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Searching for Sero: An Interview with John Rathwell

John Rathwell, Tracy Guenard and Rain, the couple's beagle/lab mix, sit in the Westfalia where the three of them will live for two years. Photo courtesy John Rathwell.

Searching for Sero is the brainchild of Ottawa, Ontario couple John Rathwell and Tracy Guenard. The project aims to uncover the manner in which people recover from and cope with the stress of mental illness- whether it affects them or someone close to them. Searching for Sero got its name after both John and Tracy lost family to suicide; within a space of a few heartbreaking months, John had lost his father, and Tracy lost her aunt.

When researching the science of what makes us happy, they read about serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter sometimes known as the “happy hormone”, which can positively affect one’s mood based on the amount produced and received throughout the entire body. After connecting this hormone with their passion for healing outside, Tracy and John started working toward a dream of profiling people across North America who use their time outside to find balance amidst tragedy or sorrow.

Searching for Sero isn’t just another self-serving van-dwelling adventure seeking crowdfunding. Starting this spring, the duo will take on a two year road trip around the US & Canada that focuses on sharing the stories of outdoors-loving people who have been affected by mental illness, and even though they met their initial fundraising goal, you can still support them by donating here. It’s been a long and heavy journey so far, but John shared with us what they’ve learned a lot in the process.

Lesson #1: Know what drives you

Finding Sero: David Crichton, a surfer from Ottawa and former pro skier, began surfing to take the edge off of his competitive ski life Photo courtesy John Rathwell.

It’s definitely the passing away for both my father and Tracy's aunt that got us thinking about it. I guess I knew almost right after Dad passed away. Like 3 or 4 days after, I went riding, and as soon as I got on my bike and got onto the trail, it was like all that heaviness just went away for a couple of hours while I was riding. And it really made me realize why I do sports. I’ve always been outdoorsy, always been adventurous, so I gave myself time to do it. That really made me realize why I need it.

So I started thinking "I want to do a personal project that will bring some awareness to mental health and to suicide prevention.” We threw around a bunch of ideas, and I kind of started working on this project called Monsters of Mental Illness, which was a portrait series where it just shows a little piece of somebody's life that has been treated or been diagnosed and sought help for mental illness.

But I found I couldn't get myself motivated. It wasn't my thing; it wasn't who I was. So I went back to the drawing board and came up with the project we have now, which we're both incredibly passionate about.

Lesson #2: Go big

Rain, the couple's dog, is the most seasoned traveler out of the trio. She is very accustomed to being on the road and living in a vehicle thanks to time spent with John and his Jeep. Photo courtesy John Rathwell.

Once we figured out the core project, like "Okay, we want to do photo stories, or photo essays of these people, it kind of came to "How do we best promote what we're doing?" There are tons of stories and tons of amazing people right here in Ottawa, and we could do this whole project for two years in Ottawa- it's a really outdoorsy city - but I was thinking “We're never really going to get noticed,” ya know? It’s just going to be kind of this local Ottawa project -- so how do we put it together on a bigger scale?

So we kind of started looking at different ways of doing it, and no matter what option we looked at, we weren't going to be able to afford it. I guess I knew eventually something was going to happen, so I stashed away every penny that I made and then all of a sudden it was like "Well, I kind of have enough money for a Westfalia, would you live in one of those for a couple years, Tracy?" She opened up to that idea a little more and it just went from there. The adventure aspect of living in a van was just a byproduct of "What's the best way to promote this project?”

Lesson #3: It’s Hard When It Hits Close To Home

Finding Sero: Gen Gagnon, a mountain biker from Gatineaux, Quebec who lost her mother to suicide. "I remember riding by myself and trying to explain to my mom’s spirit how amazing riding made me feel," says Gen. "It was like, 'Look Mom, now do you get it!?'” Photo courtesy John Rathwell.

Right now we're definitely super nervous about our budget and being able to fund the project. We're trying to do this as frugal as possible, but it still ends up costing a lot. I also had a hard time when we interviewed Gen Gagnon, who is a female mountain biker, whose mom had committed suicide. Tracy and I are sitting there interviewing her, and her story, which is so similar to mine - that hit close to home for me.

It's definitely hard to listen to somebody's story when it hits close to home, and be able to keep going and keep yourself together in the interview. So I felt like I was asking Gen questions, and it almost felt like she was responding with the same words I would have answered with. It made me realize what we're doing definitely has an emotional impact on our subjects, on us, and on the reader and it's not always this warm and fuzzy feeling.

Lesson #4: A project like this can be straining – on finances, on relationships, on everything

Finding Sero: Theo Van Zyl, a freeskier from Big White, BC, found his calling in being a ski instructor- it's the only job he's had where he smiles all day. Photo courtesy John Rathwell.

Our budget's not confirmed right now, as our crowd funding has kind of stalled out at around 65% of our goal. I've been putting eight to ten hour days in, working on the van, and we're way, WAY over our budget for the maintenance of it already. Then I get home and have like six to ten hours of emails and social media posts… I feel lucky being a freelance photographer that I have the time to do that, and commit that much time to it.

Tracy works for the federal government, so she's doing her 9-to-5 thing, and on her lunch breaks she's going through her emails and stuff and then coming home and writing a Sero story. I almost feel like we haven't seen each other that much because when we're both home, we're both on our own computers working on this project, and the other night we were getting ready to go to bed and we realized that we haven't been out biking in like two months. We need to listen to [the lessons of] our own project. We're definitely getting caught up in trying to make it happen, so I guess that's part of the sacrifice that we're making to be able to pull this off.

I think there'll be definitely times on the road that we ride together or go skiing together, but I think there’s also times where we'll meet some new friends and we'll go off and we'll do our own things and I think that's how we're going to kind of get away from each other a little bit. We’ve already been through a lot of heavy moments together with both family members passing away pretty much back to back, and working through this project with what we've done so far… I think it's definitely going to be stressful but we're up to the task.

Lesson #5: A lot more people want to open up about their lives than we expected

Finding Sero: Josh Brose, a BMX rider from Eganville, ON celebrates the life of his brother Andrew, who died in a car accident, by riding every chance he gets and helping others do the same through a family-owned bike park. Photo courtesy John Rathwell.

I mean, when we came up with the concept, like "Oh, let's buy a van and drive around the country," we thought it would be pretty simple. You buy a van and drive around the country. But we're definitely realizing that it's a lot more than that. We didn't really expect the community outreach we've received- we didn't expect the emails of people that wanted to share their stories with us. Especially the ones that are struggling with mental illness. It’s a tough thing to get people to talk about - we thought we were going to have a hard time finding people to talk about it, but it looks like people are willing to open up and talk and we don't know if that's because we've created a community where we're saying like "Hey, it’s okay to talk about it," or if it’s just the beginning of the stigma around mental health is beginning to fade, but either way we're really happy because it's one of the core goals from the project. It’s everyone from random people across the Internet to our own friends have been opening up and talking about their situations which we had no clue of.

Lesson #6: This can be a personal and heavy topic.

Finding Sero: Kalob Grady, a whitewater kayaker from La Passe, ON, who channels the fear and anxiety over dangerous whitewater into finding safe-yet-exhilarating runs. Photo courtesy John Rathwell.

We didn't expect the emails of people that wanted to share their stories with us, especially the ones that are struggling with mental illness. It’s everyone from random people across the Internet to our own friends have been opening up and talking about their situations which we had no clue of. I guess for me it really hit home when I was talking to one of my buddies, and he was talking about his struggle with anxiety- and he's a pro whitewater kayaker, and I remember back a few years ago, we were on a class five creek together and he had a bit of a break down, and he was the strongest boater in the group.

And I just remember going up to him and kind of like slapping him in the face and being like "Man, what the fuck, get your shit together!" You’re just a bunch of guys that are pushing the limit, and somebody's just mentally not there and you're just, like, "C'mon, what the fuck is wrong??"

I was telling him about the project this summer and he opened up to me and told me "Ya know, I've really really struggled with anxiety over the last five years and I've been seeking help and treatment, but I hadn't really told anyone about it" and as soon as he said that, my mind went exactly to that moment when I slapped him in the face. Now I just feel like a total dick - that shouldn't have been my reaction to it. Regardless, that shouldn't have been my reaction, but especially knowing now that he struggled with anxiety, that that was probably the worst thing I could've done.

It makes me wonder how often that happens where a crew is out pushing the limits and somebody's struggling from a mental illness that’s going to affect their performance and like... if he had a tweaked shoulder or a physical injury, you know, it would've been like "Okay, I tweaked my shoulder and I can't come with you guys today," and no one would've said anything. That’s probably the right call to make. But having a mental health issue could also really impact your performance and your ability when pushing the limits, and that's something that when you're in that situation that the group should be aware about.

Lesson #7: This isn’t just a crowd-funded adventure trip

Finding Sero: Courtney Sinclair, a stand-up paddleboarder from Fourt Coulonge, QC, finds clarity and peace away from the every day hustle when she's on the water. Photo courtesy John Rathwell.

Essentially, what we want people to see is not that they are helping fund another crazy van life project, but something so much bigger. What they are doing is funding mental wellness and suicide prevention awareness. They are funding a project that is going to motivate people to get outside and live the life they truly want. They are funding a project that in time, will donate proceeds of the photo book sales to suicide prevention charities. They are funding a project that may help someone seek treatment for the mental illness they have been struggling with. They are funding a project that could save a life, could help someone reconsider their thoughts of suicide and reach out for assistants. If we do that, if we help one person change their mind about attempting suicide, not only are we saving the life of that person, but also the livelihood of that person’s friends, family and loved ones.


If you’re interested in keeping up with Searching for Sero, you can follow them at their website, their Stash column. Even though they've met their crowdfunding goal, you can still help them with unexpected expenses by going here to contribute to their cause on Indiegogo.

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