a body part that they do not test, look at or scan.

Instead, he says, “they rely on medical companies to create a pill that, hopefully, will work.” Alan is convinced that his son would be alive today if his brain had been scanned.

Alan wants Westport teenagers — and their parents — to see this video. He also sends some thoughts on Mark.

Mark told me one day, “You will never know how bad I feel.”

He attempted suicide the next day…the first time. Police found him, and rushed him to the hospital. I’m sure that a scan of his brain would tell us a lot about his depression.

He was hospitalized in Norwalk Hospital, and given nothing but lithium to help his feeling.

He was mixed with alcoholics and drug addicts, and treated like he was a moron.

After Norwalk, we had Mark on daycare at Silver Hill. He was deeply depressed. One day he went out to take pictures. At Staples, he easily shot excellent photographs. That day, he came back with nothing.

Mark Snedeker was an excellent photographer — and also a talented musician.

He was 19 at Silver Hill — legally, an adult. The psychiatrist he saw could not tell us to search his room for weapons and drugs — and we didn’t think to do it. We did not know that people who attempt suicide often do so more than once.

On the day he died I was raking leaves. I thought to myself that exercise is good for a person in depression.

The day before he died, he acted normal. That should have been a warning sign. We now know that people kill themselves when they are strong enough to do it.

I found his body in his bedroom. I could barely recognize him. He was totally disfigured. He must have suffered terribly before he died. He took hundreds of pills.

My point is 2-fold. Demand brain scans for manic depression and depression. It’s ridiculous that this is not done for mental illness.

And don’t treat a 19-year-old with mental illness as an adult. A psychiatrist should talk to parents, and possibly prevent a suicide.

There have to be better ways to treat people like Mark. The brain must be studied, and people over 18 must be able to talk to those who care.

Remembering Emelia Worth

In the past few years, media reporting on transgender issues has moved from rare and/or gawking to serious and respectful.

Because of press attention, many Americans now know that suicide is an enormous issue in the trans community. Over 40% of people identifying as transgender have attempted suicide — 92% of them before the age of 25.

But statistics are just numbers. Now, one of those suicides has struck very close to home.

Earlier this month, Emelia Worth killed herself at the Kent School. She was 18, and a few years earlier attended Saugatuck Elementary School. Students there knew her as Carl.

A few weeks before her death, Emelia had given a chapel talk to the school.

According to the Norwalk Hour, she said:

For once, I’ve actually chosen my words very carefully … Let me explain myself to you, not as Carl the experienced senior giving a chapel talk. But as Carl, the really scared child who is worried that they may have waited too long to get real.

After announcing she was battling depression, she said: “I am transgender. I puzzle every day why I came out a boy.”

Emelia Worth

Emelia Worth

Emelia’s mother, Elsa Worth, said that suicidal depression — not a lack of support from family, friends or school officials — led to her death.

Emelia — a 4-year class representative at Kent, senior prefect, orchestra and jazz band musician — had already been accepted to the Universities of New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Her mother told the Hour that she wanted to study linguistics and be a professor.

Worth also said that Emelia also planned to begin hormone treatments in March. The newspaper reported that Kent was planning to allow her to live in a girls’ dorm. No one there knew of any bullying.

Her death surprised a former Saugatuck El classmate. The boy — now a senior — had known Emelia as Carl: “an insanely good artist.” The two had camped out in New Hampshire as children, and played card games.

“I realized that he was gone. This kid who had only been happy, and made everyone around him happy, was dead because she was so sad.”

The senior says that at his public high school in Fairfield County (not Staples), there are 2 openly trans students.

“They are treated with the utmost respect,” he says. They can change in their own locker rooms if they choose, and use non-gendered bathrooms. Staples has the same options for trans students.

The senior says, “We treat our trans friends just like anyone else. They’re some of the nicest people I know.”

We’ll never know how much that feeling of being trapped in the wrong body contributed to Emelia’s depression. Sadly, we do know she leaves behind her mother and father (Steven), and brothers Bo and Orion.

Memorial services are set for Friday, February 10 (St. James Church, Keene, NH) and Tuesday, February 14 (Kent School). In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Emelia Carl ’17 Scholarship. Click here, or send to Kent School, PO Box 2006, Kent, CT 06757.

Red Izzo: Drugs, Depression Rampant In Town

From his perch at Crossroads Ace Hardware, A.J. “Red” Izzo sees and hears a lot.

But in his 78 years in Westport, the former 2nd selectman candidate and Republican Town Committee member says, he’s never seen anything comparable to this. Izzo calls it a “life-and-death situation.”

He’s talking about “a major drug epidemic” — in the town, county and state — and an equally alarming rise in depression. Too few people are talking about these issues, he says.

A.J. "Red" Izzo, at his familiar spot in Crossroads Ace Hardware.

A.J. “Red” Izzo, at his familiar spot in Crossroads Ace Hardware.

Izzo hears of the vast amount of prescriptions doctors are writing. Of young people stealing pills from parents. Of the easy availability of drugs of all kinds, and the lack of services for anyone wishing to get off the roller-coaster of addiction.

“When I was growing up, Westport had 5,000 people and 2 facilities — the Westport Sanitarium (on what is now Winslow Park) and Hall-Brooke,” Izzo says.

“Now we’ve got 26,000 people, and nothing.”

Izzo says that too many Westporters are not talking about the twin scourges of drugs and depression.

“This is killing people,” he notes. “I don’t know the answer. But we have to understand the severity of it. It’s not a black/white, right/wrong issue. We have to start talking about causes and effects and solutions.”

Izzo shakes his head.

“I’m concerned about the young people. People of every age have to understand this is here, and it’s real. If we don’t face up to it, bad things happen.”