You will never feel ready: In so many aspects of my life (not only in my entrepreneurial/author career) I have felt like I need to wait to do something until I am “ready!” I have realized that feeling never comes, so leap now! You might fall but you also might fly…and if you fall, you will come back to the top.
As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dayna Altman, a bold and authentic mental health entrepreneur, author and public health professional based in Boston MA. A dual graduate of Northeastern University: MPH ’18, BS Human Services ’15, Dayna brings both professional experience and personal expertise into the work she does for her community. Dayna has held several roles in the human services field working with youth in mental health settings and women who have experienced domestic or sexual violence. She has also created several of her own organizations specializing in mental health advocacy. Her entrepreneurial adventures have helped her become a professional speaker, a documentary filmmaker, and an author of two books, using food to create a palatable and accessible way for all to approach mental health.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
Absolutely, thank you so much for having me! My name is Dayna Altman and I am Boston based, in my late twenties and a mental health author, entrepreneur and advocate. Growing up, I always knew I wanted to change the world in some way and since I was six years old I have been chasing that dream. From my first entrepreneurial adventure, “The Not So Off Broadway Players” a musical theater based performance group that traveled to senior centers and libraries to my current mental health based LLC, I believe I have always been a visionary. Whether it was organizing with my friends’ parents and raising money for t-shirts back then or creating mental health workshops and programs today, I have always believed I was made to create change. Over time, my definition of “changing the world” has evolved with my own life experiences and passions. Now, when I go through something difficult, I know at the end of the day, I will open up my journal or laptop and figure out how I can use what I just experienced to help better the world or help someone feel less alone. This mentality has brought me to some really cool places over the years and I am grateful for the adversity I have faced as that is where I have always found my fire. Whether it’s on the runway developing fundraising based fashion shows, the big screen starring and producing in my own documentary about being a survivor of sexual violence or to the kitchen where I have forged the connection between mental health and baking, this creative entrepreneurial artist is who I have always been and whom I imagine I will always be.
When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?
Growing up once a month, my family and I would make a trip to my local Barnes & Noble. My dad always encouraged my younger sister and me to read as much as we could. Funny enough though my inspiration for becoming an author did not come from a specific book but rather just being in the bookstore. I remember walking down the aisles and imagining what it would be like to see a book I wrote on the shelves. I would close my eyes and day dream about seeing my name or face in a bookstore while my sister was actually browsing the shelves for books. Once I did snap out of my day dream state, I usually always landed on a Chicken Soup for the Soul book. I have always been fascinated by personal storytelling and have believed in the power of the narrative which is the way I created my first book Bake it Till You Make it: Breaking Bread, Building Resilience. Similar to the Chicken Soup series, my book is a compilation of stories. I also combined recipes and mental health resource pages, but we will get to that. When I created Bake it Till You Make it, I always said it was really important to me that anyone pick up the book and feel represented. I think this is in large part because I always appreciated that when I picked up a Chicken Soup book…even if I couldn’t quite relate, I felt “seen”.
I also want to add that I did recently see my book on a Barnes & Noble shelf and it was just as magical as I thought it would be!
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
I think the biggest mistake I have made in my career so far is not taking myself seriously as early on as I could. When I first started college, I was first diagnosed with an eating disorder, major depression and an anxiety disorder (which would later be identified as OCD). When I was introduced to the world of therapy, medication and treatment, I knew right away that I wanted to be in the mental health field professionally, helping people because I had a first hand experience of what it was like being on the other side of the couch. And yet, it took me a while to believe in myself enough to switch my major. Similarly, as I shared earlier, I have been an entrepreneur since I was six years old and it is now twenty two years later, at twenty eight years old, I am really taking myself seriously and building my dream career. This pattern also tracks in my career as an author. Before I published my first book, I continuously doubted if I was “ready” to be an author or established enough…what I am learning now is that I may never feel ready but that is never a reason to avoid a leap.
Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?
So far, I have created two books: Bake it Till You Make it: Breaking Bread, Building Resilience (2019) and Mix, Melt, Mend: Owning my Story & Finding my Freedom (2020). Bake it Till You Make it is the first of its kind mental health cookbook that combines personal stories and baking recipes as well as mental health resource pages to promote resilience and normalize mental health. Mix, Melt, Mend is my own memoir and mental health recovery story written in the framework of a recipe, again combining baking and mental health as a means to destigmatize mental illness. I chose to combine mental health with baking for both of my books because I saw the way people felt comfortable sharing around food. This concept is as basic as it gets. “Breaking bread” usually comes with storytelling and so, as a mental health advocate, I see that as a “way in” to discuss mental health. One in five US adults lives with a diagnosable mental illness, one in five….and yet so many people feel so much shame because mental illness is still rarely talked about. I am on a mission to normalize vulnerability and living authentically, no matter what that looks like. For me, living authentically looks like living with mental illness for the rest of my life and yet, I see it as a superpower…something I hope everyone takes away from my books. These things do not have to define you and you do not have to hide, period.
Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
Wow! This one took me a minute! How could I pick just one when I am talking about my whole life? I will share though, a huge piece of my story is my relationship with Dena. Dena is my therapist of eight years and she is “my person.” I met Dena at my lowest point, when I was in the hospital after relentless suicidal ideation while I was on a medical leave from college. Dena was “my case manager” at the time or acting therapist in the hospital and while at first, I was a little scared of Dena, she changed my life forever in the way she believed(and still believes) in me. My story is in many ways “our story”, as I truly look at my work with Dena as the vehicle to which I started living again and living a life where I am proud of myself. The really amazing thing is that I have also watched Dena grow up. When I first met her I was her only “kid” and now she is married, has two sons and lives across the country, and yet we still meet on Zoom every week (and I am still her oldest!) Dena has supported me in every aspect of writing my books and shaping my entrepreneurial career. Her belief in me has helped me scale mountains and I believe it always will. We still have our tough moments, we are learning together what our relationship looks like as we both “grow up” but I do know the most salient and healing piece about my work with Dena, is Dena herself and the person I am because of her.
What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?
While I think I always knew I wanted to share my story at some point in my life, the summer of 2017 was really what changed it all for me. I had just survived a serious car accident, and it was a summer with naturally little structure. Not having a car in suburban Massachusetts, only complicated my situation, as the transportation limitations left me walking six-tenths of a mile to the local Dunkin’ every morning and lying in my bed after the excursion every afternoon. I have never been someone who felt confident in the kitchen but being stuck at home, I didn’t have much else to do. Growing up, I never cooked or baked, and dinner in my family looked like nightly Lean Cuisines with baked smiley fries. So, I was surprised when I found some peace in the kitchen through baking that summer. I quickly learned that baking is precise, while cooking is creative. And while I identify as a creative entrepreneurial artist, there is something to be said for some structure and precision. With my world out of control in so many ways, measuring a 1⁄4 cup of flour helped make things feel a little more in control. I started sharing my baking creations with friends and I saw how easily it came to share with them what I was struggling with while they were eating my treats. ,As a mental health advocate and activist for so many years, I recognized the need for connection and community in the mental health world. So I combined the two (mental health and baking), and I have never looked back.
Without sharing specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
I remember this so vividly! In addition to my books, I offer many workshops and programs as well as take on speaking engagements where I have the opportunity to share my own story verbally (not just on paper). Last October, I did my first Bake it Till You Make it: Live presentation. This is where I put on a cooking demonstration while creating metaphors with ingredients to tell my story. I was cleaning up when someone came up to me with tears in their eyes and told me they were battling suicidal ideation and coming to the presentation helped them realize they needed help. The next day this person let me know they had entered treatment and felt proud of their decision, this person, funny enough, has since gone on to work in the baking industry (not my doing though!!) This interaction still means so much to me, not just because this person felt confident enough to get help but actually did so and felt proud of themselves for recognizing they needed more.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
When it comes to destigmatizing mental illness and normalizing vulnerability, there are endless ways to make a difference. However the first three things that come to mind are:
- When you ask someone how they are doing, invite them to be real with you and actively listen to their response. It is so easy to feel isolated when you are struggling with mental illness, this small gesture can be a way to interrupt individuals feeling like they are in a silo.
- Access to mental healthcare: Not only is it so hard to make the decision to see a therapist, finding a therapist and one that takes your insurance or one who is nearby can be so challenging. I want to work on erasing as many barriers as possible for those to access therapy and other forms of mental health care.
- Improve resources on college campuses: This one holds a special place in my heart because my mental health treatment journey began in college. There are so many college students who need access to mental health care and yet so many colleges are limited in what they can offer students. I also think working on suicide prevention initiatives on college campuses should be high priority.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I believe leadership is a delicate balance of setting a strong and actionable example as well as stepping back for others to shine. I would traditionally believe leadership is only the former, but I have learned that good leadership stems from a leader who lets others step forward when they need to.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- You will never feel ready: In so many aspects of my life (not only in my entrepreneurial/author career) I have felt like I need to wait to do something until I am “ready!” I have realized that feeling never comes, so leap now! You might fall but you also might fly…and if you fall, you will come back to the top.
- Don’t let money stop you: I have worked on a ton of heart, a dream and a 0 dollar budget. I always felt like that wasn’t enough and I needed money to start writing, but you don’t have to wait.
- You can self publish!: I heard once that a self-published book is a vanity book and I hate that. Not everyone has access to big name publishers or contracts, so self-publish to tell your story, there is no shame in that.
- It’s ok to ask for help: Not only is it ok to ask for help, people love to help! I have found so many wonderful mentors who want to share their successes, obstacles and triumphs, take as many informational interviews as you can, you never know!
- Be human first: At the end of the day, we are all human, we all make mistakes and it is ok to lead with that. I have often felt embarrassed to put my whole self out there but now I see that is what makes me so relatable and successful.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
As simple as it is (and I believe it is more of an affirmation than a quote): “someone needs your story”. I remember reading this affirmation on social media exactly when I needed to hear it and it is something that continuously keeps me going. When I feel so overwhelmed or defeated, I remember, someone needs my story — -I am going to keep telling it.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
This is so hard as I look up to so many public figures who are paving the way for those to live authentically, however, I am actually going to go with actress, Kaley Cuoco. Not only is she a badass leader, it is also my dream to have her pick up my book and turn it into a miniseries or movie, like she did with The Flight Attendant. A girl can dream right?
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Both of my books can be found on Amazon, Barnes & Noble as well as online at Walmart. I have links to all of these and more on my website: www.bakeittillyoumakeit.co. I also post on Instagram, Facebook and Tik Tok: Bake it Till You Make it LLC. Also, my direct messages are always open on my personal Instagram account as well @daynaaltman
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!