CARMEL VALLEY — Jake Heilbrunn grew up comfortably in Carmel Valley. He played soccer, maintained a high grade point average and was involved in student government at Torrey Pines High School.
As a senior he was offered a financial aid package to attend Ohio State University and study business. Shortly after returning for his second semester the school won the 2015 College Football Playoff National Championship.
What would seem like the perfect life to many drove Heilbrunn into depression and anxiety, which led to a chronic skin condition and the life-changing decision to leave college and travel to Central America with a one-way ticket, a backpack, no phone and the inability to speak Spanish.
His journey is documented in “Off the Beaten Trail,” a book released Sept. 28 and dedicated to his dad and “anyone who is going through a rough time and may feel on the edge of taking a leap of faith.”
“Growing up in this community I felt like the next step was college,” he said. “I had the resources to go and I didn’t really question it too much.”
He chose a college far from home because he wanted to experience something different.
“I loved the spirit of the school and the sports aspect,” he said. “They have a good business school and the financial package was great. So I visited the school in my senior year and I loved it and I thought this could be an amazing experience.
“But three days after arriving I broke out in hives all over my legs and arms,” Heilbrunn added. “Almost every day I was waking up with different hives and rashes and they were really uncomfortable. I just became anxious and kind of fell into a depression. I really started to question the path my life was on.
“I realized there was a huge disconnect between what I was doing and what I wanted to be doing,” he said. “I felt pressured to go to school right away and physically, mentally, emotionally and financially spending a lot for it.
“I realized that I wanted to explore other ways of life and for some reason that thought did not come out of my head for months.”
Heilbrunn saw a variety of doctors, immunologists and dermatologists. He underwent tests, took pills, tried creams and changed his diet.
He was eventually diagnosed with chronic urticaria, “which is essentially chronic hives, which is essentially, ‘We’re freaking out because we don’t know why your skin is erupting,’” he said.
But Heilbrunn gave it the old college try and returned to Ohio for a second semester. The night of the championship football game was fun, he said.
“Everybody was going crazy. But I woke up the next morning and I felt awful because I was around everyone who had this love for the school and was so happy to be there and I didn’t,” he added.
Heilbrunn decided to talk to a counselor, who asked him two questions.
“She was familiar with my desire to travel, and she asked me, ‘What is the worst thing that could happen if you left school to travel and what is the best thing?’
“I was struck with this fear paralysis,” he said. “I was thinking of these worst-case scenarios that probably wouldn’t happen, like becoming a beggar on the street or just being a big failure.
“Then I had this vision of me traveling and doing the thing that my heart really wanted to do. I had this image of me coming back and inspiring my community and maybe even writing a book about it.”
Heilbrunn returned to San Diego in January 2015, did some research and found a website focused on unstructured travel.
“I didn’t want structure,” he said. “So this guy said, ‘Whatever your skill set, the people in this town need your help.’ I told him I was 18 and didn’t have any professional skills but I would love to teach English and soccer and help any other way I can. So he told me to come on over.”
In March he boarded a plane to Guatemala with the blessings of his somewhat nervous but supportive parents.
“During the first semester I had been communicating that I was unhappy at school,” he said.
“I was alone, 17 or 18, across the country, didn’t know anyone, breaking out in this skin condition, having this mental conflict. So they knew I was not in the best mental state.
“When I decided to come back home they were glad to know I was OK,” he added. “When I left for Guatemala they were happy to know I was pursuing something that meant a lot to me. They trusted me but they were nervous. They wanted me to check in as much as I could.”
He did, but it was easier said than done since he left his phone behind.
“I wanted to disconnect from social media,” he said. “I was kind of using it in not the best way. I was unhappy and I was comparing myself to other people. I realized I needed to live in the moment and get away from it.”
Heilbrunn spent the next four months backpacking around Central America, trekking through ancient Mayan civilizations in the jungle, building eco-lodges on the beach and teaching English and Spanish.
“About halfway through the trip I met this incredible Guatemalan man who took me to this town away from all the tourists where these kids were living,” he said. “A lot of them didn’t even have parents. They were living in cylinder block huts. … I brought stickers with me to give to the kids when I was teaching. So I just started giving out stickers.
“I was blown away by how stoked they were to get stickers,” he added. “It was disturbing a little bit, the fact that something so small can make such a difference. But it was empowering because it reminded me that I have this potential I could be utilizing to impact lives both there and at home.”
That afternoon Heilbrunn and a group of travelers meditated with a shaman.
“It was a little out there,” he said. “But he did this thing where he told us to close our eyes and smile, which to me was like the cheesiest thing ever.
“But I had this vision of myself speaking on a stage and holding a book that I was going to write about this whole journey that would inspire people to have the courage to listen to their inner voice and to take a leap of faith in pursuit of their dreams,” he added.
“It’s in the process of doing that that we find this happiness and fulfillment. Everything aligned and I decided I was going to write this book.”
Heilbrunn began doing just that when he returned to San Diego in July. He completed the first draft in three months and raised $6,000 through a Kickstarter campaign to cover the publishing costs.
He insists the book is not meant to encourage teenagers to quit school and “find themselves.”
“Travel and leaving school are metaphors,” he said. “The whole thing is about leaving an unfulfilling path and paving a new one. It could be a different job, a different major in school. It’s about understanding that you have the power to make a change.”
Now that the book is out — available at amazon.com electronically and in print — Heilbrunn would like to use his story to motivate others. He recently addressed about 2,000 students at his former high school during mental health week.
“Sharing my story was a really powerful experience,” he said. “So many kids compare their life to some other kid’s life based on their (social media) profile. They feel insecure because they think everyone else is happy and they’re not.
“A couple of kids came up to me afterward and thanked me for sharing. Some were crying,” he added. “That was definitely a pivotal moment for me because this was a lot bigger, a lot more important than I realized.
“I wanted the kids to know that if something hits you out of the blue, like a chronic skin condition, know that you’re not alone. Things will get better. … If there was one thing I wish I could have heard before I went to school that would have been it.”
As for his skin condition, Heilbrunn said about a week before he left for Guatemala the hives started to clear up and by the end of the trip they were almost completely gone and have yet to return.