How I Survive … An Invisible Illness

Will Schmidt, of Laguna Niguel, explains how long-distance paddling helps him manage his depression

As far back as I can remember, I’ve dealt with depression. I was in the Marines, but I don’t blame my problems on my military career, though being in Kosovo in ’99 didn’t really help. After the military, things got worse and worse, until I hit the breaking point. I was alone in my room that morning. I called in sick—and I never called in sick—and I was planning on just finishing the job.

But I got a phone call from my mother, and she knew instantly something was going on. She insisted that I go out and paddle or surf or do something because she was afraid I wasn’t going to last the day. So that’s what happened. I went out and I paddled, and a couple miles offshore I said to myself, “I’m either going to turn this around or I’m not going to make it through the rest of the year.” And then a good friend of mine came home from his third tour. He had a wife and two daughters—everything to live for—but he killed himself.

So I got help, and learned that PTSD, depression, and anxiety are all caused by chemical imbalances in brain chemistry. That’s it. It’s not about being tough. You’d never say, “I’m going to drink all these beers and not get inebriated,” or, “I’m going to smoke this cigarette and not be affected by nicotine.” If your serotonin, norepinephrine, or dopamine are off, you’ll feel it. It’s science, and because it’s science, there are things you can do. Medication is important. So is getting out there, with a purpose. Not being a hamster on a wheel. I think there’s something healing about getting out on the water.

That’s when I really started to put the two together: mental illness and paddleboarding. I thought, “Why don’t I use the fastest-growing sport in the world and do something crazy that no one else has ever done, just to bring some attention to this issue?”

In 2011, I paddled the Catalina Channel from Avalon to Dana Point Harbor. I raised a few thousand dollars and got my message out there, and people started to say, “That’s great! What’s next?” So I said, “Well, it might be cool to paddle all the Channel Islands.” And I did that. It was awesome. I had a chase boat and we had a blast, and raised money for the Wounded Warrior Project.

The interest just grew and grew, and I said, “I think I’ve really found something here.” I don’t mean that I’d just found a good way of promoting a message. It was that paddleboarding was putting the life back into me, and could be beneficial for anyone. So the next time someone asked, “What are you going to do next?” I said, “It would be really cool to paddle from Canada to Mexico.”

Eight months of planning, bringing local sponsors on board, two months of paddling, and it has become the first and only solo, unassisted standup paddle from Canada to Mexico. I planned my route and stops, but mostly I adapted day by day and camped wherever I found myself. One night I slept in a sea cave under the Cape Meares lighthouse in Oregon. The whole trip was treacherous and beautiful, miserable, and comfortable—it was everything it possibly could be.

And it’s therapeutic. It’s not like I got a call from my mom, went out on the water, and left depression behind forever. I still—on a daily basis—deal with anxiety and depression. I deal with the debilitating parts of it. I have my ups and downs, but management works. And I no longer suffer.


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Check out Schmidt’s website, to learn more about his journey.

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