At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the fact that toilet paper, bottled water, and disinfectant wipes sold out nearly everywhere was common knowledge. What you may not know is that in some communities baking yeast was just as hard to find. During a time of complete and utter panic, many people turned to baking for an outlet. And while this may seem like a coincidence to many, to me, it is no surprise. The idea of measuring one cup of flour when the world is totally out of your control was something I had turned to before for comfort.
I know this because, during the summer of 2017, this was my saving grace. Living with depression for so many years, the feelings were not new, but the circumstances were. After a serious accident that summer, with a totaled car, I was quite literally ‘stuck.’ So, I turned to the kitchen to find solace. This was new for me: growing up, I never really cooked or baked. I had been living with an eating disorder for so many years that the kitchen scared me. When I started baking, though, I felt something bigger. I would bake for the people I loved; I saw a true means of connection, and something clicked. Being a mental health advocate and activist for so many years, I recognized that if baking could help me find connection and healing, it would be a great way to build connection and understanding about mental health and mental illness for the general public.
So, my first book, Bake it Till You Make it: Breaking Bread, Building Resilience, was born! A compilation of stories about mental health and resilience coupled with a recipe chosen by the contributor, the book is now bound together with resource pages and sold on Amazon and Walmart. And while the book was published and complete last summer, the fire within me that said “run with this” became too strong to ignore. Since then, I have never looked back.
Before I knew it, this mental health and resilience cookbook inspired an organization grounded in creativity, community, and connection. Creativity was my motivation to continue to write (a memoir, to be exact). During the early stages of the pandemic, I knew I had a story to share. The organization I started was about community and connection: presenting cooking demonstrations and sharing my story in the context of baking to make mental health feel more ‘palatable’ and commonplace. Hosting events became just as important, hoping this would help decrease isolation and increase visibility for those who struggle.
I can still remember the drop in my stomach when quarantine was first put on the table. As someone living alone with extreme anxiety that manifests itself as OCD and depression, I was scared. I remember starting to put together a list of things I could do to keep myself busy and grounded. Even though a memoir was not on that list, it was something I always knew I wanted to do. And without a doubt, I knew I wanted to write it in the framework of a recipe. Using the structure and steps of a recipe to allow for food metaphors and a sense of understanding as I had done for so many years: nothing felt more natural.
Officially publishing this memoir in just a few days feels more important than ever. I have always believed in the power of storytelling to break down mental health stigma, and I am proud of my own story. However, this is about more than just me. The world is in a public health crisis, and the pandemic’s physical health component is just part of the story. Since March, there has been an increased need for professional support, an increase in reported rates of depression, and the most frightening, an increase of deaths by suicide.
People are hurting, and stores are out of yeast. I can only hope people find some comfort in my story. To feel less alone, to be seen, to feel represented, to know that that they belong.
About the Author: Dayna Altman is a bold and enthusiastic mental health author, advocate and activist living and working in the Boston area. She created “Bake it Till You Make it Org,” a community organization and movement to use storytelling and baking to destigmatize mental illness. Check out Dayna’s latest book: Mix, Melt, Mend: Owning my Story & Finding my Freedom.
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