After four eye-opening, life-altering months in Central America, Torrey Pines High School graduate Jake Heilbrunn came back with a whole new outlook on life and the material for his first book, “Off the Beaten Trail.”
The book shares Heilbrunn’s story of overcoming a chronic skin condition and depression by taking an unexpected path: He dropped out of college at 18 and went on a solo backpacking trip through Central America despite having his knowledge of Spanish language not reaching far past “Hola” and “Gracias.”
His story told is raw and honest.
“It’s the definition of an open book,” said Heilbrunn, now 19 and living in Carmel Valley. “The way I see it is that the best way to connect with someone is to be vulnerable.”
Heilbrunn first shared his story with 2,000 Torrey Pines students at the school’s Yellow Ribbon Week in the spring, a week devoted to mental health awareness. As he noted, no one likes to talk about their depression, anxiety or life’s struggles — and yet one in 10 high school students suffer with mental health challenges.
“Millions of kids feel like this and we’re not talking about it,” Heilbrunn said. “To know that you’re not alone, that’s the biggest thing. To reach out and say ‘Hey, I’m struggling.’ That’s what I did.”
Heilbrunn will host a book launch party at Swell Coffee in Flower Hill Promenade on Wednesday, Sept. 28 at 7:30 p.m. The book will is now available on amazon.com.
In high school, Heilbrunn said he was a happy kid. His anxiety and depression didn’t start until he landed as a freshman at Ohio State University. Three days after arriving at college, he broke out in hives. He was uncomfortably itchy, anxious and quickly lost confidence and became depressed as he didn’t understand what was causing it to happen or when an outbreak might occur.
He was eventually diagnosed with chronic urticaria and he went through numerous pills, creams and tests but nothing seemed to work.
“I was halfway across the country, 18-years-old and alone,” Heilbrunn said. “I began to realize that my stress and anxiety stemmed from a misalignment within myself, a disconnect between my dreams and passions and what I was actually doing…that discomfort manifested itself in a skin condition.”
While he was grateful to have grown up in a community like Carmel Valley, with it came a lot of expectations and perceptions of success — he didn’t ever hear about kids doing things a different way such as taking a year off school to travel and volunteer and think about what they wanted to do instead of rush right into what was expected.
Conversations with an Ohio State career counselor became therapeutic and helpful.
He realized he hadn’t really wanted to go to college, he wasn’t really interested in studying business. Ohio State was in celebration mode after the football team winning the national championship, but Heilbrunn could no longer ignore his unhappiness.
“I hope more kids have the courage to do what’s best for them without the worry of expectations,” Heilbrunn said.
He made the decision to leave Ohio State and to travel, returning home to San Diego to plan and get his finances in order to book a one-way ticket to Guatemala. He had money saved from working and figured that through a volunteer work exchange program called Workaway he could make it stretch.
“Regardless of my skin, I was going to go,” Heilbrunn said. “My parents were very supportive, they trusted me.”
He left on March 19, 2015 with no return-ticket. The first six weeks he volunteered in Guatemala teaching English to schoolchildren and taking treks through ancient Mayan civilization and jungles. He went on to explore Nicaragua and Costa Rica.
The guy who had never even been camping before went on a hot, intense six-day, 75-mile jungle trek where he ate very little, slept on rocky ground with just a blanket underneath, ended up completely filthy and “loved every minute of it.”
“I realized that things are never as bad as they might seem if you can manage to put them into perspective,” wrote Heilbrunn, who experienced a painful rash on the trip. “Humans are naturally adaptable. We have to be in order to survive.”
Through the work exchange, he volunteered in places such as an eco-lodge and in the garden of a permaculture and healing community in Costa Rica. He kept a journal of his experiences throughout his trip.
Heilbrunn said his biggest day on his trip was after he met Arnulfo Oxlaj, a human rights activist who founded the nonprofit Amor, which provides support to communities of Guatemala devastated by genocide and extreme poverty. Oxlaj devotes his time to traveling to these remote mountain villages to provide food, education, shelter and healing for the sick through natural medicine.
Oxlaj took Heilbrunn to one of the poor villages he serves, Tsunama, where many of the children are orphans and have nothing; some sleep in coffee plants.
Heilbrunn had brought a bunch of stickers with him on his journey and handed them out to the children — it was amazing to him that something so small and insignificant could create such joy. He had an “a-ha” moment.
“I realized any person can make a difference in someone else’s life. The fact that a few stickers created such bliss in these children’s lives sent a powerful message to my soul,” Heilbrunn said. “We have limitless potential to make a positive impact on the lives of others.”
Later that afternoon he met a cacao shaman who guided him and fellow travelers in a meditation using the pure, raw chocolate. During the meditation, they were encouraged to smile and feel the effects of the cacao. He admits he thought the smile was cheesy at first but then he had a vision, another “a-ha” moment, that he would write his book.
In “Off the Beaten Trail,” he covers his experiences, his lessons learned about triumph over tragedy and pursuing a life that makes you happy. Everyone has challenges, Heilbrunn says. It’s about finding a way to turn suffering into a positive force and finding light in the darkness.
“It’s in the pursuit of our dreams and passions, not the destination, where we find personal fulfillment and inner peace,” Heilbrunn said.
Getting the book out is the truly the beginning, Heilbrunn said, noting he sees himself doing more traveling and more public speaking which he has a real passion for.
He would love to get involved with an organization that offers students a “gap year,” encouraging young adults to allow themselves the time for important personal development and to travel — he strongly believes that through travel students can gain compassion, empathy and understanding, which creates a more conscious global culture. There is so much pressure to be successful, he said, he would love to alter what society believes is successful, what circumstances are right and wrong.
“Life is an endless journey,” he writes in the book. “Every experience that we have is simply a lesson in the grand scheme of things. There is no right or wrong. It’s up to us to determine the purpose of our lives and to live in accordance with what fulfills our soul.”
A percentage of the proceeds from the book will go toward Amor — to learn more, visit Amorguatemala.org. “Off the Beaten Trail: A Young Man’s Soul-Searching Journey Through Central America” is available on amazon.com. For more information, visit eyesfullyopen.com.