What Christopher McCandless Taught Me About Mental Health
'Happiness is only real when shared.'
BY MAHEVASH SHAIKH

“As Chris learned, isolation and happiness are polar opposites; they can never coexist.”

BY MAHEVASH
SHAIKH
1 January 2021

Have you ever been in a headspace where the world as you know it doesn’t make sense anymore? Where everything and everyone seems to be a mere cause of heartache and frustration? Where disillusionment becomes your middle name? Of course, you’ve been there. It’s what being a teenager is all about. Most people grow out of that angst as they transition into adulthood, but unfortunately, I’ve never been like most people. The reality is that I have two mood disorders, called anxiety and depression, and they have been plaguing me since the ages of 11 and 13 respectively. I’m 30 now, and as I’ve learned growing older, these demons have no intention of leaving me anytime soon.

I was about 19 when I first read Jon Krakauer’s biographical book Into the Wild. Only a few pages in, I felt a strong connection with the book’s real-life protagonist, Christopher McCandless. His life story resonated with me on many levels. He and I had a lot in common: we both came from dysfunctional families, we both were capitalism-hating idealists, and we both wanted to play by our own rules. We were young and we wanted to be free from the shackles of the so-called civilised world. 

So after graduating from college, when Chris set off to explore America in his trusty old Datsun, I found myself rooting for him as I would root for a dear friend. Sure, he had his faults —he embarked on a two-year journey without once reaching out to his beloved sister —but his heart was in the right place. And perhaps more importantly, he was a kindred spirit. When Alexander Supertramp (his pseudonym) finally began his “great Alaskan odyssey”, I was on tenterhooks. How would he emerge from this once-in-a-lifetime experience? Would he finally be able to kill “the false being within” by living off the land, unfettered by the daily grind of civilised life? If he succeeded, I could finally do something I’ve always wanted to do: pack some essentials in a bag and get away from tiresome everyday demands. 

Alas, we will never know how his time in isolation changed him as he never made it out of the wild. Chris died alone in an abandoned bus in the wilderness of Alaska. Did he die of starvation? Was he poisoned? Or both? Nobody knows.  

His death shook me to the core – after all, he was only a young boy looking to escape his abusive family. As a lover of truth, he could not stand to bear the life of lies built by his parents. Neither could he relate to their shallow and materialistic worldview. Among civilisation, he was guaranteed an economically stable life, but for an old soul like him, freedom, beauty, and adventure were a lot more noble than money. Is it any wonder then that he turned to the wild to pursue them, to discover himself? One thing is for sure: he did not deserve such a cruel departure from this world. Most importantly, Alexander Supertramp would have had a great story to tell. If I close my eyes, I can picture him delivering a talk on spirituality and minimalism. There’s so much he could have shared with the world. Not to mention that he deserved to live a full life. 

His journal entry 'happiness is only real when shared' made me realise that no matter how much depression and trust issues make me want to break free from people, I should make an effort not to. A support system is not only important for survival, but also for ensuring good mental health. Even the most introverted of us need someone to talk to and confide in, be it a friend or a therapist. Genuine relationships and focusing on others, also make depression easier to deal with. As Chris learned, isolation and happiness are polar opposites; they can never coexist. 

I often wonder what would have happened if Chris had consulted a mental health professional instead of turning his back on civilisation. He would have probably learned to be authentic, and “kill the false being within”, without endangering his life. He might have been able to accept his parents or learned to keep a safe distance from them. There’s a good chance he would have found at least some of the answers to his existential questions. Speaking of therapists, I’m planning to see a new one as soon as I can afford it. As romantic as they sound, I’ve learned that distractions like nature and adventure cannot be your therapist. Sure, they may help me feel better for a while, and even become healthy coping mechanisms, but in my case they can never replace traditional therapy. 

Chris may or may not have had a mental illness, but he sure did help me identify and deal with my own depression and anxiety. Even after learning healthy coping mechanisms via therapy and education, there are times when I ache to get away from my own fears, far away from certain people and situations due to anxiety. But thanks to him, I'm able to remind myself that taking flight, a typical anxiety response, is not a solution to my problems. My anxiety will follow me wherever I go, so I might as well cope with it until it becomes background noise. Just like my friend, I too seek resilience and self-reliance. The only difference is that I know they cannot be found if I go off the grid. They can only be found if I actively work on myself. 

On days when everything feels overwhelming, I still yearn to get away from it all. But then I remember what happened to Chris – and I stop myself from doing anything rash. I let go of the dangerous daydream of running for the hills. When it comes to mental health issues, it doesn’t matter where you go. You cannot outrun them; they will find you eventually.

To the tormented or unwell mind, escape is a natural course of action. Alexander Supertramp did that too, and he paid the ultimate price: a slow, painful, lonely death. While I will always grieve the abrupt departure of Christopher McCandless, I will be eternally grateful to him for teaching me to face my demons right where I am. 

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