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Dayna Altman in her kitchen

See Dayna’s Top 3 Takeaways

Walking onto the extremely well-groomed grounds of the White House, I sensed my world shift. It was May 2022, and I was among a group of 30 mental health advocates attending the first Mental Health Youth Action Forum, a two-day gathering devoted to generating ideas for supporting youth mental health. I’d been invited because of my work with Bake It Till You Make It, the company I founded that uses food and baking as a means for authentic storytelling.

I’ll never forget the fancy seals on the paper towels or the pressure I felt as I spoke about my work and ideas — just a few feet away from U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, First Lady Jill Biden, and Selena Gomez.

Most of all, I’ll never forget the pride and relief that washed over me. I’d struggled with imposter syndrome and feelings of inadequacy for years; being invited to the forum helped me finally take myself seriously.

Cracks in the Egg

Growing up, I was considered a triple threat — an actor, singer, and dancer. I was an active, involved kid, and from an outsider’s perspective, I was thriving. Inside was a different story: I felt a lot of anxiety and shame.

At the time, I didn’t have the words for the challenges I was facing, but now I know I was struggling with obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, depression, and an eating disorder.

Many factors amplified my mental health struggles. I grew up in a small suburban town where there was a lot of privilege, and I never thought that I fit in or was good enough. I felt pressure to look a certain way and be perfect at everything I did.

I also watched my mother count calories and try other dieting strategies, the results of which elicited praise from those around her. I wanted my mother to be proud of my body, so I began restricting my food intake too. But my body never looked the way I thought it should, which led to feelings of shame and further restriction.

I believed I would gain self-worth from flawlessness. This mindset followed me into college, where I began my long, tough journey toward recovery. I attended multiple inpatient programs for eating disorders and suicidal thoughts but made no progress. I wasn’t yet ready to take a deeper look at how my past affected my present or change some of my behaviors, like the way I was eating.

The Binding Agents

In March 2012, I attended another inpatient program after taking a medical leave from college. This time, I connected emotionally with a therapist who supported me throughout the tough, internal work of recovery.

I also felt like I had nothing to lose; I had already tried and failed before. I committed myself to the process, which included intense ­dialectical ­behavior therapy (DBT), group therapy, and closer management of the medications I was taking.

After finishing the program, I transferred to another college, where I found like-minded people who were motivated by education and interested in advocacy. I started doing work supporting survivors of sexual violence.

My advocacy work gave me a sense of empowerment, and I graduated in 2015 with the help and support of my therapist. Shortly after, I began working as a community residence counselor and DBT educator at a hospital where I’d attended inpatient treatment programs.

Time to Rise

A series of events while attending grad school for public health took me back to my family home in the summer of 2017, when I started baking to pass the time. I invited friends over, and we talked about our days and mental health as we baked and ate together.

The first treats I baked with an old friend were cupcakes from a boxed cake mix. They were so simple, but I noticed I felt especially connected to my friend during the experience. It was easier to be vulnerable when we were creating something delicious together.

I continued to connect through baking: It gave me a window into other people’s unique mental health stories — stories I’d been missing when I began to look toward recovery.

There are so many sites out there with textbook-type information: definitions, charts, and numbers to call. But reading all that couldn’t compare with hearing about an individual’s experience firsthand.

Food [can] be a powerful vehicle for meaningful storytelling.

That’s when I realized food could be a powerful vehicle for meaningful storytelling. I decided to write a cook­book that would give other people a chance to share their stories.

I put out a call for recipes and stories and received more than 40 responses. Each recipe was paired with a personal story that highlighted the individual’s resilience. I included mental health resources like hotline numbers and websites, and I added descriptions of what it was like to use the programs and services.

The final product, Bake It Till You Make It, was published in 2019. Afterward, I created a company by the same name and started doing presentations in schools and community centers, where I told my story using baking ingredients as metaphors.

When I talked about difficult times in college, I cracked an egg to represent my feeling of brokenness. When I ref­erenced my therapist, I poured in a can of sweetened condensed milk to show how my work in therapy helped bind my own ingredients into something wonderful.

Bake It 'Til You Make ItI continued to grow my offerings leading up to the forum at the White House in 2022, where I met someone who wanted to create a documentary about my work. A few months later, they followed me around to different events and interviewed my family and some of the people I had mentored.

The Bake It Till You Make It documentary premiered in October 2023, on World Mental Health Day. My hope is that it encourages people to tell their stories and demonstrate that they can live full, purposeful lives even if they struggle with their mental health.

Nothing to Prove

With my eating disorder, I never felt like I could talk about or enjoy food. It was too riddled with shame. But the work that I’ve done with Bake It Till You Make It has changed my perception.

I’ve seen the connective power of food, and it’s the vehicle through which I’ve chosen to talk about mental health. It’s the way that I can change the world; knowing that has helped me find peace in my relationship with food and reach a point of body neutrality.

I’m still working on myself at 31. I’ve learned that creating a beautiful life is like baking a cake. You start off unsure. Some things, like baking powder, need to be measured precisely, while other elements, such as chocolate icing, may vary depending on taste. Practice brings confidence and new opportunities, which can make for delicious new creations.

I’m getting married in September, and I’m dreaming about where Bake It Till You Make It can go next. These are exciting things to anticipate, but I know that life will always have cracked eggs. That’s why I feel so thankful for the support system and sense of empowerment I have cultivated to make it — and bake it — through life.

Dayna’s Top 3 Takeaways

  1. Find resources. “Understanding the support available to you will be extremely handy when you or someone you care about needs help,” Dayna notes.
  2. Question “normal.” Not all norms serve us. “Question what you’ve normalized in your life and how it impacts your health,” she says.
  3. Know that mental health looks different for everyone. Dayna learned there is no one-size-fits-all solution to mental health challenges. “Try different things,” she advises, “and stay patient on your journey.”

 My Turnaround

For more real-life success stories of people who have embraced healthy behaviors and changed their lives, visit our My Turnaround department.

Tell Us Your Story! Have a transformational healthy-living tale of your own? Share it with us!

Dayna Altman

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